City Mouse, Country Mouse by Karen Zey

Two pit bulls lumber to the roadside fence as my friends and I pull up to the clapboard house. The dogs’ slavering jaws and muscled shoulders strain against the wire gate. My heart races. I’m reluctant to step out of the pick-up, but my farm pals reassure me: “Don’t worry, the dogs are fenced in. Come on, let’s see if the deal’s any good.”

 A young woman in sandals, an ankle-length print skirt and hoodie emerges from the house. The screen door slaps shut as she calls out: “Are you here for the chickens?”

My friend, Joan, is petite with auburn hair and a determined step. “Yes,” she answers. “You’re Krystal? We texted yesterday about taking twenty. Are they good layers?” Joan and her husband, Keith, both recently retired, have bought a farm amid the windblown fields and forests of Vancouver Island.  I’m from Montreal, visiting this pastoral paradise.

“Yeah, very good layers,” Krystal says. “We get eggs every day. Follow me.” We head down the driveway toward the back of the property and the hens. Hylines, a hybrid breed, and apparently dependable layers.  

 Thank goodness I’m wearing running shoes and not my snazzy red flats. The long narrow driveway is an obstacle course. Cedar logs, rusty tools and a jumble of foul-smelling poultry cages. I squeeze by two tired motorboats on trailers, a scarlet ‘69 Cadillac with chrome fins glinting in the July sunshine, a stinky homemade chicken plucker, feathers stuck to the edge of its blue plastic tub. Are my tetanus shots up to date? Krystal continues her friendly chatter about the hens, while I think Hoarders, with undertones of Deliverance. Get a grip, city girl. 

***

Joan and I have been bosom buddies since before we had bosoms—a half-century of female connectivity. Giggling over dreamy boys during sleepovers, navigating married life as teachers and young working moms, surviving our teenagers’ shenanigans, shopping for outfits that camouflage thickening waistlines. Years of parallel lives in Montreal until Joan left her unhappy marriage for a new start in Alberta. 

That was 19 years ago. I stayed in Quebec, content with my husband and special needs consultant job, rooted in my community and resigned to the provincial politics that baffle the rest of the country. 

 Joan and I have tried to sustain our friendship with phone calls and cross-country travels. Meet-ups at educational conferences in Toronto. Her trips back to Montreal and the house where my husband and I have lived for 20 years. My visits to Calgary and her three tract houses—before, during and after the bad boyfriend. Then her move to a ranch and a kind, silver-haired husband.

 Three months ago, Joan and Keith moved to the west coast in search of milder winters, becoming proud owners of a 25-acre farm with four horses and a gaggle of ducks and chickens. Their quaint country house is gasping for a kitchen reno and new septic system. A retirement plan 3000 miles and a mindset away from my tidy condo and cardio classes in Quebec. I live in suburbia—pockets of cultivated greenery and pets on leashes, café dates and book club meetings, downtown concerts and theatre nights with hubby. Not the life of pasture management and morning chores Joan has chosen. At home, I rise each morning to write in a room with a picture window. I wrangle words, not horses.

 Joan is my oldest, dearest friend, with many moves behind her, each one taking her further away from me. More than anything, I want her to find serenity at last—here, in a place I can barely locate on a map.    

***

Clucks and gobbles grow louder as I maneuver around the last unidentifiable objects in the driveway. The yard is also a dump, and I wonder why Joan’s alarm bells aren’t ringing. How can anyone possibly raise chickens on such a tight, over-crowded lot? I hide my squeamishness and adopt the role of cheerful tagalong for Joan’s sake. 

 We round the back corner of the house. A vista of rural chaos greets us. The property stretches downhill and curves to the right, opening onto six acres of overgrown fields, a blur of weeds and spikey grass. A pungent, herbal smell mixes with the farmyard odors. Close to the house, dozens of marijuana plants flourish inside a towering, plastic-wrapped greenhouse. Ah, the reason for the pit bulls. And just below the backyard hodgepodge of garden tools, cement blocks, dirty mattresses and one child-sized pink flip-flop, are the pens filled with dozens of fowl. Chickens, ducks, turkeys, quail. A Polish rooster with an impressive feathery pompadour. 

 A slim man—Krystal’s husband, I assume—appears out the back door. A backward baseball cap accents his tanned face and relaxed grin.  I think he says his name is Gary. Or is it Graham?

 Joan chats with Krystal about molting, nesting habits and laying patterns while they wander over to the duck pen. Krystal gives Joan a Muscovy duckling to hold. The teeny soft body is covered in pale green fuzz. Joan cradles it in her palm and strokes its downy head, her face relaxing into a peaceful gaze. She ignores the mounds of scrap and makeshift pens. 

 I squirm on the sidelines, trying to avoid mucky spots. The chickens squawk and the stench of bird droppings stings my nose. Not all the birds are penned. A couple of quail flit past my legs toward a patch of dirt where turkeys poke their beaks into a muddy pool. Joan glances my way with a reassuring smile. I’ve never owned a pet. She knows not to ask if I want to hold the duckling. 

***

When Joan picked me up at the ferry dock two days before the chicken outing, I figured our comfortable familiarity would soon take over, even though we hadn’t seen each other in a year. She still looked trim. Her hair was a little longer, the curls slightly frizzier than I remembered. Maybe she hadn’t found a good hairdresser yet.

Joan grasped me in a tight hug. “I’m so glad you’re here. I miss having friends close by.”

Joan’s eyes looked tired, her faded floral blouse a little rumpled. A toll of rural life? I promised myself to be a working guest, at the very least to lend a hand with meal prep for the human crowd.

 “I can hardly wait to see the farm,” I said. “Even the chickens.

“Don’t worry. We’ll get away for lunch in town tomorrow. Just the two of us.”

 Our phone calls and visits have usually eased into a quiet sharing of family news and hopeful plans, along with worries and fears. At our age, we understand the ways grief and joy teeter-totter over time. We understand how people need to follow different paths to feel at home.

But do I? A farm on the other side of the country? 

***

Grow-op Gary-Graham lifts a corner of the fishnet jerry-rigged over the largest of the chicken pens and jumps in among fifty scattering fowl. Catching a bird, he hands it over to Joan’s husband. Keith checks out its laying potential by inserting two fingers into the hen’s underside orifice. Too narrow and boney a vent means the hen’s not a layer. Keith nods across the yard at Joan. The hens are a good buy.

 Joan hovers near the duck pens, still entranced, while she listens to Krystal’s pointers about feeding hens, incubating brooder eggs and nurturing chicks. Keith and Gary-Graham are discussing how to get the hens to Keith’s pick-up. Keith’s ready with two huge dog crates in the truck bed, but the cluttered path to the road poses a problem. How to carry pairs of panicking chickens?

 The men climb into one of Gary-Graham’s beater pick-ups, drive around a side road and return across the field, where they back up close to the barnyard. Keith opens the crates. Gary-Graham pops back into the pen, crouches and grabs chicken after chicken. The hens screech and flap, a flurry of feathers in his clawing hands.

 As Gary-Graham hands over the chickens one by one, Keith flips them over and checks their undersides before carrying them by their legs to the truck. He rejects two heavily molted birds with almost bare chests, questionable layers, and Gary-Graham good-naturedly catches a couple of others until the crates hold twenty. Joan and Krystal mosey back to the truck, discussing how to settle the hens into their new home and how Joan’s new male Peking duck is not mixing well with her Khaki-Campbells. I stand off to one side, an awkward bystander in the farmyard, watching feathers fly.

I sense Joan could spend another half hour happily chatting with the young woman but the chickens are packed and Keith is waiting by the truck. Joan counts out the cash and hands it to Krystal. Both men climb into the pick-up, and Joan and I walk back to the front of the house, past the tilting chicken-plucker, the scarlet vintage Caddie and the drooling dogs behind the fence. I avoid eye contact with the dogs. Keith and Gary-Graham have transferred the crates to our truck. We’re set to go.

***

“Well, that was interesting,” Joan says, as we drive back. “We saw so many ramshackle properties just like that one when we were looking to buy last year. But in spite of all the junk, the birds were well cared for. And Krystal seemed to know her stuff.”

I picture Joan and Keith’s farm. The rafters of their solid green barn rise and stretch over horse stalls and neatly stacked bales of hay. For three months the two have worked nonstop, repairing fences and chicken coops, sorting through equipment and reworking plans. I noticed a glossy new book on raising ducks sitting on Joan’s bedside table. My bosom buddy knows her stuff too. At least I hope she does.

After supper, Joan and I dawdle in the roomy kitchen, beneath mellow beams of Douglas fir. A waft of the blackberry pie we had at dinner lingers, and we catch up on news. A former colleague’s chemotherapy. A neighbor’s struggle with her husband’s dementia. A friend’s know-it-all boyfriend finally becoming an ex. This has always been our way, a quiet unfurling of words, back and forth with comfortable pauses.

Except for updates on grandchildren, there are too few stories with joyful notes. Three days and I’ll be gone. Already I am dreading our next goodbye.

“I want to show you something,” Joan says, and she disappears into a storage room down the hall.

She returns with a carton of their farm eggs and places it in my hands. I open the cardboard lid, expecting a lily-white supermarket dozen. The carton holds an odd-sized array of copper-brown, muted maize, creamy buff and pastel green eggs. As Joan talks about her hens, her fingers skim over the multi-hued shells. Her eyes glow with contentment and her mouth softens into a relaxed smile.

Leaning over the kitchen counter, the two of us gaze at those lovely eggs, our voices a soft hum in the fading light. 

Karen Zey is a Canadian writer from la belle ville de Pointe-Claire, Quebec. Her work has appeared in literary journals such as the Brevity Nonfiction Blog, Cleaver, The Nasiona, SFWP Quarterly, and other places. You can follow Karen’s micro-musings about life and writing @zippyzey or read more of her work at www.karenzey.com.

3 thoughts on “City Mouse, Country Mouse by Karen Zey”

  1. Such a great story…I remember you telling me about this chicken adventure! You were so out of your comfort zone but it added another dimension to your friendship with Joan which I know,you treasure.Very colourful words and mts favourite line….
    I wrangle words,not horses.
    Congrats!

  2. Oh Karen, I loved your story of reconnecting with Joan… I couldn’t stop laughing at your wonderful descriptions of the farm that you visited as Joan was buying chickens. A few examples..the long narrow driveway is an obstacle course. I think Hoarders, get a grip city girl.rural chaos, backyard hodgepodge, I squirm on the sidelines. Drooling dogs, scarlet vintage caddie. Their house gasping for a kitchen Reno and a new septic system. So descriptive Karen, I just loved it.

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