The dump truck belonged to my brother, but we all agreed that it was perfect for teaching Hannah to fly. She didn’t seem quite ready to be launched from a fist into the air, but it was certainly past time that she became airborne. Returning from our conference, we stood in a semicircle and stared down at the little yellow chick inside the warming box. It sat beside the door to the deck, as out of the way as possible in the limited space of the loft over the woodshop where we lived. The air was pretty cold in that part, almost as far away from the woodstove in the center of the loft as possible, but it had a lightbulb in it and the bird-scented air rising up towards us was very warm. She was alive, too, which augured well for the warmth inside the box.
Her – well, gender is fairly arbitrary for chicks, but in the end we were right – wing feathers were just coming in, and she looked happy to see us, running to our side of the blueboard lined box and cheeping to be picked up. The only one of her incubation batch to survive, presumably she considered us her surrogate siblings, adoptive parents. We weren’t very good parents, but she didn’t know any better.
“Hey, Hannah!” my sister Anna cooed, scooping her up and holding Hannah to her stomach so my brother could see the chick too. She smelled all dusty and sweet, just like an incubator still. “Want to ride in the dumptruck?”
The chick cheeped encouragingly at her. My sister is prone to unfortunate experiences with animals. It’s not that they don’t like her, or that she is afraid of them – it’s that she’s easily unnoticed and, as our somewhat feral cat discovered, easy prey. Anna’s been run over by an enthusiastic golden lab that just didn’t see her, cornered by a black snake in the corner of our loft we used as a wardrobe, and stalked ferociously by a kitten with very sharp claws. So far, the chick hadn’t really done anything to her. She smiled down at Hannah and stroked her head. Hannah tried to climb her braid.
My brother, who at three had just begun to speak, poked the chick.
“She can fly?” Jamie asked. He looked like a little elf, all big blue-gray eyes, pointed chin, messy brown hair.
“I think she can.” I said, trying to look knowledgeable about chickens. She didn’t really look like she could fly, but then, birds never did. At eight, I was unaware that chickens, hardly aerodynamic, were normally flightless.
We carried her over to the little yellow dump truck, my sister cradling Hannah against her chest like Mama told us to, so she wouldn’t feel scared and stayed nice and warm. The dump truck, Jamie’s Christmas present from our parents, had been getting warm by the fire. Carefully, we patted it all over to make sure the metal wouldn’t burn the chick.
She seemed to like the dump truck, pecking it curiously, surprised by the ping of her beak on the metal. We let her explore a little before lifting her down from the roof of the cab, which was complete with opening doors and a little steering wheel that really turned, and setting her in the ridged bed.
“What if she’s scared?” Anna asked, looking dubiously at the yellow walls surrounding the little bird. I thought about it.
“We’ll start her out slow and see if she’s too scared.”
Jamie nodded, and Anna said “Then she’ll be used to it.”
Jamie reached out and gave the dump truck a tentative push towards the kitchen area of the woodshop loft. The dump truck, large for a toy but still just up to my little sister’s knees, rolled bumpily over the rough plywood floor. Hannah almost fell over, and, indignant, cheeped obstreperously for a moment before regaining her balance. She hopped off the dump truck and made for the woodstove – I grabbed her before she got very far and reinstated her in the bed of the truck.
Anna pushed it, this time, and soon we sat in a circle, pushing the dump truck from one to another while the chick gradually got used to the motion. She was used to the world moving without her active participation, as we constantly picked her up and carried her about, but presumably this was a little different, a somewhat smooth trip back and forth in a slick yellow object that by now must’ve been cold to her feet.
We started to pick up speed, beginning with one incautious push and building on it. I thought Hannah was looking a little nervous, but – well, it’s hard to tell with chickens. Soon, she could barely keep her feet, skidding back and forth as the truck picked up speed. She raised her wings, and we waited with bated breath as we continued to push the dump truck.
A few beats, we thought she looked a little airborne – and she tumbled off the truck, furious. My sister picked her up and cuddled her for a moment.
“She almost flew!” I pulled the dump truck over and reset its track. “We should do it again!”
“Won’t it be too much for one day?”
We were training our chick, after all. Training had to be accomplished over a long period of time, very patiently. Our dog still couldn’t figure out sit after a year of frequent instruction, but we were working on him with the unquestioning optimism and boundless patience only small children and those with short-term memory loss exhibit. He’d get it one of these days, we just knew it.
“How about two more times?” I suggested, unwilling to stop yet. “We should make a firm impression.” Mama had said so, when we started training Blackie. Firm impressions were very important. Someday, when he learned to sit when we said so, it would be because of the firm impression we made when we first started training him.
Agreed, we began again, and she started to flap and stagger almost immediately, as we felt an introduction period unnecessary after the first run. Soon, she tumbled off the bed again. This time, we were almost positive that she’d managed a little lift. When we put her back in her box after the third run of our first training session, she looked appropriately tired and exercised. Plainly the muscles in her wings were developing.
A few weeks later, we’d progressed to launching her off our fists, and she flew, or coasted, to the floor quite satisfactorily. We were so proud of her, and proud of ourselves for preparing our chick to enter the fierce and dangerous outside world where the dark shadows of predators lay menacingly, warning hapless prey of the useless struggle against the inevitable – their death, by tooth or claw. With her mastery of flight, Hannah could survive the dangers of the chicken coop.
Growing fat and white in the sunny confines of the pen, she ran to greet us when we came with our daily gift of food, affectionately untying our shoelaces and pulling up the Velcro of our river sandals. We teased her about gaining weight, and Mama often joked that she’d make good eating, but she was safe, and we knew it because we’d trained her so she would be.
However, a chick is aerodynamic, and a mature hen is not, and when the time finally came to use her training – well, she was a broiler, and if she could lift more than two inches off the ground I’d be surprised. Not that it would have saved her – her mugger was a hawk, and her death was swift. We discovered her corpse, neck broken, lying in the dirt and soiled straw of the chicken pen. She was too fat for her murderer to carry off.