I am shoveling. It is the last phase before the erection of a fence. I didn’t ever want a fence, didn’t feel it necessary. Until two weeks ago.

I had started outside to work in the yard only to find evidence that “The Ladies” had once again paid a visit to our fair land. Displaced bark and mulch was strewn across the sidewalks surrounding our home and drive. Small tell-tail piles of pasty poop positioned discretely among the litter awaited my oblivious footstep. The planters were worn with mysterious craters of finely ground earth, evidence of pleasurable dust baths recently enjoyed by our matronly guests. I was on the phone within minutes.

“How about we talk about that fence you wanted to put up a few years ago? Give us a call back….” I left a message on our neighbor’s answering machine. The next day we met at the property line.

“Look at what your children have done,” our neighbor yelled over to his wife. He was clearly as appalled as she was stricken when she saw the mess left by the several hens that she lets loose from their coop every day.

“I had no idea they were doing this,” she exclaimed with a horrified look on her face.

“We call them “The Ladies”,” I said with a smile. “It wouldn’t be so bad…”. I started to say, if it wasn’t for the poop, but stopped mid-sentence, because it wouldn’t have been the truth. Up until now our planters had been by no means perfectly kept, but they ranked hands above the rest of the landscape.

Within days fence companies were coming out to give estimates on chain link, 215 feet of it. As we braced for the dollar total an unforeseen development arose: the biddies were banned to their coup until the fence was up. I should have anticipated this move, but I didn’t. Why would I care? The reason goes back to my childhood.

When we moved to Escondido in the late 1950’s my father paid to have a well dug. The digger came out and cut off a nearby willow tree branch. Holding a limb in each hand, like a giant wishbone, he traversed our property to determine the best place to dig. Sure enough, when the “V” of the dousing rod bent down, “X” had marked the spot. After the digging was finished, the “Well Man”, as we called him, gifted us with a Banty hen. She was a red-brown color and little in stature. So were her eggs, which we regularly found in the yard. Years later she died laying one, as though it was her last duty.

Also, the avocado groves near our home were full of wild Banties. The colorful roosters worked up a raucous crowing at all hours of the day and even in the middle of the night. When we’d go a-hunting them, though, the whole grove would turn dead quiet. I’m sure it was the rustle of our shoes in the loose dry leaves that gave us away because we never caught a one that I can remember. It was as it should be; wild things need to run free.

Besides these fond memories, there is another reason that seeing our neighbor’s hens cooped up makes me a little melancholy. I have come to know them not just as a bunch of chickens, but as the individuals they are. The fact that they happen to be of exotic stock makes this even easier. Some are a rich black with fine dashes of grey traversing their full-bodied forms like tiny blades of grass, while others are covered with strategically placed specks of white in mosaic patterns. One is a reddish brown. She struts around confidently, the fine feathers on her feet lightly dusting the ground. Another, smaller than the rest, is a powdery grey, waiting ghost-like in the shadows. The hen that is bigger than all the others is covered in shades of grey that read like Egyptian hieroglyphics across her broad, mounded shoulders. They are all healthy specimens of matronly magnificence.

Ever since she was little, my granddaughter has loved to go see them. She stands behind the wire door of their coop, waiting for their emergence, one by one from their dark corner of nesting boxes, softly clucking their way over to the little person standing in rapt attention. Toeing the hard-packed earth, they lazily peck here and there, seemingly just to be pecking. Now and then one cocks one eye up to see if we are still there.

On a few special occasions we have received a dozen eggs. They are always all brown, yet different sizes and shades: some reddish, some even bluish, others speckled with faint freckles. Just the other day our neighbor brought us another dozen in apology. As I looked down at them the childhood memories swooped in again, those of our devoted little Banty and those wild roosters. I was reminded of the precious link that “The Ladies” provide for my granddaughter and me when she comes to visit.

That new fence--the one I never wanted until two weeks ago--can’t go up soon enough for me now. I long to see our lady friends go free once again. So I shovel faster.

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