Today's Reading

NOT LONG BEFORE CHRISTMAS, a rumpled painting arrived in the mail. I would have thought Katherine had forgotten the chickens entirely—her enthusiasm had dwindled to almost nothing in the year prior to their move—were it not for the painting, the subject of which is a white chicken in a pink castle. On the back, in meticulous black marker, someone has transcribed the words "Princess Gam Gam." Here is a young girl who, in all her life, has known only two red chickens, a black chicken, and a gray chicken, yet she paints a picture of a grade-A white chicken in a princess castle. I hate to think of Katherine painting chickens so poorly so long after leaving, not to mention the failure of attention. The painting hangs in the coop, held fast to the wire by a clothespin, and the clotted tempera gathers dust.

THERE WAS A MAN with chickens in Riverton who woke one morning later than usual. My mother told me this story. She lives in Riverton and knows everything that happens there. Her voice sharpens as her stories progress so that I cannot think of this story without the ending ringing in my head.

There was a man with chickens in Riverton who woke one morning later than usual. The sun was high, though the world was frozen, and the chickens cried out in the usual cacophony that accompanies the arrival of a steaming egg into the world. Percy translates this noise as: "Guys, guys! Look what I found!" He does a passable impression of a surprised chicken and he does it often. People always laugh, because he looks like a fool and foolishness is a look people appreciate on others. Though I must admit, if I had not married Percy years before, his impression of a chicken having just laid an egg would not have swung me in that direction.

The hens clucked and crowed over their perfect parcels, but the rooster was silent. That's strange, the man with chickens in Riverton thought. He looked outside and saw nothing out of the ordinary. On his way to the shed he spat once upon the ground to test the cold, whereupon it scattered on the snow like metal shavings. The chickens wore their feathers puffed into jackets and quibbled as usual, but the rooster was nowhere to be seen. Well, dang it all if the rooster hasn't gone off, the man thought. There had been a fox once, so the man looked around for signs of a fox: lost tail feather, trail of blood, tuft of orange fleece caught in the fence's coil. Nothing. Well, dang it all if the rooster hasn't gone off, the man thought; having thought it initially, he was now confirming the thought with all the existing facts. He went inside to scratch his head over the missing rooster. As he wondered, he looked out the window at the chicken shed. The weather vane was pointed in no particular direction, more down than out. Wait a good goldarn, I don't have a weather vane, he thought. He did not. He had a rooster, frozen solid on the roof of his shed. The rooster kept his post until the spring thaw, glued to the roof by a thin sheet of ice. When the ice melted, the rooster fell to the ground with a soft thud. I cannot remember why my mother told the story of the rooster, but the fact remains: you'll know when it's too cold for a chicken.

LAST WEEKEND I visited my mother in Riverton, two hours east of the city. I was born in Riverton and moved away after high school with no intent to return, yet it often seems, throughout my brief determined visits, that I have never left.

Percy had flown to Los Angeles for a three-day interview with a prestigious university. He had been driven to campus from the airport by the same person who, at a summit of ideas last fall, encouraged Percy to apply. In a matter of months, Percy has become so invested in the notion of teaching I've nearly forgotten it wasn't his dream all along, or even his idea. Percy has not taught a class since he was in graduate school. Rather, as his primary qualification, he cites a tenet of his work: the movement away from orthodoxy. Should Percy get the job, we will need to find the chickens a new home. It is my wish for my mother to inherit the chickens.

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