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After Wendell

I’m getting pretty good at chicken burials.

It’s no secret: I didn’t want him in the first place. Maybe that’s not really fair to say; the truth is that I wasn’t confident that I would know how to care for him, and I was intimidated by the thought of having a rooster.

I have heard it said that we don’t know what we need, that we are given what we can handle, and that the right people make their way into and out of our lives. I’d like to believe that this is also true for chickens.

There’s too much here. There’s too much detail. There have been too many thoughts for there to be nothing beyond, for it just to be over when our jobs are done here on earth.

Sunny, beautiful, and perfect; a whole Saturday with nothing much to do. My chicken helper opened the door just ahead of me. He closed it suddenly, turned to me, and stated matter-of-factly in a voice uncharcteristically devoid of emotion, “Wendell’s dead. I think Wendell’s dead.”

Indeed he was, lying in the sand tray, not really on his back but not really on his side, at the opposite end of the roost from his usual perching spot. He no longer reflected the glorious presence of the Cornflakes rooster; he had a grayish dusty stiffness about him, and the sharp red of his comb had transformed to a sort of garish purple as the hours after sunset turned the sky. He had gone out on us as we slept, and the new sun rose, but not to the sound of his characteristic crow.

Wendell was dead. My sunny Saturday became cloudy at the prospect of digging a grave for this chicken who came to us at two days old, and who grew into a robust rooster that spent his days pacing near his flock, afraid of spurring no one. He would tolerate no threats to his hens. Young Kitty May, the only chicken hatched at the farm, though ostracized and often ignored by the flock, knew to run to Wendell when she felt vulnerable. Now, her refuge and the protector of our chickens had dropped dead in the roost, and we didn’t have time to say goodbye.

The days are full of things that are hard, that make us hurt, that frighten and sometimes hollow us. They are also filled with grace, beauty, and wonder to the ends of the land. We know not what the tomorrows will bring, but surely there must be something greater than what we have known.

Hypatia, the socialite of the flock, spent the days after Wendell left us in search of her comrade. I found her calling from the far edge of the property, in the grasses by the township drive, well out of range from her usual territory. She had been perpetually by his side, except for the times when she was trying to get in people’s cars, and now he was gone. I remember making a point to find her after I had left the car open while unloading groceries. At some point, though, she found her way into the van, where she spent her last moments among the forgotten French fries and discarded apple cores. It seems she died in her favorite place, but without her beloved Wendell. If one might die of a broken heart, I suspect that she did.

I watched Dan from afar, but he didn’t know. His steps have slowed just a bit, and though he works at setting flagstone, tilling the garden beds, and painting trim until his projects are done, I fear that the years may be taking a toll.

I, too, can feel the passing years each time I stand from kneeling among the runner beans or fairy roses. I am tired, and time is catching me.

There would be no way to replace Wendell, the rooster that we didn’t want in the first place, but that we now so desperately missed and mourned. Roosters can be mean, scary, and aggressive. I had to put Wendell away when the little boys ran around, and I was forever looking over my shoulder while I weeded patches around the farm.

A few days later, I buried Hypatia with my little boy by my side, scooping an occasional shovelful of dirt and asking repeatedly, “Are you sad?” to which I had no response. Hypatia was settled in a shallow grave near where Dan buried Wendell, and under the same evergreen where we had buried the baby chick that had died the year before.

A Lavender Orpington rooster from Whitewater, Wisconsin caught my eye in a Craigslist sale offering. Yesterday, I packed up the boys, and we went to see him.

“He has a good disposition, and he never approaches people. We have over 200 birds. He doesn’t have a name. There are just too many for individual attention.” The man caught the rooster at the tops of his wings and placed him among the pine shavings in the container that we had brought for the transfer. He was massive and majestic, adorned with silver lavender feathers. Right then, we decided to call him Ben, and he was coming home. I gave the man’s wife twenty dollars.

This afternoon, I had mercy on our new rooster in the sunny run alone. I watched closely as he stepped out into freedom just seconds after I opened the door. The first to approach him was Kitty May.

All of the chickens went to the coop at sundown, and it seemed as if Ben had always been here. He did not sit in the spot that Wendell had vacated in the roost. Perhaps he knew; perhaps he felt it would be irreverent. Or, just maybe, he was claiming his own spot in the coop.

We may not miss the days of being chased down by Wendell; I may find my moments in the garden just a bit more peaceful without worrying about being approached by an ornery rooster. I know, though, that we will always miss our Wendell, our surprise and slightly terrifying introduction to farm life, who certainly showed us that we were meant to have him in our lives.

“Spread your wings, and I know that when God took you back, he said ‘Hallelujah, you’re home.'”

–from Ed Sheeran, “Supermarket Flowers”

Rest In Peace, my dear Wendell, until we meet again…and we will.

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