Loss and Renewal
“Girls! Girls!” I'd cry as I walked down to the chicken yard with a bowl of rice, the hens' favorite food. And both of them (we were down to just two, through attrition, from a dozen just last year before foxes got to them), the Barred Rock with her grey and black stripes, and the Rhode Island Red with the yellow star on her red chest, would come running towards me. They were so happy as they followed me into the chicken yard and I laid the rice on the ground and they eagerly started eating. It was our daily routine and it meant so much to the three of us, and now the Rhode Island Red is dead and her sister has no idea where she is and she won't even go into the chicken yard anymore. She no longer roosts in the house at night and I have no idea where she is, except that our routine is gone and will not return. We do have a replacement group of eight hens I bought in early summer to expand the flock but they roost in various trees and not in the chicken house and the rice doesn't mean anything to them. So I must adapt to new ways while missing the moments I had with my two girls.
Our three female barn cats died last year. They were each 14 years or older so we knew their time was coming but such loss is always hard because they had been part of our lives for so long. The barn was their home and had been for as long as they lived here.
Of the three, only Charlotte was born here. Her mother, Blackie, either roamed to the property or was dropped off as so many have been. Once, someone left a box of kittens down along the road but I assumed it was just trash that someone had thoughtlessly thrown away so I didn’t look at it for several days and, by then, the kittens were dead. And so we learn.
Blackie was pregnant when she came to the Hermitage and soon gave birth to a litter of kittens. However, this was the summer of 2001 when we still let our dogs run loose about the property. One day we heard a commotion near the wood pile and rushed over to find Riker and Shadow had cornered a kitten deep within the wood. We pulled the dogs away - they had already eaten the rest of the kittens - and carefully pulled away the boards so we could gently withdraw the remaining kitten. We put her and her mother in the stable, safely away from the dogs, and they quickly made the barn their home. In the process, they eventually made the barn rat and mouse free, which had long been an issue.
Boudica showed up shortly thereafter. She was already a young adult. She was very strong, a fearless hunter and had a pink triangle on the tip of her nose, so we named her for the Celtic queen who valiantly fought against the Roman occupation of Britain. She was one tough female.
I fed the cats over Christian’s objections; he felt they should hunt for their food. I felt their lives were hard enough already and that feeding them would relieve needless pressure to survive. Besides, cats are natural hunters and never lose the, to them, thrill of the chase.
And so they became part of our lives. In cold weather they stayed inside the barn which, though unheated, at least kept them dry and out of the weather. And there were plenty of places where they could make nests in various straw piles.
I kept litter boxes filled with sand as I was too cheap to buy Kitty Litter and the cats learned quickly what the boxes were for.
In warm weather, when I kept the barn door open to the barnyard, the cats came out and laid in the sun, enjoying the warmth of the earth and grass. And that’s how these three cats lived their lives. We finally learned to keep the dogs on tie-out chains so they didn’t bother the cats and, indeed, dogs and cats became familiar with each other and, indeed, we became a family.
One thinks, incorrectly of course, that such happiness will last forever. On warm summer evenings I tried to take at least a few minutes after the end of my work and before starting supper to lay on the grass where the cats would join me, laying beside or even on me. Those moments were fleeting, special and we wanted them never to end as I would look high above to see blue sky with clouds drifting lazily by and the occasional bird flying by.
But years pass and we age. The cats began to slow down but there was nothing apparently wrong with them except so many years and the gradually wearing down and wearing out of the machine. Still, it was a surprise to come down one morning to begin my chores and find Boudica dead on the grass. She came out of the barn to die. Her passing did not seem painful, fortunately. It was as though she simply expired.
Charlotte’s death, however, was disconcerting and needless though she, too, had become feeble and walking was difficult for her. Somehow she got caught in the summer house with the dogs. She rarely tried to go into the summer house and I always caught her and put her outside. This time, however, I hadn’t noticed her going inside but the dogs found her and she must have panicked, which sets off their killing instant, because she was dead when Christian found her. There were no wounds on her body so she may have had a heart attack.
A mother never wants to outlive a child but now Blackie, and old and feeble as she was, was alone. On summer days she still walked, unsteadily, into the barnyard to lay in the sun. By now other cats had come to live on the property but none of them lived in the barn, where Blackie was the sole resident.
By now we had turned the barn into a local-history museum and folk art center. I was working on a project and sitting on the floor when Blackie walked right into me, and that’s when I realized she was blind. I also realized she was dying. My heart broke because she was the oldest of all the animals who had lived at the Hermitage. She was a link to a time that was gone and to an earlier Hermitage that no longer existed.
I laid beside her on the floor and she curled up beside me. I held her close and we stayed together for some time before she wandered off. I heard her bumping into the furniture as she made her unsteady way across the barn, and then she was gone. I assumed she went outside to die, as our cats usually do.
It was sometime later when I found her body in a corner of the barn, her home and where she wanted to die.
We buried all three in our cemetery, wrapping all three in beautiful Indian silks and costume jewelry. Over each grave I put a large, heavy flagstone so they would not be disturbed. They are together in death as they were in life.
I had kept their food bowls near the barn door and they quickly learned as young cats that they would get fed whenever I went into the barn. I always kept food in their bowls so they could actually eat whenever they wished but the sight of me going into the barn always caused them to follow me inside and each would crouch at the bowls and begin eating. It was a predictable ritual that we followed daily for years. I never thought those days would end and now they were gone forever. Sleep well, my girls. You are forever with me.
I knew Bowser was blind the moment I saw his eyes. It was early morning and I was awakened by the sound of a barking dog outside, rare because my dog was with me and Zephram’s dog was down with him.
I opened the door and there he was, wandering back and forth, not knowing where he was and walking into shrubs and trees. I immediately named him Bowser and realized someone had dropped him off, someone for whom Bowser had become too much to handle and who thought the Hermitage would be the best place for him. But I also immediately knew we could not handle another dog because the two we have are highly strung and overly sensitive. They cannot share their respective humans with another dog.
We decided the only thing to do was to take him to a no-kill shelter. We found one, where the staff was not pleased at yet another dog to feed and place. A quick inspection also revealed what I had not noticed, that he had advanced testicular cancer, with a huge lump on his scrotum. He needed treatment so a vet was called and preparations were made to take Bowser immediately over for an examination.
I never saw him again and made no effort to find out what happened to him, whether he was treated or put to sleep. By giving him away as he had been given to us, Bowser was out of my life. Still, it was a horrible decision to have to make and even harder to deal with as I felt so sorry for him, blind, lost, afraid. A terrible situation for which I saw no other option. Rarely have I felt so helpless. He was a remarkably sweet and trusting dog living in a very dark world. He needed love and care and I could provide neither. This knowledge is my penance for not doing more. The sound of a barking dog woke me up that morning and I had no idea it would end so tragically.
Foxes and coyotes have taken a toll on our helpless birds this year, our ducks, geese, chickens and turkeys. In a particularly brazen attack, coyotes came right into the barnyard and pulled a turkey hen right off the gate where she was roosting. I found her gutted remains the next morning across the road by following a trail of feathers.
By late October we had a trapper setting out traps but it was too late for those we had lost and I won’t replenish our stock until late spring. I only hope our remaining birds last through the winter.
One day as I was driving back to the Hermitage, I saw a fox on the dam across the road. This was odd because they usually hunt at night and are rarely seen. I assumed it was an old fox, probably mangy and wormy and desperate for food. It may have been the same fox our dogs corralled a couple of days later as I was walking them up along the line and had let them run free for the exercise. Sometimes they find a groundhog or a klatch of baby rabbits but this day was different. What they found was fighting back as a blur of red and I knew they had found a fox, whose fangs, claws and aggressiveness could do real damage to our dogs. I ran to a nearby rock pile and brought two good-sized rocks as weapons while yelling to the dogs to move away, which they were only too glad to do.
The terrified fox was indeed old, mangy and scrawny but still a good fighter and was dangerous because it was fighting for its life. I stoned the fox to death as quickly as I could. As with Bowser, I cursed fate for putting me in this situation and having to take this creature’s life. I yelled at the dogs to go on and they continued their run while I threw the lifeless body over the fence where they couldn’t get to it. They eagerly moved on to their next adventure. I found it harder to forget the staring eyes of a creature who only wanted to be left alone so it could continue killing our birds. What a life.
The heron and the catfish
A heron visits the pond every spring summer when the water warms up and the catfish emerge from their winter hibernation in the mud and begin swimming again. She flies in low, her wide wings slowly flapping and she gently lands on the dam. Standing on her long legs, which bend backwards from ours at the knees, she waits patiently at the water‘s edge for a catfish to move near enough for her to stab with her long spear of a beak. When she is lucky and she catches a fish, if it is small enough, she swallows it whole. If it is larger, she typically takes it away from the pond so it will not escape. back into the water. Then she uses her beak as a knife to repeatedly slash at the fish and pull it apart into edible pieces.
This year she learned something different because she quickly noticed how I came down every afternoon with a bucket of food to feed the catfish. The food is small pellets that float on the surface and the catfish swim to the surface, hungrily swarming, dozens of them, frothing about in the water to eat every pellet. The water around the dock where I stand boils with their bodies. The heron watched this and I could imagine her thinking to herself, “How does he do that? He brings them all to the surface while I have to stand here and wait for the occasional fish to swim by.”
Sometimes she remains at the far edge of the pond while I feed the catfish. Other times she flies a short distance away to watch me until I’ve fed the catfish, bringing them to the surface. “For me?” I can hear the heron asking. “Yes, for you,” I reply.
Being a bird of opportunity, as soon as I leave the dock, she begins flying over to stand on the dock herself or else lands in the shallows by the dock and often, with seconds, has a fish which she proceeds to rip apart and eat.
This puts me in the odd position of being her procurer: by feeding the catfish and keeping them alive, I also offer them up to her so, by their death, she can live. It is a queasy relationship, yet my heart goes out to her. She only has one way of living, spearing fish with her beak. That’s how nature has designed her; she has no options. And it’s a hard-knock life for her; there are days she has flown away hungry, with nothing to eat, to try her luck at another place along the creek.
Even the catfish have grown familiar with her lurking over the edge of the dock. They can see her by looking up through the water and so they often remain down below and sometimes refuse to come up to feed even when I throw food on the surface for them. At such times, when nothing is feeding, I look across the pond to the heron waiting expectantly for them to rise and I say, “Not today, girl.” She will still fly over and assume her position of huntress. Sometimes she still finds an unsuspecting fish but sometimes she doesn’t and so eventually leaves. But the catfish can only go for so long without eating and, when hungry enough, they eventually come to the surface and there she is, waiting for them.
The heron and I have unexpectedly bonded, bird and human. She knows me and will allow me to come remarkably close, but not too close. She has her space and if I enter it, she flies away with slow, loping flaps of her wings. I like to see her at the pond and I like the idea that I can play some role in keeping her alive. There are few things worse for any creature than to be hungry, starving hungry, with no idea as to when or where she will eat again.
As I write this, it is early November. The temperature of the pond water has cooled considerably and the catfish have once again buried themselves in the mud at the bottom of the pond for their long winter hibernation when they slow their body activity to a minimum and simply wait for spring’s warmth. The heron has left for the season. I have seen other herons here in the middle of winter, along the creek when it isn’t frozen over, waiting, waiting, for something to swim by so they can eat. So I don’t know if this heron stays or leaves. In any case, if she survives the winter, I will look for her next year, when it’s warm, when the catfish rise to the surface, when I begin feeding them again and when our connection continues.