My neighbor Anna was better with animals than with people. With people, she was sharp, rude and opinionated; the truth was that she simply didn't like most of us. I think she put up with my husband Scott and me because we were the only locals hadn't she hadn't yet offended. Animals, on the other hand, brought out a kinder, more patient side of her personality.
She was a tiny, frizzy-haired woman with an equally tiny and frizzy husband. She and Jon owned a small farmhouse a quarter mile east of ours. I met her the day we moved in, when she dropped by to tell us to keep our music down, our child out of her yard, and our lawn mowed. Our Border Collie could trespass at will, of course.
She also wanted to warn me about the Hill family.
The Hills were Anna's neighbors on the other side, and their lifestyle had earned them the nickname "Hillbillies" among most people in our little town, which is really saying something in a community where refrigerator boxes are considered both lawn furniture and building material. Grand Hollow is, after all, a very rustic area. But the Hillbillies had elevated Redneck-ism to an art form. They seemed to have more furniture in their yard than in their home, and it appeared that their favorite knick-knacks were of the empty beer can and pizza box variety. Driving past their home, one might be greeted by the sight of any one of the Hill males relieving himself in the yard or near the road. In all fairness, I have to say that they were a friendly bunch; most of them were more than happy to grin and wave with a free hand during their public urination.
Like most of our neighbors, Anna was unfazed by that. She was, however, enraged by the way the Hills treated their animals, from the army of mangy, burr-infested barn cats to the unending array of stray mutts that paraded through.
"Their chickens are always in the road," she fumed. "And their poor dogs are half-starved and full of fleas!"
"Mmmm," I said, not wanting to take sides.
"Actually, I almost hit one of those chickens," my husband told me that night, when I gave him Anna's warnings. "The Hills really should keep closer watch on them. And some of those dogs do seem to be pretty rough."
I really didn't find the Hills to be such terrible neighbors after I got to know them a bit. It was true that they were loud and their animals ran loose all over creation, but they really made an effort to make us feel welcome. Some of the older men helped us evict a bat from our living room. There was an older toothless woman - I'm still not sure if she was Myrtle, Berta or Myrna- who made a point of bringing us her homemade baked goods every few weeks. I stopped eating her cooking after she bragged to me that she could cook any animal her husband or sons killed for her.
"Rabbits, possums, coons, even bear meat once in a while," she boasted, "Just throw 'em ina slow cooker with cream of mushroom soup!"
"Really?" I said politely. "Any animal? I'll bet they all taste just like chicken."
"No, never really liked chicken in the slow cooker."
The first of the Hill's animals to be "adopted" by Anna was a fluffy little white chicken. Anna insisted that the chicken ventured over of her own free will, but I noticed that Jon built a very nice, expensive-looking chicken coop in a suspiciously short amount of time.
"Chicken is yummy," Danny, her four year- old told us, and their new pet was immediately christened.
Yummy the chicken grew fat and friendly. Anna insisted that Jon buy only the very best, most expensive chicken feed, arguing that it was a justifiable expense since Yummy and her eggs would someday feed their small family. Yummy's enormous white breast jutted out proudly as she half-waddled, half-trotted after Anna like a loyal puppy. She would sit on Anna's lap, making contented little cluck-cluck noises while Anna stroked her soft white feathers.
"Have you ever tried to hypnotize her?" Scott asked her one day when we were visiting.
I watched in utter amazement as my husband, whom I had previously considered to be quite sane, put the animal down on her side and drew a line in the dirt in front of her beak. Yummy froze, staring at the line.
"Why?" I demanded on our way home, with Anna's angry shouts still ringing in our ears. "Why, Scott? Why would you hypnotize the neighbor's poultry?"
"You have to admit, it was a unique party trick," he muttered.
"Where did you learn to do that? Why did you learn to do that?"
"We used to have chickens when I was a kid. My brother Sam and I got bored one summer. "
"So bored that you started hypnotizing chickens?"
"We didn't have cable."
Yummy's brother and sister soon ventured over to check out their sister's luxurious new lifestyle and were quickly adopted as well. They lacked Yummy's looks and personality, though, and were soon named accordingly by Danny. Yucky and Nasty, as they came to be known, remained skinny and patchy-looking. They nipped and squawked at visitors, and flapped their wings in an unfriendly way at passing cars. Day and night, I could hear their unpleasant squabbles.
But Anna wasn't ready to stop at chicken rescue. Oh no. Dogs, cats, even a tiny black and white goat all found their way to her yard over the next few months. After a nice bath and a few tasty meals, the menagerie had no need to go home.
Anna showed up at my door one morning, asking if she could borrow our van.
"Is there something wrong with Jon's truck?" I asked.
"No, it's running fine," she said. "It's just that the pony might jump out of the truck and get hurt."
"The Hillbillies have a pony now. They're feeding the poor thing nothing but pizza rolls and Doritos."
"So … you're going to steal it."
"Rescue it," she corrected.
"In my van."
"Um…. I'm going to have to go with 'no' here."
She raised an eyebrow.
"We have a strict 'no animals' policy on all of our vehicles."
"Don't you care that the poor pony is undernourished?" she demanded. "He's losing his coat and he's got constant diarrhea!"
"All the more reason to keep him out of my van, Anna," I said firmly.
She stormed away, muttering something about a U-Haul. I toyed with the idea of warning the Hills. Or possibly the U-Haul people.
Tragedy, however, struck before she could act. During the night, some marauding animal attacked and killed Nasty the Rooster. Jon was in favor of plucking and roasting the poor fellow since he had already invested so much money in the pen and fancy feed, but Anna quickly nixed that idea. The rooster was, after all, nasty.
They buried him under the oak tree by the barn.
"Anna thinks a weasel got him," I told Scott. "Do weasels kill chickens? Do we even have weasels in Michigan?"
"More likely a coyote," he told me. "Although I would think a coyote would've eaten Nasty, not just killed him."
"Maybe he was just too nasty."
Despite Jon's hasty and costly reinforcements of the pen, Nasty's sister Yucky soon followed her brother to the grave. Anna refused to let the family eat that chicken, either.
She went into panic mode, moving the forcing Jon to move the pen closer to her home and begging him to allow her one remaining chicken into the house, but Jon finally put his foot down.
A week after Yucky's funeral, our phone rang in the middle of the night. Sobs and heart-rending wails greeted my groggy "hello."
"Anna? What is it? Are John and Danny all right?"
"Y-Yummy" she bawled. "She's been attacked! She's dying! Oh, what can I do?"
"Have a cookout?" Scott whispered in my ear.
I swatted at him, but he ducked, grinning widely.
Anna calmed down enough to hang up and take Yummy to the emergency vet, who stitched, bandaged and dosed the poor bird at a phenomenal expense to Jon and Anna. "If she lives seven days, the vet says she'll survive," Anna sniffled. "I have to give her special feed and antibiotics every day."
I shuddered to think of the cost of chicken antibiotics.
She sat with that chicken day and night, nursing her back to health. No mother ever showered a sick baby with more love and attention than Anna gave to Yummy in those days. I doubt if she even slept. But despite her best efforts, Yummy died on day six.
Jon tallied up the amount of money he had spent on Yummy, Yucky and Nasty, and sighed. "Anna, Honey, please …. This one is supposed to be Yummy. Can we recoup a little bit of our $250 and eat this one? We'll treasure and honor every single, expensive bite, I promise."
Anna didn't answer; she was crying too hard.
"You can't eat that chicken. It's not safe with all the antibiotics in her system," Scott told Jon, with a sympathetic pat on the shoulder.
"She's a family pet!" I was aghast. "You don't eat family pets!"
"Amy, I grew up on a beef farm," my husband reminded me. "I've been eating 'family pets' all my life. Those steaks we ate at my folks' house last night -where do you think those came from?"
"That's different. People are supposed to eat cows."
"They're supposed to eat chickens, too."
"Not the ones they name. Our cat has a name. You wouldn't eat him."
He gave me a wicked grin. "Oh, I don't know," he said. "Just throw 'im ina slow cooker with some cream of mushroom soup …. Might be worth a try."
I really hope he was joking.