Yarrow House

Run, Chicken, Run

We stood in the middle of the chicken pen and tried to look like we knew what we were doing. I don’t know about Raine, but the closest I’d been to a chicken was Ezell’s takeout. The pen covered a good third of our new client’s yard. The fencing wrapped around bushes that looked pretty pecked over and ended at a colorful little playhouse on stilts—the chicken house, I assumed. All the ground in the pen was packed dirt. Not a blade of grass to be seen. The birds were voracious eaters, apparently.

The chicken’s owner, a mid-thirties, granola type, with long frizzy hair and overalls, had called us with an urgent need— find her missing chicken. An ordinary black and white chicken, one of her flock of eight. They all had names. The missing chicken was Ms Biddy. “Why would you name something you were going to eat?” I wondered to myself out loud.

“She’s one of my best layers. We wouldn’t eat her,” Ms. Chicken Farmer informed me. “None of these chickens are for eating.” And she went on to explain the difference between egg layers and meat chickens in great detail, none of which had any bearing on where to start looking for the missing bird.

 The little flock of hens made a nervous racket around our feet. They weirded me out. Beady eyes cocked upward checking us over. “What was that Hitchcock movie? The Birds?” I whispered to Raine.

“Don’t worry about them, look for evidence.” Raine was eyeing the fencing and examining the latch to the chicken pen.

“Look for evidence? What evidence? Evidence of what?” We’d been hired to find a missing chicken, and so far all we’d done was let the remaining birds attack our feet. I nudged a big red one out of the way.

“Don’t kick it!” Ms. Farmer shrieked.

 “I didn’t kick it. A nudge isn’t a kick,” I protested.

 “Quit talking while you’re ahead,” Raine muttered at me. “Well, ma’am, there’s a good chance your chicken...”

“Hen,” Ms. Farmer corrected her.

“Hen,” Raine repeated “is a featured course in someone’s dinner.” The woman started to tear up. “But just in case it’s still on two feet, we’ll conduct a search of the neighborhood.”

Search and Research, that’s our biz, but for a chicken? We had sunk low in the past, but this was the lowest as far as I was concerned. And I hadn’t heard anything yet about a fee up-front either.

Raine had her hand on my elbow and was moving me steadily out of the chicken pen. Ms Chicken Farmer’s little farmstead was tucked into a double lot in Seattle’s Mt. Baker neighborhood, lower end of its income scale—valley side rather than lake side of the Mt. Baker ridge.

We poked around the outside of the chicken pen and surveyed the rest of the little farmstead. Neat vegetable beds, some espaliered fruit trees. Garden shed in the shape of a tiny red barn. No access except via fenced neighboring yards.

“They made a lot of noise while we were in the pen,” Raine remarked.

“Yes, they’re curious about anybody new,” Ms Farmer said. “They’re very friendly, as long as they aren’t abused.” She gave me a knowing glare. “Normally they’re super quiet. The neighbors never complain about noise.” She proceeded to start in on a lesson in chicken psychology and behavior. She sounded a little too defensive to me. Maybe one of the neighbors had decided to selectively quiet the flock. I put some more mental money on the chicken stew theory.

“So you said you noticed the chicken, hen, was gone this morning when you went to feed them,” I interrupted. “When I let them out of their coop,” she corrected me. “And it was there last evening?” She nodded. “So the bird disappeared sometime in the night or early morning.” Being obvious about it. But that’s who I am.

“Did you hear any unusual noises during that time?” Raine interrupted. Ms. Farmer shook her head.

 “Not even the chickens?” I asked. She shook her head again. And then went into a lengthy explanation about her bedtime, bird bedtimes, and where her bed was in relation to the chicken pen, the short version of which was that she would have heard any noises and didn’t.

I walked out onto the sidewalk and surveyed the surrounding neighborhood. Houses on both sides. One, from the unmown state of its lawn, I guessed was a rental. The other was very trim, obsessively so, you might say, but maybe it was just the contrast with the farmstead. Across the street was an elementary school playground. Noisy chickens in the yard and noisy kids across the street. What a nightmare for the neighbors.

The fact that the chickens didn’t squawk when their buddy disappeared bugged me. “Seems like it might have been someone the chickens knew, huh?” I speculated, adding some more money to the stew pot.

Raine nodded.  Despite what she claims, she speculates too.

Just as we got to our car, a horde of kids poured out onto the playground for recess. The decibel level rose to red alert. If the Farmer family ever planned to sell their house, they should definitely list it during summer months. Raine leaned against the car and considered the swarming kids.

“We shouldn’t hang around staring at the playground for too long. You know how fussy people get about lurking adults,” I said, standing with my hand on the door handle, ready to make a quick departure if the school security should show up.
Raine ignored me. “Kids always know what’s going on. Adults don’t pay attention. Too much going on in their heads. But kids, they hang around and see things,” she said.

“Because they’re always sneaking around.”

“You’re too cynical about kids.”

“That’s because I was one, once.”

“Let’s go get coffee and come back when school’s out. See if we can find some nosy kids who might have heard what happened to the chicken.”

An hour later we were back at our station, leaning against the car watching kids being picked up by moms, dads, nannies, buses, and an occasional taxi cab. I kept track of the number of adults who gave us the once over, and it wasn’t just a few. Very protective of their kids, these people. When I was a kid. ...well, no point in going there.

Groups of kids scattered down the block, going home on their own. A little cluster hung back by the playground fence, tossing a basketball back and forth and casting quick glances our way. “Like I said,” Raine commented, nodding at the group. There’s our nosy kids. They’ve spotted us. And they’re curious.”

The five boys, ten or eleven year olds maybe, were all shades of the Rainier Valley demographics. They eyed us eying them. Raine strolled across the street. I straggled after. One on one, kids aren’t bad. But a group of them, you never can tell.

Raine was already striking up a conversation. “Lady across the street is missing a chicken. Anybody heard about how it went missing?” Shuffling feet, shaking heads. “Supposing someone had taken one of the chickens, who might it have been? Someone from the block, or a stranger, maybe? A hungry street person, maybe, looking for dinner?”

“They don’t let nobody in the yard,” one of the boys piped up, sagging cargo pants, gray hoodie.

“Yes they do. If you want to feed them, you can go into the yard,” countered a kid with glasses and a Mariners backpack.

“But they always watch you.” Hoodie sounded like he was speaking from personal experience.

“Jerrard got to collect the eggs once,” piped up  a kid in jeans and an oversized A’s T-shirt.

“Not by himself,” countered the kid with glasses. “The lady was with him the whole time.”

“Those chickens all have names. They ain’t for eating,” commented the tallest of the quintet. “Anyways, the homeless guys don’t hang out on this block, ‘cuz the school calls the cops if they come around here.” Another voice of experience, maybe.

“When you go in to feed them, do they peck at your feet?” I asked.

All five boys gave me a look that was worse than the chickens’ beady stares. “We don’t get to go in there,” Hoodie said.

“Jerrard brought a chicken to school today for his report on urban farming,” announced the chatty A’s fan.

“How did he get it to school?” I wondered out loud.

“In a cat carrier,” our chatty informant replied “It just fit in. It was a huge chicken.”

“What color?” Raine asked.

“Black and white,” Little Chatty said. “Jerrard knew all about chickens. What they eat,  how many eggs they lay in a week. He said there are lots of different kinds of chickens. His one was a Plymouth Rock. It’s a Native American.”

“No it’s not. It’s a chicken,” countered the kid in glasses. Too literal for his own good.

“So, where does Jerrard live?” I only meant to head off the argument, but my question brought everything to a halt. The boys elbowed each other and started to edge away. Obviously well-practiced in the art of evading pointed questions.

Raine intervened before they could all escape. “If you see Jerrard, tell him to put that chicken back into the chicken pen. Tonight.”

“Besides,” I added, “where’s he going to keep it? Under his bed?”

“He’s got a tree house....” Little Chatty objected.

“Shut-up,”  Hoodie said and punched Chatty in the arm.

I was already scanning the block for a tree house. If not on this block, someplace close. A cat carrier with a big chicken would be a load for a little kid to lug very far.

“Just tell him to take it back, and we won’t keep looking for him,” Raine said menacingly to the boys’ backs as they trotted off down the block.

“We could follow them. I bet they’re going to Jerrard’s right now,” I said.  

“Let them go. We’ll call her tomorrow. See if the chicken’s back in the pen.”

“If we let him take it back, we don’t get paid, you know.”

“Do you really want to spend your time looking for a chicken?” Raine asked.

“No, not really, not unless it’s fried.”

One-time reproduction for non-resale purposes permitted with the following credit line: by Judith Yarrow, © 2014