Editor’s Note: Nic Esposito is an author, urban farmer, small business owner, and well-known advocate for sustainability in Philadelphia. He is also a monthly columnist for Generocity.org who writes about the everyday challenges of living a sustainable lifestyle, from keeping backyard chickens to encouraging kids to be farmers.
When not writing for Generocity.org or other Philly publications, Esposito also runs a small publishing house — The Head & the Hand Press — and writes books. He published his first book Seeds of Discent in 2011, and is set to release his second title this week.
The book, titled Kensington Homestead, is a collection of narrative essays about life at the Kensington-based Emerald Street Urban Farm, where Esposito and his wife Elisa spend much of their summer days watering plants, tending to chickens, and talking with neighbors.
Below is an excerpt from the book:
“I’ll tell you what happened,” Elisa explained as she looked down into the half-drunk cup of water she’d been nursing since I walked through the door.
“What, what happened?”
“It was some kind of sacrifice.”
“Yes, a sacrifice,” she paused, drained the rest of her cup and then continued, “I saw it one time, in Tacony.”
Her eyes wondered off as she began telling her story. Her voice was sucked into a vacuum like she was on stage at a campus black box theatre, delivering the monologue of a war veteran from some student-produced play. Even though her emotion was much more convincing, it was still hard to take her seriously given the circumstances. Mother Clucker, our hen that took on the alpha role after Sally and Uncle Bob were slaughtered, had vanished. She was not in the coop, she was not in the tree, she wasn’t behind the shed. Unless she had ten times the cranial capacity as Tutti—which could have very well been possible due to the chicken’s ability to hide the true girth of her body underneath all of her feathers—the consensus was that she had not constructed a more secretive hideout. She was gone.
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But what made the case even more intriguing was that I specifically remembered locking her up in the coop the night before. This was not like one of those instances of anxiety where I circled back twice on my bike after leaving the house to make sure the door was locked. I could still recall the look on her face as I locked the door and she stared at me from her perch on the hen house. Something had happened, and according to Elisa, we were to expect the worst.
“I was in Tacony working with a group of kids doing trail maintenance. We’d been clearing trails all day, cutting through new shoots of knotweed, ripping vines off of trees. The kids wouldn’t stop complaining about the work, so I broke off from them for just a second and I went down a side trail while they stayed on the main. That’s when I saw it.”
She paused, leaving me the chance to ask what she had seen. But before I could, she continued, “A rooster, nailed to a tree by one nail, hammered right through its neck.”
She paused long enough this time for me to give my professional opinion, and I did. “That’s gross.”
“It sure was,” she said, nodding, “but what was even more disturbing was that near the roots of the tree was a stack of half dollars. On the other side were three half-empty Bud Light bottles and a few candles with pictures of saints painted on the glass holders. Like, some kinds of tokens for payment.”
Although I knew what she was getting at, her idea was still much too fantastical, so I still had to ask, “A payment for what, like a sacrifice?”
“Yes.” She looked at me, slowly shaking her head as if she was dropping into an even deeper daze. “A sacrifice.”
I sat there for a second, letting her story settle into the increasingly elusive realm of possibility, and then I said, “That’s, you know, ridiculous.”
“Really?” She cocked her head to the side with the slight, wry grin she reserves for when I challenge her. “And you have a better theory?”
We weren’t quite joking yet, but the dramatics did subside. We were once again two people pondering the absurdity of a chicken that just vanished, without one torn-up feather signaling a sign of struggle. We probably could have confidently ruled sacrifice out, but either way, we were still most likely victims of a crime. In some foreign countries and counties in Pennsylvania, chicken theft is still punishable by a public flogging, so I wanted to believe that even the people of our neighborhood would not stoop so low as to steal a chicken.
“Yeah, I think I do have a better theory,” I said.
“Okay, then what is it?”
I paused for a moment, and then began, “She’s just hiding somewhere, like Tutti did that one time. She’ll turn up.”
I tried to deliver this hypothesis with a comforting authority. But even though I didn’t tell Elisa that I was certain I saw Mother Clucker in the coop the night before, she could still tell that I was full of shit.
“This isn’t like that time. We’ve gone through a whole day with no sign of her.”
I had to give in here; there was no other way to deflect the inevitable, “Well, even if you’re right, we still lost a chicken.”
“Yeah, our best layer,” she said with disappointment.
“It’s a bummer,” I casually observed, taking the first sip of my water and then standing up. “Tell you what, I’m going to go out back and re-inspect the crime scene.”
“For what?” Elisa scoffed.
I turned back to her, incredulous that she would even have to ask, so I responded somewhat snidely, “For clues.”
She just shook her head and went back to staring at her cup.
The truth was that Mother Clucker was my least favorite chicken. But it wasn’t because she was Tutti’s main tormentor, turning the other hens against her and forcing Tutti to turn into a homicidal maniac who had almost pecked through the skull of a new chicken we tried to introduce to the flock. It wasn’t because she had taken on the role of alpha hen, which in the weird world of chickens meant that it was her duty to mount the other chickens and assert her dominance by rubbing her little red nub of a sexual organ on the other chickens’ backsides in a fury of clucks and torn out feathers. We didn’t name her Mother Clucker because we saw that she was destined to be the bruiser of the flock. She was just the fattest, and we thought that the name was funny.
I didn’t like her because every time I would get up in the morning and slowly make my way outside to fill up a cup of feed and drop it in her tray, she’d trail me the whole time, flopping her wings in some display of dominance. The adage that one should not bite the hand that feeds was lost on her—on more than one occasion she had managed to jump up and nip my finger with her beak as I groggily pulled the cup from the main tub of grain.
When Elisa first called me with the news that Mother Clucker was missing, her voice was free of the worry she had when we thought that Tutti had vanished. Her tone possessed the same inconvenienced emotion one reserves for when the washing machine breaks or the roof starts leaking. On one hand, we lost a good layer, on the other, Tutti was about to start a brand new chapter wherein she would no longer be cut off from food, suffer habitual sexual assault, or face the trauma of being on the lowest end of the pecking order. With Mother Clucker gone, it was now time for a whole new order to be formed amongst the hens.
It’s sad to say it, but I think we all experienced a bit of relief that she was gone. But my mind was not settled. If Elisa’s theory was correct, then it meant that someone had hopped our fence in the dead of night, navigated his or her way through the dark to the chicken coop, quietly snatched Mother Clucker from her perch, walked back out with her through the yard, and again hopped over the fence, this time with a chicken. To get a better feel for the intricacy of the operation, I retraced the steps of the possible assailant.
I wanted this to be as authentic as possible, so I made sure to start from outside of the gate on the street. When I began retracing the crime, the way the fence swayed back and forth as I tried to hoist myself over without catching my clothes or skin on the jagged edges of the chain link should have been the first hole in my theory. But I made it over with only one small scratch and then made my way to the coop, which, taking the street lights into account, would not have been very difficult to find at night. However, if the person actually had targeted Mother Clucker for abduction, then locating her in the pile of chickens that lay on top of each other for warmth would have complicated matters even further.
But I gave the thief the benefit of the doubt, and I scooped up one of the chickens with one hand and clasped her close to my chest. This was also an unfair advantage I had over the kidnapper because Mother Clucker hated being picked up and would have probably been scratching and pecking as she was taken from the coop. But even with that caveat, I learned that it was basically impossible to get over the fence with one hand while holding a chicken in the other without making a racket or impaling us both.
Unless this person was a master chicken thief, they must have had an accomplice, or a bag, or an accomplice and a bag. Whatever the plausible explanation was, this was not a spur of the moment crime of passion by some hungry person who could not tell the difference between a broiler hen and an old hen who wasn’t even fit for the stew pot. In any other neighborhood, Elisa’s theory would have been absurd. But in Kensington, absurdity is a welcome alternative to fear. When things stop being absurd is when you know that you are actually in real danger.
Elisa was reminded of this paradox two weeks ago as she went out to feed the chickens. As I have explained, waking up in the early morning hours to feed a flock of hungry chickens can really distract you from the rest of the world. So as Elisa was filling up the feed cup and trying to pour it in the bowl without getting nipped on the finger, she was not prepared for the uncomfortably close voice that she heard from behind her. She began to turn toward the gate, expecting to find someone peering through the entrance. She got ready to respond to witticisms like “Where’s the rooster?” or “I’ll take the white meat?” But before she could turn to face the fence, she noticed a brush pile where a man was pushing himself up and trying to emerge.
Elisa dropped the feed can and was about to go for the pitchfork near the compost bin. But the man stumbled out of the pile before she could and starting explaining that some guys from around the corner jumped him the night before. He told her that the next thing he knew, he woke up in our brush pile, and that he now needed a place to hide. He looked past her shoulder at the chicken coop and she immediately said, “No, get out.” He pleaded with her, telling her that he was in great danger, but she held her ground and told him that if he ever came into our yard again, we’d call the police. With the power dynamic drastically changed, he sheepishly asked her to unlock the gate so he could walk out rather than having to jump it again. Elisa told me later that she considered making him jump it just to make her point even clearer, but she decided that he had been through enough. Apparently, that wasn’t the case because as soon as Elisa opened the gate and let him out, she heard someone scream from around the corner, “There he is!” The young man grasped his pants that were falling off of his hips, hiked them up, and then ran off. A few seconds later three other men gave chase and ran past the gate.
Recalling this story made me expand the pool of suspects to that man and his pursuers. Maybe he wasn’t as dumb as he predicament displayed. Maybe his account of being jumped was just a ruse for his real business of casing our operation in preparation for poultry thievery? Maybe he used Mother Clucker as collateral for whatever debt he needed to settle with the men? Maybe, even though Mother Clucker was not a rooster, her dominant qualities served her well in the cock-fighting pit and now she was a Kensington legend?
Although part of me wished that this last scenario were true, I was pretty sure that wasn’t the case. As I paced the yard, I began to think of other neighborhood absurdities: the man who was yelling at trees in the park across the street, the guys selling drugs out of a bread truck parked in the vacant lot, the voodoo shop on the corner.
I stopped my pacing in the yard, and closed my eyes. I stood there for a moment, taking deep meditative breaths, and I concentrated until a picture came clearly into focus in my mind’s eye. First there were the El tracks, then the corner of Front Street, and then a building that wrapped around the corner painted in dark red and pale green: the voodoo shop.
It was probably culturally insensitive to call it a voodoo shop, not because there’s anything wrong with voodoo, but because I think that I was confusing the cultures of the Caribbean. And I’m not actually even sure why I thought that it was a voodoo shop. I’d passed by it hundreds of times on my way home and never once stopped in. During the few times that the door was open, the interior actually looked well organized and seemed to be selling candles and soap, which I’ll admit is a strange selection, but there were much weirder and less fully stocked shops under the El. There was just something about the mural on the side of the building of the goateed man with the head wrap sitting cross-legged in a field that put the voodoo idea in my head.
I wanted to go there right away, both to get information on Mother Clucker and to figure out what exactly was going on in the store. But I needed to think this through a bit more. Not only was I unsure if this was a voodoo shop, but I also had a lack of understanding of why voodoo had anything to do with this. My limited knowledge of the practice came from my time living in Louisiana and seeing the image of the black and white-faced spirit sitting a top of mound of tokens, which usually consisted of at least one or two chicken feet. But something of the occult was at play here. And I needed to find out what it was.
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