Paying Attention

Our chickens came to us as adolescents, so we weren’t privy to their early development. Not knowing what to expect, we had no choice but to wait and see. We built them a coop with nesting boxes, a long bar to perch on, a south-facing window of Plexiglas, a door for us and two small sliding doors for them, one that led to the fully enclosed run and a second that opened out into the vegetable garden, a vast jungle wonderland.

At first, we thought the white one, named Kitty by my eleven-year-old daughter Nina, might be a rooster. Kitty strutted in a way that the others did not, and she—he—made awkward but determined attempts to crow. The mystery was solved definitively when we saw her lay an egg, but she continued to act like a rooster, and she did finally perfect her sound, jumping to the highest platform available, throwing out her chest and belting out the classic “cock-a-doodle-doo.” We were proud of her. Clearly she was not going to let the circumstances of her birth limit the fulfillment of her life’s dream.

Like Kitty, the rest of the chickens had distinct personalities and, apparently, a range of intelligence. Nina, with patience and diligence and a pocketful of pancake scraps, trained Little Red Hen to pirouette on cue, at least a chicken version of a pirouette: turning a full circle in place.

I should have paid more attention to this feat.

We thought it was amusing and sweet. Both Nina and her younger brother spent long hours holding the chickens, talking earnestly with them and laughing at them—chickens are the stand-up comics of the bird world. We were grateful to the chickens for their lively companionship. They filled in for the neighborhood kids we didn’t have—always around and up for a game. I made sure there were enough leftover pancakes after Sunday breakfast to last the week.

Somehow, Nina sensed that Little Red Hen had a hidden potential as a dancer. It wouldn’t be the only time she saw possibility where no one else dreamed of looking. I wish I had understood the significance of this, but there’s no cosmic lecturer, no teacher standing in front of our human class with her chalky hands to say, “I want to draw your attention to this. You should write this down in your notebook and study it carefully.” There’s no one to tell us, with authority, where it will all lead in the end, no one who can point to the dots that aren’t there yet, who can say, “It’s hard to believe, I know, but they’re connected. Trust me. You’ll see.”

I had no misconceptions that mere chickens, or even exceptional dancing chickens, could undo what years of bullying had done to my daughter. We had tried everything—talking to parents, teachers, administrators—none of it made a difference. We lived in a rural small town in Montana. It was always the same people, the same story, at the park and the pool, at the post office and grocery store. How could Nina keep taking those hits and not lose some part of herself?

“I know it’s bad for Nina,” the school counselor had said to me. “I find her treatment by the children—and some of the teachers—to be personally distasteful, but I have to be honest with you. There’s very little I can do to stop it.”

We pulled Nina out of school in the middle of fourth grade to homeschool. A week after that, when we were at the ice rink, one of the mothers, who usually didn’t speak to me beyond a “hi-how-are-you” in passing, glided over and leaned her head toward mine and told me in a confidential voice that she was so relieved we had taken Nina out of school. Her daughter, she said, had often come home from school in tears over what the other kids were doing or saying to Nina. Before New Year’s Day, we went to the rink again, and another mother did the exact same thing. She felt terrible, she said. It was a good thing that we’d taken Nina out, she said. It had been so very difficult for her kid, she said.

In my lesser moments, I wondered if they felt absolved by telling me these things. Those mothers knew, and they had done nothing. They had said nothing. These mothers have been the hardest to forgive—except for myself. It is our job to protect children, if nothing else, all children, and our own, most of all. In that, I had failed.

The chickens helped as much as anything did. They provided a buffer zone. In exchange for Nina’s attentions to their small daily dependencies, they left her gifts, some still warm to the touch. And Little Red Hen—her dance might have shown me that something vital still lived in Nina. It might have, if I hadn’t been blind with guilt, with the fear of Nina’s wounds festering. But then, after two years of happy cohabitation with her coop-mates, life changed abruptly for Little Red Hen. Nina opened the door to the coop one morning to scoop out more feed and check that their water hadn’t frozen. The chickens were all roosting snugly together on the pole, all except for Red Hen, who perched on the edge of a nesting box, blood dripping slowly from her wattles where chunks had been ripped off.

We tried a thorough cleaning of the coop, a change of feed, more time outside in the garden. Nothing helped. Every morning when I opened that door—I forbade Nina from doing it—I was met with evidence of some new horror. During the day, Red Hen tried to hide from her companions in the frozen weeds of the garden. We had to force her to come inside the coop at night.

After weeks of this, none of us could stand it anymore. I closed the sliding door on the other six chickens, shutting them into the relative warmth of the coop for the night. I told Little Red Hen that I was sorry I hadn’t been able to figure out why the others attacked her. I was sorry I had made her go back to face them for so many nights. I was sorry she had had to live in fear and dread, and I told her that she was free.

When I went out the next morning, I couldn’t find her, and I thought for one moment that she had truly escaped. After combing through the raspberry canes and the bare currant bushes, I ducked my head under the coop. Feathers were all that was left, and not many of those. A raccoon, I suspect, found her there. In a way, I am grateful to that hungry raccoon because it ended Red Hen’s misery when I wasn’t able to, but I carry with me what I imagine was that final terrible moment of fear, of exposure, when she saw the raccoon’s eyes and knew that her escape was in not escaping. And there was my fear, laid bare: what if Nina, ultimately, felt that was her only choice, her only freedom?

When she was sixteen, Nina left our tiny town to pursue her dream of dancing. Even then, my guilt and fear clung to me like a phantom pain. She had left, but had she escaped? Was she free? Can a person ever be free of such an experience?

Nina came back for Christmas break, and we decided to splurge on a rare treat: a few nights away at Chico Hot Springs. There’s nothing to do there but soak in the natural spring, the steam coming off the pool thickly in the freezing air, the other swimmers’ lazy shadows eddying about in slow motion. In the evening, there’s the restaurant, very formal, where one can have duck and elk together on the same plate along with greens picked that afternoon from Chico’s spring-heated greenhouses.

Before dinner, my husband and my son and I dressed quickly. Nina took longer. When she was ready, it was obvious that we had kidnapped her from a French modeling agency. Where else could we have gotten her? After putting on her coat, she pulled the piece de resistance, or, I should say, the pieces, out of her bag: a pair of red, four-inch heels. Nothing wrong with that, except this was Montana—the end of December in Montana—and we had a long outdoor stairway to descend to get to the parking lot. The stairs were made of metal grating. In theory, snow would fall through the holes. In practice, it was an icy luge riddled with tiny crevasses. Certainly not an ideal place for high heels.

“How are you going to get down the stairs in those?” we asked skeptically.

She hadn’t, she reminded us, learned to dance on pointe for nothing. She looked at us and said, her eyebrows bouncing above her radiant grin, “Just watch me!”

Just watch me, she said, after all was said and done. This, when my greatest fear was that she would shrink away, that she would disappear from me, that she would be afraid of the world and choose to leave it.

Just watch me, my daughter said. I had been watching her as fiercely as any eagle, intent on the most minute of rustlings. Did she know—how could she?—that watching her was, in the end, all I could do?

Just watch me, she said, and then she took the stairs with far more grace than we did in our thick-soled shoes.

By Lea Page