Hope is the Thing With Feathers

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This morning Matt found me standing outside, filling a small pool with water for the chickens and ducks to drink, and crying. He wrapped a sweatshirt around my shoulders and asked me what was wrong. I told him that I couldn’t find another of our three ducks.

After our pond thawed a few weeks ago, our ducks decided that it wasn’t really necessary to waddle to the safety of the coop at night. They now sleep down by the pond, and because we have Hans, our Great Pyrenees/Anatolian Shepherd, sleeping up on the porch, I thought – I hoped – they would be OK. But three days ago we woke up to find that one of our drakes had disappeared in the night.

To be perfectly honest, I hoped for a day or two that he would show up, like maybe he just got lost in the woods or something and would waddle his way back home. But of course that didn’t happen. We don’t know what got to him; there were no feathers, no signs of a struggle.  He just … disappeared.

Sometimes I wonder if I am made of tough enough stuff to handle this life in the country. I worry, a lot, about the safety of our chickens and ducks. We love them. Probably a little too much. They have all been held and doted upon. Some of them have names. Every single one has his or her own quirky, funny personality. But I worry about them.

I worry especially about the ones who are most vulnerable. We have a Rhode Island Red hen, aptly named Hoppy, who hops around our yard on her crippled feet.

I just noticed yesterday that one of our Easter Egger chicks, one whom my son has already named Fluffy II (to replace the original Fluffy who died in the fall) has scissor beak. My heart sunk when I saw her hopping around her bin with her crooked little beak. There’s a good chance she will still be OK. But she’s a vulnerable one, too.

And every one of my chickens and ducks are vulnerable, really. There is an endless parade of predators who could discover them and pick them off one by one. Avian flu or coccidiosis could sweep in and wipe out my flock.

I have this soft, mushy heart that loves little creatures with a big, mushy love, and then when something happens to them my heart also breaks in a big, mushy way.

Two days ago I was standing at my kitchen sink doing dishes when I saw one of our dogs, Luke, standing outside the window with a female cardinal in his mouth. I stood there for a moment, trying to decide what to do. I went outside, told him to drop the bird, and picked her up. She didn’t appear injured, but she was also very still. I carried her inside with a sinking heart. What was I going to do with a bird who was probably going to die anyway? But I felt like I had to help somehow.

I put her in a box in the garage and gave her some food and water. When I went back upstairs to get her some pine shavings to make the box a little more comfortable, I remarked to my friend who was visiting us, “I am not cut out for this life. I am moving to New York. I am going to surround myself with buildings and concrete.”

She asked me later if I meant it – if we were having second thoughts about our life out here in the country. Sometimes, when my heart squeezes hard with worry or sadness, I ask myself why I have chosen to live with and love creatures who peck around so low on the food chain. But still, I told her no, I wouldn’t trade my big sky, peaceful pond, freely roaming chickens and ducks, harmonizing frogs, or still, quiet mornings for anything.

We have lived in the city. We have lived in the suburbs. But I have never fallen absolutely crazy in love with any space like I have fallen in love here. I wouldn’t trade any of it – even my easily broken heart.

I know this is really silly – and I’m a little embarrassed to admit it – but each night when I lock the chickens in their coop, and every morning when I open the door and let them run, hop, and fly into our yard, I pray my own version of Numbers 6:24-26 to them:

May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord be gracious to you.
And give you peace.
And keep you safe.
And keep you healthy.

I like to think that they enjoy listening to me whisper that prayer to them as they settle onto their roosts for the night. I like to think that they feel a little more assured when I pronounce that blessing over them in the morning over the flutter of their anxious wings as they scurry out the coop door.

I like to think that God smiles a little bit when He hears this peculiar girl in Peculiar, Missouri praying for her chickens.

As I scooped the bedding down for the injured cardinal two days ago, she flew up into the rafters in my garage. My guess is that she had flown into my kitchen window on her way to the bird feeder and just been stunned. I opened my garage door, and she flew away.

As I cried into Matt’s chest this morning, he turned me around and said, “Look. There she is.” And there she was: the missing duck, waddling up from a hidden nest.

Some days, my heart breaks open with heartache.

Some days, my heart breaks open with hope and thankfulness.

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all …“
~Emily Dickinson