Monday, May 27, 2013

A Slow Dance

Three week ago Jer sent a feeble text message on a Sunday night from the edge of a soccer field, somewhere in San Antonio.  “Hurt.  Achilles tendon torn I think."  I read the message three times and then called him to explain what a seriously stupid joke he was telling.  But it was, actually, true.  And one surgery later it looks as if he will be effectively off his feet for a few months and out of commission for any heavy work for a year.  It is a terrible injury but a particular blow for someone whose life revolves almost entirely around the use of his Achilles tendon.  The last several weeks have required a shift of some duties around here, and it's true that we're all capable of more when it's necessary.  It's not pleasant but it's possible.  I also have a very deep and newfound respect for my own tendons, both of which I look down and thank daily for all they do.  Have you thanked your Achilles tendons lately?  Your legs?  Your hands and arms?  Health: don't take that stuff for granted.  

The morning that Jer went in for surgery, the post office called: my delivery of 50 baby chicks, ordered months ago and all but forgotten after the accident - were chirping away at the post office and needed to be picked up immediately.  Before loading the patient into the car for the hospital trip, I ran into town and picked up the box of peeps, one-day-old bundles of fluff on stick legs.  Deposited them into a brooder with food and water and left for the day.  They've been a quiet addition here in the background of all the daily chores, sprouting wings and practicing flight, entering into those awkward three weeks that compromise the Chicken Teenage Days.  They're an added chore during a time when my chores have doubled due to Jer's injury, but there's just something about chickens that always feel promising and hopeful.  Like planting tomato plants.  Lots can go wrong, but if all goes right, then the effort is always worth any trouble.  So I’ve grumbled through the daily water cleanings, dodged a rogue chick scurrying under my foot in absolute panic and fear.  Chickens have a way of giving benign situations a sense of terminal, apocalyptic tragedy – it’s part of what makes them so hilarious. 

In an effort to give Jer more mobility in the coming months and year, I finally caved into his previously unjustified “need” for a golf cart to better move around the property.  Losing the ability to walk finally did justify the purchase, and he’s been able to get out of the wheelchair and off the front porch, an area he would slowly wheel around like a caged animal, the sight of which tugged at my tiniest heartstrings.  Newly mobile, I rarely find him inside and catch glimpses of the cart through the trees, his crutches perched on a gun rack across the front of the thing, just above the steering wheel.  This week he was able to check footage on the wildlife camera he keeps aimed down at the pond, and a few images were alarming.  One evening last week the pond was visited by a beautiful bobcat that we both mistook for an exotic cat (“Leopard!” Jer shouted, while I screamed “It’s a cheetah!”  Had anyone been within earshot they would have patted our heads sadly and given us a geography lesson).  Two nights ago another cat appeared on the camera, this one looked eerily similar to a young mountain lion – a predator known to roam this part of the county.  The type of animal that will haunt the dreams of any rancher in the wee hours of morning.  

So it should have been no surprise, and certainly cannot be coincidence, that this morning we found our beloved little Atlas killed.  His death appears to be the work of a cat but there’s no way to be certain.  Early in the morning I heard Madaline mooing in a strange, mournful way from the trees but she never came when called and I did not have the wherewithal to see what upset her.  It wasn’t until Boss curled up against the pasture gate alone, bleating soft and low that it was clear something was horribly wrong.  The kind of wrong that causes the throat to tighten, cold fingers squeeze hard on the gut.  I hoped Atlas was sleeping when we found him, but I knew immediately he was not.  Now we are left with many decisions: Boss is not safe in this pasture right now without the protection of guardian dogs.  We felt that the bucks’ constant proximity to the cows and donkeys would keep them safe; an underestimation of predator’s aggression – obviously.  We cannot put Boss into the goat pasture without the risk of breeding with the baby girls or the milking girls.  Tonight, he will be locked into the kidding pen with Willy as a companion, with the Pyrenees nearby for protection.  Regardless of what happens next it’s clear that the large pasture will eventually require its own guardian protection, and I’m convinced that Pyrenees are the best solution. 

Until then, it’s likely that my heart is broken, or at least a little battered and chipped at the edges.  It’s not just that I loved Atlas because of his gentle soul and sweet demeanor, but that I feel responsible when these things happen.  We are, ultimately, responsible for their protection so it’s a loss but also a failure.  Recently a friend commented that when they see pictures of the farm posted on facebook or instagram they imagine it’s as idyllic as a Disney cartoon, with birds singing on my shoulder and Bambi emerging from the woods. I guess it can appear that way from the outside looking in.  But today is a stoic reminder that here, like all places, there is life and there is death.  There are predators and there are prey.  Quaint stories and beautiful pictures protect no one and nothing from cycles more ancient than all of us.  “I’m not cut out for this,” I cried into Jeremy’s shoulder as he tried to shield me from the little goat.  But I made myself look and forced myself to remember that risks are taken to get here.  So hearts get bruised but also fill up so big, big they could burst.  

On Monday, Chula, who I hadn’t seen for a day, ambled slowly from the trees followed by a tiny, prancing, baby donkey.  I suspected she was pregnant but wasn’t sure – the baby donkey providing solid evidence my suspicions were correct.  Because of Atlas’s death I spent more time than usual in the pasture this morning.  For the first time since Monday, the baby donkey approached me, slowly, slowly, his tiny, new hooves solid as granite, clicked on rock, the quick dart of a tongue, almost imperceptible beneath the fluff of a brand new muzzle.  He sniffed me gingerly, tossed his head and then galloped in circles around Chula, stiff legged, high-necked, gliding across the broomweed.  Just as we lay to rest one little life, we start again with another, the stark contrast between life and death so harsh and apparent out here, always trembling in balance.  The type of contrast I rarely considered prior to The Farm.  Was it better before all this?  I have to wonder that, crouched on my knees to comfort a mournful animal, knowing the answer before the question’s even done.