No matter what you may have bought, borrowed, or been given, at some point you will experience a lemon. Yes, I know the old lemonade cliche’ and dislike it. It’s just so smug, for one thing. Life doesn’t actually throw you a lemon most of the time. Lemons appear on your doorstep as the new car that won’t run properly or the book that had a publisher’s promise and then they “reconsidered.”
All of us can remember a personal lemon; an unexpected guest in the middle of your most productive creative moment, and they’re a relative, who is ill maybe, and always loved you when you were a kid…whatever. You simply can’t say no. And while I am a big believer in the “power of no,” I am almost always swayed in the direction of “yes.” And here’s why: because I have so much to learn from a lemon. Whether it is a moment in time, an interruption in my flow, a new trolling motor that won’t work once you’re in the water, or in this case, a straight run of Heritage breed chicks, one of which has a crossed beak. And also a heckuva lot of roosters in the hen to rooster ratio. To us, basically, that means more meat than eggs so I’m not complaining. Well, except for all that crowing going on beneath my window every day.
This story is about my little lemon, the crossed beak chick, or Toothpick as she came to be known. Chickens are almost always he’s to me before they start laying, so should I call Toothpick a he when I believe it was a she, please forgive. It doesn’t matter anyway. See, Toothpick’s deformity made it look like he always carried a toothpick hanging from the side of his mouth. Unfortunately, this charming characteristic also made it hard for him to eat and drink. He learned quickly to dive head first into the feed bucket so that he could work, work, work at getting enough food to stay alive. The same was true for water. He had to shoulder his way up to the trough with birds twice his size and use his tongue to lap up the water like a dog.
This all kept Toothpick from growing big and tall and strong like all the other roosters and hens. Oh but s/he was tough. Toothpick strutted his stuff just like everyone else and as far as I could tell, he was never molested or pecked by the rest of the flock. I swear he pretended to pluck at the grass like the other birds, even though there was just no way for him to get a blade of grass with his beak at cross purposes. Toothpick let nothing stand between him and the pleasure he took in life. He ran and flapped and ate and drank, not exactly like the other birds, but he managed to live for an extraordinary 3 months.
It was the WNC rain that got him in the end. We had rain out here in this Black Mountain valley for 6 weeks running. Every day and sometimes all day, the water just would not quit pouring, dropping, dripping from the sky. The gardens flooded, the roads eroded, the rhododendrons bloomed furiously, the rain forest loved it while we gloomed our way through day after day. For those in drought country, I know it’s hard to believe, but there is such a thing as too much rain. The summer was starting to look a little lemonish.
Meanwhile, I had grown to love my personal little lemon. Being always great supporters of the underdog, Leigh and I protected and favored Toothpick as much as possible while allowing him to remain part of the flock. The chickens are in an electric fence with a moveable shelter we call the Frankentractor until a solid and more sane coop can be built. The constant rain forced the chickens to remain in the tractor more often than not. There was fierce competition for food and less for them to do besides sit on a roost and try to keep their feet above water. “Mad as an old wet hen” might come to mind here.
Toothpick could not withstand these less than favorable conditions, being one down already. And so, on a rainy Saturday, with my friend Trudy visiting us, Leigh let me know that she had moved him to the dry shed and put him in the hospice box. I went out to visit him and knew he wasn’t long for this world. I held him, said goodbye to a sweet cheep, and lay the light bundle of feathers back in the pine shavings where he died warm and dry.
Trudy, who as far as I know, has never written poetry, wrote these words to honor him: It doesn’t matter how/ small the life/ Or how short the life/ just that the life was felt./ The breath was warm/ and the kindness felt by both./ Here’s to you, Toothpick. We loved you./ It’s still raining–tears. I know, Trudy, I should have gotten your permission, but you left it for me and Toothpick, and how could I not use it?
What Trudy doesn’t know is that after we froze the body until the rain let up, I buried our bird beneath a newly planted Birch by the guest house. I dug the hole deep, but I wanted a rock to ensure he stayed where I put him. In the ditch across the road, I found a huge stone exactly the shape of an arrowhead. Arrowheads, for which Trudy and I searched diligently on mountainsides and in streams while she was here. An arrowhead for a warrior, who appeared at first to be a lemon. Ah, how appearances, on which so many Americans base their opinions, can fool.
There are lots of lessons here, but I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. Mainly, I just wanted to tell you a story.