Antonia Murphy, you might say, is an unlikely farmer. Born and bred in San Francisco, she spent much of her life as a liberal urban cliché, and her interactions with the animal kingdom rarely extended past dinner.
But then she became a mother. And when her eldest son was born with a rare, mysterious genetic condition, she and her husband, Peter, decided it was time to slow down and find a supportive community. So the Murphys moved to Purua, New Zealand—a rural area where most residents maintained private farms, complete with chickens, goats, and (this being New Zealand) sheep. The result was a comic disaster, and when one day their son had a medical crisis, it was also a little bit terrifying.
Dirty Chick chronicles Antonia’s first year of life as an artisan farmer. Having bought into the myth that farming is a peaceful, fulfilling endeavor that allows one to commune with nature and live the way humans were meant to live, Antonia soon realized that the reality is far dirtier and way more disgusting than she ever imagined. Among the things she learned the hard way: Cows are prone to a number of serious bowel ailments, goat mating involves an astounding amount of urine, and roosters are complete and unredeemable assholes.
But for all its traumas, Antonia quickly embraced farm life, getting drunk on homemade wine (it doesn’t cause hangovers!), making cheese (except for the cat hair, it’s a tremendously satisfying hobby), and raising a baby lamb (which was addictively cute until it grew into a sheep). Along the way, she met locals as colorful as the New Zealand countryside, including a seasoned farmer who took a dim view of Antonia’s novice attempts, a Maori man so handy he could survive a zombie apocalypse, and a woman proficient in sculpting alpaca heads made from their own wool.'
Part family drama, part cultural study, and part cautionary tale, Dirty Chick will leave you laughing, cringing, and rooting for an unconventional heroine.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.30(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
IT STARTED WITH A CHICKEN
It wasn’t even my chicken, actually, but my father’s, which I was charged with caring for during the three weeks he went on holiday in France with his wife, Gail. This particular chore came with free use of his Spanish-style hacienda with a swimming pool just north of San Francisco, so I was more than happy to oblige. Besides the handful of chickens, there was an elderly cat, an idiot bulldog, and a duck. Nothing I thought I couldn’t handle.
Plus, I didn’t have much else to do at the time. Browsing through life in my late twenties, I was managing a small children’s theater and halfheartedly attending art school. My meager paychecks added up to a spare existence based largely on peanut butter and toast, so a three-week house-sitting gig in a fancy neighborhood sounded like just the thing. I packed my bags eagerly, anticipating lazy afternoons poolside.
“Quackers is bereaved,” my stepmother announced as she tucked a good navy cardigan into her suitcase for Paris. “He’s very lonely. He hasn’t been the same since Cheese died.”
Cheese, apparently, was the female duck. “He’s lonely?” I asked. “How do you know?”
She cringed. “Well, he sometimes has sex with the chickens. But it’s fine, really. He’s perfectly harmless. Just a lonely widower.” She smiled sentimentally. “Would you help me get this suitcase downstairs?”
And that’s how I met Quackers, the interspecies duck rapist. Every time I went down to the chicken run, there he was, humping away at a chicken. I couldn’t make out the specifics of what was going on, but he’d be up on some poor hen, furiously flapping his wings, and she would look really perturbed. They’d scoot around like this for a minute or two—unless I happened to separate them, which wasn’t so easy to do.
“Hey! You . . . duck! Stop it! Stop doing that!” Quackers ignored me. I decided it would be useless to appeal to his better nature and instead went for the garden hose. “How do you like that, Quackers?” I’d holler, placing my thumb over the aperture to get a high-pressure spray. This usually worked, and both duck and chicken would slink away, feathers soaked and ruffled, looking ashamed.
The garden hose method was effective over the weekend, when I could lounge by the swimming pool and keep an eye on things. But come Monday, I had to go to work, and I scowled at Quackers on my way out the door. “Don’t try any funny business, Mister,” I warned him. “I’m watching you.”
This was a blatant lie, and Quackers must have known it, because when I got back that night the hacienda was eerily silent. “They must have put themselves to bed,” I reasoned, taking the flashlight off the shelf by the door and heading down to the chicken run. “I’m sure they’re all fine.”
They were not. Or at least, one wasn’t. A single sweep of the flashlight told me all I needed to know. Feeder, watering can, chicken roost. Three little hens, all in a row. Also a small glass chandelier, because that’s how they do farming in Marin County. And one little hen, huddled up on a shelf, crouched in a way that instantly communicated something was wrong. I passed the flashlight beam over her backside, and that’s when I saw the blood. I ran for the telephone.
“What do I do?”I said in a panic, after calling my then-boyfriend Peter at his job. “It’s bloody. It’s bleeding. I think Quackers raped it to death!”
“It’s a chicken,” Peter reasoned. “Cut its head off.”
“I can’t do that!” I squealed. “These chickens aren’t regular chickens! They’re pets!”
And it was true: My dad and his wife had an unnatural attachment to their hens. Besides outfitting their coop in fauxLouis XVI décor, Dad and Gail sometimes let them wander around inside the house, where they crapped on the carpets and hassled the bulldog. One time, a framed painting fell down, breaking a chicken’s leg. They didn’t euthanize it. They took it to the vet and had its leg put in a sling.
Peter’s voice was even and calm. “Then you don’t have a choice. You’ll have to find a vet who’s open and take her in.”
And I guess you could say that’s when my farming career began. I never much cared for animals, unless delicious slices of them were seared in clarified butter and presented to me with a sauce. But now here I was, following my soon-to-be-husband’s advice: wrapping the gory chicken in a towel and speeding away to the all-night veterinary clinic. Fumbling at the knobs on my dashboard, I found a Mozart minuet on the public radio station and turned it up, hoping the music would calm her.
Once we got to the clinic, the chicken went downhill fast. “I don’t recommend keeping different species in the same enclosure,” the vet announced, after I’d been anxiously waiting in his front office for half an hour. “Especially ducks. Ducks are nothing but trouble.”
I jumped to my feet. “Where is she? Can I see her?”
Instead of a chicken, the doctor handed me a sheet of paper. It was an invoice with a single item. “Chicken euthanasia,” it read. “Cloacal trauma. $345.00.”
“Wait—what?”I asked, trying hard to be civil. “What’s a cloaca? And why does it cost three hundred and forty-five dollars to kill one?”
The vet smiled benignly, murmuring something about after-hours care. And then he told me what a cloaca is.
Unlike human females, who have so many holes we might as well be pasta strainers, the chicken has one perfect, pristine opening, which handles everything. It’s her intestinal, urinary, and reproductive aperture. To put it simply, the cloaca is the chicken supervagina.
I have no idea how they control them. At any moment, this same hole could produce urine, a turd, or a baby chicken egg—a fact that, I imagine, must fill their lives with surprise.
I think it was the knowledge of this elegant organ, much more than the sense of guilt I felt at not being there to protect her, that made me mourn the chicken. The cloaca is so beautifully efficient, such a miracle of avian engineering, that it seemed doubly tragic to think it had been defiled by a sadistic duck.
I got over it, though. My father and stepmother returned from their trip and they tried not to blame me for the death. I went back to my own home, which at that time was a sailboat moored in Richmond, a sketchy part of the Bay Area just east of Marin County.
Slowly, I began to put the horrible incident behind me. But one day, I got to wondering about that duck and why his romantic advances had resulted in tragedy. So I Googled “duck penis,” and instantly regretted it.
The duck, I learned, has the longest penis of all vertebrates. When extended, his penis can reach the same size as his full body height, a terrifying ratio when you put it in human terms. The mental image this produced was unspeakable: a sort of Boschian tableau featuring a Satanic duck with a six-foot cock.
Later that week, Gail gave a memorial service for her ill-fated hen. It seems the chicken’s name had been Chantal and she’d been as cherished as a miracle baby after a lifetime of infertility. In a troubling blend of fetish and sentiment, Gail had kept the cracked remains of Chantal’s first egg over the years, lovingly wrapped in tissue paper. These she placed in a spice jar and buried alongside the bird.
Not surprisingly, my father and stepmother didn’t invite me to the wake. This may have been because I was responsible for Chantal’s death, or perhaps because my father and Gail had an inkling that I might start giggling at a eulogy for poultry. Whatever the reason, the proceedings went on without me.
To be polite, I did ask about the service, and it seems things didn’t go exactly as planned. Gail was vague on the details, but generally, in a case of murder and sexual assault, the assailant is not permitted to free-range at the funeral, pecking at lawn chairs and searching for bugs in the grass. Quackers, however, had roamed the lawn, fixing everyone with a cold, hard stare.
Gail had selected a Shakespearean sonnet to read at the graveside, but no sooner had she begun than Quackers strode lustily forward, causing my father to rear back in alarm. This was a wise move, and he didn’t even know the specifics of duck anatomy. A duck penis isn’t just huge; it’s spiny and shaped like a corkscrew. Clearly, species was no obstacle to this duck’s unnatural urges. Who would he fix on next? My father? The bulldog? Chantal’s recumbent corpse? The service came to an awkward conclusion, and Quackers was admonished for creeping people out.
Soon after, the bulldog died under mysterious circumstances, and while Gail was convinced he’d snacked on a box of snail poison, I had my doubts. Quackers still roamed the property, terrifying cats and small children, while everyone was careful to keep him away from the hens. He died a year or two later, and though a decade has passed since that terrible night, I still can’t feed ducks at the park. “Rapists,” I mutter, whenever I see kids tossing bread in the duck pond. “Why feed your treats to the rapists?”
This has won me some unkind looks from parents and nannies, but they should read up on their anatine anatomy. If they knew what they were feeding, they wouldn’t let their kids get so close.
I’d like to say this episode put me off rural living altogether, and for a while, it did. I certainly had no intention of hobby farming, even in the charming way my father and stepmother approached it. But our lives take unexpected turns. Somehow, within a few years, I was managing my own homestead in New Zealand, complete with chickens, goats, and even a few cows grazing in the pasture. The one animal I would not permit on my property was a duck. The very thought of one gave me the creeps.
If it seems strange that an artsy San Francisco dilettante should find herself living in a small rural backwater in northern New Zealand, then let me assure you, I’m as surprised as you are. For the most part, our peers back home lead conventionally successful lives: in their early forties, they run businesses, work as lawyers and scientists, have mortgages, and go to restaurants and parties. Meanwhile, Peter and I spend our time chasing cows down the road and executing chickens.
After much thought, I ascribe our unconventional life choices to three main things:
1. The ocean
2. George W. Bush
Allow me to explain. For as long as I could remember, sailing for me was a joy. While I was growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, someone in my family always had a sailboat, and we went out on the bay every few weeks for a dinner picnic, to see the fireworks, or just to spend a day in the sun. San Francisco is known for its brisk ocean breezes, and sometimes howling gusts come shooting down the city hills along the major boulevards. We’d get slammed by a sudden wind, our boat would heel way over and surge ahead, and I’d panic, fumbling for a lifeline.
But my brother Brian was always calm. “Don’t worry about it, partner,” he’d soothe, patting my stiff yellow lifejacket as he adjusted the tiller. “This boat will not sink.” Then he’d explain the physics of sails, how the boat will heel only so much until the sails dump wind, and how she naturally comes back upright, keeping everyone safe on deck. “Always,” he said. “She always comes back up.”
I loved the wind on my face, the salt on my skin, the pleasant, sunburned drowsiness after a day on the water. Even turkey sandwiches with sour dill pickles tasted better in my brother’s cockpit. Most of all, I loved heading out under the Golden Gate Bridge, even if it was just for a day sail. I knew that past that horizon was ocean, then Hawaii, then worlds and continents I’d never seen. It was an endless blue wilderness that I had the power to explore, as long as I kept a strong vessel beneath my feet. And I wanted to get there.
For Peter, the ocean was a sanctuary. Although he’s a bright and imaginative man, Peter never did well in the classroom. Now he thinks he probably had an undiagnosed learning disability, but when he was growing up and failing in school, he just felt stupid. On a sailboat, things were different. He had a natural affinity for three-dimensional space, easily understanding which points of sail would chart the most efficient course. He sailed with his father in Long Island Sound, Chesapeake Bay, and down in the Caribbean. And when he was a teenager and his parents separated in an acrimonious divorce, the ocean was the only place he felt calm.
So when we met a decade ago in the laundry room of the Richmond Marina, we were both pursuing the same passion. Peter had quit his job in New York as a network engineer a few months earlier. Instead of marrying his girlfriend and buying a house, he’d poured his down payment into a California boat that would sail him around the world. And I’d just bought Sereia, a thirty-six-foot 1970s ketch that I had no idea how to handle alone.
Peter told me his boat was named Swallow. “That’s so sweet,” I replied. “What a cute little bird.” Peter’s smart-ass friends back in New York had thought a boat named Swallow was racy and hilarious. More than one wanted to know when he’d be getting a dinghy named Spit,so I think the fact that I didn’t tease him was a relief. We went on a date, we went to bed, and then Peter moved in. Within a year, he sold Swallow, and we were planning to sail Sereia across the Pacific.
This was 2003 and 2004, the height of the Bush years, and Peter and I were unnerved by the wartime zeal in our country. Most of our fellow liberals were threatening to emigrate to Canada or New Zealand, but as it turns out, we were the crazy ones who did.
It wasn’t all high-minded politics that chased us out of the States. The truth was I couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco anymore. The city where I grew up, full of artists and poets and revolutionaries, was now home to millionaires. Managing a small children’s theater, I had no idea how I’d ever afford to have a family: the cost of health insurance alone for a family of four was more than I earned in a month.
And that’s where the hobbits come in. I know it’s dumb to say we moved to New Zealand for Lord of the Rings, and now that I’ve lived here for a while, I can definitively say there are no elves. But it’s hard to overstate the impact those movies had on silly American dreamers like me—feeling angry and alienated in our own country, just wanting to live somewhere beautiful, where evil wizards are defeated and not voted back into office.
Peter and I started toying with the idea of emigrating to another country, and my first choice was France. “They have national health care,” I argued, “and croissants.”
But Peter, who had taken first-year French five years in a row, wasn’t so sure. “I don’t speak the language,” he countered. “I don’t think I ever will. I won’t be able to get a job.”
So we did a little research and discovered that most industrialized countries have national health care, including New Zealand. There wouldn’t be a language barrier. Peter’s IT skills, we soon learned, would put us on a fast track to immigration. And most important, New Zealand was downwind from California. We could get there by sailboat.
Peter moved onto my vessel, and we pooled our resources to throw off the dock lines and head out under the Golden Gate Bridge for an extended sailing voyage. As usual I had no money, but Peter had the proceeds from selling his boat, and a modest inheritance from his father. Figuring that would last us, especially if we caught our own fish and ate like the locals, we traveled through Mexico and Central America. From there we crossed the Gulf of Panama and sailed down to Ecuador and across the Pacific, stopping along the way at pristine tropical islands for cold beer and black pearls. In all those months of travel, I never once thought about chickens, unless I was bartering for a dead one with a local villager.
By the time we settled in New Zealand’s North Island, I was six months pregnant. Our first few years were consumed with the challenges of moving to a new country and starting a family all at the same time and not knowing a soul. We wanted to stay on land for a couple of years while our baby was small, and for that we needed a work permit. To get a work permit, we needed a job. And to get a job, we had to move to the coldest part of New Zealand, a place the Rolling Stones once called the “Asshole of the World,” a city so cold and bleak they have a hard time finding enough IT professionals, way at the bottom of the South Island: Invercargill.
When our son, Silas, was three months old, we bid our sailboat farewell, packed up the old Mitsubishi we’d bought, and drove eleven hundred miles to the bottom of the country. I took over managing a small youth hostel, and Peter accepted a job at a local technology firm. For fourteen months we toiled down there, bracing ourselves for the freezing Antarctic storms that blew in off the Southern Ocean. When I had a break from the hostel, I’d walk Silas in his baby buggy, a plastic cover pulled tight over his swaddled form as if he were a warm sausage I was saving for lunch. Every now and then, an icy wind would slip under the plastic and Silas would let loose with an ear-rending shriek.
It was in Invercargill that I began to understand the ways New Zealand was different from New York and San Francisco. “Artisan farming” here isn’t so much a hipster trend as it is a way of life. There aren’t gourmet grocery stores on every block, selling locally sourced radicchio and organic truffle oil. Outside the major cities, most people have a vegetable patch and keep a few chickens. Raising a couple of sheep isn’t considered farming, just good sense: you can kill one for the freezer and sell the other for some extra cash.
At first, this was annoying. Why couldn’t I get artisanal cheeses at my local Pak’nSave? But a few months into our Invercargill adventure, I discovered the local farmer’s market. And that’s when everything changed.
We found organic lamb from a farm outside Queenstown, the chops so sweet and tender we called them lollypop chops. We sampled Bluff oysters, some of the best in the world, with the clean, briny taste of the frigid Southern Ocean. We stuffed ourselves with kilos of juicy cherries, and not just one variety of potato, but six or seven, changing with the seasons, each with its own pretty name: Nadines for boiling, Desirees for salads, Red Rascals for a fluffy, creamy mash.
Pushing Silas’s buggy among the farmers’ stalls, I began to see that without a wealthy population of Wall Street executives and tech entrepreneurs, there just wasn’t a market for gourmet shops here. The only way to eat really well in New Zealand was to grow food yourself. Or buy it directly from the growers.
So I bought a few chickens. Hopes held high, I drove out to a local chicken farm with a cardboard box in the backseat. The farmer, a lanky man with oily hair and dirty blue coveralls, opened his barn door to a bedlam of peeping. There were thousands of chicks, tiny golden puffballs pecking at the ground and one another, climbing on their siblings in a roiling sea of cuteness. Without ceremony, he grabbed half a dozen puffballs and tossed them in the box and then handed it to me.
“Thirty dollar,” he barked. I could barely hear him over the din.
“That’s it?” I asked. “I don’t get to pick them out? How do you know they’re good ones?”
He looked at me as if I were speaking Inuit. Then his mouth broke into an easy smile, a wide, gummy gap in the front. “All good,” he assured me. “Chicken’s not good, ya chuck it in the pot!” Then he laughed as if this were a hilarious joke.
After a few months, we had fresh eggs for our family, with a few left over to share with the backpackers. It still didn’t occur to me to farm, though. I was too busy running the youth hostel and urging Silas to talk or point or at least say something other than “da.” By eighteen months old, he still wasn’t walking, either, and we figured he was just a little behind.
But then the tourist season ended, and my job at the youth hostel came to a close. We packed up our things and gave the chickens away to a neighbor. Residency permits in hand, we prepared to move back north, where the sunshine was warm and the winters were mild.
And that’s when we confronted the fourth reason for our unusual life choices, the one thing that kept us in New Zealand for good: DNA.
At first Silas was nothing but a joy in our lives. He sat up on time, giggled and chortled at all the right moments, and loved being cuddled and kissed. Some things about him were different, but I didn’t know they were wrong. He never pointed or gestured. He never imitated the sounds I made. And when he cried, there were never any tears. At nineteen months, he still wasn’t walking or talking, and soon after, we learned why. Silas has a minute typographical error deep in his genetic code, just a tiny section missing, a flaw so small that it took specialized computers in Australia to find it. It’s no one’s fault. It’s just a fluke.
Silas has a global developmental delay, which means that he’s behind in most areas and probably intellectually disabled, though no one knows by how much. At five years old, he could say a few hundred words, but he used only a handful of them, and then only one at a time. “Mih,” he would say for milk, and “pees” for please.
Most of the time I was okay with this, because Silas was also an affectionate little imp. He’d crawl into my bed first thing in the morning and throw his arms around my neck, and when I cuddled him back, his face lit up with joy. The one toy he loved more than anything was a little blue handheld mp3 player, which we called the Dart. I’d loaded this player with recordings of my own voice singing to Silas and reading his favorite books, as well as a selection of Broadway musicals. The music was so calming for him that watching him use the device was like watching a lion get shot with a tranquilizer dart. When his favorite songs came on, when his eyes grew wide with wonder and he hopped up and down with the sheer pleasure of song, I thought to myself that talking wasn’t the only way to communicate.
But there was no denying that he made our lives more complicated. It was hard not knowing how Silas would turn out, and it broke my heart to think his life would be limited. There were stacks of paperwork involved in coordinating his care: medical specialists, therapists, teacher aides, and all those appointments for scans, checkups, and tests. And while we took care of Silas’s many needs, we still had our savage daughter to tame.
Miranda was born two years after Silas. A typical three-year-old, she chatted nonstop about party dresses and princesses. She also loved riding bikes, jumping on the trampoline, and hacking her own hair off with dull scissors, which meant we usually kept her in a cute little pixie cut.
Our daughter was both sweet and relentless in equal measure. “Mama?” she’d ask, “can I have a juice? Mama, can I have a snack?” Then, once she’d been fed and watered, the real questions began. “Mama, when a crocodile would bite me, would you get a gun and dead him?”
“Of course,” I’d say, “of course I would.” Then I’d pop another antidepressant, pour a second glass of wine, and dream about moving to the country.
Five years into our life in New Zealand, we finally did it. And Silas was the reason.
Until we became parents, Peter and I both had led the sort of devil-may-care lives where a normal thing, at thirty, was to get on a sailboat and go cruising for a few years. Neither of us was rich, but we were both from comfortable middle-class families whose parents had paid for our educations and thought everything we did was wonderful. Majoring in English and History? “How marvelous!” Backpacking through Central America? “Oh, how rugged!” Working a shitty job in retail to help pay the bills? “What madcap adventures you’re collecting for your novel someday.”
We’d always been lucky, with the sort of privileged confidence typical of our middle-class, American lives. From the day we met, Peter and I were best friends, compatible in everything, from our taste for good food and travel to sex. We didn’t need anyone.
And then we had Silas. When your kid is born disabled, you need. You need help navigating the labyrinth of public services available, from medical treatments to therapies. You need help deciding which interventions to pursue, which might be useful and which will just bankrupt you and disappoint. You need counseling, antidepressants, and wine.
Correction: you probably don’t need any of those things. I did. And do. And most of all, what I needed was to know that people in the world would accept my son. For that, we needed a community.
So, I guess, in the end, my brother was wrong. The boat doesn’t always bounce back upright. Once we learned what was wrong with Silas, we didn’t want to head out to sea. We wanted to come to shore.
When it was time for Silas to start school, I knew he wasn’t ready. His language was rudimentary, and he hated holding a pencil. On the other hand, I knew he was intelligent. He had a spark in his eyes, and when he got his first preschool computer game, he picked up the rules very quickly. He might never think like the rest of us, and the signals in his brain misfire, so his language might never be fluent, but I knew he could learn.
Regular school would have eaten him alive. I visited a few of them, watching crowds of first-graders tear nimbly across the pavement, and it was clear my son would have been left in the dust. So I ground up my courage to visit our local special-needs school. The New Zealand education system prefers to mainstream kids with learning difficulties, so the students in special school have only the most serious problems. These are the kids in wheelchairs, the ones you glance at in the grocery store and then quickly look away. I tried to keep an open mind, but when one of the students leaned out of her wheelchair to start chewing on her teacher’s skirt, I knew it wasn’t the right place for Silas.
Then we found a tiny community west of Whangarei called Purua, in the northern part of the North Island. The immediate draw was the one-room schoolhouse, with just fifteen kids enrolled. It had a vegetable garden, a beehive, and a worm farm. The school was right next to a kiwi bird sanctuary, and when a new egg hatched, the bird keepers called up the school so the kids could come pet the baby kiwi. It was a full New Zealand fantasy, minus the hobbits and elves. When I first visited Purua School, among the rolling green hills of Northland, children greeted me at the door with honey.
Sophia, the principal, looked up. “Will you taste our runny, scrummy honey?” she wanted to know. “The children made it themselves.” It was a little freaky. With their vegetable garden, their ceramics, and their ukulele playing, the school seemed weirdly perfect. Peter and I started calling it “the magical school,” not sure if such a place could really exist.
The children were also persistently kind to one another. I brought Silas in for a visit, and he began working with the art program installed on one of the computers. “What an interesting mind he has!” an eight-year-old boy exclaimed. “I didn’t even know that program could do that.” Right then, I knew that if we enrolled our son at Purua, they would take care of him. They would teach him as well as they could, and the children would be kind.
So we moved to the countryside. Peter found work as a network engineer at the local power company, and though he was sorry to let go of our ocean dreams, he was glad for the steady job. And most people were welcoming, despite the fact that I was a goofy San Francisco bohemian sporting sequins and Halloween animal ears in the country. The crazy headgear had started on a whim: I pulled a pair of tiger’s ears out of the kids’ dress-up basket one day and found they did a great job of keeping my hair out of my face. I added devil’s horns and rabbit’s ears to the repertoire, and then I just kept wearing them because they made me laugh.
I thought life would be simpler out here. If he wanted to, Silas could eat spiders and run around in the pastures, and if he chose to stand beneath a power pole for half an hour and contemplate its infinite mysteries, no one would judge him for it.
That much was true. But as for simplicity, I was wrong. Instead, our move to the country brought chaos and carnage, and once again it started with chickens. These chickens weren’t mine, either. They belonged to Katya and Derek, the nice couple who’d rented their house to us while they spent a year in Germany.
We moved to our new home in February, and within two months, we’d killed all the chickens. This was not our intention, but I promise you, it had to be done. The first clue was the eggs. They weren’t laying any. From six chickens, I’d get one or two eggs a day, which is a pretty sad return when you’re spending thirty bucks a month on chicken feed.
“They’re freeloaders,” I complained to my new country neighbors. “They’re lazy! It’s like I’m running a retirement home for menopausal hens! This has to stop!”
Then there were the freaky eggs. Occasionally I’d get an egg that was malformed, or with a shell that was soft like rice paper. One day I got a deformed chicken abortion: a moist, lumpy mass that appeared to be made from solid shell.
“These chickens are diseased!”I announced to anyone who would listen.“There’s something seriously wrong with them! These eggs are filthy in the eyes of God!”
Maybe it was the filthy God comment, or the fact that I wouldn’t shut up, but the school principal, Sophia, agreed to come over and take a look. We decided to combine her impromptu poultry clinic with a dinner party, and I picked up some fresh fish and organic lettuce at our local farmer’s market for the occasion.
When Sophia saw the hens, she winced. “Oh, God, they’ve got mites,”she said, gasping. “Oh, they can hardly walk. They’ll have to be put down.” Sophia is a refugee from a very fancy part of England, and since immigrating to New Zealand, she’s lost all traces of her former life except her exquisite taste and her accent. Imagine a willowy woman in a long crimson sundress, with a chilled Pinot Gris in one hand, advocating cold-blooded murder as silver bangles tinkle gently on her sculpted wrist. That’s Sophia. She sounded as if she knew what she was talking about. Of course, that’s the problem with being American: I’ll buy anything if you say it with a fancy British accent.
But it turned out Sophia was right. The chickens had something called scaly leg mites, which are tiny bug parasites that burrow into a chicken’s legs and eat the bird from the inside out. They live in tunnels under the skin, just eating and defecating, until the chicken’s poor legs are covered with large, scaly sores. Sometimes the chicken’s toes fall off. If you let this go on long enough, the hen can’t even walk.
So, right before the fish course, Peter went for the axe. “What are you doing?” I asked as he opened the chicken coop door.
“You might want to go back to the house,” he informed me.
“You have to kill them? For mites? Can’t we just . . . do a thing? Put some cream on it?”
“You sweet thing,” Sophia assured me. “It’s too late for that. The situation has gone on far too long.”
I was a little nervous about the ease with which everyone was accepting this Final Chicken Solution, but on the other hand, I had some fresh sea bass in the oven and I wasn’t about to overcook it. So maybe I’m a collaborator. All I know is that, twenty minutes later, Peter came back to the house with blood spattered on his trousers and an empty look in his eye.
“No more mites,” he grunted as he set off down the hall toward the shower.
I didn’t feel great about combining our dinner party with an avian ethnic cleansing, but I did understand it was necessary. There comes a point when an animal is so sick, or so crippled, or in so much pain, that the real cruelty is not euthanizing it. The day after the leg mite incident, I took great care to make sure it wouldn’t happen again: I pulled on my rattiest clothes and grabbed a shovel and a bottle of bleach. For an entire day, I scrubbed that henhouse till I felt confident there wasn’t a leg mite in sight. I shoveled shit, scrubbed the walls, scraped the floors, and sprayed the whole thing down with farm disinfectant. The next batch of chickens, I vowed, would be sheltered from mites and rapists. The next batch of chickens would be safe.
And for a while, they were. Until they got leprosy.
This was not as terrifying as it might seem. Five years previously, I’d witnessed the same thing with my Invercargill birds. Back then, my first batch of chicks lived in a big wooden crate in our living room. I clipped a lightbulb to the box to keep them warm, and I changed their wood shavings daily. But then they developed beak rot. Something was terribly wrong.
I jumped on Google to investigate. “My chickens have leprosy,” I posted on a variety of chicken forums. “Please help.” And people did, from all over the world. There was a chicken enthusiast in Tennessee who suggested they were pecking one another, and some guy in Adelaide who thought they might be banging their beaks on the metal bars of their cage. “No cage,” I insisted, increasingly alarmed. “These chickens have never even seen metal. What do I do?!”
After several days of frantic messaging, the chicken community was stumped. And then the beaks started falling off. Not the whole beak, exactly, just the tip, like in the photos you might have seen of sad people in leprosy camps.
Hysterical, I called the Invercargill chicken farm. “What’s wrong with these chickens?”I demanded, trying to sound a little bit sane. “Their beaks are falling off.”
There was a pause on the line, while the farmer tried to place who I was. “Aw, the beaks?” he asked finally. “Aw, yep. Those have been lasered.”
“Lasered?”I repeated. “Why would you put a laser beam on a chicken beak?”
“Saves them from pecking each other,” he explained, as though this were obvious. “Doesn’t hurt them. Just kills the tissue. After a few weeks, the tip comes off and the beak is nice and round.”
“Oh,” I replied, ashamed. I had learned a lot of things growing up in San Francisco, such as how to speak French and prepare for a major earthquake. I had not, however, learned about laser beams and chicken beaks. I thanked the farmer and hung up the phone.
So now my second batch of chickens had beak rot, and I was taking it like a pro. I felt rather motherly toward my hens, so it wouldn’t have been so easy to execute them for minor infractions such as leg mites. I fussed over them daily, making sure they could still peck for bugs with their artificially stunted beaks. I studied their behavior and announced my discoveries at the dinner table.
“They wallow in dirt,” I reported, once the chickens were old enough to live outside. I hadn’t noticed this phenomenon with my first batch of hens.
Peter was skeptical. “Wallow? In dirt? I thought pigs wallowed.”
“No, it was definitely dirt. They were rolling it all over themselves. It was filthy.”
Silas sat beside me not eating his dinner. Hearing a word he knew, he joined the conversation. “DUHT!” he yelled. “Duh-tee!”
“I’m dirty, Mama,” Miranda joined in. “My butt is dirty!”
“Don’t use potty talk,” I snapped. To Peter, I asked, “Do you think they’re crazy? Maybe we should Google it.”
A little poking around on the Internet revealed that dirt wallowing is actually normal chicken behavior, called a dust bath. They roll around in the dirt, cover themselves in filth, and this rinses out the mites. So dirty chickens weren’t our problem.
Our problem was the cow.
When Katya and Derek agreed to rent their home to us, they gave us a big discount off the cost of their mortgage because the house also came with a number of responsibilities. There were six chickens to care for, an old shaggy dog named Phoenix, a couple of cats, and a large, probably pregnant cow.
This cow was supposedly named Lucky. I did not name her. If it had been up to me, she’d have been christened A Thousand Pounds of Anarchy, which would have been a lot more descriptive and, frankly, more accurate. Because Lucky jumped fences.
I’d been wary of this cow from the start. A hefty black Friesian with a ghostly white face, Lucky looked slightly malevolent to me, like an evil sorcerer engaged in some violent, black-hearted rite. Also, I had no idea how to care for her.
“So what does she need?” I’d asked Derek before he left, hopeful that he’d grace me with cow pointers.
“Aw, nothing, really,” Derek assured me, patting her affectionately on the snout. “She’ll eat the grass and stay in her paddock. Just make sure she has water to drink, and she’ll take care of herself, eh.”
Which was mostly true, apart from “stay in her paddock” and “nothing, really.” Actually, none of it was true. Because Lucky was trouble from the start.
To begin with, she didn’t like grass. She’d much rather have eaten the tender new pea shoots or the sweetest baby lettuces from the garden. As soon as our backs were turned, she’d jump the fence. Then we’d find her in the veggie patch munching on organic chard or out on the road taking a pleasant stroll toward town.
As well as Lucky and the rest of the farm, we had our own family pets: a black-and-white cat named Catty and a hyperactive German shepherd puppy named Kowhai. Kowhai (pronounced KO-fai) is the name of a delicate New Zealand tree with tiny leaves and clusters of yellow blooms. It’s a very feminine tree, and a terrible name for our dog, who should probably have been named Mayhem or possibly Fang. She wants only to play, but unfortunately she weighs eighty pounds and has bone-crunching jaws, so sometimes people misunderstand her intentions.
You might say that things were not going swimmingly. One month into our stay, we’d managed to dispatch most of our charges: We executed the chickens. One of the cats disappeared, clearly disgusted with our urban ways. And Lucky was escaping almost daily. It seemed we didn’t have much of a talent for farming.
And we still had eleven months to go.
Excerpted from "Dirty Chick"
Copyright © 2015 Antonia Murphy.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Author's Note xi
Chapter 1 It Started with a Chicken 1
Chapter 2 Freaky Eggs 14
Chapter 3 Party Time 25
Chapter 4 Teddy Bear Camels 34
Chapter 5 Sheep on a Spit 53
Chapter 6 Stripper Calves with Satan Tongues 66
Chapter 7 Back from Love Mountain 88
Chapter 8 Turkey Time 104
Chapter 9 The First One Is Free 115
Chapter 10 Heavy Breathing 133
Chapter 11 Spinning and Spitting 150
Chapter 12 Frog in Mouth 164
Chapter 13 The Grab-and-Yank 179
Chapter 14 Outnumbered 198
Chapter 15 Catch the Big One 209
Chapter 16 The Binglee-Doo 225
Chapter 17 No Crocodiles Here 236
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I laughed out loud. I loved it and recommended it to my daughters, who loved it as well. Very funny and touching as well.