Charlie's Good Year

Valerie Forde-Galvin

Winner 2022 Animal Story
© Copyright 2022 by Valerie Forde-Galvin

Drawing of Charlie by Valerie.
Drawing of Charlie by Valerie.

They say that relationships hold up the mirror and teach you something about yourself. Well, Charlie did this and more. Charlie possessed courage, style, and joie de vivre. Sufficient unto himself, Charlie had chutzpah. And Charlie passed it on. Yes, Charlie came into my life to remind me of who I am and who I could become.

It was sunrise when Charlie announced his presence. Sometime around five o'clock one morning in May I first heard his voice. His was a jubilant greeting to a sun revived out of darkness. With some assistance from awakening sparrows and finches, he called the day into being. His crowing continued at fifteen minute intervals until my sleep dulled senses concluded that there was a rooster somewhere outside my window.

It had only been a few months since I moved out into the country, trading in a twenty-six year marriage for safety and well-being. I'd pretty much adapted to life in this rural community where the sounds of animals and farm machinery provided a charming pastoral background. However, calculating sound distance, I realized that this commotion was not issuing from the neighboring farm half a mile down the road. Charlie's squawking echoed through the dry old bones of the barn attached to my rented farmhouse and, well before the sun emerged from its slumbers, I was fully awake.

I waited until full daylight before greeting my newly arrived guest. Fortified with a proper breakfast and dressed in my barn clothes, I ventured out to investigate. I wasn't prepared for what I saw; Charlie's appearance did not match the grandeur of his voice. Lame and bald, featherless from his comb to his cape (that's mid-back in rooster anatomy), he was a pitiful sight.

I recalled my former attempts at poultry farming and realized that Charlie showed evidence of natural selection. In a flock, the older and weaker birds are often attacked by stronger, healthier members, hence the term “pecking order.” If a rooster can't defend himself, he no longer has a place in the flock and is eventually pecked to death. Charlie's sparse plumage indicated that he was definitely past his prime and had become a target for the young and the restless.

However, Charlie apparently possessed a higher intelligence than your average fowl. For self-preservation he had walked away from his dysfunctional family and taken to the road. Now, if you've ever seen a chicken walk, you can understand that his journey toward freedom could not have been easy. In chicken metrics, that half mile from the neighboring farm must have seemed to Charlie like half a marathon. Yet he persevered.

Having recently removed myself from an abusive marriage, I could relate. Walking away was my only option too. My flight to freedom took some courage but, compared to Charlie's ordeal, I went first class.

Although I empathized with this fellow seeker, it took me a while to fully grasp Charlie's intentions. I first assumed that, in his senility, this rooster had just strayed too far from home and was using my barn for shelter until he could get his bearings and eventually find his way back to his farm. However, the days passed and he stayed on. I recognized that, like me, Charlie was in survival mode. For both of us there was no going back.

As I scrabbled for subsistence in my brave new world, so did my newly acquired rooster friend. I was just barely managing, eking out a precarious living as a yoga teacher and therapist. And now here was Charlie, managing as best he could with whatever his new surroundings offered. He nibbled at weeds in my garden and occasionally pecked out a worm or two. But he was still hungry and followed me around, waiting for me to get the picture. Back at his former home, humans would have supplied him with grain and he expected me to do the same. In time I began to understand that Charlie had moved in for good and had appointed me as his caretaker. I experimented with sprinkling various grains out on the driveway for him. As a vegetarian, I had an assortment of bulgur, oats, and barley to share. Charlie ravenously scarfed up my offerings.

It was good to see Charlie happily strutting and pecking his way around the yard but, at the same time, I realized that he was depleting my own food supply. I couldn't keep up with this rooster's ravenous appetite. It was time to get serious about Charlie's nutritional needs. So off I went to the local feed store to ask what sort of fare would please an old rooster. No spring chicken myself, I had to assure the clerk that I was indeed speaking about an old bird and not an aging husband with a fiber deficiency.

In the months that followed I became a regular customer at the feed store, hauling home my twenty-five pound sacks of grain. I had become a chicken farmer. And I began to see results in my flock of one. Charlie's condition was gradually improving. Instinctively he supplemented his diet of grains with slimy tidbits scratched from the yard. As I watched him grazing in my flower garden, feasting on insects and worms, I chose to believe that he was helping to keep my garden free of pests and so gladly sacrificed the occasional plant to his appetite.

Charlie's transformation was amazing. His feathers grew back. His scrawny little chicken body filled out. By midsummer Charlie had reclaimed his former rooster majesty. He walked now with confidence like a proper king of the barnyard, his iridescent black head held high.

When not strutting through the yard, he enjoyed basking right in the middle of my flower bed. His lustrous feathers glistened like onyx gems in the sunlight and, touched by his radiance, the
surrounding yellow primrose became a field of gold. This vision of Charlie delighted my students who came to the house for yoga. And Charlie's frequent vocalizations provided an amusing distraction during classes. Charlie was a happy rooster. He sang out day and night.

That fall, as cold weather approached, I felt obliged to make Charlie a warm roosting place in the barn. My carpentry skills and my resources were limited so I did the best I could. I cut up an old refrigerator box and lined it with hay. Then I made some attempts to guide Charlie into his winter home. But each time I pushed him toward the cardboard box, that stubborn old bird just stood his ground. There's a stubbornness I could understand, a characteristic I shared with Charlie. Past traumas had made us both wary. Nobody puts us in a box.

Eventually rooster wisdom prevailed. His native intelligence took over and, ignoring my handiwork, Charlie moved himself into a stack of old tires in a dry corner of the barn. Here, as the days grew cold, he hunkered down, insulated and warm and safe.

Winter took hold of the landscape. The hours of daylight dwindled; harsh cold set in. I worried about how my feathered friend could keep himself warm. And would he get enough nourishment without those worms that supplemented his diet? He was a free range chicken and his range was now limited. Would he find sustenance during winter in his new surroundings?

I too was seeking nourishment. The divorce had left me depleted. I had come to a point in my life where I knew that I must learn to nurture my body, mind, and spirit. My yoga practice gave me the tools; I just had to apply them.

The first snowfall happened early in December, blanketing the fields and dusting the pine tree branches. Charlie's favorite outside scratching places became covered with snow and I had to scatter his daily ration of grain inside the barn for him. There, sheltered from cold winds, he seemed happy enough to scratch around on the barn floor for his dinner.

Occasionally Charlie would venture outside, making little chicken tracks in the driveway. Some of my yoga students observed this landscape artwork and, without realizing that it was created by a rooster, thanked me for the lovely gesture. They thought I was drawing peace signs in the snow! Bless them, it's understandable. We were all survivors of the sixties.

There were times when Charlie did not come down from his lair at all, preferring to nest up there in his cozy bed of tires. In that way he taught me to go with the flow. The earth in winter slumbers beneath its blanket of snow. Its short days provide little light; too often the meager sun refuses to appear. Those grayest of winter days offer us an opportunity for contemplation. I did a lot of soul searching that season. And I rested well during those long dark nights when nature urges us to stay within the comforting embrace of sleep.

Somehow, with enough sleep and food, we both made it through the winter. Charlie greeted the springtime joyously. His crowing took on an even greater exuberance. The world was alive with promise. Once more Charlie took to following me around the yard. He was a constant presence as I coaxed daffodils into the sunlight and harvested early dandelion greens. We enjoyed each other's company, this proud black rooster and I.

May had come around again. Throughout the surrounding woods and fields there were many creatures awakening to springtime, creatures big and small. They were hungry and on the prowl.

It happened during the night. Perhaps it was that pack of coyotes whose yelping could be heard off in the distance as the crescent moon rose from the treetops. I do not know for sure what got him. On the first anniversary of his arrival I awoke to find evidence of a struggle: shiny black feathers scattered over the greening lawn. It appeared that Charlie had fought valiantly against the predators but ultimately lost the battle for his life.

It is the way of nature, after all. Charlie's life was given up in order that coyotes and scavenging crows would survive another season.

I did not spend much time mourning him. I knew that Charlie had already accomplished more than your ordinary chicken in one short lifetime. By leaving the farm, he had refused to be the victim of his circumstances. Charlie had taken responsibility for his own rehabilitation. In poultry anthropology, this might even be considered an evolutionary leap.

I felt blessed to have known this remarkable creature who, through sheer strength of spirit, changed his life situation. In that respect, Charlie and I were kindred spirits, following our instincts. Charlie's decision to set off on his own paid off, as did mine. During his year long residency with me, Charlie had reclaimed vibrant health and happiness while teaching me to enjoy each moment in the sun and each good thing that life has to offer. Yes, Charlie and I had ourselves one good year.

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