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The Gaggle
by Holly Schroeder

About the author
Holly is a professional writer whose work has appeared in publications like the LA Times Magazine, Minnesota Monthly, Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine, Celebrations and Twin Cities Parent, and she has also written children's books. In her spare time, she's an actress who does commercials, voiceovers and theatre. See more of her at hollyology.com.

From The Poultry Chronicles:

In 1976, my mother and I went to Rose's Hatchery in South Bend Indiana, for cedar shavings. Beguiled by peeping hatchlings and overcome by the aroma of sawdust, we forgot the cedar shavings and returned home with six goslings.

My Father, the tortured and powerless caretaker, was dragging a shovel behind him when we pulled into the driveway. When he saw our precious gaggle of white Embden goslings, he leaned on his pick ax and hung his head. My Mother lobbied for the goslings. "Holly can enter them in the fair for 4-H and they make wonderful watch dogs," she said. "Holly doesn't need another 4-H project and we don't need another watchdog, Mae," he yelled, gesturing to our gravel arena of bellowing basset hounds. "We've already got nine of them in the backyard."

As was always the case, my father's objection had no weight and within minutes, the goslings were at home in our kitchen, placed in a box with food, water and a light bulb. They were so dear. They peeped constantly to each other and huddled together when they slept. They even peeped in their sleep. While men are not rendered helpless by chirping, wee, yellow goslings, my father did eventually warm up to them.

The gaggle chose me as their leader and as soon as they were strong enough, they fearlessly followed me everywhere. Like infants learning to walk, they would hold out their tiny wings and clumsily catapult forward making six foot sprints, as if they were playing airplane. If I disappeared from view, they stretched their necks in every direction, peeping for me. Together, we found strawberries, poison ivy and four leaf clovers. I was thirteen and their innocence and fragility taught me enormous responsibility. For a while, I was everything to them and this gave me purpose. I didn't care that I had to stay home and care for them. "If they would just stay little, till their Carters wore out" was a popular ad campaign at that time and I remember wishing my goslings would never grow up.

But, the peeping gaggle grew like weeds and within weeks, they were awkward teenagers whose bodies matured overnight. Half fuzz and half feathers, they traipsed around the yard without confidence, plucking grass and flopping down every few minutes to nap. They could fall asleep in an instant and as their breath rose and fell, their beaks produced a high whistle. Still so vulnerable, I loved watching them sleep. I would study their rubbery feet and how they opened and closed. I'd touch their wrinkled, white eyelids and kiss them right in the spot where their beaks naturally curled into a smile. My life felt full and they made me a better person.

The promise that comes with the beginning of summer dwindled as my gaggle grew. Soon, they didn't need me and that hurt more than the ridicule and name calling I got in school. They turned into confident, graceful geese, and I was still the ugly duckling whose peers would torture her in junior high. But somehow, even then, I knew that was nature and part of the cycle of life.

In the meantime, I cleaned up after the gaggle who came to be known as "the poop parade." Rarely in a hurry, geese prefer to wander, waddle, languish and poop. They lounged, legs outstretched, on every cement surface around the house so that daily, all entrances and exits had to be hosed down.

My mother used to make my sister and I climb through dumpsters behind Bernacchi's Farm Market so the gaggle could have fresh lettuce. Weekly, we slithered into the dumpster, gathered all the leftover and half rotten heads that had been discarded, put them into produce boxes and hoisted them into the trunk of the car.

Our neighbors had simple, manicured lawns decorated with lawn ornaments. Our lawn was soggy and overrun with honking lawn ornaments that trampled the garden and shit constantly. Across the street was a fascinating ditch frequented by the gaggle, who had to be herded back several times a day. They loitered in the street looking mildly distracted as annoyed motorists honked and shook their fists out the window. The gaggle would simply dip their long necks and hiss indignantly. To discourage the gaggle from wandering, my father turned a glorified mud hole in our front yard into a small pond and our property became the neighborhood attraction. Cars slowed down to watch and point at the gaggle as it milled about the lawn and floated in the pond.

The following year, after I joined 4-H, my mother and I returned to Rose's Hatchery for some laying mesh and returned with six mallard ducks. "She needs them for 4-H, Bob." my mother explained. "And they're less work than the geese." My father threw down his garden hoe. "We already have enough poop to fertilize the entire county," he screamed. "But, the mallards will make less poop because they're a smaller bird!" said my mother. My father walked away and slipped in a pile of goose shit.

We soon learned that the mallards were indeed smaller, but had bigger broods. One very productive summer, I remember standing on our back deck, hurling loaves of bread into the busy, beaks of sixty ducks. Soon after, my father left with several unruly groups of quacking, confused mallards and returned in silence, trailed by a few feathers. In his arms were boxes of naked, headless ducks. This ended my interest in ducks and began my obsession with chickens.

The 20 Yard Dash
Three years later, still in 4-H, I was competing with the Lillovich family who were undefeated in the poultry division. Every year they won Grand Champion duck, and Grand Champion Goose. The only class they didn't win was the chicken class. "But, it doesn't matter really," my mother said. "We're just in it for the thrill." So, we went to Rose's Hatchery for some laying mesh and returned with twelve chickens.

"But these are fancy chickens," my mother explained to my father. "These are Aracanas, Bantam Dwarfs and Polish chickens. Aracanas lay bluish green eggs, Bantams are cute to look at and Polish chickens have wigs of feathers." My father despondently picked up his rototiller and walked away.

The Polish chickens whom I named Horace Vandergelder and Dolly Levi after the characters in "Hello Dolly," were accident-prone. They repeatedly bumped into things. Their wigs were the problem and once I started trimming the feathers that hung in their eyes, they stopped flying into the dog pen.

I did love going to the chicken house to collect eggs and the Aracanas laid blue green eggs all year. It was out of one of those eggs, that Arthur came. For two years, he was the bane of my existence. I know now for a fact that anyone who thinks that chickens are stupid, has never experienced a rooster's wrath. Arthur kept me a prisoner in my own yard. If the poultry world had a Nazi party, Arthur would be Hitler. I had to be on guard at all times, because he was always plotting his next attack. Eye contact meant battle. So, if he was in the back yard, I'd stroll casually, my eyes darting every which way in fear of the rooster. He'd tear across the lawn at breakneck speed, like a cartoon, leaving a trail of dust and smoke.

The only place of safety was my trampoline. If I were lying out in the sun on my trampoline, he'd stand perfectly still under the canvas, head cocked and staring at the indentation of my ass. He'd peck at it to antagonize me and wait for a response, his evil eye peering through the veil of canvas. He was belligerent and possessed by the devil.

Standard operating procedure for feeding and watering the other chickens changed daily, depending on Arthur's whereabouts. The general idea was to get in and out of the coop as fast as possible. With a dustpan and broom I would creep silently across the yard. If he so much as even suspected I was outside, or if someone yelled my name and blew my cover, he'd be at the door of the coop in less than seven seconds, ready to spar. In that case, all I could do was make a run for it.

If I was lucky enough to make it to the gate of the chicken pen, I would latch the gate shut so he couldn't jump me in the coop. But, the click of the latch was the invitation to dance. It was me and my dustpan and broom against Arthur and his spurs. The dustpan acted as a shield and the long-handled broom, a sword with swishing power. It was a kind of dance that we did across the lawn, through the garden, tripping over my father's squash and trampling his tomatoes. I'd scramble spasmodically, swishing the broom around my shins trying to dodge him. Side-stepping and shuffling my way across the lawn, deflecting Arthur with my broom. He put on his chicken show, jumping straight up, chest out and displaying his spurs. I'd whack him with the broom and he'd come back with a vengeance, catapulting himself into the air, punching with his feet. I'd shield my face with the dustpan and he'd land awkwardly. I'd whack him from the left with the broom. He'd sway for a moment and I'd whack him from the right, hoping to knock him off balance. This prompted the dreaded ankle stab in which he'd run straight at my ankles, pecking furiously. We'd circle the lawn, the garden--out of breath and swearing, I'd stoop for a moment to catch my breath. Our eyes would lock. Out of the corner of my eye, the sliding door would open and my mother would appear, shaking out a rug. Instantly I froze, my broom in midair and Arthur would become instantly engrossed in a single seed on the ground. She'd shake her finger at me. "Holly, don't you dare hurt Arthur. He's good to his hens." Her head would retreat, she'd shut the door and he'd jab his sharp spurs in my knees.

Arthur finally met his fate a year later. My mother, having just returned from Juanita's Beauty Shop, went into the chicken house to collect eggs. Arthur, perched on a ledge above her, jumped down, digging his claws into her bulbous bouffant.

And that was the end of Arthur.


 
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