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Flesh and Blood

April 26, 2021

You ever hear that Johnny Cash song?

I never really liked it. I’m not one for a simple lyric. There’s nothing wrong with them and, sure, I’m as big a fan as anyone of mindlessly belting Sheryl Crowe or Lisa Loeb, like my car is the American Idol stage and I have things to prove to Simon. But it’s not just contemporary music. Some of my favorite music, believe it or not if you’ve encountered me on the road this particular week with every song in the Dropkick Murphys discography blaring, is old-timey gospel or bluegrass or country music.

It all depends on my mood what I’m rocking one day to the next. Sometimes I listen to nothing but true crime podcasts and Hidden Brain for like six weeks and then I start to think I am a private investigator, and also way more intelligent than I am, and I know it’s time to switch off Amazon talky-talk and back to Amazon space out and drive to work playing 90’s alternative roulette. This afternoon, though, I found myself calling up “Flesh and Blood” on the old digital jukebox and hitting the dreaded (according to my apparently acoustically-abused children) the repeat one button.

The repeat one button is the reason that every time I bellow “girls what’s my weakness” my daughters respond “men” like we’re running punishment laps because someone hid a donut in her foot locker.

I am attracted to rabbit holes like a moth to a flame but I am a woefully pear-shaped doe and my cottontail end never quite fits all the way through, so I tarry in them far longer than one really ought to. One time, I forgot to consent to a software update for like three months, and my phone just played “Shoop,” “Powderfinger,” and “Fish and Whistle” for weeks and weeks. Straight. That’s how long it took me to realize my playlist was only three songs long, so deeply do I freedive into the immersive sensory experience that is a truly masterful composition.

Sometimes, though, even lyrics are too much because, as I said, I prefer a lyricist plunge me directly into the throbbing core of an existential crisis with an unimpeachable bridge than leave me humming the same piddly chorus for three days straight like those ants that get colonized by the mushroom spores and become ambulatory husks of their former selves living only to perpetuate the mushroom hoards. I don’t like poetry unless it is the epitome of un-freaking-cluckable, and I like my lyrics like my poetry. I want the metaphors to be so divinely inspired that they are both hauntingly inaccessible yet intuitively understood on a spiritual level. I want the rhythm and the melody of the music to feel amniotically familiar yet mesmerizing in its novelty.

I’m talking Jim Morrison’s “Ghost Song.”

Everyone’s heart has a path that leads directly in. The parking lot for mine is on my crown because it’s a cliff dive from the whorl of my hair directly into my brain with my heart just a synapse away. Love, like poetry appreciation, is an electrical, neurological phenomenon to me. But it’s exhausting. I’ve gone full steam ahead with what appears to be the species-wide agreement that we develop our minds to the limit but we squash all those icky feelings right down into our toenails and then cut them off and flush them down the toilet weekly.

Sometimes, my brain needs permission to flatline for a hot minute, and that is when I turn to the simple, ancient songs of my mountain-dwelling Appalachian people.

Songs sung to single acoustic guitars strummed for audiences of zero to six, max, around campfires and the thundering energy of ancient espresso machines in dim, cozy corners. Simple songs, about simple things.

Because that is all I wish for my life. Simplicity.

Part of how I have accomplished it so far is to ensure myself enough space between me and my neighbors that I can press the repeat one button on “I’ll Fly Away” with guiltless abandon, and just let go of the kite string for a bit and do exactly that, let go, while I turn berries into jam and watch my chickens hunt unwary invertebrates along the edges of the treeline.

Speaking of the henhouse.

The reason I got so obsessed with Mr. Cash and his simple song this afternoon is that this morning I awoke to, quite possibly, my favorite sound in the whole entire world.

Muffled within the Styrofoam womb next to my bed I heard the faintest little “cheep cheep cheep” and right hand to god, you guys, I was a six-year-old on Christmas morning. Every spring, since our first full year with grown hens, and a grown rooster (who eventually outgrew his own britches and transitioned into a delicious Sunday supper with gravy and biscuits by fall) to fertilize them, my daughters and I collect a clutch of eggs from our chicken coop, all of them, twenty or more when possible, in one fell morning swoop and bring them directly inside to a pre-warmed and pre-humidified incubator.

It’s nothing fancy. It’s a Styrofoam box with two lid windows and a primitive digital display so you know how the tiny lives inside are cooking over the course of 21 anticipatory days and nights, give or take.

Chicken eggs take roughly 21 days to incubate, though ours is truly the bottom line incubator so, while I sprung for the automatic egg turner that ensures your future chicks won’t melt into the little scoop of membrane and blood vessels on one side of their eggshells by day 12, I was unable to procure a sold-separately (but probably discontinued in 1986) fan assembly to distribute heat evenly throughout what amounts to a $60 uterus.

And whoever designed it isn’t actually very smart because the heating unit is on one edge of the box lid rather than the center, so that 2/3 of the rows of auto-turning zygote vessels are actually below optimal heat thresholds to transform goo into cheeping on a Sunday morning.

Anyhow, we’re nearing the end of our first batch, which is smaller than I’d have liked. But this was a hard year on our birds, and I should probably disclose before I tell you this that all of my evidence is circumstantial, but I’m pretty sure the admittedly-stunning Tom turkey I spent 9 months and usually the last of my pocket change feeding-slash-nurturing like a human child murdered two Brahma roosters and attempted to slaughter the best rooster the world has ever known.

Tom’s since been exiled to a neighbor’s farm in exchange for a half dozen of his fertilized eggs (because one experience isn’t enough data to prove to my skeptic’s mind the hypothesis that all turkeys are evil, but this next set better know they’re hatching on notice, that’s all) and a new rooster who, let’s be honest, could never dream of standing in Oisin’s perfect, noble, peace sign shaped footprints on my claw and beak-ravaged lawn.

No rooster, not even the chillest, most companion-like rooster, will ever compare with Oisin.

I was pretty bummed when something got him because I’d been planning to go full Dr. Frankenstein and just incubate 75 percent of what he fertilized so that I’d have my own army of Brahma-cochin cross mongrels I could name “brochins” and adore to the end of my days.

But, the morning we confirmed that he was not simply tarrying in the gully or seeking out anthills he could alert the hens to, like the perfect, perfect gentleman he was, before partaking of the bounty himself, I found two unexpected early morning eggs from the oviduct of a hen I knew he’d taken quite the little shine to over the few short weeks he was with us.

I threw them immediately in the incubator, a full four days before we ushered a clutch of my friend Amy’s eggs in as well. I mean, we aren’t going to be filling it with anything for a couple of weeks. At least until the new rooster has a chance to be delivered and establish a hen-lovin’ schedule. Just enough time to incubate some of her chooks while we wait. But the two Oisin eggs I managed to get through the first few days of ambivalence, and last Friday I sat huddled in my closet over a flashlight peering through their tawny, speckled shells pleased to see almost no light penetrating the veiny, throbbing universe within which it had gone from breakfast to life over the past almost-month.

When the egg is almost entirely black, with only the blunt end reserved by a slow-growing pocket of air – around day 18 – it’s time to lay the eggs on their sides in a separate incubator and get ready for the magic to happen.

Oisin’s boys (god willing, though we’ll adore and revere his hens, if they’re hens, just the same as we would his roos) should be here sometime between now and Tuesday. It’s not a perfect science, and the only guarantee is that you better get right with god on the whole neonatal and infant death reality of incubation because out of a full incubator it’s not unlikely that no more than 55 or 60 percent of your doted-over eggs will become chickens. And the ones that don’t just adorably dissolve into a confetti egg filled with party sprinkles you can crack in celebratory revelry over the ones who make it. Some just quit, at some point between day five and day fourteen, so when you come back expecting to see twitches and happiness it turns out to be blood rings where embryos had been days prior and the most impossibly delicate little bodies to bury after they couldn’t crack through a stubborn, dried out membrane.

It can be heartbreaking. And I’m almost a crone. My eight-year-old daughters have seen some gnarly eggtopsies over the past few summers and they’ve had to come to stark and unconscionable terms at their tender age with the reality that all the granola homesteady sunshine and rainbows is neither as sunshiny nor as rainbow-laden as the brochure implies.

But it is worth it.

And I think that’s why I got a little obsessed with the tender, somehow remorseful lyrics of Mr. Cash’s song this afternoon. There’s something visceral about holding a flashlight up to the butt of an egg you’ve spent 18 days generating. Just like getting chickens in the fist place, if you plan to let them roam which, for me is basically the entire point, you can’t set a clutch of eggs in an incubator expecting each and every one to be born conflict-free, a beautiful and unique snowflake that will never, ever poop on your deck.

“Flesh and Blood” has turned me off up to now because it’s a song about pining.

I’m not a piner. I’ve pined, but I’m always deeply disappointed in myself even while in the midst of a pining, mournful wallow in my own funk.

But there’s something there. I feel the way the speaker in the song feels as he longs for something real, and tangible, and his that he can hold in his arms and feel with his hands.

It’s not enough for me to just live in the country. I’ve got to have chickens.

But it’s not enough for me just to have chickens. I have to bring chickens to life in my bedroom for months out of each year.

I can’t just enjoy living in the woods.

I have to kneel down into the leaf litter and let the snowmelt stain my denim calves, and dig my hands into the cold clay earth and turn it into something altogether new.

Flesh and blood needs flesh and blood.

And, apparently, the one I need will come with a mighty and breathtaking, cock-a-doodle-doo.

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