I have observed all kinds of birds, both wild and domestic, for most of my life. I have watched turkey vultures riding thermal updrafts, rising like bubbles in a kettle of boiling water. I have seen my future in the circular patterns of hawks, great invisible rings that reveal my earth-bound path. A white bird, like an arrow above my head, foretold the birth of my first daughter and left a name for the second.
When I was small, I was allowed to go to the chicken coop to collect eggs. One by one, I set them in my basket, the palest green alongside the softest brown. I reached under a sitting hen and was startled by a warm, wet egg as it emerged from her body. I pulled my hand back, embarrassed. I went back for it later and found it as smooth and dry as a stone.
In the basement of his old farmhouse, my grandfather had a brooder. It looked like a multistoried apartment building for chicks. They would crowd around the light bulb for heat, like yellow electrons darting around a red nucleus. There was a constant dawn chorus of peeping. Sometimes my grandmother would take a chick, and place it in my hands. I would put my cheek against it, and inhale the scent of the yellow fluff. For a moment, it was mine. Then I would return it to the song, losing it forever to the chaotic yellow.
At home, we had our own flock and a tame bantam rooster I could cradle like a cat. I held his feathered claws carefully away from my belly. I sensed his docility and slipped my hands into the downy space between the feathers. I felt the naked skin and the bumps that rooted the feathers and watched him flap from my arms to the ground. He looked at me with one eye. With a slow, staccato prance, he returned to his beloved hens, a drawn-out cluck emerging softly from his beak.
One summer weekend, when my grandparents came to our place, I was asked to help outside. I was given two struggling chickens, one for each hand. I carried them by their warm feet to the chopping block, where my grandfather waited with his axe. I passed him one bird, and he laid the head between two nails. With the shallow sympathy of a child, I felt pity for the thrashing body, and sorrow for the head. When I passed him the second bird, my job was done. I went over to my grandmother, who presided over a pot of boiling water. She dipped the freshly killed chicken in to loosen the feathers for removal. I watched, wondering what good the feathers were, if they couldn’t fly away.
When I was a child, I frequently dreamed that I could fly. It felt so natural to come down the stairs as if on wings, swooping out the door, joining the wild birds that have not lost the ability to fly. In one dream, I coasted over our chicken coop, and peered through windows of protective wire. I saw the dream hens waking and stretching their wings, remembering the sky. I woke up grounded, wishing flight could be as easy to hold as the egg that had been born into my hand.