The Egg and I: Chickens Are So Dumb

THE ATLANTIC SERIAL

by BETTY MACDONALD

SUMMARY. - The daughter of a mining engineer who trained her to be self-reliant, BETTY MACDONALD was born in 1908 and spent her childhood in some of the more rugged spots of this hemisphere — in Mexico, Idaho, and Montana. She completed her schooling in the State of Washington and entered the University of Washington intending to major in art. But instead she fell in love and married. Bob, her husband, was fired with the idea of opening a chicken ranch on the Northwest Coast, and by pooling their wedding presents, their savings, and a small legacy, he and Betty scraped together $1500, enough to purchase forty acres a six-room log house, a barn, two small chicken houses and lumber for enlargements, twelve pullets, and, as spring came on, ten cartons, each carton containing a hundred baby chicks.

Very early Betty found an almost personal adversary in Stove. She also found that she was to have a baby — a decided complication with no help available. She met her neighbors, the Kettles, who were carefree and borrowers, the Hickses, who were thrifty an critical, and sharp-eyed Mrs. Wiggins, who came to call at the wrong time. Meantime the chicks were becoming a daily problem....

8

PRIOR to life with Bob, my sole contact with baby chickens had been at the age of eleven. Lying on my stomach in our hammock, which was swung between two Gravenstein apple trees in the orchard by the house, I pulled out grass stems, ate the tender white part, and watched Layette, Gammy’s favorite Barred Rock hen, herd her fourteen home-hatched fluffy yellow chicks through the drifting apple blossoms and under the low flowering quince trees. This sentimental fragment of my childhood was a far cry from the hundreds and hundreds of yellowish-white, yeeping, smelly little nuisances which made my life a nightmare in the spring.

I confess I could hardly wait for our chicks to come, I spent many happy anticipatory hours checking the thermometer and reveling in the warmth and cleanliness of the new brooder house. But I learned to my sorrow that baby chickens are stupid; they smell; they have to be fed, watered, and looked at at least every three hours. Their sole aim in life is to jam themselves under the brooder and get killed; stuff their little boneheads so far into their drinking fountains they drown; drink cold water and die; get B.W.D., coccidiosis, or some other disease which means sudden death. The horrid little things pick out each other’s eyes and peck each other’s feet until they are bloody stumps.

My chick manual, speaking from the fence, said, “ Some chicks have a strong tendency to pick and some don’t.” (I was reminded of our mushroom book’s vacillating attitude on fungi: “Some are poisonous and some are not,”) The chick manual went on to say: “The causes of picking are overcrowding, lack of ventilation, or cannibalism.” Our chicks, according to the standards set by the manual, had plenty of air and space, so I added plain meanness to their list of loathsome traits. From the time of their contemplation, our baby chickens were given the utmost in care and consideration. Their idea of appreciation was to see how many of them could turn out to be cockerels and how high they could get the percentage of deaths. I knew that Layette’s babies never acted that way, which was a flaw-proof argument for environment over heredity and against any form of regimentation.

I really did my badly organized best to follow my chick manual to the letter, even though it required spending one hour out of every three in the brooder house — measuring feed, washing water fountains, removing the bloody and the dying to the first-aid corner — and all my leisure time nailing a dead chicken to a shingle, splitting the carcass from stem to stern, and, by peering alternately inside the chicken and at a very complicated chart, trying to figure out what in the world it died of. I always drew a blank. In my little Death and Food Record book, I, in my prankish way, wrote opposite the date and number of deaths, “Chickenpox, Eggzema, and Suicide.” When he checked the records, Bob noted this fun in our work, and unsmilingly erased it and neatly wrote, “Not determined.” Men are quite humorless about their own businesses.

In my chick manual I read: “A single drink of cold water may be fatal to a baby chick.”

“ You don’t say,” I thought, licking my fevered lips, and glancing longingly at our little lake filled with icy water. But my poultricidal tendencies were replaced with pure hysteria as I read on: “ Water may be warm when you put it in the founts, but will it stay warm? ”

I was bitter about it. “ Isn’t it enough that my hands will soon be dragging on the ground from carrying buckets and buckets and buckets of water, and that Stove has acquired a permanent list on his reservoir side, without being further tortured with trick questions? Why don’t you get underneath the brooder and see if the water stays warm, you big bore? Me, I’ll fill the fountains with warm water and curses every three hours and take a chance.”

The next cozy paragraph was headed “Dopey Chicks.” “If many chicks are ‘dopey’ and you are sure they are not overheated or gassed, those chicks and the chicks that continually chirp should be sent to the nearest pathological laboratory [to see who’s dopey?]. If the report says B.W.D., it is better to disinfect the premises and start new chicks.” I could find no explanation of B.W.D., but to me it was code for the best news in the world. It might have been better to start new chicks, but it might have been best to take the next train for Mexico.

I wondered how other chicken ranchers’ wives reacted to baby chickens. Was there something in my background which kept me from becoming properly adjusted to the chicken, or was there just too wide a gulf separating a woman and a chicken? I was delighted therefore, one spring morning, to have Mrs. Hicks halloo from the road and invite me to ride down to Mrs. Kettle’s with her while she returned some bread pans. Both Mrs. Kettle and Mrs. Hicks were raising baby chickens, and I thought this would be a splendid opportunity to make comparisons and to slip out of harness for a little while.

I had bathed and fed small Anne and put her to sleep in her carriage in the orchard, so I took a quick look at all my other babies to be sure they were well fed and asleep, threw Bob a few hazy instructions, hung my apron on the gatepost, and we were off. Mrs. Hicks, full to the lips with some new and wonderful bile-primer, was cheerful to the point of gayety. Not so Mrs. Kettle, who clumped morosely out to greet us, kicking at her beloved mongrels as she went by.

At first I thought it must be the heavy curtain of gloom which made her spacious kitchen seem so crowded. Then I became conscious of a chorus of twitterings from the vicinity of the stove. Mrs. Kettle was rearing her baby chickens in the kitchen. The area behind the large stove, which ordinarily housed the woodbox, the house slippers and barn boots of Mr. Kettle and the boys, a couple of bicycles, bits of harness, the newspapers, the dogs and cats and car parts, had been turned into a brooder house. Fenced off by rusty window screens leaning against chairs, and heated by a varied assortment of jars, cans, and bottles filled with hot water, two hundred baby chicks existed in apparent fine health and contentment. No B.W.D. there. No disinfectant, no thermometer—and no sickness either. “That manual writer should see this,” I thought bitterly.

Mrs. Kettle was also harboring in her kitchen a little runt pig, the sole survivor of a litter eaten by its mother. The chicks she dismissed lightly with “Paw ordered ‘em last fall but didn’t git around to buildin’ the brooder house before they come, so I guess we’ll just have to raise ‘em in here.” The chirping chickens and the little pig clicking around underfoot on his little sharp hoofs didn’t bother Mrs. Kettle a whit.

What did trouble Mrs. Kettle was the fact that her elder sister, who twenty-odd years before had the good fortune to marry a man both wealthy and prominent, had had the effrontery to send Mrs. Kettle by the morning mail, in lieu of a rich gift, an enormous tinted portrait of herself in evening dress. This Mrs. Kettle had set up on the table, easled by the cracked white sugar bowl and a jar of jam.

Scratching herself vigorously and gesticulating with her soup ladle, she sneered, “Look at that, would you. Pretty fine, ain’t we, with our dinners all bare?” (The dress was cut in a very modest V.) “And covered with jools which your old man got from bribing the government. Well, you can stuff your jools and your crooked husband and — ” Mrs. Kettle’s face brightened. “You know where I’m going to hang your damned pitchur? In the outhouse!”

Mrs. Hicks and I took our leave at this point, but as we drove over the hill, we heard the sound of violent pounding. Mrs. Kettle was hanging sister’s giltframed picture.

Mrs. Hicks invited me to go home with her for a cup of coffee and to see her baby chickens. I accepted instantly, and we jounced right past our ranch and on down the mountain.

The coffee, strong and delicious, with thick yellow cream, was accompanied by that heavenly and completely indigestible delicacy, fried bread. Apparently all Mrs. Hicks did was to drop twisted pieces of bread dough into hot fat, and in a minute or two take out big golden-brown puffs which she dipped in powdered sugar and covered with strawberry jam. They weren’t small and they had what I call body, but I ate three, and Mrs. Hicks five, before we made a move toward the chicken houses. Then I tried a sprightly leap off the back porch, only to find that I seemed to be filled up with ball bearings. I glanced at Mrs. Hicks, who sailed ahead of me like a piece of thistledown. Thistledown or no, I already had a different conception of her liver. I vowed that in the future I would be a little more careful of what was left of mine.

Mrs. Hicks’s brooder house smelled so strongly of disinfectant it made my eyes water. The chickens, looking as if they had sprouted under boards, drooped listlessly around the edges of their immaculate modern house. Gammy used to say, “Too much scrubbing takes the life right out of things,” but a perpetual droop seemed to be Mrs. Hicks’s yardstick of cleanliness.

On the ride home I clutched my fried bread on the rough places in the road and I asked Mrs. Hicks about the percentage of deaths in her chicks. I was amazed to learn that out of five hundred chicks she had lost only five. She said, “Those five died the day after we got the chicks, and I don’t think they was right, but just in case it was anything catching I put a little disinfectant in the drinking water and the rest pulled through fine.” What I think really happened was that Mrs. Hicks called a meeting of her chicks right after they arrived and told them, “I’m the boss here and I’m not going to put up with any sickening or dying. The first chick I catch dying is going to get what for and I mean it.” And the chicks, disinfected inside and out, stayed alive.

9

BOB turned out to be the best chicken farmer in the region. He was scientific, he was thorough, and he wasn’t hampered by a lot of traditions or old wives’ tales. Bob didn’t believe in mixing breeding and eggraising — he said that they were separate industries and should be treated as such. His theory was that an egg-raising flock should be kept laying as much of the year as possible, but that if you were also using the flock for breeding and hatching eggs, a strenuous laying program weakened the stock.

He evidently knew what he was doing, for his chickens laid eggs and didn’t get sick and we always made money. Bob said that he could make money if eggs dropped to 15 cents a dozen. (They never did — I think 19 cents was the lowest we ever got, and that was in the spring when eggs were plentiful — but Bob was not one to make promises he couldn’t keep.) Bob said that the secret of success in the chicken business for one man was to keep the operation to a size that could be handled by one man.

Bob estimated that one man could handle 1500 chickens (provided his wife was part Percheron, he should have stipulated) by himself and make a comfortable living. But most people, finding that they could be comfortable on 1500 chickens, thought they night as well be luxurious and have 2500. Then the trouble started: they had to hire help; they had to have much more extensive buildings and equipment; and to warrant the extra expense, they would have to have 5000 or 10,000 chickens instead of 2500. It sounded reasonable, and if Bob said so, it probably was.

I kept all the egg records. I wrote on a large calendar in the kitchen the number of eggs we gathered at each gathering. At the end of the day these figures were entered in a daybook and later were entered in a weekly column, along with the feed, which was delivered once a week. It was a very simple system, but when it came time to draw weekly and monthly percentages I usually found the hens in the throes of a 150 per cent lay. Then I would have to go laboriously back and try to find out how far back and in which branch of my arithmetic the trouble lay.

The percentage of cockerels was a vital factor in determining the cost of each pullet, and I watched the baby chicks anxiously for the first signs of the little combs which would tell me how we stood. As soon as we could tell them apart, we separated the cockerels and put them in fattening pens, where they ate and fought and crowed until it was time to dress them for market. Anything else that I cared for from birth became so embedded in my feelings I had to gouge it out, but my only feeling about the cockerels was pride to see how firm and fat they were as we dressed them for market. Before long I could dress chickens like an expert. I could defeather a chicken in about two minutes without once tearing the skin. With all the graceful accomplishments there are in the world, wouldn’t you know I would excel in chicken-picking?

About the time the cockerels were ready for market, the pullets were ready to be taught to roost in their own little houses instead of in the trees, where they were easy prey for owls and wildcats. At dusk each night, Bob and I had to go through the orchard plucking squawking, flapping birds out of the tops of the trees, holding them by the ankles with heads down. When we had as large a bouquet as we could hold, we took them to the pullet houses and planted them firmly on the roosts. At first I felt like a falconer and found the work rather exhilarating, but after two weeks, when there was still a large group of boneheads who preferred to sleep out of doors and get killed, I found myself inclining toward the “ you’ve made your bed — now lie in it” attitude.

Chickens are so dumb. Any other living thing which you feed 365 days in the year will get to know and perhaps to love you. Not the chicken. Every time I opened the chicken-house door, Squawk! Squawk! Squaaaaaaaawk! And the dumbbells would fly up in the air and run around and bang into each other. Bob was a little more successful — but only a little more so and only because chickens didn’t bother him, or he didn’t yell and jump when they did.

That second spring, Bob built a large new yard for the big chickens. The old one was plowed and planted to clover, which disinfected the ground and provided greens for the hens. We eventually had four such yards, so that by rotation our hens were always in a clean, green playground. Other chicken ranchers shook their heads over this foolish waste of time and ground. They also scoffed at feeding the chickens buttermilk and greens the year round. They had been brought up to believe that women had tumors, babies had fits, and chickens had roup; green food and fresh air were things to be avoided, and a small, dirty yard was all a chicken deserved.

Bob paid no attention to the other farmers, and when the new yard was finished we lifted the small runway doors and watched the hens come crowding out, scolding, quarreling, singing, squawking, choosing their favorite places, and hurrying like mad to enjoy their playtime. They were gleaming white with health and spring, and didn’t seem nearly so repulsive as usual.

When the pullets began laying, Bob and I culled the old hens. We did this at night. We’d lift an old hen off the roost, look at her head, the color of her comb, her shape, her legs, and if we were in doubt we’d measure the distance between her pelvic bones — two fingers was a good layer. The good layers looked motherly, their combs were full and bright-red, their eyes large, beaks broad and short, and their bodies were well rounded, broad-hipped, and built close to the ground. They were also the diligent scratchers and eaters, and their voices seemed a little lower with overtones of lullaby.

The non-producers, the childless parasites, were just as typical. Their combs were small and pale, eyes small, beaks sharp and pointed, legs long, hips narrow, and they spent all their time gossiping, starting fights, and going into screaming hysterics over nothing. What a bitter thing for them that, unlike their human counterparts, their only operation was one performed with an axe on the neck.

Gathering eggs would be like one continual Easter morning if the hens would just be obliging and get off the nests. Coöperation, however, is not a chickenly characteristic, and at egg-gathering time every nest was overflowing with hen, feet planted, and a “Shoot if you must this old gray head” look in her eye. I made all manner of futile attempts to dislodge her — sharp sticks, flapping apron, loud scary noises, lure of mash and grain — but she would merely set her mouth, clutch her eggs under her, and dare me. In a way, I can’t blame the hen — after all, soft-shelled or not, they’re her kids.

Bob used to say that it was my approach to the hen which was wrong. I reached timidly under the hens and of course they pecked my wrists. As I jerked my hands away I broke the eggs or cracked them on the edges of the nests. Bob reached masterfully under the hens and they gave without a murmur. I tried to assume this “I am the master” attitude, but I never for a moment fooled a hen, and after three or four pecks I would be a bundle of chittering hysteria with the hens in complete command.

The rooster, now, is something else again. He doesn’t give a damn if you play handball with every egg in the place. He doesn’t care if the chicken house is knee-deep in weasels and blood. He just flicks a speck from his lapel and continues to stroll around, stepping daintily over the lifeless but still warm body of a former mistress, his lustful eye appraising the leg and breast of another conquest.

I really tried to like chickens. But I couldn’t get close to the hen either physically or spiritually, and by the end of the second spring I hated everything about the chicken but the egg.

10

ALONG in January, Stove had developed virulent digestive trouble. In fact, where his grate had been, there was a gaping hole and I had to build my fire like a blazing fringe around the edge. Stove was “taken ” in January, but it was March before anything was done about it. We of the mountains didn’t dash into town for a new grate. We wore our nerves to the snapping point trying to cook on the circle of fire or the faint warm draft that wafted from the ashpit down around Stove’s feet, where the pieces of grate and all the wood had fallen, and waited for a character known as the Stove Man, who was supposed to make rounds in the spring.

One morning I had reached the stage where I was craftily planning to chop up a chair or two and build a fire in the sink in an effort to drive Bob to some immediate action, when the Stove Man arrived. With him also were a truckload of stove parts and tools, his wife, and his three-year-old daughter. Stove Man quickly disemboweled Stove, something which I had been longing to do to that big black stinker all winter, spread the entrails all over the kitchen floor, and went out to the chicken house to point out to Bob the many opportunities for failure in the chicken business.

This black-future attitude was not from manicdepressive tendencies on the part of Stove Man, but was the reflected attitude of the farmer. The farmers wanted to be sad and they wanted everyone who called on them to be sad. If your neighbor’s chickens were each laying a double-yolked egg every single day, all his cows had just had heifer calves, his mortgage was all paid, and his wheat was unprecedented, you would not mention any of these gladsome matters.

Instead, when you looked at the chickens, you must say, “A heavy lay makes hens weak and liable to disease.” The neighbor, kicking sulkily at the feed trough, would reply, “Brings the price of eggs down too.” When you went into the barn you looked over the heifer calves and said, “Lots of t.b. in the valley this year. Some herds as high as 50 per cent.” The neighbor said, “Contagious abortion is around too.” Leaning morbidly on the fence around the groaning wheat fields you said, “A cloudburst could do a lot of damage here.”

Our farmers were big saddos and our farmers’ wives were delicate. Farmers’ wives always felt poorly. They took gallons of patent medicines. Without exception they, and all their progeny, had been so tiny at birth that they slept in a cigar box and wore a wedding ring for a bracelet.

Stove Man’s wife— “Just call me Myrtle” — and Darleen, the small, white, thready-limbed child, stayed in the house with me while Stove Man and Bob made their gloomy journey around the ranch. As lunchtime approached with Stove still in surgery, Myrtle and I, accompanied by the drop, drop, drop of her leaky heart, made sandwiches and brewed tea over some canned heat. I offered to warm some soup or vegetables for Darleen, but Myrtle demurred with “That kid eats anything — strong as a horse.”

The horse ate for her lunch one white soda cracker and a sweet pickle. Then she hung on the back of her mother’s chair and whined. Not bothering to turn around and not missing a mouthful, Myrtle comforted her with threats of “I’ll warm your bottom”; “I’ll turn you over to your dad”; “I’ll lock you in the truck”; “I’ll send for the bogey man” — all of which Darleen ignored, and kept on swinging and whining. In desperation, I suggested a nap, but Myrtle said, “ That kid has never took a nap since she was weaned — just don’t need sleep — strong as a horse.” Even though Darleen looked like something they had whipped up out of pipe cleaners, she certainly had endurance. She whined and swung until after five, when they left.

Much to my surprise, Mr. Myrtle became very businesslike after lunch and put Stove back together with new grates and a new, more thorough ash shaker. Unfortunately Myrtle also became businesslike and insisted on cutting out dresses for small Anne from the eight lengths of dimity and nainsook I had brought from town the day before. I had patterns, but she scoffed at these as totally unnecessary for children’s clothes.

When I came in from one of my various trips to the chicken house, baby buggy, feed room, or cold frame, I found Myrtle slashing out the last dress. She stacked the cut-out garments, took Darleen to the outhouse, and with “See you next year if my heart holds out” — “Quit that, Darleen, or I’ll smack you!” —"Hope the stove holds together” they were gone.

After dinner that night I examined the ready-to-sew dresses. Something seemed to be wrong. There were eight large, round pieces of material — one from each length — and eight rims from which the circles were cut. I was unable to determine which were the dresses and which the scraps. I laid small, obliging Anne on the bed and tried to fit her into these strange pieces, but all we were able to work out was the foundations for eight old-fashioned sweeping caps and matching ruffles for Anne’s fat posterior.

Either Myrtle had a splendid idea which I was too stupid to grasp or Anne was the wrong shape. “Oh, well, see you next year, Myrtle,” I said, dusting off the bedside table with one of the circles and putting the rest away in my bottom drawer, where they remained as long as we lived on the ranch.

11

FOR several weeks after the visit of the Stove Man the weather was clear and bright and we worked like maniacs to get caught up with Spring, who raced ahead of us each day, unfolding new tasks for us to do and cautioning us about leaving the old ones too long. Each night, Bob drove the truck down into a small valley below the house and filled ten ten-gallon milk cans with water. The next morning, as soon as I was dressed, I filled Stove’s reservoir and my wash boiler, and between chores I washed all day long. The clothes billowed and flapped whitely against the delphiniumblue sky and the black-green hills, and at night I brought in armloads of clean clothes smelling of blossoms and breezes — and dry.

For three weeks I washed all day and ironed every night and felt just like the miller’s daughter in Rumpelstilzchen, for there was always more. After all, I had been heaping dirty clothes in the extra bedroom ever since September and only washing what we had to have and what I could dry over Stove. I had to wash for the baby every day, so I threw everything else into the extra bedroom. Finally one morning I found the room empty. I tottered back to the kitchen, emptied the wash boiler into the sink, and collapsed by Stove. Immediately the sun was obscured by a heavy dark cloud; a wind came swooshing out of the burn; there was a light patter of rain; and I fell asleep.

Like coming to the surface after a deep, deep dive, I came at last to the top of my sleep and heard hammering at the back door. I drifted through a heavy mist to the entryway and opened the door. It was the Rawleigh man. He burst in and snapped me to attention by looking deep into my eyes and saying, “I heard you got a new baby. Organs all back in place O.K.?”

The Rawleigh man sold spices, hand lotions, patent medicines, coffee, soap, lice powder, flea powder, perfume, chocolate — all kinds of dandy things — and in addition he fancied himself a self-made physician and asked the most intimate and personal questions as he opened his truck and brought out his wares. After I had put his mind at rest about my organs he told me all about his hernia and I felt sure would have showed it to me if I had been a customer of a little longer standing. Concerning the neighbors, he told me about a bad ovarian tumor, a tipped uterus, some incurable cases of constipation, and a batch of ringworm which had resisted every salve he had. I made him a cup of coffee and a ham sandwich, and before he left he asked me every detail of Anne’s birth.

Other door-to-door sellers were the nurserymen, who identified our fruit trees for us and sold us English walnut, filbert, chestnut, apricot, and peach trees; and the shoe salesmen, who carried no samples, only pictures. When the brown moccasin-toed oxfords I ordered came, I found out why. The shoes were sturdy — thick-soled, heavy, stiff leather, strong sewing (Gammy would have said they were “baked” together), firm lining — but they were never intended to be worn. They were so full of tongues and lining and sewing that there was no place for the foot.

One of the outstanding things about these factoryto-you sellers was their friendly, non-commercial attitude. Money was not important at all. All business was transacted on the cuff and if you had the money in the house when the goods came, fine. If you didn’t, you could pay next time. It was so easy and pleasant, with everyone staying for supper or lunch, that we naturally bought more than we needed, and in many cases more than we could afford. It was hard on people like me who were suckers for deals like “A four lb. jar of Clover cleansing cream for only $4.98 — pay when delivered” (or when you can).

There were also a corset “lady” and a housedress “lady.” They traveled together. The one squeezed me into a corset and the other jammed me into a housedress. The corset lady had piercing black eyes and a large bust and stomach apparently encased in steel, for when I brushed against her it was like bumping into our oil drum. She was such a high-pressure saleswoman that almost before she had turned off the ignition of her car I found myself in my bedroom in my “naked strip” being forced into a “foundation garment.” First she rolled it up like a life preserver, then I stepped through the leg holes, then she slowly and painfully unrolled it up over my thighs, hips, and stomach until she reached my top; then she had me bend over while she slipped straps over my arms and snapped me back to a standing position. My legs were squashed so tightly together I couldn’t walk a step, and I had to hold my chin up in the air, for my bust was in the vicinity of my shoulders.

“Look, Ella,” the corset lady called to the housedress lady. “Don’t she look grand?”

The housedress lady, who looked just like the corset lady except that she had piercing blue eyes, said, “That’s a world of improvement, dear. A world!”

I inched over to the mirror and looked. At that time I was thin as a needle. Encased in the foundation garment, I resembled nothing so much as a test tube with something bubbling out the top. But even if I had looked “grand,” I had to walk and I wanted to lower my head occasionally. I took off the foundation garment much more quickly and much less carefully than it had been put on me. The corset lady was furious and made no effort to conceal her displeasure. While the housedress lady was showing me her wares, the corset lady sat in a kitchen chair, legs wide apart — but stomach in, bust up — and gazed stonily out the window. Some of the housedresses were pretty, although electric blue and lavender were the predominating colors, and they were very reasonably priced. I ordered four and two pairs of stockings (which turned out to be outsize, so I gave them to Mrs. Kettle).

There may have been others, but they were the transients, not the regular door-to-door sellers, and not important. I believe that this bringing the store to you, instead of your going to the store, is a fine idea and is a strong factor in breeding contentment. After all, if you know that the Rawleigh man carries only Field Clover and Wild Rose perfumes, you aren’t going to go around whining for Chanel #5; and if you know that the housedress lady has nothing but electric blue, you’re going to darn well learn to like it or wear feed sacks. Anyway, it takes the sting out of it if you know that all over the mountains, and up and down the valleys, all the women are going to be wearing electric-blue housedresses and smelling like Field Clover and Wild Rose.

12

WHO said that wild animals won’t bother you if you don’t bother them? Whoever it was must have lived in an apartment house and have just finished reading Bambi. Our trouble with wild animals began in the summer. Of course, we had many encounters with bats, weasels, owls, hawks, wood rats, and field mice, but I’m talking now about the large wild animals like bears, cougars, wildcats, skunks, deer, and coyotes.

In summer we made our trips to town in the early morning and were home before the heat of the day. One morning we were fed and scrubbed and in the truck by seven, only to find, after coasting to the county road, that the truck had developed a consumptive cough overnight. It would reel ahead a little, then slide back, limp and gasping. Finally I was dispatched to get the most mechanically-minded of the Kettle boys to see if he could diagnose the trouble.

I put Anne in her carriage, told Bob to keep an eye on her, cantered down to the Kettles’, and persuaded Elwin Kettle to come up and fix the car. Elwin elected to drive up in the most sinister-looking of all the Kettle jalopies, so I took the trail through the logging burn instead.

For a while the path ran beside the Kettles’ stream and was well-traveled and shaded by second growth. Then it became a perilous scramble through giant jackstraw piles of slashings and discarded logs. The woods were dark and cool and quiet. Occasional birds twittered, and chipmunks slithered over logs and then paused to stare at me glassy-eyed, but there was none of the twig-snapping, brush-rustling, chirping activity that had marked my walk along the road.

At last the path miraculously reappeared and wound steeply upward along a ravine and through uncut virgin timber. Halfway up this home stretch I was aware of an uncomfortable feeling. Something was following me. I heard brush crackling across the ravine — even saw branches sway; but when I stopped, the noise stopped. I convinced myself that I was imagining things.

Then I leaped to the ground from a fallen log and there was a terrific crashing across the ravine. Certain that I had not made that much noise, I stopped again to listen, and this time the crashing continued. Whatever it was was working its way across the ravine to me. I broke into a lope and at last, panting and scared, I reached home and threw myself on Bob, who patted me comfortingly and said he didn’t think that anything would follow me.

Before I could think of a suitable rejoinder, Elwin appeared and began to take the truck apart. Bob took Sport (our Chesapeake) and the Kettles’ Airedale and went into the woods to look for a good cedar tree to cut into fence posts. He came back almost immediately to get his gun, saying that the dogs seemed uneasy and he thought he’d look around.

It seemed hours later when Elwin and I heard the shots. There were four or five close together—then silence. Dead silence. I hallooed. No answer. I began to be frightened and asked Elwin, who was sprawled under the truck, to go out and see what was happening. He merely stuck his head out, shook his mane of hair out of his eyes, grinned his wide, foolish grin, and said, “If he don’t come back he’s probably dead and there’s no use of us both getting kilt. Ha, ha, ha!” And back he went to his tinkering under the truck.

After I had waited a while longer, Elwin came in for a drink of water. He drank three dipperfuls, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and said, “Well, looks like you’re a widder-woman. Ha, ha, ha!” I’m sure I should have killed him if the truck had been fixed, but it clearly was not, so I had to content myself with withering looks.

Bob at last came limping in, his shirt in ribbons, a great jagged, bloody gash across his chest, and wearing a beaming smile. “Stepped into the root pit of a fallen tree and a she-bear jumped me. Fired five shots in her general direction, and I guess one of ‘em stuck, because she’s deader than a smelt.”

“That gash!” I said weakly.

“Oh, that,” he said, looking offhandedly down at it.

“Must have happened when Joe” — he affectionately pulled the ear of the Airedale— “yanked the bear off me. Joe grabbed her hind leg just as she jumped, and I guess you could say he saved my life.” Then he and Elwin climbed into the jalopy and drove cross country to bring in the carcass.

I got out iodine, bandages, sleeping tablets, and my self-control, because, though Bob was being brave and careless in front of Elwin, alone with me he would act as if the bear had laid open both his lungs, and would spend many happy hours looking for the first signs of blood poisoning. It occurred to me then that no mention had been made of our dog’s part in the fray.

Bob and Elwin returned much later with a large black bear which reeked of iodoform (natural she-bear smell, Elwin said) over the hood of the car and a report of two cubs up a tree. I asked about Sport, our Chesapeake, but Bob said that he hadn’t seen him — that he disappeared just as Joe, the Airedale, jumped the bear. Sport appeared at the door later. When I spoke to him, he looked sad and wagged the dejected tip of a dark-red tail. “That’s all right, boy,” I murmured. “I’ll slip you a bone later on just to let you know that I feel the same way about bears.”

Bob fixed a sumptuous meal for Joe, who was so emaciated that we could follow the progress of each bite. I asked Elwin why Joe was so thin, and he brilliantly replied, “I dunno — he should be O.K. We been grainin’ him!”

Oh, well, Elwin had fixed the truck, and it ran with purpose and vigor. With the five dollars Bob gave him he said that he was going to buy a fog light for his awful car, which at that time had no lights at all.

After Elwin had left, I hesitantly mentioned the fact that I may have been right in thinking something was following me earlier in the day. Bob said, “Didn’t sound like a bear to me. Could have been, of course, — the berries are coming on now, — but it was more likely squirrels.” With this odious remark he collapsed on his bed of pain and I was allowed to dress the wounds and listen to the stories of the attack.

Now, were we bothering that bear? Of course there will be those who will say that the woods are the bear’s natural domain and just by being there Bob was bothering her. But those woods were our property!

Shortly after the bear episode, Bob left with the truck one morning to help another farmer with his haying, and while I was still standing in the drive watching the truck over the brow of the last hill, a skunk strolled in the open back door and settled himself by Stove. I hurriedly shut Sport and the puppy, who were fortunately out by the chicken house, in Sport’s yard. Then I tried luring the skunk. I put out a little trail of milk, meat, water, and cereal. The skunk blinked and snuggled closer to Stove.

He was actually a civet cat, which is just as evilsmelling, but smaller than a skunk, and he was very determined. He allowed me to go in and out of the pantry, which was across the kitchen from Stove — but one step closer than that brought him to his feet looking menacing.

When Bob finally came home, tired and hungry, I was crouching in the driveway trying to warm the baby’s bottle over a smoldering pile of fagots, and Skunk was resting in the kitchen. Bob walked loudly and masterfully in the front and Skunk swaggered out the back, sneering at me over his shoulder as he disappeared into the woods. He evidently came back that night, for we heard Sport barking loudly in the cellar just under our bedroom, and then the room was filled with that most penetrating, most sickening of odors — skunk. We slept with clothespins on our noses, not only that night but for a week. I bathed Sport with strong soap and Chlorox but he remained unpleasantsmelling for weeks.

13

TOWARD the end of June, Bob and I made several early morning pilgrimages to the abandoned farm and picked five gallons of wild blackberries — and the canning season was on. How I dreaded it! Jelly, jam, preserves, canned raspberries, blackcaps, peas, spinach, beans, beets, carrots, blackberries, loganberries, wild blackberries, wild raspberries, applesauce, peaches, pears, plums, chickens, venison, beef, clams, salmon, rhubarb, cherries, corn, pickles, and prunes.

By fall the pantry shelves would groan and creak under nature’s bounty, and the bitter thing was that we shouldn’t be able to eat a tenth of it. Canning is a mental quirk just like any form of hoarding. First you plant too much of everything in the garden; then you waste hours and hours in the boiling sun cultivating; then you buy a pressure cooker and can too much of everything so that it won’t be wasted.

Frankly, I don’t like home-canned anything, and I spent all my spare time reading up on botulism. Bob, on the other hand, was in the thing heart and soul. He stepped into the pantry — it was larger than most kitchens — and exhibited pure joy at the row on row of shining jars. And I couldn’t even crack his complacency when I told him that, although the Hickses were at the time using canned beef from the year before last, they were busily preparing to can another hundred and fifty quarts. Women in that country are judged by their bulging pantries. Husbands unashamedly throw open their pantry doors and dare you to have more of anything.

I reminded Bob, as I began hauling out jars, lids, sugar, and the pressure cooker, that the blackberries from the summer before tasted like little nodules of worsted and we still had twenty-five quarts. But he was adamant, so “Heigh-ho and away we go.”

I crouched beneath the weight of an unsupportable burden every time I went out to the garden. Never had I come face to face with such productivity. Pea vines heavy with bulging pods; bean poles staggering under big beans, middle-sized beans, little beans, and more blossoms; carrots with bare shoulders thrust above the ground to show me they were ready; succulent summer squash and Zucchini where it seemed only a matter of hours ago there were blossoms. I picked a water bucket full of cherries from one lower branch of the old-fashioned late cherry tree that shaded the kitchen.

There was more of everything than we could ever use or preserve and no way to absorb the excess. I tried sending vegetables to our families, but the freight rates and time involved made this rather senseless. I sent great baskets of produce to the Kettles, but with Paw on the road every day imploring farmers to give him anything which they couldn’t use, even they had too much. I picked peas and took a shopping bag full to Mrs. Kettle and was embarrassed and annoyed to find two bushel baskets of them sitting on the back porch, covered with swarms of little flies and obviously rotting. There was no market anywhere for this excess. I became so conscience-stricken by the waste that I, of my own volition, canned seventy-five quarts of string beans.

By the end of the summer the pullets were laying and Bob was culling the flocks. With no encouragement from me, he decided that, as chicken prices were ‘way down, I should can the culled hens. It appeared to my warped mind that Bob went miles and miles out of his way to figure out things for me to put in jars; that he actively resented a single moment of my time which was not spent eye to pressure gauge, ear to steam cock; that he was forever coming staggering into the kitchen under a bushel basket of something for me to can. My first reaction was homicide, then suicide, and at last resignation.

When he brought in the first three culled hens, I acidly remarked that it wasn’t only the cooker which operated under pressure. No answer.

Later, because of my remark, he said that I did it on purpose. I didn’t, I swear, but I did feel that God had at last taken pity on me — for the pressure cooker blew up. It was the happiest day of my life, though I might have been killed. A bolt was blown clear through the kitchen door, the walls were dotted with bits of wing and giblet, the floor was swimming in gravy, and the thick cast-aluminum lid broke in two and hit the ceiling with such force it left two half-moon marks above Stove. I was lyrical with joy. I didn’t know how it happened and I cared less. I was free! free! F-R-E-E!

After supper, as I went humming about the house picking pieces of chicken off the picture frames and the mirror, Bob eyed me speculatively. Then he picked up the mail-order catalogue and began looking for a bigger and sturdier variety of pressure cooker.

14

BOB had an Aunt Vida who drank her coffee with a rinsing motion, as if it were antiseptic mouthwash, and widened her eyes, when you talked to her, as though she were being poked in the back. She was a terrific bore but had a saving grace in that she was very appreciative of “this beautiful country.” She was so appreciative of it, in fact, that when she visited us I used to send Bob out to scoop her up occasionally and bring her into the house to recuperate—I was afraid that in the white heat of her appreciation she might melt and run into the ground.

I was delighted with our other guests. They were Bob’s immediate family and my immediate family and other charming, intelligent people, but they all had the same idea. “Beautiful scenery, magnificent mountains, heavenly food — you fortunate people!” they said as they waddled away from the table. They neglected to note that while they lay in slothful slumber, breathing in great draughts of invigorating, appetiteproducing mountain air, Bob and I were cleaning and picking chickens, cleaning clams, burying clam and crab shells, washing dishes, packing eggs, shelling peas, and finally dragging ourselves to bed at midnight.

“Oh, I just love to wash at an old-fashioned sink,” they said. I don’t mind washing at an old-fashioned sink either, when someone else has got up and made an old-fashioned fire and carried and heated some oldfashioned water and I know that in a day or so I’ll go back to town to wash off the country grime in a not too old-fashioned bathtub.

When my family came out to visit for the first time they were more interested in meeting the Kettles than in exploring our ranch. I took them to call, but poor Mrs. Kettle was overcome with shyness. She made us all sit in the parlor and tried so hard to be “reefined” that she began only two sentences with “Key-rist.” When one of my sisters admired the decorations hanging from the mantel, she said, “Aw — I didn’t want all that damned cr-er-trash hanging there, but the girls insisted.” She subsided in an agony of embarrassment.

I asked her where she had bought the linoleum because I wanted to get some for my kitchen. She said, “A feller come by about ten years ago and he had samples as pretty as you please and I picked out the pattrun I wanted but when the Jeezly stuff come it weren’t the right color and when that feller come back the next year I told him where he — where he — where he-e-e-e — ” Mrs. Kettle turned crimson and left the sentence dangling like the flypaper that hung from the lamp hook.

When introduced to the guests, Elwin closed his eyes tight and he didn’t open them until we were leaving. Only Paw retained his savoir faire. He came clumping up onto the back porch exuding barnyard odors and good will. After a few hearty stamps to shake off any loosely caked mud or manure, he came charging into the parlor and shook hands heartily with everyone. “Glad to thee you, glad to thee you,” he beamed as he settled himself full-length on the shiny leather couch. Mother said to Mrs. Kettle, “Do you mind if I smoke?” “Not at all, not at all” boomed Paw. “ Thmoke a whole cartoon if you have a mind to. Anyone want a thigar?” And he laughed uproariously as he proffered a much chewed cigar end.

15

WITH my usual bad management, when I moved to the Coast I took with me a box of old school and children’s books instead of my own books. At first in loneliness and desperation I read The Five Little Peppers, Alden’s Encyclopedia, and The Way of All Flesh separately, together, and alternately over and over. I also read magazines, the newspapers, and any and all catalogues. I couldn’t borrow books because my neighbors never read. Reading was a sign of laziness, boastfulness, and general degradation.

Instead, the farm women did fancywork. They embroidered their dish towels and then bleached them so that they always looked mended. They embroidered their pillowcases with hard, scratchy knots and flowers. They embroidered every stitch their babies wore, and they embroidered, tatted, crocheted, and otherwise disfigured their own underclothing, handkerchiefs, doilies, bureau scarves, bedspreads, sheets, and napkins. They called it “ embroidrying ” and said, “I’m going to embroidry me some pillow slips.” They were at it from infancy to the grave, but as I don’t like embroidery in any form, I resolved not to learn how. I’m the type of female the pioneers were tickled pink to give to the Indians as a hostage.

Each time we went to town I looked in vain for a lending library and intended to locate the public library, and each time we returned to the farm with the chicken feed and groceries but without any books. If Bob hadn’t parked the car where he did one wet, blowy Saturday that first November, we probably never should have found the Booke Stalle crouching on the main street between the cheese factory and the barber shop. “Look,” I shouted to Bob excitedly. “A new industry!” And I pointed to the slightly crooked sign timidly spelling out the name.

Miss Wetter, owner-manageress, exuded Sloan’s Liniment and seemed to be trying to gather herself together. She was very thin, some age over thirty-five, and had a broken tear duct in her right eye. She continually lifted up her glasses and wiped the eye, pulled up her skirt at the waist, and pulled down her cardigan. She was very deaf and had adenoids. Her stock, her prices, and her spirits were very low. I looked over the stock, which, judging from the titles, had been left her by a deceased relative. There were several Lives of Christ, Brewster’s Millions, The Broad Highway by Jeffery Farnol, Zoroaster by Francis Marion Crawford, The Sheik, a few novels by Elinor Glyn, Zane Grey, and Kathleen Norris. There were some little books of poetry: My Book of Poems with pansies on the covers, Poems I Love with forget-menots, and Hand in Hand with daisies. There were also some children’s books, some very old histories, and a dictionary or two.

I asked for a detective story. My exact words were: “Do you have any detective stories?” Miss Wetter said, “It’s bighty dice work — I beet lots of dice people.”

I said louder, “Do you have any mystery stories?” She said, “Ad I’b od by owd.” So apparently was I.

I yelled, “Crime stories! Mysteries! Detectives!” She shuffled through the drawer of her desk and at last, locating a little notebook, she smiled brightly and said, “A dollar a bonth for two books at a tibe.”

So I fished an old envelope out of my purse and wrote out a list of books I wanted, paid my dollar, and bought some new magazines. As I left, Miss Wetter took off her glasses for the eighth time, dabbed at the watery eye, and remarked enigmatically, “I’b odly od page sevedty-two!”

I felt like replying, “Kid, you’re farther behind than you’ll ever know.”

Two weeks later I went to town again and sought out Miss Wetter. She had installed a smelly kerosene heater, but other than that it was Act II — same scene, same costume, same books, didn’t hear a word I said, and was studying my list as though I had given it to her a half an hour ago instead of fifteen days before. Again I wrote everything down, but I was not absolutely certain that she wasn’t also blind.

We continued this way until well into February; then I begged Bob to go into the Booke Stalle with me to see what he could do with Miss Wetter. He balked at first, saying that he didn’t see of what use he could be unless I wanted him to turn her upside down and shake the books out of her. But I gave him my pleading-setter look and in we went. Bob turned on a hundred and fifty watts of charm, did not raise his naturally husky voice a quarter tone, and she understood every word he said. With a minimum of eye-dabbing and cardigan-jerking, she produced two mystery stories, only one of which I had read.

She also told him, ignoring me, that she had recently bought out a very prosperous circulating library and was expecting the books in a day or so. Bob was courtly almost to the point of kissing her hand, I was so elated over the coming books that I was graciously able to ignore her ignoring me, and Miss Wetter glowed until I thought her veins would burst their seams.

From that day forward Bob had wonderful luck with Miss Wetter and came home loaded with books and pamphlets on Making the Small Farm Pay, Coccidiosis: Its Cause and Cure, How Many Chickens Can One Man Handle? and so forth for him, and the first thing either of them could lay their hands on for me. The mythical library which she was supposed to have purchased failed to materialize while I had traffic with Miss Wetter, or else, as I suspected at the time she told us of the deal, the new library was the twin sister of her own and the new Lives of Christ and Types of Manure and How to Know Them melted into her own stock and became indistinguishable.

Included in one offering for me, selected by Miss Wetter and delivered by Bob, were Opera Made Easy for Tiny Tots and Tom Brown at Rugby. All I can say for Miss Wetter is that if her library was circulating I should hate to see one at a standstill.

16

ONE sultry summer day, Bob went to the city on business and left me on the ranch alone overnight — at least he thought he had. I did the chores while great black clouds surged angrily around the mountaintops and the sky became dark and swollen. Coming back from my last trip to the chicken house and with only the ducks and the pig left to feed, I was surprised to find Elwin Kettle in the yard in one of their old cars with a top. He said, “Maw says there is going to be a storm and she wants you to stay all night at our house. It’s O.K. about the chickens. I’ll drive you up first thing in the morning. She said to bring the baby’s bottle and come on.”

I was touched by her thoughtfulness, but a little apprehensive about sleeping arrangements. I need not have been. Mrs. Kettle took me upstairs to the “spare” room, which was immaculate. It had a large brass bed with one of her beautiful quilts on it for a counterpane, a pretty braided oval rug on the floor, clean ruffled curtains at the windows, a large bureau with an embroidered bureau scarf, an oblong pincushion with an embroidered cover on it, a mother-ofpearl dresser set complete with a hair receiver and picture frame (a de luxe catalogue item), and a vase of large red crepe-paper roses.

By the time we had finished examining everything, the storm had broken and the thunder roared and the lightning flashed and the rain hammered relentlessly on the roof over our heads. Mrs. Kettle had to leave me to get out the leak pans. The roof had begun to leak some ten years before and Paw hadn’t got around to fixing it. Each year the winds tore off more shingles and the leaks increased’ until it had reached a state where she kept a great stack of cans and pans in the upper hall. At the first drop of rain she distributed them over the upstairs. Anne and I were assigned two empty coffee cans — one at the foot of the bed and one in the closet. As I undressed the baby and got her ready for bed, the pink! pink! of the leaks dripping into the cans played a little tune.

After I had given Anne her bottle and settled her for the night, I joined the Kettles in the kitchen. Their chores were done and they were all gathered around the kitchen table reading the local papers and talking about the dance to which the older boys were going — seventy miles away. The only car that was running had no lights and Elwin intended to drive it by sense of smell, evidently.

Maw and I brought to the table great bowls of plain boiled navy beans, boiled macaroni, and fried potatoes. On the table already were pickles, bread, canned peaches, and rock cookies. We all had cups of coffee, which was strong but not venomous, for a fresh pot had been made just after I arrived.

After supper Maw and I redd up the dishes, but we couldn’t wash them right away, for the older boys had to wash (very lightly) and comb their hair at the sink in preparation for the dance. When they had finally left, with admonitions to be home before milking time and to drive slowly (wasted breath), Maw and I washed the dishes while Paw and the three little boys took a bicycle apart in one corner of the kitchen. The area behind the stove and around the woodbox showed no evidences of the brooding it had done earlier in the year, but there was a heady odor in that vicinity from the wet barn clothes of Paw and the work clothes of the boys steaming behind the stove and the many pairs of work shoes drying on the oven door.

Heady odor or not, the Kettles’ kitchen had a warm human feeling to it in comparison to my own clean, lonely kitchen farther up the mountain. The Kettles, no doubt because of their struggle for existence, had developed strong family ties, and they had generously, for this stormy evening, allowed me to become one of them. It was “Us Kettles against the world.”

Maw and I sewed on her quilt and occasionally put wood in the stove and sneered at everyone who had more worldly goods than the Kettles. About ninethirty we all retired. I had on my outing flannel pajamas and was just about to blow out my candle when Maw called to me to come to their bedroom across the hall. I took my candle and tiptoed out into the hall, which ran the full length of the house and from which opened eight doors, not counting my room or Mrs. Kettle’s. I was a little hesitant about going in, but Maw was standing by the window in a voluminous outing flannel gown, beckoning to me. “Put your candle on the dresser and come here,” she said in a vibrant whisper. She had the window opened wide, and wet night air carried in the sweet smells of wet earth and evening-scented stock which grew in a great clump below Mrs. Kettle’s window. She said, “Look there, down by the south gate. The lightning struck the old maple.”

I looked and made out the outline of half of the maple lying across the road. The other half hung torn and bleeding against the pale summer evening sky. The rain had stopped while we were at supper, and all that remained of the storm was the dying tree and the splat, splat, splat of the dripping eaves. Maw stared morbidly at the fallen tree for a few minutes more. Then, carefully closing and locking the window, she took her candle from the dresser and put it on a chair beside the bed.

From the bed came the rhythmic beat of heavy breathing and the occasional gulp, gulp, snort of a broken snore. Paw had evidently fallen asleep as soon as he touched the pillow. He wore a felt hat pulled well down over his ears, and the usual layers of dirty underwear and dirty sweaters. Maw sat heavily down on her side of the bed, causing Paw to spring up and slant alarmingly, but not to waken. She said, “Paw always wears a hat in bed. He says his head gets cold.”

I realized suddenly that I had been staring in rude fascination at Paw, whose mustache twittered on the ends with each gulp and snort while his eyebrows drew together menacingly with each indrawn breath. I hastily picked up my candle and left.

As I eased in beside small Anne and laid my cheek on one of Mrs. Kettle’s best pillow slips, I knew that I should waken with a basket of flowers imprinted on my right cheek. “The French knots hurt the worst,” I thought drowsily as I snuggled deeper and wondered if Paw had taken off his hip boots.

(To be concluded)