I’ve been a little shaky in my resolve to come back here: after all, it’s been torn down for years. It’s all tract homes now, pretty and rural, but still…. They should have left it the way it was, the way it was when we had fun here. When we worked here. When we couldn’t wait to unfasten the latch and see our tiny fluff-balls of chicks. But now I can go back in time and see it again. Since I don’t have to face the reality of lost dreams or ugly homes built in rows like army barracks, I can come back to this beloved place.
As far back as the history of white Southern settlers goes, it was ours. Ever since it was wrenched away so mercilessly from the Caddo and Cherokee Indians, it was ours. Forever. I never dreamed we would ever leave it. At least now I can come back through time and see it again – at least in memory. At first this place doesn’t look like much: too long, tin buildings with tin roofs and ample windows that are hinged in the middle. As I look at them now I can tell the panes are set in position to allow fresh air into these little chick houses. That means it is good weather. And I can feel it, soft and humid on my skin, neither cold nor hot, just that gentle touch that is in the air in the spring in East Texas.
I fumble with the huge old padlock and move the rusty hinge that protests loudly at being awakened from its slumber. A deep breath, a pull at the old handle, and I am inside.
The smell assaults me. There is nothing like the unique smell of chicken feed, Pine-Sol, and the fresh wood shavings that thickly cover the floor. I am in the little anteroom, just a shell really, built sort of like a cage, enclosed in chicken wire. Perhaps it’s 4 x 4 feet. I run my hand along the rough lumber that frames the walls.
My grandfather cut and sawed these planks himself, measuring, marking and then sawing, sawing, sawing. He did it all with his own hands. “Our nest egg, Fannie,” he would say, “for when we get old.” He didn’t realize then that this place would become the foundation of a little girl’s memories. That here she would learn many lessons that would sustain her during the dark times of her life. Here we worked side-by-side for years. I can’t see him or touch him any more, but in my mind’s eye he stands: tall and elegant, black hair and blue eyes, with a chiseled face that made women stop him on the street and ask unnecessarily for the time.
The barn cat is looking crossly at a tiny mouse-chewed hole in one of the colorful chicken feed sacks. But never mind; she does a pretty good job, has a rich life and many kittens and great responsibility. She cannot be scolded for a tiny gap, barely spilling grain, made by even tinier teeth.
My hand trembles when I open the door into the main chick house, about 60 feet long. Now I am in my world. A gust of wind fragrances the air with pear blossoms. The sawdust gives beneath my feet as I walk to touch the long troughs that run down the center of this beloved building. Overhead are the light bulbs, cobwebbed and dusty, suspended by long cords from the tin ceiling, shielded by metal shades.
Soft sun rays coming through the windows pick up the little motes of dust and give it an almost misty look inside. But it’s so quiet. There are no distant sounds. It was always quiet here when there were no little chickens in residence. I lean over the troughs and run my hand around the sides. Empty. There is no grain anywhere, no water. But it is as if he had just stepped away, just finished scrubbing them within an inch of their lives.
My eyes grow more accustomed to the light, and I’m not afraid of tripping over anything. All the farm implements are gone now; they used to be in the little anteroom with the chicken feed. No shovel, no pitchfork, no hammer, no pieces of corrugated tin just in case something sprung a leak. It seems so strange to stand here and look to my left and to my right and see the gleaming empty troughs, the hanging lights, the tilted windows. All the things that made up the lives of thousands of little chickens that we were privileged to raise. Back then, back in the days when the little things were practically hand-raised. I cannot comprehend the way the bloated chickens reach our tables today. If one could extrapolate the size of the chicken from the size of the leg – no, mustn’t think about that. That’s monstrous.
I don’t think I can stay here. It’s too clean, too silent. The pale golden waves of tiny chicks and their high peeping voices used to roll from one end of this building to the other, back and forth. We would laugh. Grandfather had names for some of them. And concern, always concern. “One may be getting pecked. I thought I saw it yesterday. Help me hunt for it. We can’t let any of that get started.” Oh Lord, I hear his voice even now.
I lie down in the sawdust, just as I did years ago. I let my skin feel again the tiny pricks of the little feet as they run back and forth across my arms and flow over my childish belly and my tomboy jeans. Every now and then one would get a foot caught in my blonde hair. Grandfather and I would laugh as the little chick would struggle for a split second and then run cheeping away. They were so funny.
I pick up a handful of sawdust and squeeze it in my hand. If it is any good, there will be no chunks or slivers. There are none. Of course not. Grandfather would have sifted through each load and thrown out anything he thought might endanger those little lives. A lot of work went into this building before the truck rolled up with the tiny chicks inside. Such preparations. Such scrubbing. It would become, after all, a nursery.
From the floor I look up at the ceiling again, eyes scanning the wooden cross bars that support the roof. Up there is where the bird nest used to be. We never could bear to take it down, just in case she might come back the next year and raise another family. But there is no trace of it now. Time has eroded all life.
Everything seems hazy and golden – the light coming through the window, the straw in the corner, the sawdust – all golden. I roll over on my side and prop myself up on one elbow to look at the anteroom. I think how much smaller it is in real life than in memory. Of course, a child’s eyes are smaller. Yet in their way they see more. And less. They never see that one day all this will have to disappear. The wooden braces that reach to the roof, the lights, the windows and their frames, the troughs, the sweet smell of sawdust – all will one day fall and go to earth. It would have happened even if man had not taken them over, roughly ripping away the treasured souvenirs of an aging man and his tiny granddaughter.
But then, this isn’t real.This is a phantom of a specific place that memory has changed into an unreal heaven on earth. But it was real. It is real yet.
New lives go on here now, new families. I hope they are happy ones. There should always be happiness here, happiness that permeates these walls and the gentle surrounding hills, the green woods. The happiness that once thrived in this long, low building years ago. It still does – in memory.