The tiny old barn had a sloping metal roof and walls made of scrap two-by-fours, laid flat, staggered like long bricks, nailed together, and painted barn-red on the outside against the weather. It had stood for 63 years and might stand as many more.
The only window was covered with chicken wire, because half the barn had long been used as a chicken coop. In winter, to conserve heat, the opening was covered inside and out with clear, thick plastic. It always came off in the spring, until one year the old man hadn’t bothered to remove it. He was too tired, and he knew he’d still be too tired in the fall, when it was time to put it back on.
The chickens would be fine in the summer heat anyway, he reasoned. He could leave both doors open during the day. The side door led to an outdoor run that was twenty feet square and fenced tightly enough to keep the skunks out. In front the inner door was a screen of sorts, a hinged wooden frame with more chicken wire. The solid plywood outer door was weathered but intact.
A metal handle turned, hinges creaked, and the old man appeared in the doorway. He carried a tall, four-legged stool and a bulging plastic grocery bag that was starting to tear near the bottom.
“Just me, chicken. Where are you?”
He closed the door behind him and flipped an ancient switch. A large incandescent bulb softened some of the shadows cast by light from the window.
“There you are.”
From a corner near the roost, a scruffy Rhode Island Red hen stared at him with one eye, then the other, and went back to scratching in the dirty straw.
A row of nests stood along one wall, two feet above the floor. He checked each one. “No egg today, I see. But not to worry. You’re only one hen, after all, and it’s winter, and you’re about as old as me, in chicken years.” He coughed deeply, but only once. “I’m too lazy to cook an egg more than once a week anyway.
“I’ll sit over here for a few minutes, out of the way. That’s why I brought this stool. Took me three times as long to get out here, dragging all this stuff.”
He hung the plastic bag on a nail he’d driven into the wall years ago, for an unremembered purpose. Then he struggled awkwardly to find a place on the uneven dirt floor where all four legs of the stool could sit firmly.
“There,” he gasped, winded, and sat down to rest a while. The stool was in the open doorway between the two halves of the barn. He slumped his shoulders and hung his head, but he was careful not to fall asleep. If he did, he’d surely fall off the stool – and even if he didn’t hurt himself, he’d use half a day’s energy trying to pick himself up again. Besides, he hadn’t changed the straw on the barn floor in a while.
Finally he took a deep breath, exhaled, and slowly stood.
“Okay, chicken, as you’ve already gathered, this is not my usual visit with feed and water. But don’t worry. It’s not the end for you. I don’t slaughter chickens any more. Even if I did, there’d be no point in trying to eat you. You’re too much like me. Not enough meat, and what there is would be shoe leather.”
He leaned against the wall to rest from the exertion of standing up.
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“I quit raising chickens to eat when Mother died. That was nine years, eleven months, and twenty-nine days ago. I counted again today, in the half hour between Dragnet and Bonanza on that rerun channel.
“You were one of that summer’s pullets. We kept two dozen of you for eggs. Remember that? You probably don’t.”
He took a few breaths, gently wheezing.
“Can you believe Mother and I were married 49 years? Didn’t quite make 50. Always thought I’d be the first to go. Anyway, that leaves the two kids and me. Joshua still lives in England with his wife and three of my grandkids. He says they might visit for a couple of weeks next summer. I hope they do. Think either of us will be around by then?
“They already called today – Josh and his family, I mean. It’s a few hours later there. Six, maybe? Don’t remember exactly. It just changed a few weeks ago, when we got off Daylight Stupid Time. Still haven’t fixed all my clocks. Anyway, did I mention it’s Christmas Eve?”
He paused to let his lungs catch up.
“Mary’s still in Virginia. You’ve met her, I think. If she could ever have stayed more than a day or two and gotten to know you, she’d have named you. She used to name all the chickens. Then she’d cry when we butchered them. She’d cry again at dinner, when Josh asked which one we were eating. We didn’t track that, but that didn’t stop him. I told her a thousand times, never name an animal you plan to eat. But she had too big a heart to listen. Still does.
“She’s big in another way right now. Humans reproduce a little differently. Don’t know if you knew that. Anyway, number three – that’s grandchild number six for Mother and me – is due in February. They’ll do their Christmas with the twins tomorrow, and she’ll call me in the afternoon. She’ll be too tired to talk very long, and the twins are barely two years old, so they won’t talk much. Kevin – that’s her husband – will be on the phone with his mom or sisters, so I probably won’t talk to him at all. Good man, though. I think he’s good to her.
“They bought me a little artificial Christmas tree a couple of years ago, and they’ll ask about it if they remember, but it’s not worth putting up for just me. It’s in the garage somewhere.”
He eased himself away from the musty wall and stood almost straight.
“Let’s do this.” He coaxed a red extension cord from the plastic bag.
The hen drank from a two-gallon cylindrical aluminum waterer that was taller than she was. She dipped her beak into the water in the pan around the bottom, then craned her neck to swallow.
“Water hasn’t frozen hard yet, has it? Warm winter so far, but that ends tonight. There’s a cold front coming – about 6 pm, if you believe the annoying guy on Channel 4. Maybe an hour later, if you believe that pretty girl on Channel 7. I’d rather believe her, you know?”
He talked in bursts, between breaths, which came more quickly as he uncoiled the extension cord and snaked it up into the rafters just above his head.
“Josh thinks I should sell the place, go live with him in England for a while, maybe a year – and Mary thinks I should stay with her for a while after that – and then decide where I want to live. I told them I’d think about it, and I’ve been thinking about it. I wouldn’t be so lonely, probably. No offense. You’re fine for a chicken. And if I left, somebody would want you.”
He stared at the chicken for a while, then shook his head.
“All these years, and I still don’t know whether chickens can count. But you might have noticed that there were three of you last winter, and now there’s only you. I didn’t eat the other two, I promise.
“Point is, for the first winter in your life, you don’t have any other hens to huddle with, so you’ll need some extra heat. We used to have a cow in the other half of the barn, and she kept it plenty warm, but that was before your time.
“If you had children in a nice, warm coop in England, would you go? Or would you want to stay here? Does a chicken ever want to see the world, beyond what’s across the road?” He chortled at his own joke.
“I wanted to see the world, including England. Never saw much of it, and now I don’t even want to. Just thinking about that kind of travel makes me tired. And I don’t want to be a burden on anyone when I get there.”
He fumbled around in the shopping bag and pulled out a small black box with an electrical cord attached.
He nodded toward the wall. “See the fuse box next to the outlet up here? It’s a ten-amp fuse, but it’s old too, and we don’t want to blow it. So I spent some time back in October figuring out how to do this. Mary got on the Internet and found these two little heaters. They draw 200 watts each, so we should be okay, even with this 300-watt bulb going.
“These are made for heat at your desk when your office is cold, not that you know what a desk is. Or an office. They’re low-powered, so they don’t blow breakers on the circuits all the computers plug into.
“She e-mailed me pictures of a few models. I wanted to see if the strain relief on the cord looked strong enough that we’d be okay hanging them in here by their cords. We both studied the pictures, and we agreed on this model, even though they cost a few dollars more. She ordered them for me. Had them shipped here.
“They’re very light. I think they’ll hang okay. I’ll wrap their cords around one of these rafters. I practiced in the garage the other day with an old two-by-four.
“Okay, time to rest,” he said, making his way back to the stool. He still held the heater.
The feeder was next to the waterer. The hen scratched for grain beneath it.
He rested in silence. The hen hopped up onto the roost, a set of two-by-fours, wide side up and arranged in parallel, and she rested too. Finally he broke the silence.
“I’ll still have to bring hot water, to melt the ice in the waterer and keep it from freezing for a while, so you can drink. At least I think I will. But these will help. I tested them on my dining room table for a couple of hours. First I turned off the furnace and let the house cool.
“By the way, they make a heater for this waterer, but I never bought one. Heard those things sometimes set a coop on fire.” He chuckled. “Not the right way to roast a chicken. No offense.
“Two of these little things were too much for me at dinner, but I was testing them in a 60-degree house. Actually, it got down to 58, and I’m allowing for the fact that the thermostat in the hall shows between two and three degrees higher than the actual temperature.
“I figured I needed a better test, so I opened the windows. Got the dining room down to about 50 degrees. These weren’t quite enough by themselves, but they helped. It was noticeable.”
The hen didn’t appear to be listening.
“I’m talking in your sleep, maybe,” said the old man. His slack, unshaven face contorted into a yellowed grin. “You know, I’d like to see my kids a lot. Their kids too. And they’d do their best to make me feel welcome. But it wouldn’t be long before I felt like a burden. I’m a burden here too, but less of one. This is my home.
“Okay, time to work again.” He stood up with great care, steadied himself with a hand on the door frame, and looked up at one of the rafters. “I figure I’ll put them both on this rafter. It’s the closest to being centered over this half of the barn. I’ll put them a few feet apart, one closer to your roost, and one right about here, closer to the water and the feeder. And the nests. Those must be cold places to sit.
“This one’s first, so I don’t disturb you over there until I have to.”
For ten minutes he said nothing. He needed all his strength and concentration for the work. He brushed most of the dust from atop a six-inch span of the rafter, wincing in annoyance when some of it fell into his thinning hair. But it was better falling there than in his face. If he sneezed too hard, he might need to change his pants. Not even that was easy anymore.
He painstakingly wrapped the heater’s cord around the rafter.
“Time to rest again,” he rasped.
He shuffled unsteadily to the stool, sat, and tried to stay awake. For a few minutes his were the only sounds. He blew his nose twice into a handkerchief he pulled from his pocket, and he cleared his throat every half-minute or so.
He yawned and shook his head.
“I’d better talk, or I’ll fall asleep. I imagine your Christmas plans are a lot like mine tomorrow: business as usual. But I have a surprise for you. Nothing scary. I think you’ll like it.
“Had some Christmas dinner invitations, but I don’t have the endurance for visits anymore. I was never good at it anyway, without Mother. Besides, after all this work today, I’ll be pretty wiped out tomorrow. A couple of the families who invited me said they’ll bring leftovers. Those will probably last me a week.”
He exhaled loudly. “Good people, all those old neighbors. Known them for years. Don’t know anyone but family in England, or Virginia for that matter.”
He cleared his throat, then cleared it again.
“Mother sure could make a Christmas feast. I’ll bet Mary can too. I hope that husband helps a lot this year.
“I’ve never seen Katrina cook much – she’s Josh’s wife – but maybe she does. Or he does. He used to be a good cook. One way or another, they don’t seem to be starving.
“Come to think of it, I don’t cook much either, and I’m not starving. People bring me more food than I can eat during the holidays, especially fruit. Oranges, even, and they’re expensive this year. Bad frost in Florida or something like that. I give most of them to the other people who visit me. Don’t have much else to give them, and it’s too hard to peel an orange with these hands.
“Almost brought you the rest of a pretty good meatloaf the other day, but I ate it myself. Not even sure you like that sort of thing. Or if it’s good for you. I probably used to know that.”
He fell silent again, and his head began to droop. He bolted upright, then stood more quickly than before.
“Almost fell asleep there. Can’t have that, for the previously mentioned reasons. Did I mention them? Doesn’t matter. Let’s get that second heater installed, shall we? May have to disturb you. This one goes right over your head.”
The hen still dozed on the roost.
Practice made him more efficient, but exhaustion made him weaker. As he held up the second heater in one hand and tried to push the cord over the rafter with the other, he missed. The cord fell, hitting the chicken across the back. She squawked and half-flew, half-fell to the floor at his feet, then raced away.
“Criminy! Sorry about that. Didn’t mean to startle you. These old hands, you know? Sorry to scare you. Hope that didn’t hurt.”
The chicken’s squawks gradually calmed down, but he could hear her pacing and clucking for a while in the other half of the barn.
After a few more minutes, he announced breathlessly, “Both attached, both plugged in. Ready?”
She didn’t answer.
He looked around but didn’t see her. He eased himself past the stool and into the other half of the barn.
“Where’d you go, chicken? I said I was sorry about that thing with the cord.”
He checked the rafters. He didn’t think a chicken could get up there, but you never knew. Then he had a thought. He shuffled over to what used to be the cow’s manger, but had since been used to store bales of clean straw – except that the last bale was now mostly used. He’d have to talk to one of the farmers about getting a few more bales.
He looked down into the wooden box and laughed aloud. “There you are, sitting like you belong there. That’s the last clean straw we have. Got your own little Christmas Eve manger scene, don’t you?”
He shook his head. “That’s pretty good. I’ll flip the switches, and we’ll see if your new Rube Goldberg heating system actually works. You can come over here and watch, if you want to. Not that my telling you that makes any difference.”
When he reached the nearest heater, he paused. “Cross your fingers that the old fuse works better than the old hands. Well, cross whatever you’ve got. There’s a spare fuse in the garage, but I’d probably have to call somebody to help me replace it.
“Turning on heater number one. You’ll hear the fan.”
He steadied the heater with one hand, while he flipped the switch with the other. It hung about eight inches below the rafter, right in front of his nose.
“I’ll bet money that I bump into these things a few times before spring. Remind me to duck, okay?”
He waited and watched, then reached for the second heater. “Heater number two coming online. Cross whatever you crossed before. We’ll have about six amps on the circuit. Hasn’t had that much of a load in years, probably.”
He pressed the switch, held up his hand to feel the heat, then retreated to his stool.
“I’ll sit with you a little longer, make sure this keeps working. Not too long.”
The hen perched on the side of the manger, eyeing him.
“Usually don’t stay this long, do I? Getting tired of me?” He shifted uncomfortably. “I’m getting tired of me. At least I get to stay home, mostly. Don’t have to do that long commute to the plant anymore. It wasn’t so bad, I guess. And it was necessary. Can’t be a plant engineer by remote control, and Mother and I wanted a little bit of land. It was worth the commute. And the kids certainly learned to work.”
He smiled faintly. “We wanted this little bit of land, with the creek and the mountain view. Didn’t know about the neighbors then, but we’d have wanted them too.”
He stared at a wall, then slowly arose. He walked up to the two heaters, inspected them once more, followed the extension cord back to the outlet on the wall, and reached out to make sure it was firmly plugged in.
“You know, they say not to plug a heater into an extension cord, but this is a good cord, and these low wattages will be fine. Shouldn’t be any risk of fire. And you’ll be a little warmer out here all alone. I’ll be back later.”
He opened the inner and outer doors, stepped carefully over the threshold, and closed them firmly behind him.
At sundown he appeared again, carrying a small plastic leftover container full of grain and a silver bucket with two or three inches of steaming water.
“Hey, chicken. Me again.”
This time, the hen waited a foot back from the feeder.
He poured the water carefully into the waterer, then put the feed in the feeder. The chicken attacked the feed as soon as he stepped back.
“Okay, little lady, enjoy your dinner.” He peered into each nest, looking again for the egg he didn’t expect to see. “The heaters seem to be helping, but we’ll see how they do when the cold front hits. Both channels pushed its arrival back a couple of hours in their forecasts just now.”
He put his hand on the door latch. “Coldest night of the winter tonight. Think warm thoughts, if you think at all. We’ll see what Santa brings you when he comes. I’m leaving the light on tonight, for extra heat. Shouldn’t bother you too much. Mostly lights the other side. Oh, and it shouldn’t keep Santa away. See you in the morning. Merry Christmas!”
The hen may or may not have been listening. She alternately pecked at the grain in the feeder and scratched in the dirty straw on the floor below.
The old man disappeared, shutting the outer door firmly against the impending weather.
Just after sunrise the next morning, he opened the door again.
“Merry Christmas, chicken!”
The hen was on the roost. She didn’t move when he entered.
“Hey, it’s not too bad in here. Out there it’s four degrees, and I don’t mean Celsius. Looks like your water froze, but just barely. This will take care of that.”
He poured in the warm water, as he had a thousand times before.
“You alive over there?” He looked more carefully. “Yeah, you look like it. No need to wake up yet, if you don’t want to. It’s Christmas morning at home, just you and me. No children to keep us from sleeping in. There’s a luxury.”
He put the morning’s feed in the feeder, then turned to see the hen blinking at him.
“You’re awake. I have a gift for you.”
He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out something wrapped in a paper towel.
“Brought you a treat for breakfast. I know how you like cantaloupe rinds, so when Paul and Eileen – they live next door – when they offered to pick up some groceries, I had them bring a cantaloupe. But this is more than the rind. I left half an inch of fruit on it. See? Never did that before, and it was harder than it sounds. So here are two thick slices for your Christmas breakfast.”
He unwrapped them, then bent slightly and dropped them carefully onto the straw. “You should get to them before they freeze, ‘cuz they might.” He stuffed the paper towels back into his pocket.
“Ouch!” He shook his hand, then held it up. Two large band-aids on his left index finger were stained red.
The hen watched him.
“Nothing to worry about, but this is why I was late. Sliced my finger when I sliced the cantaloupe. Don’t think I need stitches – but if I do, I’m not bothering anyone today. Hurts some. Hurts like the dickens, when I catch it on my pocket like that. Just a little Christmas wound for an old man trying to be an elf. Anyway, there’s more cantaloupe where that came from, for dinner tonight and probably a few days after that. I’ll just be a little more careful when I cut it.”
He watched the hen for a minute.
“Yeah, I should still leave the light on.”
He looked around, as he always did before leaving.
“Knew I forgot something. Left my stool here. Thanks for not messing it up for me.”
He looked at the hen again, this time in much the same way as she looked at him: head cocked to the side, favoring one eye, motionless.
“Okay with you if I sit for a while? Think I’ll move the stool so I can lean on this post.”
He fussed at that, trying to find a suitable place. “Can’t have a wobbly stool,” he muttered.
It took longer than before, but he was patient. Finally he sat. “Pretty stiff from all that work yesterday, but it was worth it. Temperature’s not too bad in here.”
The hen hopped down and attacked the nearest strip of cantaloupe.
He mumbled, as if talking to himself more than to her.
“Watched a Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert on PBS while I waited for my finger to stop bleeding. It was pretty good. The neighbors’ daughter was a dancer in one of those, years ago, when she was at the U. Probably watch some football this afternoon and try to be awake when folks bring leftovers. There’s some good cooks on this road.”
He fell silent. His head and eyelids drooped.
“Be nice to have the kids here for Christmas,” he whispered. “But they can’t this year. And the house is such a mess that they probably wouldn’t want to. If they came, they’d spend the whole time cleaning. It needs it. I don’t have energy for a lot of housework, just like I don’t have energy to go see them.”
He took a deep breath. “Phone calls are easier. Cheaper than they used to be. Their phone plans have free long distance. International, even. It’s incredible. If flying were as easy as calling …”
He stared at the wall for a while. The hen moved to the waterer for a drink, then picked at the cantaloupe rind again.
“Good news for you and yours today. No, not glad tidings of great joy. Well, maybe those too, but what I mean is, hardly anyone’s eating chicken today. Your people are grossly underrepresented in Christmas dinners. Live nativity scenes too. Don’t usually see chickens in those. But you had to be there, right? Some of you probably looked at the baby Jesus the same way you look at me. Wonder if Mary let you perch on the side of the manger.” He chuckled. “Facing the Baby, I hope. They had to launder those swaddling clothes by hand.”
He watched the hen until she happened to look toward him.
“Did you hear sleigh bells and reindeer last night?” he asked.
His question hung in the air, unanswered. She drank at the waterer again, then returned to the cantaloupe. He gave the back of his head a good scratch, then blew out a breath.
“The kids used to be happy to do chores on Christmas, even when they were hopped up on too much candy.” He shifted on the stool. “I was about to say I never enjoyed those Christmases enough, but that’s just a cliché. Truth is, I loved them. Then the kids grew up and went away. Children do that, you know. They come back for visits – well, the human ones do – but not as often as you want.
“I remember sitting in my easy chair after Christmas dinner, with little Mary on my lap. She didn’t want her new toys. She wanted me to read her new books to her. So I did. We must have done that for an hour. When she fell asleep in my arms. I just held the little angel for another hour or more. Mother said I should get up and put her to bed, but I didn’t want to.
“Now she reads to her own kids and holds them, I guess. In theory, I could move in with her and read to my grandkids. But this is home, you know?”
He heaved a loud sigh and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he inspected the bandage on his finger. His gold wedding band caught his eye, and he stared.
“Mother’s last Christmas was a lot like the one I told you about, except that I was reading to her, not to Mary. I sat next to her bed, right there in the house, forty yards from here. Read to her until she fell asleep. Then the pain would wake her, and she’d squeeze my hand until it receded a little, and I’d read her to sleep again.
“Did that a lot of days. Nights too, for a while there. On Christmas she wanted me to read from Luke. Second chapter, you know? Didn’t have to read it, though. Memorized it when I was a boy.”
His eyes closed.
“‘And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Cæsar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.’”
He opened his eyes. The hen was still working on the cantaloupe rind.
“That was more of a census than a tax, you know.”
He cleared his throat, then cleared it again.
“‘And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judæa, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David): To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.’
“The Romans would have been fine with him reporting in Nazareth, where they lived, or so I’ve heard. It was Jewish tradition that sent him back to … his home.”
He watched the hen hop up onto the roost, then stretched out his left hand and stared at his ring again, blinking back tears.
His voice was like gravel. “Anyone you miss at Christmas?”
He sat awhile, staring and blinking, breaking the silence with an occasional sniff. Finally he looked up.
“Enjoy the cantaloupe. There’s plenty more where this came from. Guess I already said that. I’d better get back inside.”
He stood slowly, then turned to pick up the stool, but didn’t. He looked back at the hen.
“Think I’ll leave this for a while. You have your own roost. Leave mine alone again, okay? May as well keep using it.”
His voice fell nearly to a whisper, too soft to be steady. “Here we are, home for Christmas. Where we belong, I suppose. Home ‘til we both shake off this mortal coil. The good people of England and Virginia will have to come to us, when they can.”
Old man and old hen stared at each other.
“Almost forgot,” he said more firmly. “Last night I came up with one more thing I can do for you. Remember I said you should never give a name to something you plan to eat? I should give you a name, in case you still worry about that sometimes. Let’s think of good one this week.
“In the meantime, Merry Christmas. See you tonight. At least I can travel this far.”
Hinges squealed and creaked, and old man disappeared into the winter chill.
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