My Job is to Hold the Light

It was raining, 2:30 in the morning, when we killed the raccoon. Its dying scream was harsh and electronic, like an alien from a video game. The chicken it had tried to steal lay contorted and heaving on the wet ground. Her death was silent. My husband and I laid the two bodies, a white chicken and a small raccoon, side by side in a pink Rubbermaid bin. They were spooning, fur and feathers, limp corpses the same size.

We got our first chicks when our boy was 3 years old. We were part of the urban farming resurgence of the early 2000s. I have pictures of my son, serious with fiercely protective eyes, holding up a ball of fluff in his chubby hands. We wanted him to understand where food came from, that there was effort and cost, and a difference between the thin cornstarch-y yellow yolks in matching bleached shells at the store and the deep marigold yolks wrapped in speckled and inconsistent hulls of brown, white, and green. Over time, “the girls” downsized from an elegant coop with window boxes to the red-painted kitchen cabinet decorated with postcards and old seed packet art. They’ve moved with us, packed up in boxes two at a time, from the flats of Oakland to the hills of Marin. The first time they tried to scratch on a slope, they rolled and tumbled, fluffy butts over beaks to the bottom of the hill. Our flock fluctuated from three hens up to twelve. The boy started middle school.

Since we started, we’d lost chickens to possums, to hawks, to illness, and to old age. We’d found new homes for chicks that revealed themselves as roosters, and our Caribbean neighbor taught us to pluck the ones we cooked. Even when the losses broke my heart, we kept at it, building up our defenses against predators, preventing disease, and raising more chicks. We learned the rhythms of nature, with Instagram-worthy shots of chickens roaming the grass while our grey Maine Coon cat yawned, keeping watch. I perfected homemade soufflé and loved to share my chicken epiphanies: the facts of life that I had never considered before.  For example, egg cartons that celebrate the use of “all vegetarian feed” aren’t promoting ethical chicken husbandry; they’re a marketing ploy (chickens aren’t vegetarians). The frosted holiday cookies and warm cakes we bake are special because winter is when egg production is low. And you don’t need a rooster to get eggs. You only need a rooster if you want to have chicks.

Then the raccoons came. They waged a full-scale assault: brute force followed by carnage. A gang of three broke through a window in the garage to get to the babies we’d brought home and tucked in a brooder. All that was left behind were tiny wings. We got a new set of chicks and the raccoons broke in again, this time killing the little ones without even bothering to eat their snack-sized bodies.

When the babies were gone, the raccoons started in on the hens. The first hen they took was old. She spent her days wailing the operatic bray of an aging chicken. The night they came, her gaspy wheeze must have served as a homing beacon. When I opened the coop in the morning, it looked like she passed gently in her sleep. I gathered her cool feathers and cradled her dangling head, resting her gently in our greenhouse. By afternoon, when we went to bury her, we realized her body was too light. Her cavity was clean, like a plastic wrapped chicken from the store. A raccoon must have stood beneath the coop, balanced on its back legs, reached its arm up and in, through the small air vent, and pulled. How many times did it pull before the chicken’s leg came off? Then it burrowed its little hand through her hip socket to wrench out the giblets while the rest of the flock cowered in the opposite corner beyond reach.

We tried to hide the violence of the attacks from our boy, quickly burying the carcasses and leaving out the grisly details when we broke the news. But he wouldn’t let us lie to him.  He put the stories together.  My husband and I argued about how much to involve him in raccoon control, and whether we should even have chickens anymore. The one grace we gave each other was to not fight about whose fault it was when a chicken died.

Then we woke to chickens screaming, again. I ran for the flashlight while my husband looked for his pants. The boy was asleep down the hall.  Nothing would wake him. Outside, I swung the light across the yard, hoping the sheer brightness would shock the raiders into stillness.

“I’ll get the shovel,” my husband whispered. “You hold the light.”

The raccoon’s death wasn’t a mercy killing, like euthanizing a sick chicken. It was sloppy and sad. We had wanted to raise our own food and influence the food system on our own plot of land. We envisioned ourselves stewards of nature: above it, managing it from the outside. Instead, we became part of it. We locked ourselves in a primal competition for resources.  Because chickens are food. They are primary consumers, a level above plants on the food chain. Raccoons are secondary, and humans considered tertiary. But the raccoons won. They kept coming.  Kept waiting until we left a door open, or came home a little too late. And we couldn’t keep killing them. It’s illegal to relocate raccoons, due to rabies laws and the simple fact that released animals generally don’t survive. After twelve years of raising chickens, we had only one left. She was so distressed and alone that I pulled a green plastic yard chair into the run and sat with her to stop her constant crowing. She was the last. And I was happy to give her away.

Musepaper Essay Prize #39

Eryka Raines lives in Fairfax, California. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction Online’s Tiny Truths. Eryka has been a professional actress, a cabaret singer, a small business owner, a People Ops manager for tech, and is now taking the time to think about it all.

* This is the author’s first literary award.
* This is the author’s first work to appear in print.

11 thoughts on “My Job is to Hold the Light”

  1. Beautifully written. A good and worthy push to a healthy home life both inside and outside. Lots of drama and compassion — and real life.

  2. Wow.
    Just ….
    I remember hearing this story – but not like this.
    You’ve transformed a nightmare into art.
    …well done.

  3. By the title and knowing you, I thought it would be about the light you bring to your job so this was a bit of a surprise. Living with wildlife is both a blessing and a curse sometimes and you wrote an excellent description of some of the hardships.

  4. Well done. I enjoyed this… I only wish you could get some more chickens and somehow win this war. I have a friend whose chicken was snatched by the leg by a raccoon. He saved the chicken but it only had one leg after that so he brought it inside the house to live. Get those chickens a safe house I say!

  5. Rosemarie DiMatteo

    I loved this piece. It really grabbed me by the shoulder and kept me close. I love the voice of the narrator, so clear, like looking into a rock quary and finding everything is where it should be. Even the sorrow.

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