Sunday, January 6, 2013

Who Stole My Eggs?

     I collected four dark brown eggs and set them in a shallow glass bowl on the paved cement next to the barn hose.  This is where I bring the ceramic platters and bowls belonging to my chickens, as well as the galvanized steel watering can (an ingenious vacuum-pressure device!) to scrub every few days.  Afterward, I fill the dishes with kitchen scraps, sprouts, and morsels from last night's dinner, and I carry in fresh water.
     I can't help marveling at the perfect construction and irresistible beauty of the egg.  If I had to choose something upon which to meditate, it wouldn't be a candle flame, or a miniature Buddha, or an image of Ganesh, or a rosary with its appalling graven icon of a man being tortured on a cross;  it would be an egg:  a smooth, simple, ovoid, warm-to-the-touch, just-laid egg.  I can imagine holding this egg to my cheek, closing my eyes, and feeling completely centered and at peace with the world.  The fact that a single egg is engineered and sculpted without rational planning or even great care--almost as an afterthought, sometimes even shoved out of the nest--by the lowly chicken each day, is nothing short of stupendous.  We should be in constant awe.
     And I was, today, holding these four eggs, two to a hand, using my thumb to rotate them, studying the unique, filigreed lines on the shells as though it might be possible to read them like tea leaves.
     But I had to get on with the day's work--so much to do!--so I put the eggs in the bowl and hosed down all the chicken paraphernalia.  Then, I carried the five-gallon watering can to the coop, and spread out the day's feast:  chopped mustard greens, crushed eggshells, two handfuls of rolled oats, scraps of salmon I'd bought for $2 at Northwest Seafood, and some honeydew rinds with enough green melon left on them to make it worth the chickens' while to peck.
     I don't have a lot of self-discipline when it comes to children, animals, and chickens.  I could watch them all day.  Therefore, as usual, I was loitering, looking for something to do, pretending to look for something to do, cataloguing new chicken behaviors and attending to the funny personalities within my brood.
     "You sure seem happy in the chicken coop!" my son, Eli, said to me during his holiday break at home.  I noticed that he, too, stood transfixed in the hen yard.  We loitered there together each morning, talking about politics, the environment, and one another--our version of mother-son time--commenting on the hens, picking up stray feathers, looking for eggs, again and again, as though there was magic to be found in the laying boxes, and remarking on one chicken's ingenuity, or another's quirk.  We might as well have been taking notes for a documentary, because we ambled around the coop for an hour or more every day.  It's easy to make excuses for hanging out with chickens.
     Later, I overheard my son say to one of the sellers at the farmers market, "Mom sure is irritable a lot of the time, but not when she's in the chicken coop!  Around the chickens, she's seems to be on happy pills!"
    Suddenly, today, the chickens stood at attention, their necks craned upward an impressive eight-inches, some of them locking one foot in mid-air, in case they should need to make a mad dash.
    What was the fuss?  I couldn't tell.  Chickens might be better than an ADT alarm system for catching intruders, but they aren't able to tell me where, and what they know.
     I assumed they had registered the shadow of a hawk overhead, or heard the the distinct voiceprint of some other predator.  They capitalize on that special sensitivity built into their DNA:  an instruction to run.  A minute later, they calmed down and got back to scavenging, only to repeat the drama like participants in a game of charades who are paying very close attention to clues that might answer the life-preserving question:  What is it?
     If only I could speak chicken.  There was a low trill coming from the throats of a few of the chickens, a sound I almost never hear and one that must signal threat--send adrenaline!--because the birds were ready for fight-or-flight.  Then I heard two other chickens conferring with hushed clucking putting together a game plan, after wise consideration.  Soon after, there was group consensus in the form of synchronized movements of wings, necks, beaks.  It might have been a cartoon, except that cartoons imitate life.  There was absolute silence.
     Nothing came of it, and soon hens were fighting over bits of salmon fat and oat debris again.
     Having run out of reasons to postpone my other chores (it was 11 am!) I latched the door behind me and reminded myself to fetch the container with my four eggs.
     Who stole my eggs?  The bowl was there, but the eggs were gone.  Come on, quit joking, I said to no one, because no one was around.  Those four fine sepia-speckled bestowals had disappeared in twenty minutes, without a trace.  No egg muck, no telltale shells, no scat, no tracks, no mess on the glass.  What happened?
     I called my two dogs and examined their muzzles--no albumin clinging to their whiskers, no smacking of the lips, no calcium carbonate crystals lodged between their lips and gums.  They frowned, letting their ears droop, and seemed generally contrite, as dogs do, I discovered,  when you ask, "Where are my eggs?  What did you do with them?  Did you eat them?  Did you?  Did you?"
     No way could those dogs have eaten four eggs without making a mess somewhere.  It couldn't have been my dogs.
     I looked around the barn, and in the grass, and along the fence, and even in the trees.  Not a critter or bird in site.  I remembered the chickens, who had sent out an alarm.  What did they know?  Who was it?  If only I could speak chicken.
     Might it have been a desperate mama raccoon, overriding its nocturnal biorhythms to snatch a snack (or four snacks) to keep its young alive?  Or, maybe, a band of snakes?  (Could snakes possibly swallow four eggs in twenty minutes?)  Was it one of those broad-winged predatory birds that make a habit of hovering overhead (like the prosecutors), and snatching what's mine when my guard is down (also like the prosecutors)?  Could one of them have snagged the eggs, one by one, in its talons and taken them all to an enormous nest in the long-leaf pines?
     Do eagles even eat eggs?  Do hawks?  Do raccoons?
     I ate tofu for breakfast.


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