I loved that chicken. Loved it enough to stand at the edge of the woods calling for it until well after I should have gone to bed. Dirty, bare feet, skinny legs perched on the edge of the grass line, too afraid of stickers and the dark to go any further. “Here, Chickie, Chickie.” Your flock has gone to bed, their round, soft bodies warm in the hay, heads tucked beneath their wings. “Here, Chickie.” My Feathered Fancy never returned. She was claimed by the forest, plucked by an errant coyote. That year, I won the blue ribbon at the county fair for showing a Rhode Island Red, but she didn’t have feathers on her feet. For months at twilight, I would creep to the edge of the woods and quietly call, “Here, Chickie.”
When my boy is born, we name him Abel. We take him home, and he won’t stop crying. He is always hungry, and I don’t know that I don’t have enough milk. At his one-week checkup, he’s lost over a pound. They check his bilirubin; it is dangerously high. The stuff that turns our bruises yellow is poisoning my baby’s brain. At the hospital ER, a doctor tells me that they are admitting him into the highest level of NICU. They tell us, as they take him screaming from my arms and connect him to tubes, not to be scared. They tell us that chances are he will be fine.
That night, we check-in to the Ronald McDonald house that is connected to the hospital. I get up every hour to pump my now swollen breasts and walk my milk down the long hallway to the NICU. I can’t hold him, but I sit by his alien bed, and through the tubes, the monitors, the lights, I stroke his tiny needle pricked feet. “I’m here,” I lean close and whisper. “Don’t be afraid. I’m right here.” We go home in two days.
I loved that cat. Señor El Gato was his name. Most barn cats are mean or scared of people, but Señor would follow my brother and me around the ranch, constantly yowling a raspy howl to make sure we were paying him enough attention. We found some kittens. The tiniest things. Closed little eyes, mewling for milk. We moved them into a cardboard box in our bathroom and bottle fed them every four hours for weeks. One pretty spring day, my mother put the box of kittens outside on the porch and went out for a walk. I was lying on the couch when I heard their cries. There, in the box, sat Señor El Gato. He’d eaten them. Broken their little necks, all but one. My mother came home to me cradling the lone survivor in my lap. Sobbing. Señor El Gato was nowhere to be seen. “That’s what male cats do,” she said. “They were a threat to his territory.”
Abel is a toddler. We’re at the park, and there is an older boy who has decided to take charge of my little one. At first, it’s ok. They are sliding together and chasing each other. But then the boy starts chasing the ducks and the pigeons, kicking at them, shrieking that he’s going to kill them and eat them for supper. I glance at his parents. They smile and wave. Aren’t kids the darndest things?
The older boy starts to get rough with Abel, man-handling him, picking him up, tickling him too hard. I ask him to stop, but it’s only a brief pause before he’s at it again. I glance at the boy’s parents. They smile and wave. Suddenly the boy is screaming, clutching his arm and crying. His parents take notice. “What happened?” one asks.
The boy points furiously at Abel then back at his arm. There, not quite deep enough to draw blood, are two tiny toddler tooth indentions. I apologize profusely. “I’m so sorry. He’s never done anything like that before.” But on the inside, I’m not sorry, not one tiny bit.
I loved that calf, from the first moment I saw her. My dad and I were riding in the feed truck, sweeping the pasture after moving a herd of cattle and making sure that none of the mamas left their babies behind, when we spotted her, running in circles bawling, tripping over rocks. When we got closer, we realized she didn’t have any eyes, just soft velvet lids. The longest lashes, covering empty sockets. We loaded her up in the cab. She sat on my lap on the way home. Velvet nuzzle in the crook of my arm, soft hooves dangling down past my knees.
Every morning, I got up at 5 am to bottle-feed her before my school bus came. I’d hear her bawling across the pasture, and when I’d get to her, she’d head butt my arm, covering me in slobber that smelled like sweet grass. We named her Helen. My dad got a better job at another ranch. Before we left, we sold Helen to some people who lived down the road. The man talked about her meat being so tender that you could cut her up with a fork. When he drove away, Helen was turning in circles and bawling in the back of his truck. That night, my dad gave me $60.00 from the sale. I lay in bed and cried. “You knew this would happen.” he said, “What did you think was going to happen?”
Abel is playing with his cousins on the big cow skin rug in our living room. We have a rescued foster dog asleep on the couch, and I am in deep discussion with my sister-in-law about the overcrowded shelter, how people should spay and neuter their pets. One of the cousins lies down and lovingly rubs his head on the rug. “Look right there.” I say “You can see where the cow’s brand was.” My sister-in-law marvels at this—at how I can care so much for the strays and be so matter-of-fact about the hide in my living room. I guess that’s what growing up on ranches does to you.
Some days later, I am lying on my couch in a hay fever fog, and my husband is chasing Abel around, trying to get him dressed for a walk outside. Abel comes to my side: “Mama, walk! Mama, walk!” he demands.
“Mama can’t walk, she needs to rest.” I say and blow my nose loudly. He crawls up beside me and snuggles up in the crook of my arm.
“Abel rest, too. Abel rest with Mama.” He says and blows his nose quite convincingly. The child, this boy, hugs me with such gusto that it makes me afraid sometimes of that inevitable day when he will be too big, when his feet will be too large for his gangly body. When he won’t want to bother to tell me that he’s leaving the house. I wonder if, amongst the acne and braces and hormonal stink that I know is sure to come, my heart will break for my boy who loved me so much.
I love this boy from the first time I learned about that little zygote residing deep in the recesses of my being. Recent studies have shown that a part of my boy’s cells will live in me forever, in my heart, my breast tissue–tiny cells of his big life. I wrestle with the heartbreak of this every day. I marvel when he learns to jump, to climb stairs, to put his fork succinctly, neatly, into his mouth. At each of these moments, in the midst of our celebration, there is a sadness in me that cannot rectify his growing old.
We are walking around our neighborhood, pointing out the houses, talking about colors, leaping over and into puddles. He is either lagging behind to look at rocks or running full speed ahead to find lizards. We are seldom in step these days. He is ahead of me by at least a city block. When he turns, the autumn sun is on his face, a breeze ruffling his wild, fine baby locks. I quicken my pace to catch up, smiling big. He frowns and holds his hand up to me, “No, Mama, stay there.” He turns and is off again, faster than before. Like kids on a playground holding hands, spinning in circles, whirling faster and faster until our sheer momentum splits us apart. Like chickens and kittens and calves. Like heartbreak and hope. Like a lesson that teaches us before we’re old enough to learn. Like letting go.
Leah Richards is a stay at home mom, writer, and actor who lives in New Orleans, LA. She finds time to reflect and write in between trips to the park and Mardi Gras parades.