A (true) story of a friendship with a French chicken.

 

 

The Misunderstanding

 

Farnier was a centuries-old, rambling house and farm set deep in Auvergne, the rugged mountainous, central part of France. It was to be my first visit there, although I had the curious impression I’d been there before –– probably because my recently acquired French husband had been telling me about it ever since that unforgettable morning when we met in the Luxembourg Gardens and fell in love. Farnier belonged to his mother’s side of the family. The house was built of stone and was five stories high with countless bedrooms for his parents, their sons, wives, grand-children, au pairs and maids. Georges had spent childhood summers there, and I could sense his elation as we drove up the hill and turned into the well-tended courtyard. It was an imposing sight. The house towered over surrounding hills like a Gothic cathedral and dwarfed an old, sprawling Linden tree in the entrance way that provided shelter from heat at the height of summer.

Earlier that day, long before sunlight had filtered through the morning mist, we had loaded our oversized Volkswagen camionette with long rolls of raw canvas, wooden stretchers, paints, brushes, sketchbooks, along with a few suitcases of clothes and sundries. After reassuring each other that nothing indispensable had been left behind, we set off from Paris and headed south for the French countryside. Eager to escape the noise and chaos of the city, we both looked forward to being in the country –– to working close to nature, and perhaps to mending the rifts and cracks that over the past months had undermined a seemingly idyllic marriage. We hardly spoke. From time to time during the long drive, I turned to admire his classic Gallic profile, his prominent nose and thin, sensuous mouth, and felt a dim wave of desire brush over me.

Upon arrival at Farnier, Georges set up his studio in an unused part of one of the farm-houses and, with the exception of meals and bedtime, vanished from sight to prepare an exhibition of paintings scheduled for the following winter in Paris. Being a painter myself, I empathized with his need to concentrate, but couldn’t help wondering if his total immersion might not be an excuse to retreat from our problems. Besides, I was less single-minded. In Paris, I often put my paints aside to meander nostalgically through the Luxembourg Gardens, to browse in a bookstore or to linger in a crowded cafe. No such distractions existed in the country. Wandering around Farnier, the old house seemed cold and unwelcoming to me. There was no one to talk to, no relief from the solitude. I explored the empty rooms. Opening shutters to let in light, I eventually chose a small room on the top floor with a sweeping view of the countryside as my studio. Unlike Georges, I could never start painting right away. I needed time to feel at home in a new place, time for my roots to take hold in unfamiliar soil.

Adjacent to the old house was a working farm that was tended year round by a sour, taciturn and middle-aged couple, Maurice and Françoise, who had lived on the property for a generation and who provided Georges’ family with chickens, eggs, and vegetables from their garden during Easter vacations and the month of August. On the first floor was a huge country kitchen with a back door that opened onto steep stone steps leading to the courtyard of the farm. The courtyard was alive with exuberant chickens pecking about, a few closely-knit families of ducks, and a single, self-congratulating turkey. One morning, soon after we arrived, I stepped into the courtyard and noticed walking alongside me a reddish-brown chicken with a vermillion wattle flapping under its beak.

“Bonjour toi,” I said offhandedly, smiling wryly to myself that finally someone was being friendly. Since no one else was around, I struck up a conversation. One sided, perhaps, but she seemed interested. As chickens do, she looked straight ahead, but her eye was watching me from the side of her head. I went on, babbling about this and that. Strangely, she remained at my side, keeping up with me as I strolled around the courtyard. I didn’t give it a second thought, but the next morning, to my surprise, the same chicken was waiting for me at the foot of the kitchen stairs, and from that day forward, each morning she waited for me to join her in the courtyard. At first I offered no more than fragments of conversation, but gradually our visits lasted longer and longer until by the end of the week, I was telling her everything: the latest news, family gossip, what we were having for dinner, whatever crossed my mind. Unfailingly, she stayed at my side, eyeing me attentively, nodding her head and flapping her feathers. When I drove off in our camionette to do the marketing in town, I would watch her in the rearview mirror, clucking along the driveway and following me until I had turned out of the driveway and driven out of sight. On my return, she would be waiting for me at the entrance to the courtyard. She would waddle over to the car like a duck, make a fuss, fluff her feathers and settle down beside me as I unloaded the car.

“Look,” I said to her one morning, “I bought all sorts of things in town. See these raspberry tarts? Aren’t they beautiful? Umm. They smell so good. They’re from our favorite bakery. And these peaches. I got them at the Farmers’ Market. I think I’ll try one. Ah. Delicious! Do you want a taste? No? Here’s a pound of coffee, and Kleenex – we ran out.” She never missed a step. She caught every word and nodded responsively. Maurice and Françoise were walking nearby. They were convinced I was odd.

“Talking to chickens again!” muttered Maurice, snickering. “As if they understood! They’re the dumbest of animals. It’s common knowledge.”

“They don’t even bother to look when they cross the road,” added his wife, as if that tired old cliché proved her point, once and for all.

“My chicken is different,” I insisted. “She’s attached to me.”

“Attached to you? Mais oui! Bien sur!” she said mockingly.

“Chickens have no sentiment,” concluded Maurice, tapping his forehead with a finger.

They exchanged knowing glances, shrugged and shuffled off.

Farnier was located several miles outside of the town, Le Puy, which means “the well.” Surrounded on all sides by miles and miles of rocky hills and fields, occasional farmhouses could be seen in the distance. Georges was working on a powerful new series inspired by the rude, craggy landscape with its arid fields and stunted shrubs. Sometimes driving around the countryside, I would come upon hidden farmhouses that seemed cut off from civilization and untouched by changing times. Solemn, old-faced children huddled close to forlorn houses and scurried inside like frightened mice, startled by the unexpected sight of a stranger passing by. How harsh life must have been for these isolated peasants in their struggle to survive with scraps of exhausted farmable land that had been carved up and passed down through centuries by ancestors. The French often say that people from Auvergne are pessimistic, avare, suspicious of outsiders and cover up their wealth to give the impression they are poorer than they actually are. Warmth and friendliness are not traits generally attributed to the people of Auvergne. Georges’ family came from the heart of Auvergne.

We had been in the country for two peaceful and productive months. My chicken remained devoted and never missed a day waiting for me in the courtyard for our morning stroll. Often in late afternoons, stretched out on the wooden bench under the shimmering, moss-colored leaves of the Linden tree, I would glance down to find her reclining at my feet, her head drawn deep into her auburn feathers, her eyes darting in one direction and then another, as if she were contemplating the world around her. She had a wise and all-knowing air about her, and just having her nearby made me feel at peace. Except for these tranquil moments, I was busy marketing, cooking meals, cleaning house, sketching, painting, and had settled contentedly into a daily routine. By now, I had discovered the sharp light and dramatic sunrises and sunsets at Farnier and the surrounding countryside. Vibrant colors reverberated over rocky and unruly landscapes, beguiling me and daring me to put them on paper. Without realizing it, I, too, had been conquered by the savage beauty of Auvergne. Moreover, tensions had eased between Georges and me, and we had recaptured the harmony that had eluded us over the past year. Our marriage seemed renewed, and I dared to believe was once again secure.

Two weeks before Georges’ entire family was to arrive at Farnier, his mother arranged for the sixteen year old daughter of one of her Spanish maids to stay with us to help to clean and prepare the big house. Her name was Pacquita, a simple country girl, not unaware of her charms. She was fair-skinned, freckled and surprisingly voluptuous for her age. Her bushy, reddish hair cascaded over her back toward her buttocks, which quivered like a soprano’s vibrato as she walked. It was the first time she had been away from her family, and both Georges and I wanted her to feel at ease. We invited her to have meals with us. I didn’t consider her our maid; she helped me, and I helped her. Little by little, however, I observed that Georges was paying her an inordinate amount of attention. Although she wasn’t exceptionally bright or clever, whatever she said amused and delighted him. Increasingly, it occurred to me that I was the one getting up from the table to get bread from the kitchen or clearing the table, as the two of them were engrossed in animated and prolonged conversations. While outwardly maintaining my calm, I was outraged and had to restrain myself from punctuating my displeasure with machete-like flourishes of a sharpened bread knife. In the past, I had heard unnerving stories of Georges’ Bohemian life prior to our marriage. One of the stories intimated that he had slept with a different woman every night. Of course I never believed it. I attributed the story to a fictional exaggeration of youthful, École des Beaux Arts excesses, and anyway I was certain he would never be unfaithful to me. But as exchanges between Georges and Pacquita grew increasingly flirtatious, doubt began creeping in.

“Could he be two-timing me?” I mumbled under my breath to my chicken as we wandered around the courtyard the following morning. As usual, she matched her pace to mine, slowing down and stopping when I did, and waddling more rapidly as I increased my speed. I wondered if she sensed my anguish. “I’ll strangle him if he’s sinking back into his old habits,” I went on. “Oh God, could he be sneaking off to one of those empty bedrooms to make love to Pacquita while I’m off doing the marketing?”

It’s not that my chicken reassured me in so many words, yet I found comfort in the tilt of her head and a rather knowing look in her eye.

“My father is so mean,” murmured Pacquita that evening, coyly dipping a finger into her mousse chocolat and licking it with her tongue. “He never lets me go out with boys. He might as well keep me locked up in a cage,“ she said, giggling and lowering her eyes.

“Ah, ma belle!” said Georges, stroking her shoulder paternally. “He’s right to keep you under lock and key. It would be dangerous for you to be on the loose!” The two of them burst into gales of laughter.

“That does it,” I exploded, as we were getting ready for bed. “This schmoozy friendship between you and Pacquita has gone off the deep end.”

“You’re being silly,” Georges countered. “It’s meaningless. I was teasing her.”

“Bullshit!” I shouted, not even attempting a French equivalent.

That night I slept in another room. I was miserable, but what else could I do? If I didn’t draw the lines of battle now, what was in store for me later? Early the next morning, Georges crept into my bed and snuggled close beside me, imitating the cooing sounds of pigeons as he often did when he was being affectionate. I held my body rigid and resisted as long as I could –– but in the end, succumbed. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps my imagination had blown things out of proportion. From then on, I was emboldened to give Pacquita friendly but firm orders to fetch bread from the kitchen while I remained seated at the table. The subject was never mentioned again, and life returned to normal.

On the first day of August, Georges’ parents and the rest of his family descended en masse. Farnier was suddenly transformed into a flurry of activity with children and maids bustling about and days centered around preparing and eating long, drawn-out meals. Afterward, the entire family would gravitate to a glassed-in veranda, a recent addition to the old house from where in the distance a huge electrical plant under construction could be seen, spreading its ugly tentacles. Slowly and irrevocably, the twentieth century with its insatiable industry would inch ever closer to the family property, eroding the silent countryside and scarring the landscape. For hours after meals, everyone would sit motionless on overstuffed chairs in the veranda, smoking fashionably short cigars, and exchanging family gossip, which usually ranged in scope from Tante Lili’s upcoming gall bladder operation to Oncle Paul’s philandering ways. As the only non-French daughter-in-law, I wanted desperately to fit in, and tried, but I nearly choked on a cigar and, to tell the truth, I hated passing my afternoons so inertly. I longed to escape through the glass walls of the veranda to run along the sharply winding country roads, jump over rocks, and climb hills to work off the lamb roasts, wines, and cream sauces. Not only that, but the family used the informal and affectionate ‘tu’ to children, maids, farm animals and cats, as well as among themselves. Only when speaking to daughters-in-law did they use the formal ‘vous.’ Georges insisted it was a sign of respect, but to my ears, it sounded distant and cold and made me feel like an outsider. Besides, during the past months, we had established our own rhythm, and secretly we resented the invasion. Farnier had become too overpopulated for Georges to concentrate on his work. We decided to spend the month of August in Paris. I said goodbye to my chicken and made Françoise promise to look after her.

“You should take her with you to Paris,” she said with more than a touch of sarcasm. “I’m sure she would love la Tour Eiffel!

“I wish I could,” I shouted after her as she sauntered away, chuckling to herself over her witticism.

We drove off and planned to return in September when the house would again become a quiet retreat. I didn’t mind spending the month of August in Paris when the usual frantic pace shifted into a relaxed and unperturbed low gear. The city emptied of Parisians and except for an occasional tourist wandering about, it belonged to the two of us. The romantic glow of Farnier persisted, and we were getting along like newlyweds. When early in September we drove back into the courtyard at Farnier, a strange sight awaited us. There was my chicken, quite beside herself. She circled around me, wildly f lapping and fluttering her feathers. Maurice and Françoise rushed out to greet us.

“It is very bizarre,” said Maurice, shaking his head. “She has practically not eaten since the day you left for Paris!”

Françoise frowned, pinched her lips, and added, “Ce n’est pas possible, but one would think she was having a depression!”

From that day on, my chicken followed me everywhere. When I went to the barn with Françoise to collect eggs, she would hop along beside me until we arrived at her nest and then flap her feathers excitedly as I reached in to extract the eggs, making me wonder if she hadn’t laid them especially for me. Every morning, she would climb the steep, stone steps in the courtyard and waddle into the kitchen. She would spring up on a chair, jump onto the long, wooden table, then settle down and follow my every move. Often I sat down with her for long talks, and by now, she was eating from my hand. I had named her ‘Poulette’, and it seemed each time I spoke her name, she responded knowingly. Even Maurice admitted there was something unusual about my chicken.

“It cannot be,” he said in disbelief, “but, Mon Dieu, one would think she had feelings for you.”

Late one quiet autumn afternoon, my chicken was with me in the kitchen. She was perched comfortably on the long wooden table, watching intently as I washed, diced, and prepared vegetables for dinner. Without my noticing, the chat roux, a rust-colored farm cat had squeezed through the door, which had been left ajar, and sneaked inside. In the courtyard, chickens and cats co-existed with a kind of uneasy, non.aggression pact. But here, one-on-one, the chat roux had other plans. He spotted Poulette on the table, and in an instant, before I could stop him, he sprang onto the table with his claws viciously reaching out toward her. I jumped up, sending my bowl and knife crashing to the floor.

Arrète! STOP! Va t’en!” I screamed hoarsely, fearing for her safety. “Get out of here!” I grabbed him by the scruff of his neck a second before he pounced on her and threw him out the back door into the courtyard.

My chicken misunderstood. Maybe she thought I was shouting at her. Or perhaps the clatter of the bowl and knife falling, the sudden shrillness of my voice and the violent act of throwing the cat out the door into the courtyard altered me in her eyes. Slowly, mechanically, she hopped onto a chair and to the floor and walked listlessly out the kitchen door without ever looking back. She climbed down the stone steps of the kitchen as though in a daze, settled down in a far corner of the courtyard, her eyes half closed, her head buried deep in her feathers, immobile. She never ate again.

I tried everything. I talked to her. I explained that I had raised my voice at the chat roux, not at her. I told her she had been in danger, and I had to throw him out. She hardly looked at me. A week passed. She was becoming weaker every day. I held her limp body in my hand and offered her food. I pleaded with her, but she turned her head away. Maurice told me that chickens could be cruel. I didn’t believe him until I saw the other chickens shove her until she fell on her side and peck mercilessly at her frail body as she lay helplessly on the ground, too weak to defend herself. I pulled and dragged them away and tried to protect her, but it was too late. Several days later, she died. I buried her on a hill behind Georges’ studio with a small, smooth rock for a tombstone. We stayed on at Farnier through late October, until he had finished his paintings for the exhibition, and then we returned to Paris.

In time, Georges and I separated. After that, we rarely saw each other. But many years later we arranged to meet at the Café Le Dome in Paris, where we had had many tender rendezvous when we were together. Seeing him again was bittersweet. We spoke of many things. And then, over a glass of wine, he told me that farmers in villages near and far around Farnier still told over and over the story of the chicken who starved herself to death because of a broken heart.

 

September, 2010