Chickens is Vegetables

Of Field, of Wood & Hedgerow
Part III: Chickens is Vegetables.

The rhythms of field and village, of folk and spirit, of earth and nurture may be harder to sense. Perhaps folk who build cots and huts, plant tofts and orchards, keep clever pigs and honest dogs, make brooms and weave tablecloths put a blanket betwixt their selves and the rhythmic world.

Earth and wind, spirit, black iron, purifying fire… somehow they all break rhythm as they serve. Somehow they get out of step, or have to learn to dance an extra measure, like a man with a gored leg or a bird with a broken wing. The folk cannot eat the earth itself, nor bathe in fire, not raise the young on the spirit of soaring, untainted soul. It is the hearth that binds the soul as it cleanses and disposes. Fire never asks what should remain; that is a rhythm that refuses to break, but it can be harder to sense the others, depending on where you look.

Certainly there are rhythms, the Lady of the Red Hand and her ardent flocks keep rhythms close, but these seem the freshly minted patterns of hunger and harvest, far less the turning of the sky and the phases of yaél. There is this wounding break, like a cracked bone, between wild wood and ploughed field. The one rides the other, broken to whip and harrow. The Lady holds all the Earth in her hands, but discards the stones and spines, leaves the inedible and purposeless for others. Her hands are upon the break, but here is a thing: She does not heal, she only hides. Here is the choice given to beast and man in common, march behind the ox and plough, take up the harrow and flail, in the dance that is writ, or cast chaff and die upon the wind that blows past the hedgerows and into the far wood, to the wilder land, to the wider sea.<.i>

From time to time you might hear one of the old women say that ‘chickens is vegetables’, and if the old men were wiser than this, they were also too wise to say, even as to grammar. Surely, they fly like sycamore and are hard to catch like broom or cottonwood, but these are coincidences like rain on the laundry or thatch on the roof. Much ado about not much at all, much clutter and fuss, a lot of scratching and feathers, but not much thought or feeling there, not even so much as a cat on the wrong end of a rocking chair, or a wind whistling in the rushes. Of the air like leaves on a tree, but always with a foot and a few feathers scratched into the dirt. Looking down, for the most part. Looking at the ground whence their seeds had their first succour.

He was the sort of boy who you couldn’t mind, much. He was kind enough, and sweet enough, and did as his mother told him and, on the whole did his token chores in all due conscience.

But he could also get a bit deaf about things like listening to his conscience. This wasn’t all his fault. His conscience was yet a skinny, underfed, scrawny thing, very young and still trying to find its way. It seemed like, now and then at least, it was much too busy shivering in the dark and wondering what was for supper and not enough speaking up about things like exactly who’s piece of pie that is, or did our face actually get washed with all due diligence? How am I supposed to remember stuff like that when I’m hungry and scrawny and shivering in the dark? Consciences can be like that in four-year-olds, they tire easily and always want naps.

For a while, the boy had a pet hedgehog. It was a sad, worried little thing, who spent most of his time trying to grow more prickles. When it finally rolled away, the boy’s world changed.

For a whole morning, the boy spent teaching the pigs to make glue – although, in fairness this may not have been his intention. The subsequent maternal investigation revealed the entire incident had occurred during conscience-nap-time. It is perhaps remarkable that a boy of that size would be able to carry two goodly sacks of flour; certainly when previously asked to move one sack from the kitchen to the pantry the task had proved too much for the lad. Two sacks all the way to the sty seemed a miracle, or perhaps some minor magic involving inclined planes, wishes, fishes beggars and small equines, or some such. These things hardly ever come out in the wash. As interesting as the investigation proved, it was what his mum called the ‘upshot’ that seemed most interesting. Mum was always interested in ‘upshots’, they were what interested her the most, and she thought it was her job to make sure that everyone else got interested in them.

“The upshot here,” she explained, “is that we have three sows stuck belly-deep in what amounts to a big slab of plaster.” There was a discussion about what constituted plaster, and there were comments that if only our walls were this durable, we wouldn’t have to rebuild them every few years, but it turned out that, none of that was ‘upshot’, those were ‘non-upshots’. Mum was very clear on this, the upshot was all about five-hundred pounds of immobilised pork. There was surprise involved too, of course, lots of surprise to go around and this might have made the investigation and the deliberations less high-minded. The pigs themselves were particularly surprised, embarrassed even. Pigs don’t normally embarrass easily, it was an achievement, but not an upshot apparently. The villagers were also surprised, some of them were bordering on astounded or flabbergasted. They had all thought pigs much more clever than that. It has to be admitted that the solemn dignity that such deliberations are believed to call for may have been, lacking and the Mum was obliged to clear the area on several occasions. The boy had his apologists, but they were dismissed with some severe and irrefutable arm-folded-toe-tapping, and the case was closed. The Conscience was woken up, summoned back into service and given extra duty, as was the lad’s sit-upon.

He was the kind of boy who got hold of things, but was less clever when it came to letting go.

Like when he realised the main difference between the little boys and the little girls. There was a need to explore that, a great need. It was possibly nap time for you know who again, or something that got spread over lots of naps. The principal difference you see, is that a young lad of four can put out a small fire, whereas a young girl, while admittedly comprised of more appetising components like sugar and spice, and definitively, everything nice, must risk an uncomfortable encounter with a burned sit-upon to achieve such feats of fire suppression. Being made of a combination of appealing sugars, it might be concluded in fact, that such young girls might in fact risk caramelising to some degree. One presumes that men with imagination and perhaps women with memories, might offer advice in these regards.

In any event. Here was something of which the boy had a good hold. Here was a thing he could do, that little girls could not or should not do, and most of all, or so his (admittedly still febrile conscience was heard to remark) it was useful and responsible. So now he understood the how of the thing. His next project was to learn the why, the where, and the when of the thing. He took on this task with what can only be called zeal. It may be admitted that, were it not so ubiquitous, zeal must need be deemed an admirable trait in one so young.

Hedgehogs don’t so much think about zeal and conscience and things like that. They think about breakfast and supper and in between they think about not get stepped on or run over by carts. Sometimes they think about getting wet. This was one of those times. For a while, the boy had a hedgehog; it was a sad and worried little thing, sometimes it was wet.

Little boys learn by experimentation. This experiment taught more to the hedgehog and the boy moved on. The village was prosperous; after all it had a clever and effective hedge witch on the job, and the villagers understood the importance of hedges and hedge witches. It also had several horses. These were not great desteriers, although the lord had one of those… he was a bit of a snob that one. Here was the spirit, the very pinnacle of horsiness he would think to himself, or to be fair, that is what you would think he was thinking when you looked at him.

These were horses of different hues and complexions. These horses were simple, un-ambitious folk; they had a bargain, just like the dogs did, not as old perhaps, nor nearly as fixed and sacred, but to the horses, it was pretty serious stuff.

Part of it involved getting apples to eat now and then and maybe some riding around for the children, maybe some pulling heavy stuff around (wheely carts and whatnot to be provided by the humans). It involved getting a bit of peace and quiet and somewhere warm and dry to stand when it was raining. Seemed like a pretty fair deal. What it did not involve was certain kinds of experiment to be conducted by four-year old boys. Apparently there was a clause in there somewhere that said, ‘if you pee on my hoof, I will step on your soft little foot’, and I might even bite your protruding belly, mind you, I’m not a carnivore, so we’re talking bruises and not so much with the gushing blood. Even so, a deal is, when all is said and done, a deal.

So in a sense, the boy was learning. Not so much, perhaps about the upshots involved in widdling on things, but maybe on some deeper level, about these deals. So: here it is, hedgehog, no deal, just sad and growing as many prickles as possible, Horse: big, important resilient deal with broken toes and belly biting. Now we’re getting somewhere. Now we are gathering useful lore, but do we know we are gathering useful lore. Do we understand the useful lore we have gathered? These are the questions that should, perhaps, have occurred to the boy.

One of the differences between children and adults is that children will try the same approach even after it has failed. This is why children so often get hurt and adults often fail to get anything done.

Chickens might argue that they have a deal too. Fine, you get to eat me. You get to fry, boil and scramble my young, and generally make my life short and unnecessarily humorous, but I get a clean, safe (except from you) yard and plenty to eat. What I don’t get is wet and smelly for no good reason. I have feathers to maintain!

The boy failed to learn about the deal with the hens from his friends the hedgehog and the horse. He was, as it turned out, unprepared for the fact that the hens have sanctions of their own that they can impose. Some of them scattered, it is true, but one decided to take matters into her own beak (Thereby performing the first ever bris-ket.) Now the boy learned about the deal, and it was a lesson that stuck. (Actually, it was a lesson that pulled off and bled a bit, but these are sometimes the stickiest of all.)

Mum says that a chicken is a vegetable, but that it can bite, like blackberries and whatnot. The bird was identified and Mum understood the upshot. Sometimes an upshot is called a comeuppance. She explained the deal to her son, applied appropriate ministrations and things began to get better. That evening, they had chicken for supper, but that was alright. That was also part of the deal.

So the boy is based on a story my mum told me about my brother and the chickens is vegetables part is a contribution to vegetarian folklore proposed by my lovely wife. As far as I know I am the only person to have been bitten on my young, protruding (as opposed to my old, protruding) belly by a large horse (although in my own defence I wasn’t peeing on her at the time, I was petting her colt… apparently, this was a no-no in her horsey mind… still, I expect she’s long dead now… so I win.)

N. Robin Crossby

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