Last time their eyes were gouged out.


In the middle of the night we were awoken to their shrieks, and Dolora and I ran outside to witness in our own back yards the horror of these ladies, these six ladies with blood dripping from their eye sockets.


By morning they were dead.


We worried about the few remaining ladies who survived the massacre in the night. We worried that they’d grieve the death of their sisters, nearly all of their sisters, whose death was so vicious and savage at the hands of a shadowy force that came in from the forest and then, just as stealthily, disappeared into the shadows of the forest.


Yet they didn’t grieve at all.


Instead, by midmorning the sisters were eating the corpses. They were tearing at the breasts and then the hearts behind those breasts. When we came upon them, they raised their faces from the insides of the corpses to show off the blood that dripped down their jaws, and then returned to their meal of intestines and livers.


The horror! The horror!




It was worse than anything out of “Heart of Darkness,” worse than the heads which Kurtz stuck on poles. It was worse than anything out of Shakespeare, worse than the pie in “Titus” which the mother ate, not knowing that one of the secret ingredients in the pie was her sons.


The blinding of Oedipus, the blinding of Gloucester—child’s play, compared to the massacre in our own backyard. Had Sophocles or Shakespeare been by our sides that night, they’d have written yet another play to capture the depravity and unspeakable savagery that lies within us species of mammals.


They’d have come up with a name for this play.


And the name would’ve been… “The Tragedy of Chickens.”




It scarred us, that night, and we vowed to give up our experiment with chickens for good. No more skunks puncturing the eyeballs of our chickens. No more hawks swooping down to pluck away a chick. No more watching chickens eat other chickens, their insides still hot.


No, we’ll just buy our eggs for $4 a dozen.


Or so we thought until we returned from our jaunt around the planet for a year. We returned with a longing for the country life—for chickens and a garden and a goat and who knows, maybe a cow. Yes, a cow!—or so we thought while on a bus caught in traffic in Hanoi, the exhaust fumes rising from the vehicles outside and through the windows and settling in our lungs.


“When we get home,” Liam said, wiping away the grime on his face like the shroud of Turin, “we’re getting chickens.”


“Do you remember the nightmare last time?” I said.


“I want chickens.”


“Eyeballs on the ground.”




“They ate each other.”


“Five chickens.”




Enter Adam Robertson. He’s the tech wizard behind these blogs, but more to the point of this story, he can build just about anything out of just about nothing. A few fallen limbs around his house, for example, transform into a loft for his son Avery. And around our house, that pile of useless lumber and fencing and splintered plywood that we really ought to take to the dump one of these days… metamorphoses into a chicken coop, painted red.


The coop is ingenious—but then again, everything Adam touches is ingenious, thus contributing to the lifetime narrative of “Jim Toner: A Rather Useless Man.” Above all, Adam dug trenches and reinforced the fencing and did away with all hook-and-eye latches because the varmints of the forest, who have been known to take apart Swiss watches, flip those babies with a yawn. In their place: carabineers.


With the coop built, and with the assurance that all prey cannot get in—and that includes Jehovah’s Witnesses—we went in search of chickens. Five chickens.


We found them at our friends, the Hites family. They have over 30 chickens and needed to thin out the pack, so Dolora and Liam headed over to their palace and kidnapped five of them. Later that night Liam said to me, “I feel bad for those chickens we got. Over at the Hites’s, they lived like they were royalty and their coop a penthouse. Now look at them—scratching at dirt in the ghetto.”

Chickens—the dumb bird that can shame a father.


So in they came, our five chickens into their new Guantanamo. On that first night we clipped down the carabineers and made sure that all was secure, then slept lightly in fear that a varmint in the night would be nibbling on the hors d’oeuvres of their eyeballs.


But nothing happened.


That “nothing” also includes the laying of eggs, which is the whole point of having them, right? One day became two, and though no eggs appeared, their retinas were still intact and they weren’t eating each other’s corpses. These count as victories.


I went up there on the third morning. I undid the first carabineer and lifted the wooden flap, and there it was, right in the center of a hollow of hay shaped perfectly for the ghost of a chicken.


An egg.


The simplest of human foods, eaten around the globe and eaten for the 200,000 years of man’s existence. (Or 6000 years, to my many evangelical friends who read this blog and share it with their pastors.)


“It’s an egg!” I shouted down to Liam, holding it aloft like a golden chalice.


He dropped his baseball mitt and sprinted up into the garden. He unclasped the other two carabineers and there they were, two more eggs in each of the compartments.


There is wealth, and then there is the wealth of holding five eggs from your own chickens, so fresh that they’re still warm in our hands. At that moment I took a glance around—at my little boy holding his eggs as softly as baby birds, at the golden land of our hillside, at the tomatoes and the melons in the garden—and for this brief interlude of time it all felt right, living out here in the country.


Back there in the toxic air of Hanoi, maybe this is what we had in mind. Maybe a couple of eggs in the palm of your hand is what you call home.




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