by Crystal Sands
I am taking a trip because I am after some special hatching eggs. As I drive up north, deeper into the trees, deeper into the woods of Maine, I think about what has brought me to this point in my life. I think a lot about Poe and how much I miss her.
I see crows everywhere on my trip, and as I exit the highway, a large crow flies right over my car, a dark figure against the blue sky, so magnificent in flight. It has been a tough year of a pandemic, and I mentally exhausted. I worried about driving so far. But, somehow, this drive feels therapeutic, and the crows seem to be telling me I am doing the right thing.
She wasn’t quite a raven,
not even as close as a crow,
she was actually just a black chicken,
her people gave her the name Poe.
When I arrive at the woman’s house, I am greeted by chickens first. I see Poe’s son—the reason I am here. He’s a massive rooster with the biggest, most beautiful rooster tail I have ever seen. It’s so much like his daddy’s tail—only much larger and fuller.
His black feathers sheen an iridescent green in the sunlight, just like his mama’s feathers. I lean down to greet him, wondering if he will remember me from the first sixteen weeks of his life. It’s been three years though, and he does not remember me. Once he sees I have no treats to offer, he is on his way, but he’s watching me, I can tell. He stays between me and his hens at all times—protecting his flock from the stranger. He’s a great rooster.
“He’s beautiful!” I tell her.
She tells me they love Edgar, that he is such a good rooster and that they feel so lucky to have him.
“He had the best mama and daddy,” I say. It’s true. They were both the most intelligent, interesting chickens I have met so far in my life.
“I’m glad I got to see him.” I thank her for the eggs, sneak money onto her porch along with a thank-you letter. I have six eggs full of possibility.
“Me too,” she says.
And I am back on the road, this time taking the long way home. I keep seeing the crows.
I first met Poe when she came in the mail with a box of broiler chickens we had ordered. We no longer keep chickens for meat and rarely eat chicken at all, but when we first started farming, we kept a flock of chickens for eggs and a flock for processing. When you order chickens from a big hatchery, you often have the option to get a free “surprise” chicken. Poe was our surprise.
As I opened the box, I was taken aback by a little fluff of black. She was the cutest. They are all the cutest, though.
We had ordered our first rooster as well, so Poe and our rooster lived among the meat birds for the first couple of weeks of their lives, but when the meat birds grew too large too quickly, Poe and the rooster were removed and lived together in our garage until they were big enough to move in with the main flock.
At first, there seemed to be nothing unusual about Poe except for her color; a black chicken in a sea of cream and brown certainly stands out, but it would be her personality that, more than anything else, would set Poe apart in the years to come.
From the start, she was not like the others,
all Browns and Rhode Island Reds,
nor was she much like the Raven,
who lived in the pines past the fence.
The Raven who’d lost his one love
to boys who’d done what they shouldn’t;
two ravens had perched on a bough,
one flew, the other one couldn’t.
After Poe moved in with the main flock, we could see she was different. She didn’t fit in and seemed to live on the margins, but she didn’t seem sad about it.
A sorrow, which Poe could not know,
observed from the shade of the trees,
while she, alone in the yard, watched
the others scratch for insects and seeds.
In my years of chicken keeping, I have observed several birds who didn’t fit in with the flock. Some will have a hard time not fitting in and can’t find a place or contentment. It is the most difficult thing to watch, but we do not keep house chickens (though I have been tempted) and, therefore, just do our best to help those who do not fit in live the best life they can on the margins of the flock. But it was like Poe didn’t want to fit in.
They cackled, and scolded, and clucked,
“Stay away, she is not one of us.”
“She’s flighty, and wild and thin, and her feathers
Are all ashes, midnight, and dust.”
Poe could fly, and she loved to do it. She would fly over the gate and just hang out with us or the ducks or the squirrels—just whomever she felt like hanging out with. She never left our property. She knew where home was, and she always stayed put. Still, she couldn’t stay in the chicken yard with the rest of the flock. She had other things to do, people to visit, areas to explore.
Poe sometimes did dash about
in sudden and furious flapping;
she’d beat the air with her wings
catching random winds in their passing.
One of my favorite stories about Poe was the way she could sense when my husband was turning over the earth for planting, even when she couldn’t see him. He could be on the other side of our house where Poe could not see him, but if he started turning over the earth, Poe would arrive shortly after to do her part and eat all of the grubs (there were so many at first). She became good friends with my husband, and I loved to watch as she would stay right at the shovel and grab a grub or a worm just as soon as she could see it. She filled her crop and rid our soil of the grubs, and, at the same time, she won my husband’s heart.
Poe won everybody’s heart. She was just like that. As an academic, close study is in my nature, and I study all of our animals. Poe was definitely one of my most interesting cases. Her deep interest in and connection to us always fascinated me.
My husband, both a farmer and a poet, wrote a poem inspired by Poe. The poem is about a little black chicken who doesn’t fit in, who wants to fly, and is rescued from a fox by a raven. In the end, Poe flies with the raven, and my heart soars with her still when I read her poem.
I cried over and over when my husband first shared the poem with me—in part, because I knew, when Poe left me, it was going to be a really tough experience, and, in part, because my husband somehow captured Poe’s magic in his poem.
In her short years with us, Poe became a prominent fixture on our farm. She loved grapes and would come visit with us in exchange for any treat. She was always flying here or there, always curious about everyone, including the ducks.
Her greatest wish was to soar
over the tops of the trees in flight,
but she was an earth-bound chicken,
and the bonds of this earth are tight.
We hatched eggs from her every summer, but each one turned out to be a rooster—and we already had a rooster. I would tell Poe’s story online and find homes for her sons, but my heart would always break each time I would come to realize that Poe’s baby was another rooster.
I’ll never forget the day I noticed something was wrong with Poe. It was a warm day in September, and we were headed to the Common Ground Fair, usually one of the highlights of our Septembers.
Her beautiful black tail was droopy. She always held it proud, as she was a very proud bird. I was so worried about her that I brought her into the garage to hang out inside for the day while we were at the fair. I worried about her all day, but when we got home, she seemed better. I checked everywhere to see if she was injured or if I could see anything wrong. I could see nothing. But chickens are very good at hiding their illnesses.
I continued to monitor Poe carefully and researched as much as I could. She had always been a magnificent layer of beautiful green-blue eggs. One summer, she laid two eggs in one day. I realize now this is not a good sign. After much research, I came to understand that Poe likely had ovarian cancer, and as her symptoms progressed over the fall and into winter and then spring, it became clear that Poe was not long for this world.
One dusk the Raven’s lone caw
stirred the silent shade in the pines,
as a fox crept under the fence,
one hen yet remained outside.
When the end was near that next summer, we brought her into the house with us. We could break our rule of no house chickens just for a little bit—for Poe. It was difficult to give her the attention I wanted to. I teach college writing classes, and, of course, I help my husband run our little farmstead. We are always busy, but I could check on some during the day at least.
And, at night, when my work was finished, Poe and I would just hang out. I would hold her and rock her. I read her poem to her several nights in a row, and then I just started reading other things to her. She would seem to listen, but mostly, she just liked to be with me, and I liked being with her.
When she took a turn for the worse, I started talking to her, telling her it was okay for her to let go. But she couldn’t. She wouldn’t. She seemed determined to live.
To this day, I have never seen a chicken with such a will to live. If you farm, you see death a lot. Usually, when things are going poorly for them, our chickens seem ready to let go. As a chicken farmer, you also have to be willing and able to end suffering, but we couldn’t with Poe. She wanted to live too badly. She wanted to be with us. Her will to live was obvious.
For a week or so, we kept our routine of hanging out in the evenings, and one night, I decided to try something that I knew would seem crazy to most. I am an empath. It’s not a label I wear happily most of the time. It has brought me a lot of pain. It has brought me some ridicule. But, over the years, I have read much and learned much about empaths and have tried to learn to use my empathic nature as a strength instead of seeing it as a weakness.
The fall before, I had just learned how to meditate, and as I sat in the cool basement with Poe that hot summer night, I listened to Poe’s breathing and decided I would try to meditate, to line up my breathing with hers, just to see what might happen.
What happened is only my perception of what happened, of course. No one else was in the room. There is no scientific evidence I can offer. But I am certain Poe and I connected: When our breathing aligned, I felt myself being pulled to the earth, and it was not comforting. I didn’t want to go back to the earth. I wanted to fly. When I realized these feelings, I stopped mediating, almost frightened by the whole experience.
And then I cried. I cried hard for my Poe and did my best to tell her that the earth is good too, that she didn’t have to be afraid.
Poe looked for one last chance
For flight at the end of her day;
the fox caught Poe’s silhouette
and quickly went loping her way.
Poe and I were both different after that. We stayed really close to each other almost all day every day until the end, which wasn’t long. I kept feeding her, and she tried to live. There was one night, as she chomped on some watermelon, I had some hope that she might beat the odds and live a little longer. She stood up and walked around for a few minutes with her tail held perfectly high.
I told her to go ahead and fight. For the first time since she had moved into the house, I had some hope I might get a little more time.
But the next day, Poe was the worst I had seen her. It was the end. My husband and I talked about the possibility of him having to end her misery if she didn’t pass soon. It was a burden I didn’t want my husband to have to bear, one he didn’t want to bear either, but he loved Poe too and would do what was necessary.
Sorrow then flew from the trees,
faster and faster she went;
the fox closed in upon Poe,
as she flapped for her final ascent.
Poe saved him from that pain. She was resting peacefully on the couch while we ate breakfast that morning. When I went to check on her after breakfast. She was lifeless. She had passed, I thought. I just cried a loud ugly cry and took her to my husband to show him.
And then she moved.
I dropped to my knees with her in my arms. I couldn’t believe she was still alive. She raised her head and looked me in the eye.
In that moment, it was as if time slowed for me. In the background, from my husband’s computer, I could hear melancholy piano from Phillip Glass, and then, our rooster, the rooster Poe had helped to raise, crowed a long, sorrowful crow. With my husband leaning over me and Poe in my arms, it felt as if everything in our tiny little universe was mourning the passing of someone significant.
Poe held my gaze for some seconds. And then the death spasms started. With my tears pouring over her little body, I just held her and told her how much I loved her, how thankful I was to know her, and then she let go. My Poe was gone.
“She came back to say goodbye to you,” my husband said. This time, there was a witness to the connection Poe and I shared.
The fox snapped a foxy-toothed grain,
but jaws closed only on wind,
as sorrow began to transcend,
Poe took flight in the end.
I felt unable to process what all had just happened, but I could feel the pain. And it was a deep pain, one that remains so vivid to me, even two years after losing her.
We held a funeral for Poe that afternoon. My husband dug a grave for her and found the perfect stone for her headstone, which I painted. Our neighbor gave us flowers for her grave, and we read poetry and said goodbye to our chicken who could fly no more.
The next day, our son had cello lessons, and when we got into the car to leave our little farm, I told him that I maybe felt Poe still with me.
“I know,” I said. “I’ll ask for a sign. If Poe is with me, we will see a raven on the way to cello today.”
Ravens are possible but rare in our area of the state. Up to that point, we had lived in our little part of the Maine woods for eight years, and I had seen a raven twice.
As we pulled out of the driveway, we did not even make it past the trees of our property when a massive raven flew over us. I pulled over and cried.
She wasn’t quite just a chicken,
And maybe more than a crow,
But it’s said she’s been seen with a raven,
The flying black chicken named Poe.
When Poe’s grand babies hatch, I do not feel as I thought I might. They are beautiful babies, as they always are, but I do not feel any kind of unusual connection to any of them. Out of the five eggs that made it to the end, four hatched, and two are lovely black chickens, just like Poe. One is a girl. I’ve named her Poe Jr. Jr.
In recent weeks, I have had time to study them more. I see that a little white chicken with creamy-brown accents on her feathers is the most curious. One night, as I squat in the dirt, she jumps onto my shoulder. Then, she lets me hold her.
*poetry by James Sands, The Black Chicken Named Poe, from Why the Moon Tumbled Out of the Sky