She came, she clucked, she conquered our New York City backyard.
By William Grimes
徐敏 选 滕萝 康楠 译
One day in the dead of winter, I looked out my back window and saw a chicken. It was jet-black with a crimson wattle, and it seemed unaware that it was in New York City. In classic barnyard fashion, it was scratching, pecking and clucking.
I shrugged off the apparition. Birds come and go. Usually they're pigeons, not chickens, but like other birds, this one had wings and it would probably use them. Or so I thought.The protagonist of this story is known simply as the chicken. How it came to a small backyard in Astoria, Queens, remains a matter of conjecture. The chicken made its first appearance next door, at the home of a multitude of cabdrivers from Bangladesh. My wife, Nancy, and I figured they had bought the chicken and were fattening it for a feast. That hypothesis fellsintosdoubt when the chicken hopped the fence and began pacing the perimeter of our yard with a proprietary air.
Eating it was out of the question. As a restaurant critic and an animal lover, I subscribe to a policy of complete hypocrisy.
Serve fish or fowl to me, but don't ask me to watch the killing. Once I meet it, I don't want to eat it.
Nancy and I next theorized that the chicken had escaped from a live-poultry market about four blocks away and was on the run. Our hearts went out to the brave little refugee. We had to save it.
Of course we knew nothing about raising chickens. For starters, we didn't know whether our chicken was male or female. Moreover, what do chickens eat?
A colleague put me in touch with a farmer, Steve Townley of Milford, N.J. He poured balm over my many and various anxieties. "Chickens will eat just about anything," he said. Cold would not kill them off. "They just fluff their feathers," Townley told me. And if there are no predators, there's really no need for a coop.
Chickens were beginning to sound like the ideal pet.
The chicken took to its new surroundings easily. Its main social task was to integratesintosthe local cat society—asgroupsof about five strays we feed. How would the two species deal with each other?
One morning I looked out the window and saw four cats lined up at their food bowls, and right in the middle, eating cat food with gusto, was the chicken. Occasionally it would push a cat aside to get a better position.
These cats, for their part, regarded the chicken warily. To a bird, it was prey. But big prey. From time to time they would stalk, press their bodies to the ground, swish their tails and give every sign of going for the kill. Then they would register the chicken's size and become gripped by second thoughts. A face-saving, halfhearted lunge would follow.
The two sides soon achieved parity. Sometimes I'd look out back and see a cat chasing the chicken. Ten minutes later I'd see the chicken chasing a cat. I like to think they reached the plane of mutual respect. Perhaps affection.
Although it was nice to know the chicken could eat anything, cat food didn't seem right. When the petstore staff couldn't help, I did what any mature adult male would do in a crisis. I called my mother.
Mom drove to the local feed store in La Porte, Texas, and picked up a 25-pound bag of scratch grains, a blend of milo, corn and oats. She began shipping the grain in installments. The chicken seemed to appreciate the feed, and I certainly preferred seeing it eat grain, especially after the grisly evening when I set out a treat for the cats—leftover shreds of chicken—and saw the chicken happily join in.
Our care paid off. One morning, Nancy spied an egg on the patio. At the base of the pine tree,swheresthe chicken slept, was a nest containing four more eggs. They were small, somewhere between ecru and beige, but this was it. The blessed event.
Soon we could count on five or six eggs a week.
After I wrote about the chicken in the New York Times, my mailbag was bursting with letters offering advice on the proper care and feeding of chickens. Disturbed that she did not have a name, fans wrote with suggestions. Vivian had a certain sultry appeal; Henrietta seemed cute. But Henny Penny?
The media jumped in. National Public Radio quizzed me about the chicken for one of its weekend programs. "My producer wants to know, could you hold the telephone up to the chicken so we can hear it?" the interviewer asked. Unfortunately I don't have a 100-foot cord on my telephone. The Associated Press sent a photographer to capture the chicken's many moods. (She had two.) Then one morning I looked out my kitchen window, and my heart stopped. No chicken—not in my pine tree or the tree next door. Nor was she pecking and scratching in any of the nearby yards. There were no signs of violence, only a single black feather near the back door.
She was definitely missing. But why?
Spring was in the air. Could she be looking for love? Or perhaps she was reacting badly to the burdens of celebrity? Or maybe she was simply looking for a place to lay her eggs in peace.
Like Garbo retiring form motion pictures, she left at the height of her popularity, well on her way to becoming the most photographed, most talked about chicken of our time.
And I am left cherishing the memories. Nancy and I had grown to love our chicken.
If anyone happens to see a fat black hen, tell her this for me: There's a light in the window, and a warm nest at the base of the pine tree.-