Storytellers quite often tell stories that they remembered while they were in a moment of deep reflection, trying to recall the details of an altogether completely unrelated topic. This is certainly my curse, and it is deeply rooted in my fundamental inability to think in a linear fashion; if I am awake, my thoughts are bouncing around all over the place like that steel ball in an arcade pinball machine…And I’m going to whistle right past the graveyard of the fucked up dreams I have from time to time that inspire some of what I write. I make no apologies for this, and I’m quite sure I am not alone in having just been born this way and wired accordingly.
And so it was, the other day, while thinking through my approach to a story about something I noticed during a recent grocery store run, that I had a flashback of my Aunt Carrie heading up the stone path toward her chicken coop, 100 ft up the hill, not long before the work would begin in the kitchen putting together Sunday dinner.
Just like that, BAM! A flash flood of memories washed over me, and I was overtaken by the memories of that chicken coop and all the times my cousins and I would sneak in there and fuck with the chickens… Teasing and gently torturing them… and praying to God that Aunt Carrie wouldn’t wobble up the hill with her cane and catch us in the act. And it occurs to me, thinking about those days all these years later, I can’t help wondering just how much cognition a cooped chicken’s brain might actually contain. On the one hand, there isn’t a whole lot of real estate in their brain cavity to store very much memory, but on the other hand, they are well known for not being anywhere near as dumb as they look.
As we begin this story, there are a couple of ground rules required; To fully envision in your own mind what lies ahead; number one (and most critical if you don’t want her to come out of the ether and bitch slap you upside your own head) is that it was expected of you that she be called ‘Ant’ Carrie, not ‘Ont’ Carrie, and God forbid you ever forget it- country folk don’t talk that way. Number two, the violation of which might also deliver a blow to the head, is that you cannot overuse the words yes and ma’am… And a failure to comply will be pointed out to you in very clear terms. And number three (my personal favorite), God did, in fact, build Appalachia first, before any other part of the world, and just set it on low to simmer until it was ready for his people to find it and get everything set up to be used in the way He intended. I would be remiss here if I didn’t add that first runner-up in the final list of rules for how to get along with a deep backcountry mountain woman born 20 years after the Civil War ended is to keep your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open… And learning how to keep your head down would serve you well in her company.
Born in 1886, somewhere in the backwoods around Harpers Ferry, Aunt Carrie died when I was 12. My earliest memories of her start around the time I was seven or eight, and, at 65 and still remembering her vividly, she clearly had a lifelong impact on my view of the world.
I remember being captivated by the stories she would tell from her porch glider after supper about droughts of the past when all they lived on was potatoes and pig fat (stirred up real nice in a pot with the occasional squirrel, porcupine, or jackrabbit if you could get yourself one). I remember thinking that sounded disgusting at the time, but I knew well enough saying so out loud was not worth what would come next. And, when she told stories passed down to her by her grandpappy about soldiers marching across their property and through their fields on their way to fight at Antietam I was frozen. She would sit there, no more than five teeth in her head and puffing on her corn cob pipe, and laugh herself silly about how spoiled and dumb city Folk was about wasting food and cackle and prattle on about how a meal could be made out of every square inch of a pig if you had a sharp enough knife and knew what the hell you were doing.
In my family, the tradition was that at least two weekends out of every month, after church, we would make the relatively short drive from DC up to her house for Sunday dinner. I will never forget how amazing that kitchen smelled when my mother and grandmother, Aunt Carrie, and even Aunt Ruth sometimes(my grandmother’s sister) would be in the kitchen, each one putting together a specific part of the overall meal. The staple for each of these was my grandmother’s amazing homemade noodles, which included a pot roast or a ham from one of the local beef or pig farmers, fresh vegetables from the Farmer’s Market, or a fresh whole chicken or two.
I get a little misty-eyed just thinking about the range of homemade pies they’d put together depending on what went best with the meal, and all of that was done using Aunt Carrie’s Wood-Fired cook stove and oven that still sits in the same spot in her kitchen to this very day(someone down the family tree still owns the house).
Sometime around when I was 10, she snatched me up out of the Parlor and told me to follow her, saying she needed my help with something. The Parlor was at the end of the house, nearest to the road, so we had to walk to the back of the house and out the kitchen door, turning left to head up the hill. Seventy years my senior, she was already at the tree stump, which was about 3 ft tall, intentionally left over after a huge tree had been felled many years before. I remember us kids sitting, laying, or playing on that stump for years, and there was a hatchet embedded in it that we were told in no uncertain terms we were never to touch, play with, or remove for fear of having to spend some quality time with the switch.
I was a good 15 feet behind her when she got to the chicken coop, and I watched her flip the latch, and open the door… Fussing at the hens, who thought she was bringing them food but only pissing her off because they were tangling themselves up under her feet.
Like a lightning bolt, she hooked her cane over her forearm, grabbed the one she had set her eyes on by the neck, backed up out of the coop, re-latched the door, turned around, and started heading back down the hill fiercely swinging that chicken around in the air by the neck and, about the time we were 10 or 20 ft away from the tree stump, she was starting to pluck feathers. Once we got there, turning to see the ashen color I surely must have had in my face, she cackled like only Aunt Carrie can cackle, smiled that nearly-toothless smile of hers… Corn cob pipe clenched in her gums… She looked at me and said, “This is the country life, boy. We take from God’s bounty, and we give back to God’s bounty, and we feed and take care of each other- animal to human and human to animal- in the Eternal cycle of life.” And just like that, the chicken’s head was off, and the hatchet was back in the stump, and I was handed the chicken’s body to continue plucking while she headed back for the kitchen… Cackling away with a big grin.
I still wonder, after all these years, whether there is enough going on in a chicken’s brain that when they saw Aunt Carrie coming up the hill, they started screaming at each other to run and hide… Chicken telepathy, maybe… Because there was no way of knowing whether that was the day one of the sisters was going to be snatched out of that coop, never to be seen again after a visit with the hatchet, or if it was just the cackling crazy lady hobbling up on her cane with her corn cob in her mouth fixin’ to toss them some scratch.