By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Within seconds, the egg is in two halves being kicked by a sopping-wet bird, all beak and claws and blood spots, flat on his back, shrink-wrapped in cellophane and squeaking like a rusty hinge. His back is still attached to a large piece of shell, and he contorts with such violence, he knocks the lid from the incubator. Then a purple, clawed foot pokes through -- a massive appendage, seven times the size of the body, it seems. This is not pretty at all.
In a mild panic, I stuff the leg back inside the rickety incubator and hold the lid down as Thornton kickboxes and writhes, trying to liberate himself from the confines of the eerie transparent membrane that is smashing his head and body into the likeness of a dinosaur, or an alien. In seconds, he peels away the membrane, ripping it from his head, so that two eyelids, sealed shut, can pry themselves open -- a pair of dark pools on either side of a narrow yellow beak. Thornton now just lies there on his back, panting, staring at me, as though accusing: “Are you the one who’s responsible for this?”
I gently pick him up and detach the piece of shell still glued to his sopping hindquarters. Thornton is too exhausted to argue. That‘s when I notice that something is terribly wrong.
Protruding from beneath Thornton’s wing and stomach are two gray fleshy tubes that conjoin into a larger tube, or artery, or something, that leads to a black-and-silver sac -- all of which is dangling from the chick‘s torso. As the horror sinks in, with this fragile bird in my hand, the walls literally start to shake.
Forgive the melodrama andor biblical allusion, but you can call Caltech for verification: At about 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, January 13, a small earthquake was felt across the Los Angeles basin.
Thornton, now back in the incubator, lying on his stomach, struggles to stand, impeded by this grotesque dangling organ and cheeping with annoyance. I call Kelly back.
“I think it’s his liver,” I explain. “He‘s dragging it around behind him.”
“Just stay calm,” Kelly says in a silky tone. “I don’t think any animal can live dragging around a vital internal organ. I‘m not there, so I can’t say for sure, but sometimes, if they hatch early . . . Did he hatch early?”
“Uh, yeah, he wasn‘t due till tomorrow.”
“Sometimes when they hatch early, not all of the yolk is absorbed into the body. He may just be dragging around some leftover yolk. Keep the chick in the incubator until he’s completely fluffed out. Don‘t let him eat or drink until then.”
Sunday morning, turning Betty’s egg, I see the thermometer has fallen because her egg rolled sharply into the mesh wall. Probably during the earthquake. Her egg oozes a sticky liquid, signifying the end of Betty, the tremor‘s one fatality.
Thornton, now the only living chicken on the block, stands proudly, chirping, head bumping the top of the dome, almost knocking it away. The appendage appears like a piece of lint attached to two brittle twigs. I pick up Thornton and snip the twigs away with a pair of scissors. No protest. No writhing in my hands. After setting him back inside, I tie down the incubator’s roof with string, and wait for Thornton to dry. By Sunday evening, he looks magnificent -- a little puff of flaming gold.
I could regale you with tales of Thornton‘s penchant for baby’s-breath flowers, of Thornton yelping until I set him on my work desk, of Thornton pecking at the keys of my computer and crying (a feeling I know well), of Thornton napping on my shoulder, of Thornton standing on my head before tumbling into my macaroni-cheese dinner, of following Thornton around the living room with toilet paper and a wet, soapy sponge. But that would be sentimental.
I will say that when Thornton was a week old, sprouting brown feathers on his wings, he struck me as being very alone in the fowl world. I brought the two incubators out of storage and started heating a new clutch of four eggs -- three of which hatched without incident. When Thornton met his younger reflections of himself, he was the only one with feathers, which he puffed up and in which he allowed the infants to snuggle. This supported Cathy‘s hunch, stated at the outside, that Thornton was a female, and that dubbing her a male, with no evidence whatsoever, was mere gender chauvinism.
Thornton is now fully grown and very henlike indeed, a beautiful rust-toned Rhode Island Red pullet with a golden head -- an eagle among chickens.
When the weather warmed, the flock was moved to the back yard, into a little pen with a coop. In the pen, they walk on strips of sod. Every day, I hose their waste into the grass, where it dissolves. The pact I have made with apprehensive neighbors is that this project will be odorless and noise-free. The agreement appears to be holding, though among the younger birds is a Barred Plymouth Rock rooster named Janucz, who I bring inside every night to sleep in a darkened box; this prevents him from crowing at dawn. Thornton’s younger sister, Betty II, completes the flock, for the fourth, Dionysius -- a beautiful white bird streaked with caramel -- was snatched from the coop in the middle of the night by a coyote. The roof had been weighted down with bricks -- insufficient protection. All that was left was a pool of blood on the cement and a few feathers down the driveway. It starts and ends with blood.