I grew up doing occasional dog-work out in the country, and watched at least a couple of middle aged farmers bust their hearts trying to stay in agriculture and make a dollar. My older brother drew most of the jobs where he got to hang with some of these hound-faced characters and hear them bitch about blacks all day, principally because he was a highly attentive suckup. In contrast, they generally found some task for me where I could work alone and not break anything.
He’d taken a lot more ass-whipping from my father than I ever did, and was subsequently more in his element in any backslapping authoritarian dungeon. His side of our room at home was decorated with various items crafted from plastic, felt, or varnished pine he’d been awarded for his enhanced relationship with God* and the police. He was at various times a Boy Scout, a Royal Ambassador, and a member of the Safety Patrol and Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
It didn’t take me long to figure out the wall on my side of the room would never have much anything on it but a picture of the whaler Charles W. Morgan painted from what appeared to be the perspective of end-stage alcoholism. My mom found it in the art bin at King’s department store. On that particular trip I’d expressed a preference for a much larger travesty that could have been titled “A Tableau of Horses Deranged by A Severe Thunderstorm At The Beach”, but my efforts to put anything on the wall that might offer a foreshadowing of my personality were patiently denied.
Despite my semi-rural upbringing, my wife is the one with the knowledge and skills necessary to get stuff in the ground at the right time, and knows when to look for fruiting bodies on whatever shrub or vine I’m likely to take for a weed. My job is to build stuff, knock old stuff down, move heavy things and dig holes.
Early on, we decided mutually that we were going to have chickens, but some years elapsed before the Poultry God decided we’d waited long enough and began raining a variety of feathered life forms onto our farm. Very few of our early farm bird experiences involved an expenditure for peeps. They just showed up as adults in filth-spattered cardboard or plastic boxes, sometimes accompanied by a parting sentence of regret-”My wife got tired of stepping in goose shit”, sometimes not: “You’ll love these. You’ve got plenty of space. They’ll have a great life here!”
Our first chicken was a by-product of a Perdue farm. Every twenty thousand iterations or so of their bloodline of Cornish Rock moribunds they get a chick that manages to form up from two yolks, crack the shell, get up on its multiple legs and avoid the cruel fate of being eaten by its thousands of broodmates.
A friend of ours whose father contracted for Perdue told him about us, and he hit on the idea that we might be the perfect kind of idiots with which to place one of these grievous instances of broiler production.
He was right. When my wife broached the subject at dinner I was naively enthused. I pictured a sort of plush chicken car with legs instead of tires.
When it arrived, huddled and wheezing in its travel box, it looked more like a late model sedan pulling a homemade trailer brimming with liquid shit. I wasn’t just deflated, I was a little horrified.
The poorer half of these conjoined twins hung tentatively by a strand of tissue just beneath the cloaca. Everything above its feet had been absorbed into the abdominal cavity of its bigger sister. We had yet to develop a proper taxonomic system at the time, but at least understood hyphenation was called for. She was “Chicky/Pootis”.
When I took delivery of a load of fenceposts and lumber to assemble a pen, the guy who drove the truck asked to see her. His response might be characterized similarly to that of the children of one of my friends- bewilderment followed by horizon-shifting dizziness and reverse peristaltic contractions.
I began inviting neighbors to have a look, just to see if that pattern held through a broader population, and across socioeconomic lines. It did.
The farmer who gave us Chicky/Pootis asked if we’d like another bird to keep her company, and we agreed. The second Cornish Rock deferred to Chicky for some reason. Maybe because Chicky was eating for one and a quarter she’d developed an alpha nature. Watching their dustups I was often afraid Chicky’s fecally drenched hindparts would snap off and the hens would fight to the death over who got to eat them.
This is when we began to explore a remedy.
I’ve read that chickens respond well to surgery. According to some sources you can vivisect them, remove any offending missile or tumor, staple them back together, set them on their feet and they’ll run off chasing a bug.
These people don’t share my sensibilities. While I thought it might be possible to clip off Chicky’s sublet, I knew the connective strip of tissue must at least be rich in capillaries, if not arteries and veins. There might be a vestigial caecum that would spray a proprietary mixture of fluids everywhere, or a not quite atrophied nerve trunk, slicing into which would almost certainly provoke resentment.
I figured a vet would be able to do the job in a couple of minutes with a scalpel and a cautery tool. There was an avian vet in Henderson. I made an appointment to have Chicky looked at.
I was stumped for a couple of seconds when the receptionist said “Aww, poor girl. What’s her name?”
I began to get nervous when the vet said he’d need to get a couple of X-rays of Chicky, and I’d have to leave her overnight. It had already occurred to me that a sizeable portion of the world’s population would have already cleaned, dressed and fried her. I was getting ready to joke that there was nothing wrong with her some potato salad and cole slaw wouldn’t fix, when the vet somberly noted “We can’t let her go on that way. No. We can’t.”
“Oh fuck”, I thought, “The royal we already. Plus drama. “We” are about to get rogered.”
The next day they called and had me come have a look at the x-rays. The vet showed me how much of the skeletal system of the absorbed twin was left in Chicky, and described the heroic measures he was prepared to undertake to remove it.
There were many x-rays, from a variety of angles. I assumed they were taken to show Chicky’s vascular involvement with her extra feet, to minimize the possibility of error in such delicate surgery, and as a brain exercise just for me to try and figure how I was going to tell my wife how we were about to blow a mortgage payment up a chicken’s ass.
The procedure wound up being much cheaper than I thought (a little over $100.00), and the vet did a fine job. As soon as chicky got home she kicked the new hen’s ass a couple of times before settling in front of her red plastic trough and doing what Cornish Rocks do best: eating to leg-breaking obesity and a 30% pre-slaughter mortality rate (we were unaware of this at the time).
I even got over the shock of dropping a hundred or so bucks on a chicken for a couple of days, until a possum dragged her through the chicken wire and bit her head off.
*A former Catholic licensed therapist lesbian friend of mine once told me that in her professional opinion, I was born under a cloud, and the most willfully perverse person she’d encountered outside of a clinical setting with walls of steel-reinforced concrete.
“To be honest,” She once told me “If you’re going to discuss religion, I’d prefer we go outside on the patio. Somehow I wouldn’t mind it as bad if God burned my outdoor furniture with lightning. I got such a good deal on this dining room set. I’d never be able to replace it.”