The school secretary’s voice broke the drone of Mrs. Dixon’s fourth grade social studies lesson.
“Please send Angelina to the office. Her father is here to pick her up.”
I stopped Mrs. Dixon mid-monotone sentence as she resumed her lecture. I asked her if she knew why I was being checked out of school by my father, before lunch, on this rather ordinary, early-spring day, when I didn’t even have a doctor’s appointment.
She didn’t know. Her voice followed me as I gathered my belongings and left the lesson behind. My father met me in the school office with a smile.
Sometime in the very early morning or late in the evening, when my younger brother and I weren’t around to overhear the mysterious tones of grown-up machinations, my father told my mother that it would be fun to get an incubator and hatch chicks.
The metal hatchery was a loaner from one of the workers at the plant where my father spent long days overseeing the making of Clorox bottles from tiny plastic pellets. The fellow farmed the earth when he wasn’t producing plastic, my father explained. The farmer gave my father some starter eggs and a set of basic instructions.
Twice a day, we turned the eggs. Marked side up. Marked side down. Marked side up. One day, we carefully lifted an egg and carried it to the dark closet. The beam of the flashlight illuminated a growing chick inside the shell.
The ordinary spring day wasn’t ordinary at all. While I was botching problems in long division and my brother was sitting quietly in his kindergarten class, coloring purple skies and yellow trees, my mother and father watched as a fragile chick begin its hatching. A small crack, then an uneven break in the paper-like shell. Tiny wet feathers pressed against the edges of growing gap, and by the time my brother and I arrived home, we could clearly observe the chick as it labored in the awkward but instinctive movements of its birth.
One chick became two then three. We touched and held and stroked their little feathers. My father added new eggs to the incubator. Tiny bantam hen eggs. Tinier quail eggs. Two duck eggs and four perfect goose eggs. Marked side up. Marked side down. Marked side up.
The hatchery became a nursery. We rescued chicks from their water bowl.
“They can’t swim,” my mother warned us.
The turkey chick had spindly legs and walked unsteadily. It got into mischief often enough that my father issued a sweepingly general proclamation.
“Turkeys are dumb,” he said whenever Tom did something less than brilliant like wander into the water bowl for the fifth straight time or escape from the snug cardboard box that served as the chick nursery.
I didn’t share my father’s disdain. Of the first hatchlings, Tom was the apple of my eye.
“You walk like a drunken sailor,” I told the bird as it wobbled its way to me. I reached out to hold its delicate body in my hands.
If the spare bedroom was the hatchery, the backyard was the farm. An ideal example of a 1970s suburban Atlanta neighborhood, Santeelah Forest was not a forest at all, but a collection of nondescript brick homes on smallish lots encircled with the metallic expanses of chain link fencing.
Trees, mostly pine, dotted yards and sprinkled pine cones on driveways and produced enough pine straw per family to spread through the myriad azalea beds that were one of the many predictable features of the suburban landscape.
And up until the arrivals of our newly hatched charges, our yard was just as conventional as the others lining our street.
“I guess I need to build a pen for the birds,” my father said, realizing the infeasibility of having four chickens, a turkey, two ducks, four geese, a bantam hen and some quail live inside in a cardboard box.
The birdhouse had walls of chicken wire, a roof, a door, and a ramp wide enough to accommodate the whole feathered lot. My father built the structure against the fence in the backyard, and as our black lab Smokey escorted the menagerie of birds into their house that night, I tried to think of a time when our backyard wasn’t a barnyard.
I liked that I couldn’t remember.
My brother and I were attending to the new goslings. P.S. had hatched late on the eve of Palm Sunday. He was fuzzy, and he was big footed. Minnie, Mighty, and Moe hatched soon after him.
The fluffy creatures were strong and friendly. Where the other birds had been and were still shy, these hatchlings seemed to think they were just joining our flock. The four ambled awkwardly across the floor. I looked away and heard my six year old brother giggle.
“Whoopsie!” he said, as the smallest of the goslings fought to regain its footing.
“Whoopsie!” he said again.
Moe couldn’t seem to force his legs into a waddle. He’d take a step, but then his legs would slide out from beneath him in a sideways split.
We tried to hold him upright and support his fuzzy body, but each time he moved without help, he fell.
“Whoopsie…” my brother said, but he didn’t giggle. We looked to our mother, our healer, for support.
She did not disappoint.
Whoopsie spent two weeks in a shoebox cradle with a piece of gauze secured around the upper portion of his legs. He walked without falling. It was a miracle. My mother was the heroine, and Whoopsie could keep up with his flock.
We buried the wood ducks Lovey and Dovey. They had fallen ill and died quickly. Tom Turkey had already been buried. My father had given the quails away— they were too tiny and flighty for us to manage.
The bantam hen had gone to a nearby farm. There had been a friendly war brewing between my mother and the hen. As my mother hung clothes on the clothesline, the hen would jump on her shoulder and demand attention.
To calm the bird, my mother had to hold her. The process took hours. Sometimes all day. The anxious hen needed tranquility. We knew a farm would be better for her.
P.S. sat on my lap as the ice cream maker whirred and churned peaches and cream into the perfect Fourth of July treat. The other geese wandered around the carport.
A storm was brewing, and as the thunder grumbled, P.S. stretched out his gangly neck and then turned to rest his head on my shoulder. I pressed my cheek against his feathered head and looked at the backyard.
The kiddie pool was the makeshift pond. It needed cleaning. The grass had been bitten down to the root, and scattered across the yard were very small, narrow holes. Created by the geese, for the geese, these holes were the source for their favorite drinking water. They dried their beaks off as they chewed on the towels my mother hung out on the clothesline. All summer long, clay-hued beak marks fringed the edges of my towels.
We watched as P.S. took flight on the street in front of the house. He flew and flew and flew before gliding gently back to the asphalt. Occasionally he escaped the backyard in the same way.
The geese preferred to be in our presence. They sought our company, and if invited, they would gladly come in the house.
That summer no one noticed who had fur, feathers, or skin. Smokey thought he was a goose. The geese thought they were dogs. My parents, brother and I were just happy.
My hair flapped around my face and the wind stung my eyes. I sat in the bed of a borrowed pickup truck, holding onto a makeshift transportation pen. P.S. and his flock squawked their goosey displeasure at their change in scenery and lifestyle.
“You’re going where you belong,” I told him. I wanted to believe myself, but didn’t.
The lake was broad and it glimmered in the July heat. The grass around the bank had dried up and looked sad and withered. P.S. ignored it. It was the water he wanted. It was water they all wanted.
The next spring was ordinary. Fifth grade meant fractions, which made long division seem simple. My brother moved out of our shared bedroom and into the spare room.
One night at dinner my father said that the farmer had seen our geese at the lake. They had responded to him, he told my dad, but they lost interest and went back to nibbling grass at the lake’s edge.
That spring we sodded the backyard.
The grass grew strong and green and lush.