The Sixth Borough: A Passover story from the farm

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:05

    It was midnight when we bounced up our long, rutted driveway.

    I wasn't actually concerned. Yes, we were getting home late, but we occasionally close the chicken coop in the wee hours for one reason or another, and it's only been a problem twice. Once was exactly a year ago. What was the likelihood of a predator attacking our chickens on Passover, two years running?

    Last year, when we pulled in from my family's Seder in the city, I took the baby inside, laid down to nurse her and ? intending to brush my teeth after she fell asleep ? woke up in the morning to hear a bloody tale from husband Joe.

    The last I had seen of Joe, he was headed to the coop, still wearing his slim fitting jacket and tie, to close the chickens in. What Joe found inside the coop was mayhem: an opossum in the corner and six missing chickens. Joe chased the awkward, lumbering little marsupial out of the coop, but it kept trying to get into the barn through a chink in a wall that it obviously knew well. Too well. In the end, Joe ? still wearing a tie ? clubbed it to death with a two-by-four. (Let me just say right here, it is not our idea of a good time to kill sentient beings. It sucks, actually, but it is the unavoidable reality of living on a farm.)

    That one of the deadliest nights on the farm had occurred on Passover seemed a fitting coincidence. The holiday, after all, is a bloody rite even by Biblical standards. As the story goes, God brought down 10 plagues on Egypt, culminating in the death of first-born sons. To let the Angel of Death know to smite only the Egyptian first-born, the Jews painted lamb's blood above their doorways. That there was any connection between Passover and our opossum visitor never crossed my mind. Until last night.

    We have two coops now; the second is a fenced-off section of a shed, an open-air affair just for warm weather that Joe had thrown together earlier that week for our brand new flock. These orange-and-cream-colored hens were turning out to be the bargain of a lifetime. They were laying eggs so big that some didn't fit into cartons. I hate to admit it, but they were a lot more pleasant to hang around than our other chickens, which sometimes jump up and peck a hand they think might contain a goody, or fly directly into my head just 'cause. I could put the baby down in their midst and go about my chores without fear that I would turn around to discover my child had lost an eye.

    So when Joe came inside and whispered that there were only six of 10 chickens in the new coop? Dismay. My first instinct was to go out and look for the chickens. But wherever they were, if they were still alive, they'd be roosting in some out-of-the-way place ? and if they could, they'd be back in the morning. There was nothing to do now except usher morning along by going straight to sleep.

    As I drifted off, my thoughts turned strange and primitive. Was it superstitious to wonder whether there was something about Passover that was treacherous, still, to this day? It had been a peculiar day: there was snow on the ground when we got home, when yesterday had been t-shirt weather. And what was it I had heard about a blood moon? Yes, tonight ? right around now ? there was going to be a solar eclipse. Could it be the full moon? The Jewish calendar is lunar; Passover always falls on a full moon. If you've ever had the spine-tingling experience of hearing coyotes howl at a full moon, you know it's not a time to go wandering alone in the woods after dark. And the first full moon of spring, you can just feel in your bones it has got to be like Mardi Gras for nocturnal predators. I feared the worst for the four MIA chickens.

    I slipped out of bed early. The first thing I saw was one of our old chickens wandering around. She looked no worse for having spent the night outside, but that she had not gotten shut up in the coop was strange. Clearly, something had gone down.

    As I approached the new coop, I counted: one, two chickens pecking in the dirt outside. Then three. And then, as I poured grain into their feeder, a fourth popped out of a cardboard box.

    Ten chickens present and accounted for. I admired them anew. Although they were newcomers on the farm, they had found hiding places, evaded whatever hungry marauders of the night had tried to get at them. They had been passed over by the Angel of Death. These new chickens were survivors.

    They must be Jewish chickens.

    Becca Tucker is a former Manhattanite now living on a farm upstate and writing about the rural life.