Sunday, April 16, 2017

Betty MacDonald and Life on a Chicken Ranch

Life on a
Chicken Ranch
Betty MacDonald

Part II.

Along about three-thirty or four o'clock on Saturday I had to light gasoline lanterns --- the most frightening task on earth and contrary to all of my early teachings that anyone who monkeys around with gasoline with matches is just asking for trouble. I never understood why or how a gasoline lantern works and I always lit the match with the conviction that I should have first sent for the priest. Bob patiently explained the entire confusing process again and again, but to me it was on the same plane with the Hindu rope trick, and it was only when he was not home that I would tolerate the infernal machines in the same room with me. I used take them out into the rain to pump them up, then crouching behind the woodshed door I reached way out and lit them. Immediately and for several terrible minutes they flared up and acted exactly as if they were going to explode, then as suddenly they settled back on their haunches to hiss contentedly and give out candle power after candle power of bright, white light.
With two lanterns in each hand I walked through the complete dejection of last summer's garden, ignoring the pitiful clawings and scratchings of the derelicts of cornstalks and tomato vines shivering in the rain, and hung the lanterns in the great chicken house which instantly seemed as gay and friendly as a cocktail lounge. When the frightened squawks of a few hysterical younger hens had died down, I stood and let some of my loneliness drip off in the busy communal atmosphere.
The floor was covered with about four inches of clean, dry straw, and the hens sang and scratched and made little dust baths and pecked each other and jumped on the hoppers and ate mash and sounded as if they were going to and did --- lay eggs. They were as happy and carefree, in November, when the whole outside world was beaten into submission by the brooding mountains and the endless rain, as they were on a warm spring day.
Then I gathered the eggs. Gathering eggs would be like one continual Easter morning if the hens would just be obliging and get off the nests. Cooperation, however, is not a chickenly characteristic and so at egg-gathering time every nest was overflowing, the hen got her feet planted, and a shoot-if-you-must-this-old-grey-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.
The rooster now is something else again. He doesn't give a damn if you take every egg in the place and play handball. 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 legs and breast of another conquest.
Bob used to, say that it was my approach to egg-gathering which was wrong. I reached timidly under the hens and of course they pecked my wrists and 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 chattering hysteria with the hens in complete command.
Bob usually got home from "Town" around five and nothing ever again in all of my life will give me ecstatic sensation as did the first sound of his returning truck. Ever few seconds I dashed to the windows to note the progress of the lights and then finally in he came, smelling deliciously of tobacco, coldness and outdoors and his arms laden with mail, newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, candy and groceries. How we reveled in those Saturday nights, smoking, eating, reading aloud and talking; unless, perhaps, as sometimes happened, I had forgot to order kerosene. Then I squeezed the can and poured all of the lamps together and turned way up the wick of the one lamp with the scant cup of kerosene in it.But the effect of the pale, scant-watted light, the sweating walls and Bob's set mouth and hurt eyes was more than a little as if we were trapped in an old mine shaft. Stove loved situations like that and added to the discomfort by quickly turning black whenever I lifted his lids, then taking advantage of the murky gloom he would put out his oven door and gouge me in the shins. Bob was never one to scold but he showed his disappointment in me by leaving the table still chewing his last bite and thrusting himself into bed, to dream, no doubt, of the good old days of wife beating.
--- From The Egg and I
©1945, J. P. Lippincott