Wednesday, April 23, 2014

An oldie but goody . . .

I have endless Chicken stories. Stories that are silly, sad, happy, scary, funny, tragic and touching, all involving chickens.  I am the Aesop of chicken stories.  Rose from Golden Girls has a St. Olaf story for every occasion, I have a chicken story for every occasion.  Each and every chicken we had in Belize, like any other creature, had their own personality and temperament.  

While I could tell chicken stories all day long, this is the story of one chicken, my favorite chicken of all time: Cindy Old Hen.  

Cindy, or Oldie as we called her was an older chicken when we purchased her from Burton Caliz, a local organic farmer.  We all knew she was special from the start.  Although she was old, she had a glow about her, and unlike some of the chickens, she took to us right away.  She loved to be pet gently on her back or breast feathers, or fed right out of Sarah or my hands.  Oldie was an incredibly patient hen, which is rare for chickens.   She was an wonderful friend, always willing to share if she found an extra large bug, or keep another hen company who was waiting for her eggs to hatch.  When it came to being a mother, Oldie was excellent.  Some older hens loose the desire to hatch and raise chicks.  These older hens would rather spend their later years scratching for bugs and worms and basking in the sun instead of taking three long weeks to set on eggs, with no food or water, and then spend 3 months raising, feeding and keeping track of a bunch of rowdy chicks.  But not Oldie, as long as she was physically able, she wanted to raise chicks.  She was so nurturing that unlike most hens, she did not stop collecting food for her chicks after 3 months, but let them stay with her until they were almost fully grown.  Even when her chicks were fully grown hens and roosters, they would occasionally get an extra worm from their mom, Oldie.  

Most amazingly, Oldie was a survivor.  One afternoon, she was attacked by a jaguarundi, a vicious bush cat who preyed on our chickens.  Through her perseverance, and a quick response from our brave dog Sandy, we rescued Oldie before the jaguarundi could drag her away.  But she was gravely injured.  She had a broken leg and a huge open gash in her head.  Her body was limp and shaking, but she was breathing.  Sarah and I were hysterical, but our mother gently brought her to our thatch kitchen, and cared for her.  We wrapped her leg, and pored Benjamin's Jamaican Healing Oil in her head wound and bandaged it, then prayed for a miracle.  That night she slept on a pillow in the corner of our tiny zinc roofed house, Sarah and I slept on the floor next to her.  I put one hand on her back, so I could feel her breathing.  She survived the night, and the next day we had to feed her, she was too weak to eat, so we had to shove small pieces of bread down her throat into her craw.  We had to tip her head back and trickle water down her throat, making sure we did not choke her.   Every few days we would change her bandage, and pour more Healing Oil in her wound, which was gradually improving.  For the next few weeks we let her sleep in our house, so the other chickens didn't try to peck at her bandage.  Soon she was strong enough to eat on her own (we made her lots of cake, because it was soft) and her leg healed enough for her to walk again. 

It was truly a small miracle, especially when only 6 months after her tragic attack, she was back to her old ways, working on hatching a bunch of chicks.  Oldie was one of only two chickens to ever survive a jaguarundi attack, the other one was one of Oldie's own daughters, ironically named Cindy as well.   Cindy was attacked several months after Oldie's attack.  Our dog Sandy made another brave rescue, not only saving Cindy but her 8 little chicks as well.  Cindy was injured worse than Oldie, the jaguarundi had broken her back, and she could no longer use her legs.  After she got her strength back, Cindy learned how to scoot around the yard on her wings, and was able to care for her chicks, but as they got older, someone had to teach them how to scratch and search for insects.  Oldie stepped in to teach her grand-chicks.  She took them out every day, showing them the best place to find bugs, and always giving the chicks the bugs she found. 

 After Sarah left Belize to go to school in the States, Oldie had become my closest confidant, my best friend.   My heart was broken beyond repair when Sarah left, but Oldie would sit with me while I cried, she wouldn't leave my side.  When time began to get the better of Oldie, and she was having trouble walking, I didn't leave her side.  Every morning I would get her from the coop, and carry her to where she could get some water and food, then I would set her in a nest box while I did my chores, and took care of my little sister, Minni and baby brother, Jah.  When Jah was napping, I would carry Oldie  down by the golden plum tree, and we would sit there, while she snacked on corn and I would tell her about my woes.  As the weeks went by her condition worsened, until we all knew, it was the end.  That day I got Oldie from the nest box, she was too weak to sleep in the coop with the other chickens by this time.  She wouldn't eat or drink anything, and as I looked into her warm eyes, I could see her pain.  She didn't want to go for a walk, she just wanted to stay in her nest box, by herself.  I spent the first few hours of the day sitting next to her, begging her not to leave me, I was so broken already, I just couldn't imagine going on without her.  My parents had given me the past few days off my usual chores, they knew what was happening with Oldie, and knew she needed me with her all the time.  After a few hours I went into our Thatch kitchen, which was only a few yards away from Oldie's nest, to get a drink of water.   Within 30 seconds of me being away from her nest, all of Oldie's now grown chicks, some of them older hens and roosters themselves,  began to gather around her.  They all just stood there, in a large semi-circle around her nest, softly clucking.  I wanted to be close to her too, but I knew she needed all her family around her.  Hours went by, I sat mindlessly on the swing, watching the group of chickens grow, now grand chicks and friends had also gathered around Oldie.  Then, in the early evening, Oldie let out a loud squawk, and it was over, just like that.  The large group of chickens slowly dissipated, and went about their business.  I scooped up her body, it was still warm.  I sat there, on the dusty ground, holding her lifeless body and sobbing.  I felt lost, and alone.  Our dog Sandy came and sat with me too, she also loved Oldie.  

My parents came up and asked me if I wanted to bury Oldie's body, which was a big deal, because a dead chicken was fair game for food; an old sick chicken like Oldie would have been dog food, since we still had two large dogs to feed.  How I must have looked to my parents, 11 years old, 60 pounds, clutching a dead chicken and weeping.  They took pity on me and let me bury Oldie, by the grave of our beloved dog Wolfgang.  I put a bouquet of hibiscus flowers on her grave, (and one for Wolfgang too) and began my life without Oldie. 

 I will never forget Oldie, she was an amazing chicken, the perfect pet...and the perfect best friend.

~ Rosanna Forman
Cindy Old Hen Circa 1988

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Our House in the Middle of the Swamp

Our lot, like most of the town of Punta Gorda, is below sea level.  Any money we had went in to purchasing the lot and the lumber needed to build our one room ramshackle house.  There is not money left to pay the public works department to fill the lot in with gravel from the quarry.  The sounds of Mr. Peters and his brukdown style of music blare over the radio.
“I got seven pikney to feed – and one pon de way!  
My wife always in need – and no money deh!”

No money deh.  It always seems to come to this.  Way has a plan to build a fruit stand along the dusty road that leads into town.  He will sell fresh fruit and juices to motorists and pedestrians in need of refreshment in the blistering heat.  Exactly where the fruit will come from – well, he hasn’t figured that part out yet.  But he has begun to cut the bamboo.  There is a lush thicket of bamboo flourishing along the tiny creek that runs in front of our lot.  The creek cuts under the road before emptying into the sea, which is about 150 feet away.  The fruit stand will be built on the roadside near the creek, under the shade of the baboon cap and zapote trees.  

As he transforms the bamboo stalks into building material, he puffs on a joint and listens to the radio, turned up to full volume as the DJ plays a mix of country and western ballads, American pop music, reggae, calypso, merengue and the occasional Belizean brukdown hit.  Particularly popular at the moment is “El Africano” by Wilfrido Vargas, a song that blatantly demeans black men but since it’s in Spanish, most Belizeans sing along gleefully unaware.   
“Mami, yo me acuestro tanquilo
Me arropo pie a cabeza
Y el negro me destapa
Mami que sera lo que
quiere el negro”

After our school lessons and chores, Rosie and I chase crawfish and crabs in the creek.  Na boils the daily pot of rice and reheats yesterday’s pot of kidney beans seasoned with salted pigfoot.  Without refrigeration, food must be warmed up twice a day to prevent spoiling – one in the morning and once at night. 
Sometimes she takes us out for a trip to the beach.  We cut through the lot in from of ours, which is undeveloped and over-gown with grass then turn left on to the main road, away from town.  This part of the road runs along to ocean.  To our right is the inviting blue of the Bay of Honduras.  Fishing boats bob up and down in the distance.  Further out are Moho Caye and Lime Caye, dark specks along the horizon.  The sea breeze is strong, salty and warm.  The road takes us over the simple bridge that spans Joe Taylor’s Creek, a small tributary that twists and turns deep into the mangrove forests the hug the Northern edge of PG Town. 

Crossing over the bridge, I look down into the murky water below.  I see several large, light blue crabs scuttling into the dark crevices of the mangrove roots.  A fish makes a splash then quickly dips back under the surface.   Then a more grim sight:  a dog, floating in the water, dead and bloated.  It was probably hit by a car going to fast over the bridge.  I stop and point.
“Look!”  My mom waves me along before Rosie can get in on the rubbernecking.
“Let’s keep going, honey.”
As we scurry across the bridge, I crane my neck to get one last glimpse of the morbid sight.  The image of that dog just floating there like that still haunts me. 
The beach is a thin strip of dark gray volcanic sand.  The water is shallow and warm with a carpet of sea grass underfoot.  Rosie and I can frolic there for hours, losing ourselves in the unique magic of the Caribbean sea.  Our mother sits on the sand, keeping a watchful eye over her little brown mermaids. 

Soon, the deluge comes.  The fruit stand is not complete.  Our low-lying lot becomes submerged under two to three feet of water.  Under gathering rain clouds, Rosie and sit in doorway, dangling our feet over the edge of our stilted house watching brown algae sway in the current below.  We play with our coveted strawberry shortcake dolls.  We may have the funkiest house in the neighborhood, but we have the best dolls.  Cathy, or mother’s best friend, sends us packages from the US, covered in brightly colored flower stickers, and filled with sweet smelling dolls.  Playing with the dolls takes my mind off of wondering why we have to live like this.  Why can’t we get the lot filled?  What ever happened to the fruit stand?
I know better than to ask questions.  Rosie and I find joy in the imaginary world of Strawberry Shortcake, Grape Suzette and Orange Blossom, tuning in to the radio and tuning out our parents’ heated debate about my father’s latest money-making ideas.  The song “Our House” by Brit pop bad Mandess comes on.
“Our house, in the idle of the street
Our house, in the middle of the street”

Before long, Rosie and I have changed the lyrics to “our house in the middle of the swamp.”  Na and Way join in the singing.  Much needed laughter ensues all around.
Life in our house in the middle of the swamp grows increasingly difficult..  Despite an abundance of ideas, Way struggles to make ends meet.  I am always rooting for him, hoping in my heart of hearts that this time things will work out.  I take comfort in the fact that no matter how bad it gets, Rosie and I always have each other. Perhaps the song Our House still says it best:
“I remember way back then when everything was true and when
We would have such a very good time such a fine time
Such a happy time
And I remember how we’d play simply waste the day away
Then we’d say nothing would come between us two dreamers.”

~ Sarah Jane Forman

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Laundry Day

Fill the pig tail buckets with laundry, consisting mostly of diapers.  Make your way down to the river, each girl with 2 buckets, and a bar of Dona Blanca laundry soap.  Don't let the weight of the buckets pull you forward too fast; you will lose your footing on the steep, unpredictable path if you go too quickly.  Watch out for sharp rocks, large thorns, or anything that could jab your bare feet.  Watch out for snakes, they like to sunbathe across the narrow path to the river.

When you reach the river, empty the buckets of laundry on the river's edge, just where the water can't reach them.  Find a spot in the shallow water to place your empty buckets, a spot that is flat, and not near the rushing water which would pull the now light pig tail buckets over the edge of the waterfall, also sending you over the waterfall to retrieve it; don't lose that mother-rass bucket!  Find a nice rock, one that is only partially submerged in the river, one that has a flat surface, with a slight slant.  Use your bar of Dona Blanca to scrub the slime and algae off the rock.  Now your rock is ready for scrubbing clothes and diapers.  

Grab an item of clothes from the river bank.  Lather the clothes up with soap, be very careful not to lose grip on the slippery bar of soap or it could be swept underwater and down the waterfall, also sending you over the waterfall to retrieve it, don't lose that mother-rass bar of soap either!  Scrub those clothes on the rock, dip them in the water every few scrubs to get them sudsy again.  After scrubbing, it's time to wring out the water.  Wring them and wring them and wring them; it is a long steep climb back up the hill, and the more water you get out, the lighter the load will be.  Once the laundry is washed and wrung, put it back in the pig tail bucket.

When washing the dirty diapers, before you scrub them on the rock, you'll have to get the poop out.  Grip the diaper by one clean corner, and hold it in the waterfall, the force of the water will wash the poop away.

Watch out for snakes, they like to take a refreshing swim in the river.  Watch out for spiral snails, and their sharp, slimy shells, if you step on one, they can puncture your foot, and cause a nasty infection, and a scar you'll have for life.  Watch out for people, you are young girls under thirteen, if anyone wandering near the river knows you are alone, they could harm you.

If you want a quick snack for later, lay a clean diaper on the bottom of the shallow part of the river, away from the current.  Small shrimp will gather on the white cloth; pull it up quickly, bringing the ends of the cloth together fast, and you'll have a nice handful of shrimp, you can cook in the coals later, and eat them privately, just you two girls.  If you are hungry right now, climb a coconut tree near the river bank, and twist off a green coconut.  Break it open on a rock, and you'll have some cool coco water to drink and some jelly-like coconut flesh to eat as treat.

Now you'll have to get back up the steep hill with your wet laundry.  If you leave it to dry near the river, the Indians will take it.  Drape the wet diapers all over yourself.  Put some on your shoulders, around your waist, wrap some around your head, some across your neck.  The less diapers and laundry in the bucket, the better.  With some of the diaper's weight distributed across your body, the buckets will be possible to carry.  Keep going, no matter how heavy your load feels.  Don't let any of the diapers fall off your body and on to the ground, they are still wet and dirt will stick to them.  Don't forget to watch out for the mother-rass snakes.  Watch out for haul-un-back bushes, their thorns will snag your clothes and cut your skin.  Keep going, you're almost there.  When you get to the top, hang the wet clothes and diapers on the clothes line to dry.  Make sure you have done all this in under two hours, or you're in big trouble.  Don't worry, laundry day is only twice a week.

~ Rosanna Forman 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Killing A Snake

In the dry season, snakes are ubiquitous.  You must always be on the lookout for them: in trees, under dried leaves, behind rocks, or sunning themselves in the yard.  Yellow-jaw and jumping tommy goffs, coral snakes, beaden pearls, parrot snakes and monkey snakes.  Some are poisonous, some are not.  Yellow jaws are the most feared.  They are known to be very aggressive and bold, attacking with little or no provocation.  They can spring up at their prey from a distance and their venom is extremely lethal.  During dry months, snakes follow the animal life as it retreats down from the high ground toward the low-lying areas where streams and rivulets remain flowing even in the drought.  Prey, like birds, frogs and mice, is plentiful here.  We live in the lowest land of all.  Thirteen acres of it along Cacao Creek, a small winding tributary of the Columbia River.  Even before the flood that will drive us from this land in despair, life here is about survival.  The hard, clay soil is not good for growing much besides coco, cassava and bananas.  The corn we grow is small, stunted and hardly edible.  The beans come up spindly and sparse.  Tomatoes won’t grow at all.

But the snakes love it.

The drier the weather gets, the more the snakes appear.  One day, Rosie are I are joyfully splashing around in our favorite swimming hole in the creek when suddenly I spot it.  There, on the river bank coiled in the dead leaves at the base of a jippy jappa palm is a yellow jaw tommy goff.  The brown and black pattern on its skin makes it nearly invisible but there it is, just a few feet away, our deadly jungle nemesis.  We call for our father, who quickly comes running.
“Don’t move, girls.”  He says.  We freeze, partly because our dad told us to, partly with pure fear.  We are standing chest deep in the river, huddled again some rocks.  Our hearts are pounding, our breath shallow.  We look at one another and then back at the snake.  The serpent is looking right at us with its cold, beady, black eyes.  Will it jump at us?  Will it jump at our dad? What if he misses and it gets angry?  Another thing you need to know: snakes can swim.

Rosie and I watch in terror.  Way (as we come to call our dad) has his machete in one hand and solid rosewood walking stick in the other.  He is barefoot and wearing only shorts.  He moves stealthily along the river bank, slowing approaching the snake.  With each step he lifts his bare foot up over the thick, dry vegetation in the underbrush, and then, in slow motion, brings it back down avoiding branches and leaves that will crackle if stepped on.  The seconds drag out.  The yellow jaw does not move.  It does not seem to notice Way slowly approaching in its peripheral vision.  Maybe snakes don’t have peripheral vision.  Maybe it is too focused on the shivering girls a few feet away.

            Way has moved within the snake’s striking distance – it the serpent notices him now, it will be too late.  He lowers his machete down and silently pushes the tip into the earth.  Then he grasps the rosewood rod firmly with both hands, calmly lifting it up over his shoulders.  With great force and no hesitation he slams it down across the middle of the coil.  In an instant he repeats the motion, this time smashing the head.  The yellow jaw is dead.  He gives it a few more whacks for good measure then looks up.  “Cho,” he says “that snake’s no match for me!”  Suddenly it seems we were foolish to be so scared.  He picks up the snake with his machete, its slinky body draped over the blade.   He crosses the creek and walks up the other side of the bank, disappearing into the underbrush. 

            That evening, Rosie and I are still electrified by the close encounter with the most poisonous snake in Belize.  In the flickering firelight, we repeat the events over and over, feeling happy to be alive to tell the tale.  We ask Way to explain exactly how he did it.  He thumps the rosewood walking stick on the ground.  “You must always carry a good stick with you in the bush.  You let the snake know you are coming.  Snake is afraid of Mankind, Mankind should not be afraid of snake,” he says.  “But to kill it – there is only one way.”    

          “Like you did today?”

           “Yes!”  He grabs a banana frond and tears off the leafy part, dropping the spine near his feet.  “It’s just like so.”  He taps the middle of the banana frond with the stick.  “First, you have to hit the snake across the back – to paralyze it.  If you break its back it can’t move.  It can’t attack you.  Then, crush the head –now it can’t bite at all.  You don’t go for the head first because if you miss, well . . .cho.”  He sucks his teeth.

          “What did you do with the snake today?  Where did you take it?”

           “That is the last part- snake has to know who’s boss.  You  hang it up inna  tree so the other snakes know to stay away.  I took the snake yonder to the Jackson’s land.”  

             The Jackson’s are our nearest neighbors, they live in the village a few miles away, and they have an old rice paddy that runs adjacent to our land.  Way does not trust them and he thinks that the snakes came from their land.  “I hung up the snake right so.”  He lifts up the banana frond with his stick and gestures toward the Jackson’s land.  “Dem and the snake, dem both need a lesson.”  Rosie and I exchange a knowing glance.  To us, the Jacksons always seem nice enough,  but our father harbors suspicion for pretty much everyone in the outside world. 

           This is not our last time getting too close for comfort with a deadly snake in the jungle.  In fact, decades later a yellow jaw nearly takes my father's life.  But tonight, he seems larger than life, invincible.  The key to our survival in this wonderful, forsaken snake pit we call home. 

~ Sarah Jane Forman