Chickens and Raiders of The Lost Ark

          Indiana Jones found the ark of the covenant, but the escape route was filled with snakes. “It had to be snakes,” he complained, but he got the ark and the girl out anyway. The ark and Harrison would still be lost, had it been me, and birds instead of snakes. My phobia about birds had its origin, I am convinced, in an incident in my early childhood. I could not have been more than three years old when I had an encounter with a huge chicken. I only remember a single moment, like a single frame from film. Much later, when I asked my mother about the event, she filled in some details, but was amazed that I remembered it.

          For some reason, I was in the chicken run behind Big Dad and Nana Cox’s house. The area, long and narrow, fenced with “chicken wire,” was bordered in front by the backyard of my grandparents’ house, flanked on either side by a rose garden and a vegetable garden, and footed by a small hen roost. In his retirement, my grandfather made an effort to reconstitute the farm on which he grew up. At one time he had a cow, horses, chickens, two gardens, a peach “orchard,” and a half dozen of apple and pecan trees. My parents lived next door with their growing family and were the chief beneficiaries of the bounty of his garden and livestock. How he managed to keep all this livestock within the town limits without incurring some kind of legal problem, I am not sure. I do remember my mother complaining about the flies and the smell in those hot, southern summers.

          It was one of those hot southern summer mornings when I encountered the big bird. I expect I had gone with my grandmother to feed the chickens. All I really remember is my outfit and the chicken. I as wearing a yellow, smocked dress, with a row of ducks along the bottom of the smocking and white high topped shoes that all toddlers used to wear. Even at that early age, I was conscious of my clothes. This dress was a special favorite of mine, because my grandmother had smocked the bodice of it just for me. I remember standing inside the fence, then seeing a giant white chicken, trying to peck the ducks on my dress. Next, I remember seeing my seeing feet, in their little shoes, flying up in the air, and feeling terror. My Mom told me that someone heard me cry out, saw the chicken standing over me, and rescued me before I was hurt. I only remember the huge bird and the fear.

          This incident might not have amounted to much in my psychic life, if it had not been reinforced by further incidents with chickens. My grandparents had a black maid, named Mabel, a redoubtable woman, of strong opinions and gentle mien. We used to follow her around, as little kids, because she did the most interesting things. She was the one who built the fire under the brick enclosed wash pot in the wash house, out back. She would stir garments in the pot full of boiling water, and if we were good, she would let us hold the long stick with her and help stir. The witches scene in Macbeth was anticlimactic after that.

          Another activity included killing a chicken for dinner. She had two methods, neck wringing and the hatchet. The neck wringing was quick and economical. She would seize the chicken by its head and whirl its body around, wringing the head right off from the body. The second method, with the hatchet, must have been reserved for tougher birds, maybe roosters. She would hold down the chicken and my grandfather would chop off its head. She would drop the chicken on the ground and it would run around for a while, minus a head. This was a high treat for us, and provided a visual referent of the most vivid sort for one of my father’s favorite expressions. He would boom out, usually on a Sunday morning, as we all were dashing to get ready for Sunday school, “Why don’t you children stop running around like chickens with your heads cut off, and get organized.” We certainly knew from personal experience what we must have looked like to inspire his comment.

          We also knew when Mabel, who was a gentle soul, and long suffering, on rainy afternoons when we were all inside, shouting and raging around, was driven to say, “You children hush up, and be still, or I am going to wring your necks.” We knew she had the experience and training to do just that. We paid attention. Having seen her in action, we had no desire to probe limits of her patience.

          I am sure that my horror of birds comes from the trauma of my early life. I am just glad that I can still remember where my phobia came from and don’t have to pay big money to get my memories resurrected. I am not that fond of chicken even today.

Laviece Eugenia Cox Ward