The hatching of memory

Wednesday, Jun 27 2001

Page 3 of 5

The centuries-old American confrontation between the country and the city has now been replaced by equally hostile feelings between the country and the suburbs. It‘s always about neighbors. The farm and the city are now at a more exotic distance from each other, separated by the ’burbs, allowing for a greater measure of appreciation than when they rubbed up against each other -- in geography as well as in attitude. Raising chickens in the suburbs is considered deranged, whereas raising chickens in the city is merely eccentric -- that‘s the difference.

Ken sees me and comes out with an egg carton. Six eggs, six bucks. “What breed are they?” I ask. “No idea,” he says. “Mutts . . . Anything could come out of these.”

On the way home, Sasha holds the carton like a treasure, suspended above her lap. Three eggs go into the incubator that afternoon. Three are held in refrigerated storage, where they can last no more than a week.

My wife and Sasha fly to Moscow the next day, for a month. I am now living alone.

On my third day of solitary, late at night in my living room, with all the lights out, I hold an egg behind a flashlight’s beam, and there, floating on a very clear yolk, is an equally clear red-black dot, the size of a pinhead, with two hairlike follicles extending from it, curling and pink. Life -- as unmistakable as it is miraculous, as it is common. Life and blood. Three days. The heart is already beating -- make that two hearts, for there‘s life in two of the eggs. The third reveals nothing.

On day four, the pinheads have become double pinheads, linked by flesh into a hook, with a network of ruby arteries that now reaches through the entire yolk. But on day five, a bright-red ring encircles one of the embryos -- what one Web site calls “the ring of death.” The embryo has expired, and all the blood has been drawn to the perimeter. There remains one survivor. I pull a new egg from the fridge, let it settle to room temperature for three hours before placing it in a second incubator.

At day nine, the replacement egg shows signs of life, while the senior partner, now named Thornton, starts to disappear behind a black veil of skin. If you hold a flashlight up to any store-bought egg, you can see through its translucence. But Thornton’s mass has rendered his home impenetrable to light.

Just past midnight on Saturday morning, from the incubator to my left, Thornton abruptly announces his impending arrival: three shrill chirps from within the egg, and then silence. After my initial euphoria wears off, I whistle back, through my teeth, in imitation -- a trick I learned on the ranch. Thornton answers -- three more chirps, and then silence. We go on like this for about half an hour.

I send an e-mail to my friend Cathy, who has been monitoring Thornton‘s progress through the prior week. Indeed, the younger embryo is named Betty, in Cathy’s honor. (Cathy, an expat New Yorker who lives down the street, routinely uses the proper noun Betty as a common noun -- as in “Then this betty with the big hair says . . .”) Thornton and I chirp to each other until 2 a.m., after which, evidently more fatigued than my new, unborn friend, I go to bed.

By 8 a.m., upon staggering to the incubator to check Thornton‘s progress, I observe a small triangle at the top of his egg -- not so much a hole as a crack. By 10 a.m., the outer shell has dislodged around the crack, revealing an inner membrane with the appearance of thin white paper. This, too, has a tear in it. Through the tear, a little yellow beak emerges, chirps, pushes at the paper membrane, then withdraws. And that’s the sum of activity for the next nine hours: chirping, beak emerging, tasting the membrane, withdrawing.

A few things concern me. First, if the hatch is not completed within 24 hours from the first chirp, something is wrong. Thornton is now at the 19-hour mark and shows absolutely no interest in, as they say in the neighborhood, taking this to the next level. Also, sometimes his cheeping has the distinct tone of frustration. What if he‘s stuck?

A chicken-themed Web site directs me to a woman named Kelly in Pennsylvania, whom I call. Kelly shushes a number of children, and adopts a tone of cool compassion.

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