Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The end of the line

On Wednesday morning after breakfast Sheila was scratching for bugs by the fence nearest Bart’s house.  Bugs just round off a meal so well, and at this time of year they were getting harder and harder to find.  Most of the other hens were taking the sun on the roost, although those younger hens were still in their corner, even though their escape plot had been discovered.  Sheila shook her head.  Maybe they were figuring out how they could come back from time to time.  Youngsters. They had feathers between their ears as well as on the backs.

She looked up and saw Bart and his son Anthony walking towards the turkey run.  She liked Anthony.  He was good looking, for a human.  She figured he must take after his mother’s side of the family.  The two of them walked up to the fence a few feet from Sheila and she heard Anthony counting to himself.  

“Only eight hens left Dad?  I knew you were phasing out the operation, but I thought you’d do it gradually.”  

“Nah, there’s a bunch of the young hens that think they’re allergic to sunlight, far as I can tell.  They spend most of their time in the coop.  I think there’re four in there.  You know, I thought turkey raising would be a lot easier.  We lost too many poults to chills, even with the broody coop.  I’d go in there some mornings and there’d be two, three dead poults.  And these darn hens lay too many rooster eggs.  Why in hell would I want a bunch of roosters?  One is all a flock needs, least for a year or two.”  Bart shook his head in disappointment.

Anthony rolled his eyes.  “You get inbreeding if you only have one rooster.  I told you, Dad, you can have one rooster for every ten hens, and they won’t fight.”

“Yeah, and we have less than twenty hens, and have had for most of the year.  That’s one rooster.  What do you know, anyways?  You’re a cop, not a farmer.”  Bart grinned as he said this, as he was proud of his son.

“And why didn’t you get an incubator?  You could have hatched way more eggs, and then brooded them in the barn and lost almost no poults.  Yeah, it would have been a bit more work, but think of all the turkeys you would have had.  When you started this, you said you wanted forty or fifty turkeys, not this measly dozen.”  

Bart shook his head.  “Too expensive, and too much work.  Remember, this is my retirement farm.  I’m not trying to make my fortune in poultry, just trying to keep myself busy and out of your mother’s hair.  I get up early enough as it is, and poults brooding without their mothers need a lot of attention.  I need my sleep more than I need turkeys.”  

They both laughed and walked in the direction of the farm equipment.  Bart began to discuss tractor maintenance, but Sheila had stopped listening.  Bart didn’t have an incubator.  He didn’t have a brooder.  She stood, frozen by those simple facts.

“Sheila darling!  Where are you?”  Doris called as she fluttered down from the roost.  She’d taken the top spot, and the other turkeys had not challenged her, in recognition of her intelligence.  Doris called again when she didn’t receive an answer, and then began a circuit of the run, worried that something had happened to Sheila.  

“Ah, there you are, dear.  Did I just see Bart and Anthony?  Anthony is such a dear boy.  I know his parents love him so much.  Such a son to be proud of.”  Sheila still didn’t answer and Doris looked at her closely.  “Whatever is wrong, Sheila?  You’re just standing there with your beak hanging open.  It’s the wrong season to catch flies that way, you know.”  Doris prided herself on her humor as well as her extraordinary intelligence.

“Doris.”  That was all that Sheila said, and her tone was that of one who has just had her world turned topsy-turvy.  

“Whatever is wrong, Sheila?  Talk to me!  Now!”  Doris spoke in a commanding voice, hoping to shock Sheila into snapping at her.  

“We’re doomed, Doris.  Doomed.  The end of the line, lights out, curtains, end of the road.  The end of us.”  Sheila stared off into space as she said this.  

“Oh, stop it.  You’re not Henny Penny, thinking that the sky is falling.  The sun rose today and it will rise again tomorrow.  It will even rise the day after that.  Snap out of it.”  Doris was getting annoyed.  Sheila tended to be melodramatic, and this was obviously one of those times.  “Don’t be such a drama queen.”  

Sheila shook out her feathers and fixed a beady eye on Doris.  “I am not being a drama queen and for us the sky has fallen.  I just heard Bart tell Anthony that there is no incubator and no brooder.  Therefore, there are no chicks.  We ARE the end of the line.”

“But Loaf Cat was so certain that Bart would be using an incubator and brooder, to ensure that there would be enough poults.”  Doris didn’t want what Sheila had told her to be true.  

“Loaf Cat said that it was an option that some turkey farmers use; turkey farmers who want to keep being turkey farmers.   Bart said that the incubator and brooder were too much work.  Anthony said something about phasing out the turkey operation, and his father didn’t contradict him.  Phasing out. I believe that means stopping, correct?”  Sheila’s head had dropped lower and lower as she said this, until she was staring at the dirt where she’d been so avidly scratching for bugs mere moments ago.  

Now Doris looked worried.  “Phasing out isn’t exactly stopping.  It’s more like slowing down until you’re not doing whatever it is any more.  So, to phase out a turkey farming operation, I suppose the easiest way would be to not hatch any more poults.  Oh dear.  Oh dear.  Oh no, I do not want to believe this.”  

“Well, believe it.  It explains perfectly why Bart has been taking all our eggs.  He’s tired of being a turkey farmer.  I suppose he’ll be chopping off all our heads next.”  Sheila’s voice turned into a snarl at the last remark.  

“No, no, that wouldn’t be phasing out.  That would be stopping or terminating, or, oh, I don’t want to think about this.”  Doris began scratching in the dirt, as though looking for bugs, although her eyes weren’t even focused on the ground.  

“Well, I suppose he could just wait until we all die of old age.  Pity those young hens; it’ll get pretty lonely for them if he does that.  Or, maybe he’ll just have a turkey dinner every now and again until we’re gone.  If he’s going to do that, I hope he takes that blasted tom, Lemuel first.  We certainly don’t need him anymore.”  Sheila began walking towards the coop.  “We need to tell the others.  All the others.  Maybe the young ones running off is the best thing they could do.  They might not have poults after a while, but at least they’d have some.  Oh, to never have another poult!  I’ve only raised a few dozen.  I thought I could hit the century mark if I was careful.  Darn that Bart.

“Ladies!  Everyone into the coop – immediately!  Lemuel – get your sorry butt over here.  You need to hear what I have to say too.  Move it!”  Sheila called as she crossed the dirt in front of the coop.  

When everyone had gathered including Lemuel, who was standing just inside the door in case he needed to make a quick get-away, Sheila cleared her throat.  “I have some bad news for everyone.  Please be quiet and let me finish before you all start talking at the same time.  I don’t want to have to say this more than once.

“Bart does not have an incubator or brooder.  I heard him talking to Anthony just now, and the reason he has been taking all our eggs is that he’s decided he doesn’t want to be a turkey farmer any more.  We’re being phased out, which I am told means that we won’t have any more poults, and eventually there will be no more turkeys here.  That’s it.  The end.”  Sheila sat down heavily on the floor of the coop.  Emotional turmoil can be more exhausting than vigorous exercise, and Sheila felt as though she’d just flown around the farm three times.  

For a very long moment no one said anything.  Whether it was for fear that Sheila might say something else and get angry that she’d been interrupted or just shock, no one spoke or even moved.  Finally Lemuel spoke up.  “Ladies, I am so sorry that I got all your hopes up.  You were right to be concerned.  I apologize.”  

Doris turned to him.  “The information you gave us was accurate in general, Lemuel.  There are such things as incubators and brooders.  Bart and Anthony talked about them.  It’s just that Bart doesn’t have them.  He didn’t say how he was going to phase out the flock, but it sounds for sure like he’s not going to let us raise any more poults.”

“That’s what he thinks!”  Courtney, one of the young hens in the corner spoke up.  “Look!  Look what I have here.  An egg.  I’ve been sitting on this egg for a while now, and that means there will be a poult.  I laid it back here on the straw in the corner, where no one ever lays eggs.  I bet we can lay more back here after this one’s hatched.  We too can have poults.  I’m gonna call her Tiffany.  My little chicky Tiffany.”  

All the hens spoke up at once, and no one could hear what anyone else was saying.  Lemuel slowly backed out the door.  He decided this was a discussion for the hens.  He wasn’t needed here right now.  

Sheila made her way over to Courtney – pushing hens out of her way, and pecking Kiki who was also pushing to get near the makeshift nest.  She said very politely, “Courtney, may I see your egg?”  

“Just for a minute.  I don’t want it to get chilled.  It’s very important to keep your eggs warm, oh, but I guess you know that.  Sorry, ma’am.”  Courtney had been pecked a time or two by Sheila and didn’t want to repeat the experience.   She moved aside and Sheila inspected the egg carefully.  It looked perfect, but everyhen knows that the proof is in the poult.  Not every egg is a good egg.

“Do you recall when you laid this egg, Courtney?”  Sheila figured she could get an idea if the egg was viable if she got a little more information.

“It was the morning after that first cold night we had a ways back.  It had been cool before then, but it was a really cold night and all the hens were talking about how they wished Bart would put a swinging door on the coop.”  Courtney was sure about this, as she and the other young hens had been trying to figure out when the egg should hatch.

“Hmmm, an egg laid then should hatch within the next few days.  Well, we’ll know soon enough if your egg contains a Tiffany or perhaps just a Tom.”  Sheila figured that if the egg wasn’t viable, Courtney didn’t need any more bad news today, and the timing was right for the egg to hatch soon.  Maybe Bart didn’t intend to let them hatch any more poults, but he could be in for a surprise.  

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