I was essentially farm-sitting while the recently-wed proprietors went on their honeymoon. The tasks and instructions were straightforward: water and feed the animals every morning and evening, keep the house in order, don’t touch the electric fence, etc.
I was confident I could avoid catastrophe for 5 days, and I did because the animals were darling. The rabbits were sociable when I fed them and moved their pens, the pigs were always happy to see me, the resident dog and cat were cuddly and playful.
And the goats, much like myself, were easily swayed with the promise of food.
As for the cows, their only crime was going into heat a few days into my stay and moo-ing angrily day and night: “MooOO MooOO MooOO MooOO MooOO MooOO MooOO. Moo.”
Cows in heat, too embarrassed to show their faces.
For some reason, they changed key and dialed down volume on the last moo. A single, sotto voce moo is the sound of an aroused cow’s undoing.
The cow alarms followed me around the 80-acre farm for days. While I was folding my laundry in my sunny, second-floor bedroom. While I stood in the kitchen slicing a freshly picked tomato for lunch. While I filled their massive trough with hose water.
Filling the cow’s water trough from the hose lasts a good 10 minutes, and for the entire duration they would gather a few feet away from me on the other side of the fence, pounding their hooves into the dirt, head-butting each other, and bellowing their frustration at me while maintaining intense eye contact.
I'm sure I've behaved similarly in times of duress, and could empathize. And I actually didn't mind the constant drone, as I'd firmly convinced myself the century-old farmhouse in which I was staying alone was haunted. (Trust me, it is.) The noise was a welcome distraction from the almost unnerving quiet.
Home of the goats and The Layers.
But the chickens. The chickens weren't winning me over any time soon.
The farm had two free-range chicken clans, whom I’ll call The Coopers and The Layers.
The Layers were a peaceable group, content to lay eggs in their cozy barn roosts and live in harmony with their neighbors, the goats. (Good ol’ goats.)
The Coopers, however, were fierce-willed and fiery. Strong. Mistrusting. Murderous.
Okay, I’ve gone too far. A couple were total jerks, though.
Many if not all chickens are too stupid for their own good. Stubbornness in the human world is annoying; stubbornness in the chicken world will get them killed by animals larger and sharper than them.
On my first night alone, I strolled out to the coop by the garden to bid its residents good night and close up their door. All the other animals were tucked in, and this was my last stop.
Several of the Coopers were still out. Not just out, but panicked to be out. They wanted to go back in to the coop, but they couldn't seem to figure out how to retrace their steps back to it. They stood at the chicken wire fence, clucking and walking back and forth, devoid of the knowledge or memory of how they flew over the same fence to begin with earlier in the day.
I remembered a conversation I had about this with my host before she left.
"They'll probably all go back in at the end of the day," she said, stressing the importance of getting them locked up for the night to ward off errant foxes.
"If they don't?" I asked.
"But if they don't?"
"Well, you'll probably just have to grab it like this, and chuck it in," she said, demonstrating what looked like a totally unpleasant task for both her and the squawking, flapping chicken.
Twenty-four hours later, I was nose-to-beak with this same stupidly stubborn, awfully ugly chicken. I'll point out now that it's ugly because it makes me feel better, and also it can't read.
Uggo wasn't lost or confused with her basic motor functions like the other chickens. She was nestled firmly on the metal gate, certain the coop rules didn't apply to her.
Now, I know you can't reason with a chicken. That is the coward's route, and this wasn't a Seinfeld episode. In a situation like this, talk was cheep, cheep, cheep.
I knew I just had to grab it from behind and toss it over the fence into the door of the coop. The sun was going down and it was getting darker still, and I couldn't bring myself to wrap my fingers around its feathery, reptilian body.
Uggo turned its head to the side and watched me with one beady eye as I stared at it, brows furrowed, hands in "gotcha" claws in front of me, waiting to pounce.
Then the solution hit me. Flicking on my headlamp like the proverbial "Eureka!" lightbulb, I opened and shut the gate Uggo was perching on and marched back to the house.
I returned a moment later, with a smile on my face and a large dish towel in my hand. Uggo's head swiveled to watch me as I opened and closed her gate-perch once again, and followed me with that one eye as I walked up to her from behind and in one deft motion threw the dish towel around her wings and body and carried her, immobilized, back to the coop.
"Ha-HA!" I yelled, laughing as I threw her into the coop. For the first time, I had an idea of what the phrase "laughing all the way to the bank" actually felt like.
And so, to close the door. The door was secured shut by leaning over the chicken wire fence and jamming a short two-by-four at its base against one of the rungs on the ramp to the coop.
I leaned over with the hunk of wood, placed its base against a rung, and watched as the rung spun on its nail and let the wood fall to the ground inside the fence.
"Don't drop the block behind the coop's fence, it doesn't have a gate," I was warned the day before.
I stared at the hunk of wood, and from somewhere inside the coop, Uggo cluckled.
I spent the next few minutes cursing and sweating profusely in the oppressive heat and 100% humidity of the summer night, unfastening and refastening chicken wire, scraping up my arms and legs (why was I wearing a dress?), and landing palm first in a massive pile of chicken shit.
But I was able to jam the door shut and the Coopers were safe from their natural and rightful enemies. I took a moment to reflect on everything I'd learned that night:
1) Chickens are awful.
The next night, Uggo went gentle into that good coop, and it was my turn to be smug.
I toasted myself with a glass of milk from the family's dairy, the bovine sirens drifting into the house on waves of heat through the kitchen's ripped window screens.