It’s the filthiest creature to crawl the earth. Feathered and yellow-eyed. You can never be too careful when the chicken is near. Many a time, I’ve held a piece of bread, piece of fruit, only to have it snagged and ravished when I turned my face to the side, plucked away by the sharp and sneaky beak of the chicken. Plucked clean out of my hand! Daring they are, stupid too.
My host family carries the chicken whip. It’s a hunk of bamboo the length of my arm with a wiry stretch of rope tied to one end. Whistling, my host mom lashes it out, coils it back, snapping it at the backs of the filthies. She carries it over her shoulder, the tail end tracing a snake path in the dust behind her heals. Proudly over one shoulder with the elbow poked out to keep it in place. But you should see her use it. Those hens, hens from hell. The poor creatures suffer from the heat as we all do these days. With temperatures well past one hundred, the chickens take it like the worst of us. Walking about aimlessly, from the shade of one bush to the next, they cock their wings open, beaks crusted with dirt, grime, the remnants of some insect or mud puddle they indulged in, gaping wide, panting like dogs. Necks extended like they’ve got a grape in the gullet, gasping at the heavy air, swallowing it in gobs. The tips of their wings hang and brush the dust as they wander, peering at me with a beady eye.
I watched a chicken swallow a crayon. The yellow crayon of a child, peeled clean of the paper. By and by wandered the chicken, ass up, face down, pecking, pecking all about. Spotted the crayon with a beady eye it did. Fast as anything snagged it in a fierce way, swallowed it whole before I could bat a lash. I’ve seen them eat things unknown. Crazy things also. A whole banana peel down the hatch. Their own eggs. A dead mouse – a single swallow.
My host mom has about forty of the devils. Two grand roosters, one with a blind eye. In the morning, no more than a few minutes after seven o’clock, she calls for them like a mother calls for those she cares about. They know her voice, she has a beautiful voice, a singsong. The chickens know it. Peh-pee-peh-pee-peh-pee. Pee-poo-pee-poo-pee-poo. They run to her, flapping themselves along faster. Circle her like horses in a circus ring, around and around her ankles one following the next. She throws grain onto their backs, their heads drill the bricks swallowing corn, one kernel at a time.
Every house has them, they wander through the roads, scratch in the forest in a way that sets your hackles to rising. Is it a snake? A bear? Something could hurt me your head tells you as you peer at a wall of leaves, can’t see beyond all those damn leaves. But it’s a chicken, no more, no less. A chicken with it’s face in the dirt.
They lay their eggs in ovens. The ovens that are shaped like brick igloos. Inside you’ll find an egg or several. In bushes also, in your bed, in the kitchen. After popping one out, the hen will start up a terrible, hellish racket. Calling it out to the world, another egg, another breakfast.
Sometimes my host mom ties her chickens to a tree. A small piece of wire or twine, looped around the foot, looped around the tree. She’s mala, she tells me. She’s bad. Pecking all the other chickens. Teach her a lesson, maybe that’s what she’s doing. Maybe she’s starving the mean outta her. Four or five days she’s tethered like a dog. Forced to sleep on the ground, lay her eggs in the dust.
I’ll get some. Ten maybe, it’s a lot but better to have more eggs than less. There’s nothing worse than being short an egg and no sense in buying eggs when a chicken cost’s less than a dozen. I’ll make them a little house with a grass roof, wire sides and a perch where they can sit and feel safe at night. When it rains they won’t have to walk around like sodden, muddy beggars. Of course they’ll be filthy though. They’re going to be nasty, mean things, speckled and hungry with the beady eye. I’ll hate them but when it’s time, I won’t be able to wring their necks with my hands. It takes but a minute but I know what I’d feel; awful, sad, guilty. I’ll carry one by it’s legs instead. Take it next door. There’s not a Paraguayan here who wouldn’t do the hairy job for me.