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My Fine Feathered Friend
My Fine Feathered Friend is a bittersweet tale that leaves you aching after you put the book away. In part this is because the main character, a large handsome black hen who appears mysteriously one winter day in the writer's yard in Queens, disappears as mysteriously as she arrived. This is a true story that happened recently. The author, William Grimes, the restaurant critic for The New York Times, is intrigued, fascinated, and finally haunted, by this hen. He perceives her as a kind of Earth Goddess, as solid as a tree trunk, rugged, compact, able and enduring, yet elusive, vulnerable, and, ultimately, as ephemeral as a fairy princess. She vanishes when he comes to love her. He calls the hen, simply and archetypally, the Chicken.
When I first started reading My Feathered Friend, I was put off by the tone. Grimes refers to the hen for a number of pages as "it," while referring to his and his wife's cats as "hes" and "shes." His style is pat with similes and cultivated assurance. I thought, okay, Grimes wants to make sure that no one, including himself, gets emotionally involved with this chicken. He's keeping the lines drawn. But I was wrong. The story reflects his growing tenderness for the Chicken, moving through levity and wonderment to love, sorrow and loss. The Chicken has an aura of the "familiar" in folklore, an enigmatic being regarded as both a homely acquaintance and a supernatural spirit embodied in an animal that links that animal to a particular person while retaining an inviolable otherness.
Grimes's Chicken is like a visitor from another planet (exotic and ineffable) who probably escaped from the local poultry market in Queens (squalid and local). She is a hero and a survivor -- "a brave little refugee"-- who flouts false stereotypes about chickens. "I'd look out back and see a cat chasing the Chicken across the yard," Grimes writes. "Ten minutes later I'd see the Chicken chasing a cat." She is at once endearingly personal and profoundly impersonal. She has her own projects. She is self-possessed. She projects an arch authority, like the author himself. She dominates Grimes's yard, his cats, and his consciousness. She is, he confesses protectively, "a hard read." The Chicken tracks through the universe by way of a residential patch of earth -- a "pocket paradise" reclaimed from a "wasteland of weeds" in New York City. She captures the eye of a beholder who becomes a Witness driven to Inscribe Her Being.
Grimes attempts to fit what he "knows" about chickens (he eats them and makes his living writing about them as food; otherwise he says "the humble chicken was foreign to me") with his deepening perception of, identification with, and ultimate yearning and mourning over this particular hen. She moves him. He is affected by her "air of mystery," her "appetite for play," her "brilliant evasive maneuvers," her "genuine courage," her "character," her "willful high-spirit," her evocation of what the poet William Wordsworth inestimably versed as "something ever more about to be."
Grimes reads up on chickens, passing on to us pieces of information (some accurate, some not) about Gallus domesticus in folklore, history, and poultry manuals, as a backdrop to, an explanation of, the Chicken, a creature so definite, and infinite, so solid and numinous, she eludes classification. He muses: Was it pure coincidence that she liked to sneak up on Yowzer, the cat most likely to develop a nervous twitch when caught unawares? Time after time I saw the Chicken trot up delicately when Yowzer had his back turned, squawk a couple of times, and then watch as the cat leaped a couple of vertical feet. The Chicken, after a successful ambush, would run off jauntily, with a cackle that sounded suspiciously like a chuckle. At other times, "I'd see Bruiser and Crusher snoozing in the basket, Yowzer draped along a nearby wooden bench, and the dark, shapeless form of Midnight filling out the sagging seat of an old sea grass chair we had bought for a couple of dollars at a yard sale. And in the midst of the group, perfectly content, sat the Chicken. It was a heartwarming sight." One night a police helicopter hovers over the yard, causing the pine tree in which the Chicken is roosting to sway violently under a wind of hurricane force. "Somewhere, deep in the branches," Grimes writes, "the Chicken was holding on for dear life. I couldn't begin to imagine what was going through her tiny mind. By now, I figured, she had either suffered a fatal heart attack or had been dashed to the ground. But no. The next morning, amid wreckage out of Apocalypse Now, the Chicken reappeared, brimful of vim and vigor."
One spring day, though, the Chicken is gone. She does not return. Grimes and his wife Nancy look everywhere. They wrack their brains trying to remember if there were any behavioral signs they failed to notice. "The previous afternoon I had watched her resting comfortably in her nest beneath the pine tree," Grimes writes. "I searched for signs of violence but did not find any. The only trace of the Chicken was a single black feather near the back door. The Chicken was definitely, profoundly missing."
It is hard reading the final pages of this book. The depression Grimes describes is not roguish but real, though he tries to make light. "We had grown to love the Chicken," he says. We believe him: so had we. "She really was a big presence in the backyard," Nancy sighs. You go back to the book cover and study the jet black sweet bird face with its rosy comb and pert expression, framed in an oval mirror. If you know chickens, you know the look of that bright round eye, so attentive yet pensive.
My Feathered Friend is like an exquisite blade sliced across your bowels in the midst of a light-hearted romp that won't heal. The book ends with unappeased longing and unsettled questions (unhappy questions on many levels), not "closure," nor should it. Though Grimes says the story is "at an end, at least for us," still, he wonders and hopes, maybe the Chicken will come back. Maybe she's on a journey. He bought things for her. He and Nancy wait for her. They keep a light in the window. Maybe he'll wake up one morning, look out the window, and see "a large feathered form bustling around the patio, scattering cat food and clucking."
But for now, as Alice Walker said about a horse named Blue, in her excruciating essay, "Am I Blue,"* let us not let the animals whom we piercingly perceive become for us merely "images" of what they once so beautifully expressed and are. The Chicken is every chicken. One like no other.
Take the next step. *In Living By the Word: Selected Writings 1973-1987. This book of Walker's essays also includes "Why Did the Balinese Chicken Cross the Road?" ("To try to get both of us to the other side.")