A number of people gathered for the blessing of the pets, including Agnes’s triplets. Aside from a few cat calls and two or three yappy dogs, most of the pets and their new owners behaved themselves. The Early Birds arrived with representative chicks and set in the bird owners section. Besides their chickens, there was a parakeet, a pair of canaries and a toucan.
Mavis welcomed the residents, their guests, and the pets. Chaplain Connors prayed invoking God’s blessing on “all creatures great and small” Each resident introduced their new pet and all repeated a pledge to care for the animals entrusted to them. The whole ceremony reminded Agnes of baby dedications or baptisms she had participated in over the years. Her daughters flanked her when she lifted up the box with the tiny peeping fowl, but a sideways glance told her that only Deborah smiled and that possibly was the fever.
The Tri-Dees had arrived thirty minutes before the ceremony and headed straight for their mother’s apartment. Donna was clearly in charge with Diana nodding in agreement. When Agnes opened the door, the three stood shoulder to shoulder in their birth order. Deborah appeared to have a hangover, though Agnes knew Deb had sworn off all spirits after her third divorce. She wobbled between her two siblings, but still managed to be the first one to hug her mother. Agnes took her shoulders and could not resist the motherly urge to put a hand to her middle daughter’s brow and check her temperature.
“Good grief! Deb, you have a fever. Why aren’t you home in bed?” Agnes scolded her middle child while she quickly hugged her other two daughters, pulled Deb to the living room and ensconced her in the recliner. As an afterthought Agnes yanked the afghan from the couch and threw it over her feverish.
“I’ll make tea, but I have to be downstairs in fifteen minutes,” and then because she couldn’t resist the urge, she added, taking in her little brood with one sweeping look, “You really shouldn’t show up with a fever at the old folks’ home. Our defense systems aren’t as good as they used to be.”
Deborah looked grateful both for the remark and the offer of tea.
“I’ll just stay up here, while . . .”
Donna quickly stepped to the plate, with a scorching ‘you’re not getting off that easy, Sister’ glare, before stating the reason for the unified visit.
“Mother, no tea! And by the way, Deb has a sinus infection. She is not contagious! I spoke with her doctor this morning.”
“You, WHAT?” Deborah exclaimed, her voice no more than a forced whisper that collapsed into a coughing fit that left her dripping with sweat and wiping tears from her eyes. Donna ignored her.
We came to try to talk some sense into you. Chickens are not pets.”
“Good! Mavis did call you. I thought she might.” Agnes continued filling the teapot with water, setting it on the stove to boil and getting out tea bags and cups. “I am so glad you all came by for a visit and I do hope you will stay for the blessing of the pets.”
“Mother!” Diane intoned, “what on earth do you know about chickens?”
“Well, I know a good deal more than I did a few weeks ago. Thanks to all of you.”
“All of us?” Donna asked.
“Yes, the computer you gave me. The internet has over 500 sites about raising poultry.”
Deborah almost laughed. She would have if she could have done it without succumbing to a coughing fit.
Agnes punctuated her remarks with a bright smile accentuated by the mischievous twinkle in her eyes. Diana and Donna exchanged open mouthed glances with each other, their mother, and the computer. It served them right, Agnes thought as she watched their bewilderment. They thought she’d sit around and play solitaire all day. Agnes left them to their silence, as she prepared the tea tray and brought it to the living area. She had just poured tea, when her doorbell rang.
Diana, anxious for something to do and yet feeling left out of the mission, which had really been Donna’s idea anyway, jumped up to open the door.
The Reverend Henry Porter and Thelma Louise stepped across the portal carrying small open white boxes greeted Diana and then proceeded further into the room followed by Ruth who had two boxes identical to the ones carried by the Reverend and Thelma Louise on lap. All the boxes were peeping loudly.
So they all stood near their mother during the program. Deb kept sucking on the cough drops, Diana continued to pass her from what seemed to be a bottomless sack. The crowning moment of the ceremony occurred midway through Amy Davidson’s performance. Agnes caught Ruth’s eye as the lively Celtic tune filled the room.
Directing Ruth with a tilt of her head toward the canine section, both ladies swallowed a giggle. A low moan emitted from one then another then another until a disharmonious but unified howl pierced the small room. The felines quickly joined the chorus. Even the birds including the Early Birds chicks joined in with gusto. Only Mrs. Robson’s gold fish seemed unaffected.
For a few moments the new pet owners and the guests tried ignoring the racket, pretending they could hear Amy Davidson play, but when Ruth could hold it no more she burst out laughing even as she shushed the little chick in her lap. She swatted at Agnes sideways admonishing her for getting her started, and then noticed Agnes and virtually everyone else laughing, too.
Amy lifted her bow from the violin and joined the mirth. If being heckled by a crowd of animals bothered her, it didn’t show.
The crowd moved outside to the patio after the ceremony for refreshments. Some of the residents kept their new charges in the crates, while others snapped leashes on theirs, still keeping a good distance between the more adversarial animals. So far no scraps had broken out.
Albert stood to the side watching the little funeral service down the hill. He always thought of himself as Albert, though no one else did. If anyone ever had reason to inquire, despite the fact that no one ever would he would confide that he did so because his mother and Ilene had called him Albert. That the two women he had loved had used Albert and because that bit of his memory remained intact, he chose to be Albert if only in his own mind. With so much of his past shattered by the explosion of a weak vein that spewed blood in his brain, he cherished the shards that remained.
Lately, unannounced other pieces had emerged, though where they fit remained a mystery. The source of one recollection was Amy Davidson. He recalled the moment he had first seen her here at Heritage. She reminded him of someone.
The recollection surfaced like the periscope on a tempestuous sea, tossing about in his mind, a glimpse followed by nothing followed by another peek. It was all unsettling and left him feeling queasy as he tried to fit the brief seconds of clarity together. First the image of a woman—she was crying—not just crying but struggling against unseen restraints. The images, jerky though they were, snagged his attention and created such misgivings and rage that it frightened him. No matter what he did to squelch the aura, it dogged his footsteps both repelling him and drawing him to Amy Davidson. One minute the sight of her told him to flee and the next, well, he’d found himself outside the ceremony drinking in the sound of her music, tears streaming down his face.
There she was Albert noticed; Miss Purcell was escorting her onto the patio. The churning in his gut propelled him. His eyes dropped to his shoes. Escape, now. He dropped his empty paper cup into the receptacle and headed back into the building.
Entering the side door, he bumped shoulders with Helen Marcum, who stood, arms crossed watching the gathering through one of the side windows next to the door.
Head down he mumbled a quick apology, “Sorry.”
“Crazy old fools,” Helen muttered her eyes fixed on the scene on the patio.
“What?” Albert asked, unsure if she had spoken to him. He paused and looked back at her. Helen turned with a puzzled expression. A retort formed on her mouth, but remained unspoken; her face grew more bewildered as their eyes locked. A flicker of recognition dissolved as quickly as a blink. Both shook their heads as if trying to jiggle a key in a lock.
“Sorry,” Albert said again ducking his head and retreating. Helen watched his back for a moment, shook her head again before returning to her observation post. For some time she had noticed something oddly familiar about that man, an impression that stirred her emotions like a pinch of salt in a partially healed wound, but nothing in either his demeanor or appearance suggested where or when Helen might have encountered him. Helen rarely considered the mild prick of pain that made her consider where she had or whether she had met him before. With his hurried departure, the pinch barely raised her attention.
Helen’s malevolent attentions rested instead on a man she did recognize, the coward who had shredded her life into bits and pieces. She watched him now. Upright, arrogant as always, he occupied a seat a few feet from the prattling pet owners. From her vantage point, it appeared to Helen that he watched his table companions as they carried out the burial of the ill fated fowl with amusement. He had been Major Henderson Wilcox when his actions had ripped Helen’s future from her. Even now though a retired full colonel, Helen saw through the man. The set of her jaw tightened. The bitterness of the years welled up and strengthened her resolve. She would confront him, but she would bide her time. His cowardice had stolen her life from her. If any man deserved to face judgment, Colonel Henderson Wilcox was that man.
Agnes had insisted that the Tri-Dees accompany her to the small burial service. It turned out to be a good decision as none of the new chicken owners could easily kneel and lower the tiny shroud into the small grave. Of course, Otto or Frank would have helped, but somehow it seemed nicer that family performed the service. As it turned out, Deborah’s dizziness prevented her from the action; Diana refused to touch the body of a dead bird lest she catch West Nile Fever, bird flu or histoplasmosis, so the honor fell to Donna, who lifted the handkerchief wrapped corpse from the box in Ruth’s lap, lowered it into the grave and scraped dirt over the spot.
Donna possessed no gift of prophecy, but her cynicism prompted a vision of dozens of similar graves on the hillside next to this one. For the first time since she’d learned of her mother’s chicken raising intentions, she experienced a ray of hope. Perhaps the whole lot would fall over dead from a rare chicken blight. She pulled herself up from the ground by holding on to Ruth’s wheelchair and clutched hands with the others as the Reverend Henry Porter prayed.
Death wasn’t always a bad thing, Donna thought, a slight smile playing on her lips, especially not the death of a chicken . . . or chickens.