The storm that lit fire to my scars descended from the Canadian Rockies and glided over the cringing plains and closed like a fist of talons around my mind.
I have heard of this phenomenon, head injuries that light up in a storm. I cracked my forehead in a mountain climbing accident, one summer ago. This last blue norther was the first strong storm to unstitch the healing beneath the jagged lines.
As the storm came down, a warmth spread in my mind not like a flame but like swirling embers. Tingling fireflies danced behind the eyelids. The vibration increased to a spray of hornets that swarmed in channels through the dark and turned and soared and filled all the narrow space, and finally accelerated to a sheet of hailstones behind the back of the eyes.
Hailstones simultaneously sprayed the window, as I stood and looked out at the lightning on the lake. The hailstorm lasted from 4:27am until 4:29am. At the highest pitch of hail I thought the window would shatter, or the front of my mind. I backed away from the glass to separate the storm in the atmosphere from the storm in my head.
I will be more careful to never again open my mind to the light–even the pale blue light that falls on the rocks at the top of a tall mountain. Sometimes the passage stays open to the flowing fire of the heavens.
And yet, there is another layer to this strange and unwanted gift. I have always wondered how animals know when a storm is coming. Many times in the wild I have witnessed the odd behavior of animals who in the bright sun of a clear day knew that a storm stirred beyond the horizon. For the first time, I have a perception—the merest glimmer of understanding–of this radar of animals; the burning of the mind that drives them knowingly into burrows, into their dens, deep into the embrace of the earth.
My chickens, the broilers nearly ready to butcher, sensed the coming storm. They fled the yurt I built to protect them and huddled in bunches at the base of oak trees, under the bay brush, the yaupon holly. I put on my head lamp and went out in the dark to catch them, one by one in the forest, and put them back in the shelter. The chickens were in a stupor as their prehistoric radar pulsed the coming storm. I was in a different stupor of fatigue with my modern mind pulsing sympathetic waves.
Later, as the storm battered the farm, I was exceedingly relieved to have gathered up the birds. I doubt many of the terrified chickens would have survived the hailstones. My last good winter garden did not survive. The rows of lettuce and greens were pounded to pulp with only stems sticking here and there out of the green mush.
Our live oak trees were stripped bare by the hailstones. It was eerie and disquieting to go out in the wet dawn and walk under naked trees through a thick green leaf-mulch and still frozen hailstones on the ground. I could suddenly see dozens of bird nests that I did not know were there. We never lose our leaves in the winter in Rockport; the storm took them all in two minutes.
A different kind of storm descended, later, on the chickens. The fallen leaves created a blanket of hiding for the mice, frogs, lizards, and other food for hawks. The hawks began to starve and in desperation attacked my chickens, the ones I saved from the hailstones. The hawks were hardly bigger than the chickens and could not lift them from the ground. But they savaged them with their powerful jaws and fed on the heads and hearts of a great many broilers before I discovered them and scared them away.
The hawks did not kill all of the chickens. Some were untouched and some were mauled but survived. I immediately determined to nurse these chickens back to health.
I can’t say exactly why I did this. A surgeon could not repair their terrible scars, and I could never sell these damaged birds. My time in treating the wounds would borrow valuable hours from a farmer’s crowded day–especially as they were already a loss. However, I could not just leave them standing in a burning haze; nor did I wish to finish killing them and bury them by the lake. They were no longer beautiful birds, but they were capable of a life.
The chickens stood there, dazed, bloody, resolute, and finally waddled through the grass looking for a bite to eat. They shook their wings and stepped through the fire of pain and resolved themselves to live. What else could I do but help them?
I will treat their aching scars, and get them along with the others to the great getting up morning for this flock of birds. Probably some of my friends would not understand this, so much work saving a few chickens only to butcher them. Still, I will celebrate all the chickens at the chosen hour, and put the scarred birds to the side for myself–a different kind of nutrition.
There are hawks on the farm, as in life; and there are chickens. Today my heart is with the white chickens in the tall grass. They fell; they were torn; they stood back up in the milky red light of morning with a gritty longing to live.
They hold their scars together without complaint. They do not ask to live forever, even if it were possible, only to live another day.
They survived the terrible storm and they rise to meet a glorious end, God willing, in the sunshine of a beautiful day.