Sometimes, God sends you a hen.
I didn’t particularly want a hen. I’d been praying for a house on a triple lot like my beloved grandfather’s house, with an orchard and a grape alley and a great big vegetable patch. The only variation I would make from my grandfather’s garden would be to ruin one side of the pristine lawn with a flock of Indian Runner ducks. Indian runners are the most comical and low-maintenance domestic duck; they are prolific egg layers, smaller than average; they are useless for meat so you don’t feel guilty about just keeping them for a pet. Besides this, they come in several colors. I envisioned myself the duck lady with an army of Indian Runners outside, and a blue and white kitchen with vintage ducks in bonnets on every surface.
Instead of that, I ended up the foster mother of one brown and gray hen.
I think I might have found the real owner of Rhonda the hen in the neighborhood message board, but the owner never came to pick her up. Maybe they’ve just never been searching when she is outside scratching for her lunch. Maybe they’ve given up. But the hen took up residence under a cedar tree in the yard of the man who brought water. She hides from the neighborhood cats under there, and is relatively warm. I’ve been coming out every day with a handful of leftovers to feed her so she doesn’t go hungry. At first, she wouldn’t get within ten feet of me, but now she struts up closer and snatches crumbles of cooked hamburger with her beak.
On Friday, when it was still misty and the grass was stiff with frost, I was standing on my lawn in my pajamas and jacket, exclaiming “chook chook!” and throwing food. A pickup truck squeaked up and parked in the middle of the road.
“The chicken, the chicken!” said the little girl in the passenger seat.
“She asked me to take her to see the chicken!” explained her father.
I had become a roadside attraction.
I explained that Rhonda wasn’t my chicken; she was just passing through.
Holly the witch cautioned me that this situation might not last. “It could end with a pile of feathers and a fat raccoon.” But I’m used to that. People and animals come and go in LaBelle. Nothing is really mine. The house is only a rental we barely hold on to. The neighbors are here one day, and then they disappear. Jeanne the Guardian isn’t really my cat any more than Elijah was; she’s just a neighborhood stray who visits. We only keep Lady McFluff because a benefactor friend sends us hay and bedding from time to time. Adrienne herself is an adolescent now, and one day she’ll be gone. All we can do is be kind to whoever comes to us, and enjoy them while they’re around.
The benefactor sent a thermal pet house and a bale of straw this month, in case the chicken stays much longer. Adrienne had a good time setting it up at the edge of the property between our house and the neighbor’s. Rhonda will have a nice place to snuggle when it gets really cold this winter, and if she doesn’t stay, Jeanne might like to visit.
Next evening, Rhonda was running around the sidewalk and back and forth across the narrow one-way street. I was trying to feed her and keep her from getting run over. The child, Jimmy’s boy’s friend who visits on his tricycle, was on my porch asking to borrow Adrienne’s old matchbox cars and scoot them around the porch, and Adrienne was fetching them. It felt like a party, like having friends for the first time in years.
The lady from the apartment building at the end of the block leaned out of her car to watch. “Is that y’all’s chicken?”
“I’m just feeding her until her real mom gets here,” I explained. “We can’t afford a chicken. Come here, Rhonda! You don’t want to run over!”
Rhonda ignored me and darted over to the vacant house across the way. Now we know why the chicken crossed the road: she was annoyed at being ordered around.
But she was back by the porch this morning, waiting for her breakfast.
She needs me, for now.
Nothing is really ours. We have the whole of our lives on loan from a mysterious Benefactor who created us for reasons unknown. Sometimes it feels like He only created me for a spiteful joke.
But just now it fells like a really good joke, the kind you want to hear again and again and then run out and tell to all your friends.
Sometimes, lately, it doesn’t even feel like a joke.
Sometimes it feels like a grace.
When I was a strict Catholic, terrified of the devil around every corner, trapped in the abusive sect known as the Charismatic Renewal, I was taught the difference between “sanctifying grace” and “actual grace.” I don’t think I could remember the Baltimore Catechism definition now that I’m a traumatized Catholic who has panic attacks when she tries to receive the sacraments. Nowadays I think of it like this: Sanctifying grace is the force that sustains you through life, good and bad. Actual grace is that occasional surprise that makes you remember why you’re being sustained. Sanctifying grace is the grace that suffuses every moment of your life, when you pray and when you try to get to church and when you’re too traumatized to get to church but you keep the lines open and keep talking in case He hears. Actual grace is the grace that jumps out at you every so often, surprising you, like a chicken darting out of the cedar bushes, and then you really believe.
Sanctifying grace has here, whether I could believe in it or not, even when I didn’t dare to think God remembered me, throughout this strange life.
But sometimes, God sends me an actual grace.
Sometimes actual grace looks like a chicken.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.