I’ve learned donkeys are very neat animals and defecate in one area only until they move on to a new site so collecting the straw-packed, flealess, and odorless droppings is easy. It’s a meditative activity—repetitive, private, quiet—and I’m as content as I’ve ever been, not even bothered by my boots squishing inside and out as I move from one dung pile to the next. I change course occasionally to dump my full bucket onto the growing mound in the corner of the wire-enclosed vegetable garden, all of me soaked. Just like yesterday when the four of us looked out in horror at this very spot and watched the escaping hens disappear among the trees.
The day had started out innocently enough. While Evan repaired the bolt and hinge on the chicken coop door our children, Emily and Alyd, fed the two amiable gray donkeys apples from the orchard. We humans were all wearing a variety of ill-fitting raincoats and rubber boots borrowed from overflowing hooks and shelves lining the wall of the mud room. We were living and working in Southern France on one of 6,000 WWOOFing (“Workers on Organic Farms”) farms around the world, this one near the tiny village of Rennes-le-Chateau of The Da Vinci Code fame. This is our fourth WWOOFing farm and we’re feeling like old hands at this mucking about business. No one is bothered by how they look, not even red-haired Emily who has been known to groan loudly about her family’s embarrassing lack of fashion sense.
Evan calls us over to admire his work, proudly opening and closing the door of the coop several times to celebrate his accomplishment. It looks good for a man whose work days are spent dealing with rebellious teens, upset parents, social workers, and the occasional police officer.
That’s then we notice the hens dashing their way to freedom into the nearby woods. Evan isn’t worried. He insists our farmer host Katherine told him he could let the hens run free while he worked on the coop and all he’d have to do was set out the bucket of kitchen scraps and call the birds and they’d come back to the coop immediately.
This is obviously news to the hens.
The four of us rush off, chasing the birds with our human version of their dash and dart technique. We try to work out strategies, circling the birds as they burst from behind face-scratching branches and promptly separate, heading in opposite directions under bushes. Freckle-faced, nine-year-old Alyd is the only one who can scoot in after them. Two of the birds hop out and, oh my god, it looks like the reddish one is actually bouncing over that huge slippery rock.
“Ouch! Watch it!” Emily yells at Alyd. He had pushed aside a branch as he ran after the old brown hen, letting the branch swing loose behind him and smacking Emily on the side of the head.
“Here, chicky chicky,” I can hear Evan saying in a falsely friendly voice.
“We’re in France for God sakes!” I yell.
Evan snorts then starts calling out: “Ici, chickee, chickee!”
Note: Add to my list of “Things I’ve learned working on organic farms”: hens are fast; they are not cute birds but mean-spirited creatures who can make humans looks stupid; and they don’t herd well.
The only sentient being enjoying himself is Alyd. Considering how often he moans about the weeding and wood carting chores he must do as his share of our volunteer work holidays we have actually found a job he loves: chasing ex-chickens. We finally corner two of the birds and put the poor traumatized creatures into the newly secure coop, returning to confess to Katherine that the rest of her hens are still running loose.
Back at the farmhouse, Katherine, and her 16 year old daughter Layla, start to laugh when they see us: Evan sheepish, me tight-lipped, Emily scowling, and Alyd radiant, all of us wet and scratched, and some of us embarrassed at being shown up by eight female birds who spend their life pecking each other’s butts.
“Oh well, if they have a death wish, so be it,” Katherine says. “They’ll come back to the coop at feeding time tonight.” Sure enough, when Evan returns to the shed at 7 pm there they all are, waiting patiently. He opens the coop door and the hens scurry in, clucking non-stop toward the kitchen-scraps food bucket.
Lesson of the day and of life: You’ve got to speak the language of the land to attain success, right, chickee, chickee?
About the author: Joyce Thierry Llewellyn is a Canadian film and television screenwriter and story editor and Vancouver Film School writing instructor. She has a fluctuating list of things to be wary of. Hens and defrosted aliens are currently flagged as the most dangerous!
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