Sometimes I will be sitting on my back porch and something will shift in the yard. The Tufted Titmice, for instance, will fly from the bird feeder in groups of ten at once, a sudden rush to leave. It is that specific feeling of emergency that makes me look up from my work. The wind chimes are ringing alone.
The sounds then coalesce into distinct patterns. I can clearly hear the crows, birds I never noticed prior to raising backyard hens. The feeder is completely empty and the crows yell out warnings for everyone to hear,
“Caw, Caw, Caw” over and over again, as the threat appeared as a shadow on the otherwise sunny grass. I look up at the circling Red Tailed Hawk.
I head out to my chickens who were standing silent and frozen under a canopy of wide brimmed squash leaves. When I pried open the butternut squash last winter, I had no way to know that the pulp and seeds I scraped out and threw into their yard would reappear as a safety roof in the summer to come; just like the dance teacher in 1975 had no way to know that her words, “you can be the helper,” would be tucked away as a warning call to stay still while other people danced. Memory saves some words but not others.
The chickens who have witnessed fox and hawk attacks are especially tuned in. They run faster for cover and are slower to emerge, hypervigilance, of course, means survival. My human brain is barely different. I have always listened closely, waiting for signs of safety. Not only are there shadows from the past– talons are simply everywhere: the news, the fine print on waivers, the bacteria that might lurk in the dark lake I finally swam across this past summer. Would it invade the cut on my big toe?
But the chickens cannot always see what they are hiding from and neither can I. When I used to teach knitting I always told my students to never pull too hard on a knot. Yarn has to be gently teased apart. Sometimes the innermost tangle is really rather small. It’s not worth giving up. Most skeins are completely salvageable.
A teacher recently discarded an excuse I had been using on why I could not finish a project. She did it cleverly and it wasn’t even directed at me. But I knew I had finally and truly lost my cover. I could no longer forgive myself for giving up, avoiding risk. I thought of my still chicken under the squash leaf. I tried to make out the details of the shadowy hawk that made me chicken, too. It finally came to me, days later but all at once, of why I was so scared. Of course, I wish I had turned on the light sooner.
It’s not so good to stay in the dark.