A Look at How Chickens Make Things Without Hands
Writing (and illustrating) believable magical realism
As promised, this week we are going to look at how chickens are able to accomplish tasks without hands. While they may at times require the help of others, much of what they accomplish is done through clever use of their beaks and what is available to them in their surroundings. Everything must be treated as ordinary, everyday chicken behavior to qualify as magical realism.
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In this chapter, just before Gracie shares her Most Secret Plan Ever that would hopefully make The Sewer Rat leave them alone forever, The Swift brought a message from Mayflower, her old friend. With her was a barn owl who left them with a physical reminder of the real danger should they fail. This is from Nate’s journal and his perspective.
When I joined the chickens for Gracie’s meeting, they briefly explained the hat and all that they had learned from The Swift. I confirmed that the initials inside the hat likely did stand for Professor Accipiter. As I took the hat inside the house, I realized just how real all of these strange events were. The evidence was right there in my hands.
Everyone stood back from the center of the play area while Gracie explained her plan. She drew each part in the sandy earth with the quill end of a feather.
She pretended to peer beneath the shrubs and acted out what she hoped would happen first. She stretched to look across the street towards the sewer drain and acted out what she hoped would happen last. Step by step, she explained her well-choreographed plan.
The others all jumped and flapped their wings as quietly as possible when she had finished. Even Pearl cheered without making a single sound, and so I knew this was obviously The Most Secret Plan Ever.
“That sounds wonderful, but also very complicated,” I whispered. “Sometimes complicated plans can go wrong because there are so many parts. Do you think you might want to make it simpler?”
Gracie looked at me. She looked at her drawing in the sandy earth.
“I suppose we can do without the giant rat trap,” she said. “We will probably never find a spring big enough.”
“That was my favorite part,” whispered Bessie.
“And maybe we can even do without the celebration fireworks,” added Gracie.
“That was my favorite part,” whispered Pearl.
“I think we should save the cheese from the giant rat trap for ourselves,” whispered Blanche.
Gracie brushed out those parts with the feathery end of her pen, and everyone agreed the plan would work much better.
They all looked up at me as if to ask, “So when are you going to get started?” This did make sense since I was the only one with hands to hold the tools and build everything. I motioned to Gracie to sit in my lap.
“Gracie, are you absolutely and positively and completely sure you want to do this?” I whispered. “This looks very dangerous for you. There has to be a better way.”
“I have to do this. Not just for the others, but for myself too. It is like when The Robin asked me, ‘If you are a dancer, then why are you not dancing?’ If I am a leader now, then why am I not leading?
“As for dangerous, it is like what you said. A heart can’t hold love and fear at the same time. I will think about how much I am loved and how much I love everyone here. Then I will simply dance and take a leap of faith. That is also what you told me, not what The Sewer Rat told me.”
She looked at me without blinking. I could see the determination in her eyes. She could see the fear of losing her in my eyes.
“I know, Gracie. I know. I need to follow my own advice and think about how much you love me and not be afraid. Let’s do this.”
She got up and scratched away her design with her feet, and the ground looked exactly as it had before.
“Now we are the only ones who know,” she said.
Together, we built Gracie’s amazing invention while she kept watch. Gracie was taking no chances of anyone outside our garden discovering her plan. If she saw a dog or a cat, especially a cat, she would call out, and then the others would pretend to be playing while I would pretend to be reading.
She would do the same if she saw any type of movement along the street or in the dark opening of the storm drain where The Sewer Rat lived. She knew even with his chubby stomach, he could make his body long and thin. When he did, he could creep along the curbing, almost unseen in the shadows.
Bessie, Blanche, and Pearl dug a new hollow in the safety of the chicken run. It was deeper than usual. From the street, no one could see any chickens hiding down inside. This would make the run look empty with all the chickens up in the coop.
High in the brambles, I positioned a small container for milk and a funnel. At the top of a platform and directly beneath the funnel was a saucer. The milk container was connected to a sturdy cord that went from one pulley to another in the low tree branches and then down into the chicken run. No one could see any of this from the street because most of it was blocked from view.
This part of their plan began even before the rest was fully in place. I would put some milk into the small container high in the brambles. In the late afternoon, just before evening, Bessie would settle into The Deep Hollow and pull on the sturdy cord with an “M” tag that was tied to the container of milk. It would pour into the funnel and then down to the saucer.
In less than a week, several stray cats had come to expect a saucer of milk in the late afternoon. They soon changed their evening path to follow the shadiest, darkest part of the yard along the brambles.
At the end of the run that faced the shadowy brambles, I removed some fencing and replaced it with two of the doors The Robin had described to Gracie. They were the special doors that chickens could open and close without hands. The first door had a hidden latch on the inside. It was called The Swing-Out Door. Only a chicken’s beak or my screwdriver could fit into a special hole in the latch. Lifting the latch allowed the door to swing open. Lowering the latch kept the door from accidentally closing.
Gracie thought back to when The Sewer Rat had told her, “Why don’t you find a way to come outside?” Perhaps this was the kind of door he had in mind, but the second door definitely was not.
The second door would drop hard and fast. It was called The Drop-Down Door. A long cord tied to a metal loop held it open. The loop fit just on the tip end of a flexible yardstick. Next to it was a bracket holding that end of the yardstick. A screw held the opposite end and kept it from moving.
If any of the chickens stepped on an “X” in the middle of the yardstick, it would bend down in the middle. The end that was nailed could not move, but the end that held the metal loop would move. As the yardstick bent down, it moved in the bracket, and the bracket would push the loop with the cord tied to it off the tip end of the yardstick. The end of the cord with the metal loop would fly up, and The Drop-Down Door would fall down, securing all the chickens safely inside.
The last part of Gracie’s invention used The Record Player and a life-sized puppet that looked as much like Gracie as possible. I even gave it a crown covered with glitter and plastic jewels, just like what The Sewer Rat had imagined a ballet étoile would wear. Bessie would operate the puppet with a cord labeled with a “P” tag.
It was all curiously simple. We called this remarkable invention The Sewer Rat Eradicator and made sure it remained The Most Secret Plan Ever.
In this chapter, just before carrying out The Most Secret Plan Ever, Gracie reviews each step in condensed form to make sure everyone understands their parts. After everyone has gone up for the evening, she has a curious visitor, The Raven With Blue Eyes.
Before they carried out The Most Secret Plan Ever, Gracie reviewed it with everyone for the final time under one of the rose of Sharon bushes.
They all needed to know exactly what to do so the next day would appear as ordinary as possible. There would be no time for questions. Everything needed to look as normal as possible.
“Best Friend Chicken stays hidden in Deep Hollow. Two White Chickens look tired and sleepy. Yawn biggest yawns ever. Go up to coop for night. Watch for danger through cracks.
“Dancer Chicken raises latch of Swing-Out Door. Goes outside. Flips latch down to keep door open. Hides behind Record Player.
“Best Friend Chicken pulls ‘P’ tag. Makes Chicken Puppet stand on top of Record Player. Pulls ‘M’ tag. Milk fills saucer.
“Dancer Chicken turns on Record Player and hides again.
“Cat does not like noisy machine but likes milk. Best Friend Chicken makes puppet dance with ‘P’ tag.
“Real Dancer Chicken leaps back inside. Lands on yardstick ‘X.’ Releases cord with metal loop. Drop-Down Door shuts fast. Chickens all safe. Cat comes for milk.”
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief just as if it was all really happening while Gracie was describing it.
“Cat drinks milk. From Deep Hollow, Dancer Chicken calls out ‘La-Dee-Dah, La-Dee-Dee. Look at me! Look at me!’ Rat hears and sneaks up on Chicken Puppet.
“Cat sees Rat. Sneaks up on Rat. Rat too busy sneaking up on Chicken Puppet to know. Cat gets Rat. Rat gets nothing. Chickens celebrate!”
They could hardly contain their excitement. If all went as Gracie planned, this would be something they would remember for the rest of their lives.
After I gave them their evening treats, everyone went up to the coop except for Gracie. As she looked around to make sure all was as it should be, a raven landed softly on the garden fence.
Gracie would tell me later that the raven was the most exquisitely beautiful bird she had ever seen, and from her description, I was sure I had seen this particular raven before.
Gracie said that as beautiful as the colors of the sunset were that evening, her black feathers were even more beautiful with their glossy perfection. But it was not her feathers Gracie noticed first. It was her eyes.
All ravens have blue eyes when they are young, but they turn to gray and then brown as they grow older. This was a fully grown raven who still had blue eyes, just as clear and blue as a summer sky.
This raven was special. Gracie could tell. Even though a raven had never alighted in our backyard garden, Gracie felt an immediate connection to this one she had never met. There was something extraordinary about the raven’s presence, and not knowing what else to do, Gracie began to bow as a greeting of respect, but just as she did, the raven stopped her by speaking.
“How do you know my name? Did The Robin send you?”
“I have a message from a friend who is a Guardian. You have a strong mind and an even stronger heart. Although that friend once laughed at you and called you ‘Princess,’ do not let that word or any other hurtful words prevent you from carrying out your plan.”
“Did Lefty send you?”
“The one who sent me is only known by my kind as a Guardian. Who sent the message is not as important as the message itself. Do not let hurtful words stop you.”
“What is your kind?”
“We are Messengers.”
Gracie had never heard of birds called Guardians or Messengers.
“Are you part of The Living Library?”
“I am a Messenger. I have brought words to you from a friend who is a Guardian. Do not let hurtful words stop you. That is all you need to know.”
The Raven looked at Gracie.
“I have said the words I was given to say. Now I will say what my own heart wants to say.”
As she relaxed, Gracie watched the raven’s silhouette against the sunset shifting from hard and angular to soft and rounded.
“I apologize for having been so stern with you. We are so different, yet we are so much alike. My job is more than just delivering messages. It is also protecting the sweet and innocent ones like you.
“My heart has been changed by what I have seen and by what I have had to do to defend others. I do not want that to happen to your heart.”
Gracie watched as the blue of The Raven’s eyes seemed to cloud over and become a stormy gray. It was as if she was remembering what her heart was once like so many weary years ago.
“That is what happened to Bessie’s heart, isn’t it?” asked Gracie. “After the cat scratched her and her comb grew crooked, her heart changed.”
“It may be too late for me, but it is not too late for her. There is more happening than what you may realize.
“There is not much time. The love Bessie has been holding on to will not last much longer. Love must be able to dance from one heart to another.
“Love is like the wind. You do not know where it comes from or where it is going. You only feel its presence, but it must keep moving for it to exist.
“Ravens know these things, and my blue eyes can see things other eyes cannot see.”
“Like what?” asked Gracie.
“Like the color of Love. It is indescribably iridescent. It flows and flutters like a dancing ribbon in a breeze.”
“I wish I could see like you.”
“Sometimes this seeing is not such a great gift. It also means being able to see the color of The Absence Of Love, an unpleasant color that devours all other colors. It is the emptiest of all colors.”
“Can it devour us too?”
“Not when you call someone your friend. Love is like the wind we call a breath, a life-giving breath. Whenever you call someone your friend aloud, you breathe out love and life. Then more love fills your heart anew, and you will not need to see it with eyes like mine. You will feel it with a heart like yours.”
“ÏHÏ, Raven,” said Gracie.
As she spoke, she could feel the love in her heart being breathed out and her heart filling again. Then she watched as a sparkling iridescence passed through The Raven’s eyes and a hint of calm peace swept over her face.
“Unless you are fearless against your own Biggest Scary Thing, Bessie may never be able to overcome her own Biggest Scary Thing. When tomorrow comes, know in your heart that you are so much more than good enough. And then dance, ÏHÏ. Dance.”
With that, The Raven With Blue Eyes flew off, leaving only the sudden chill of the evening air blowing through Gracie’s fluff feathers.
There was a cold front coming. Gracie could already feel the change beginning, and she hurried up the chicken ladder and into the coop.
ÏHÏ or “friend” is one of my favorite words in the language of chickens. It is extremely important to chickens, and I hope that some readers will find these chicken words as a kind of “secret code” among their friends.
A question for our readers
One of the features that Substack provides which Revue, our previous newsletter host did not, is the option to offer a poll. So I thought we might give that a try!
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Thank you for reading!
John, Gracie, Bessie, Blanche, Pearl, Emily, and Amelia
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