It wasn't often that I gave much thought to chickens when living in the U.S. I'm sure fond of eggs cooked enough to make the yolks run messy over a slice of toast. And it doesn't take much for the thought of chicken enchiladas in salsa verde to make my mouth water. That said, it's clear that unless I was thinking of chicken as a metaphor for fits of fearfulness, I usually thought of chicken in terms of something to stick in my mouth. Chicken, the bird, was a feathery shadow of abstraction. A time or two, the words "free-range" would come up, conjuring visions of bobbing heads and leathery-claw feet in the tall grass of, say, Nebraska. But free-range talk always happened with a fork near my left hand, transferring the "c" word quickly back from the bird category to the food one.
But the world has turned, and has left me where a rooster lives on the other side of the Shrek-colored stream bank. More often seen than heard, he hurls out his curdled call with a force an opera singer would likely envy. He particularly enjoys crowing out his pre-dawn sets, but an afternoon can just as easily find him bestowing a vocal moment upon the neighbors. And the house catty-corner behind us has their own hen. Less predictable than the rooster usually is, she clucks loud and clear when she's laid another egg.
Their sound is a daily, if almost constant presence. I can't help but envision them--solid, feathered struttingness and all, because I always see the likes of them with every drive through town, up into the northern reaches of the municipality, like Cahuacán. Pecking about in their animal-cropped yards, and sometimes venturing toward the edges of the packed-dirt roads, they might not be in Nebraska, but they're as free-range as they come.
Chicken means "bird" to me now, as much as it does "main dish," their presence as unsurprising as a tractor driving down a small town's main street. Still, in the enjoyment of chicken or egg, it's the latter that certainly comes first. María, lovely neighbor that she is, sent a dozen huevos de rancho (ranch eggs) our way last week, and their runny yolks have been the crown jewels of my toast. I'd be lying if I said I could taste a real difference; had I not cracked them myself, I'd believe they came in a store-bought carton.
But it's their uneven sizes and their rosy earth colored shells that make me think of them as more than just food. I remember the early morning rooster, and the happy, maternal afternoon hen. And chicken becomes something more. Something real. Something to really think about.