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José Cuervo, The Black Chicken
This story is not copyright; it is public domain.


    This is a true story.

    In my early 30s while renting a cockroach apartment in LosAngeles' Little Korea, I subscribed to Organic Gardening Magazine and dreamed ofcountry living. My ex-wife and I had recently begun a little typesetting businessthat grew rapidly and prospered. In 1973, with our first extra eight thousand dollars,we made the down payment on an acre in the western San Fernando Valley, a huge lotwith an old, small house, vintage 1920s, a place that had been someone's "retirementin California" dream. It had one huge apricot tree with the best fruit I haveever tasted. And of course, I put in a large food garden.

    If you did not mind hot days and flies, living was prettyfine in Canoga Park at that time. The smog stopped about 6 miles to the east. Andit always cooled down at night. There still were dirt streets where people enjoyedhorses and hobby ranches. Driving downtown on the uncrowded freeways was relaxingand took less than 45 minutes except during rush hours. These days Canoga Park ismuch worse: all apartments and postage stamp lots; the 101 freeway is a continualaggressive madhouse where everyone is trying to get ahead (of you).

    At that time my ex and I also were dilligently studying Koreankarate. Our dojo was near downtown LA, in the same neighborhood as our business.We commuted daily. I have always found stop and go traffic irritating, but drivinginto LA and back was not so bad because we left home after morning rush hour andworked late because the karate class started at seven pm. None of this is what thestory is about. It is merely the landscape.

    One evening after work as we waited on the street for theinstructor to arrive and open the school, a scrawny, dirty little gray tomkittencame staggering up to us. He was exhausted, dehydrated and seemed ill. My ex, Susan,immediately fell in love with this animal; we had no pets as yet. So we made a quickdetour to the convenience store, got a small carton of milk, fed the kitten and putit into our car to wait for our class to end. Though it received much love and care,it became rapidly sicker and died in a few days.

    There was something special about this cat. It seemed intentto find us, us especially. It seemed to have a powerful spirit. So as it was dying,I told it, "now it knew where to find us. Next time it should not wander aroundaimlessly, wasting its strength, but should appear in our lives again soon, in goodhealth next time."

    About six weeks later to the day, a little gray tomkittenabout six weeks old, almost identical to the first, appeared in front of the karateschool while we were waiting for the class to start. This time it walked right upto me and said, "nang!" And rubbed against my leg.

    "Hello, Nang," I said, delighted to know his name."Welcome back!"
Again we bought milk and again Nang was put in the car to wait for us. This timehe succeeded at becoming our cat.

    Nang turned out to become a very large, fast, tough tom whodecently did not spray about our house. He highly preferred outside living and appearedfor meals, pets and admiration almost daily behind the back door. Occasionally Ihad to doctor his punctures and abscesses (Nang was a fighter); sometimes he wouldvisit me in the garden while I was working.

    Tough, fighting toms don't have tend to have long lifespans,and Nang was no exception. He disappeared before he reached three years old. Butthis story is not about Nang. It is about the food dish that Susan put out for himevery day and what began to happen there.

    Other neighborhood cats began to discover this largess. Firstto appear were "Grandma" and "Nibble," two calico females whowere clearly mother and daughter. The neighbors told Susan that "Grandma"was quite old and had owned our house for a long time. Nang was not happy about sharinghis bowl with these two old ladies, and as king of the backyard, he got his own dish,freshly put out at mealtimes. Grandma and Nibble shared another.

    These two females were only semi-civilized; they would allowSusan to pet them WHILE eating and perhaps for a few minutes thereafter as thoughallowing Susan to express her gratitude for their deigning to eat her kibble. Butthey began to hang around outside and could always be found near our back door.

    This number of cats was okay with me. Nang was not a beggerand Gandma and Nibble were skittish and did not get too close. And all three weregood, hardworking, self-respecting cats--successful mousers all--who probably couldhave survived handily without us. Our relationship with these three animals was voluntaryand based on admiration and affinity.

    But word of this food dish spread, and soon we also had "Food,"a long-haired black untidy Persian that was too friendly and constantly underfoot.And then there was another begger and yet another. These last two were not even named.

    Susan and I had words about this. I asked her to stop feedingthe whole neighborhood because I could not even walk from house to garden withoutstumbling over purring, rubbing cats begging for a handout. But she would not hearof it. So I decided on a covert approach to problem solving. I went to a gun storeand bought a box of low-velocity subsonic .22 bullets. When fired, these made thesound of a handclap that could not even be noticed more than 50 feet away.

    One day while Susan was away for a few hours, one of theunnamed beggers ended up in a small hole in the garden. This was not noticed by Susan,but the execution did trouble Grandma and Nibble. So I sat down on the back porchand had a talk with them. I explained that I had a problem to solve with the othercats, but that these two were special to Susan, that I also admired their industryand independence, and that I would always protect them and allow them to stay. Grandmaand Nibble had no attachment to the other cats anyway. In fact, I think they regardedthe other beggers as intruders and were pleased that I was going to eliminate them.

    A week later and the second unnamed cat was disappeared bythe local gestapo. Susan did notice it was missing but she figured that it had founda better handout elsewhere. I said nothing. Though Foodcat had noticed these eliminations,it did not seem to discourage her. So, pop, and another stupid cat bit the dust.Now we were back to the three best. And I could live with that.

    I think the two old ladies were prompt to inform any newarrivals that becoming dependent on our food dish was not pro-surivival, becausewe never had another sponger show up. And after Nang vanished, there were only thetwo old ladies hanging around the backyard. In fact, these were hardnosed, outdoorcats. I never could entice them to come into our house.

    Being on a "farm," I also got interested in otheranimals. I ate a fair amount of meat in those days so we fed a steer until its bodyfilled our freezer, I raised and "chopped" countless rabbits and we hada small coop of chickens. But as the garden's quality vegetables performed theirmagic on our bodies, we found eating flesh less and less interesting. I think I endedup giving away 25 pounds of frozen beef. Killing the rabbits became very distastefuland frankly, we did not like eating them so much anyway. So away went the cages andmy breeding stock.

    The chickens were another matter. As I studied their behavior,I worked out a very synergistic system to provide us with better-quality fresh fruitand eggs. I put a six-foot-tall chain link fence around the orchard and put in aflock of bantam hens (with two roosters). The chickens slept in the trees, safe frompreditors. They took care of themselves. I liked the rooster's alarm clock, the chickensstratched bugs under the fruit trees, ate a lot of grass and weeds, their egg yokes(when I found them hidden in the grass) were intense orange and the flavor of thetiny bantam eggs were superlative. Each spring while the grass was growing extrafast a broody hen or two would manage to hide a clutch of eggs from me and one day,a mama hen would be seen walking in the chickenyard with a line of little peeps behindher. This provided an automatic replacement for the old hens that had stopped laying.All the system took was a daily egg hunt, the normal orchard care, a water dish,and a handful of cracked grain every day. And the grain became fertilizer for thetrees after it nourished the hens. And the chickens kept the fruit nearly bug-free.

    Grandma and Nibble showed no interest in the hens. Maybeif they had been starving . . . . but since they had Susan's food bowl, attackingsuch a large bird wasn't worth it. And the one time I saw them in the chicken yardthe hens' aggressive reactions made it very clear why the two old cats stayed away.Then, one spring day, on the mowed lawn on the "cat's side" of the chainlink fence, I discovered a little cluster of light, yellow feathers. A songbird?Next day there was another, and yes, I noticed, one of my mamahens was missing twochicks. It was clear what had happened. As long as the little peeps stayed on theorchard side of the fence, mamahen could protect them. But the peeps could pass throughthe chain links easily while mother hen was stopped. Without mama's protection, Grandmaor Nibble was having a nibble.

    This was entirely unacceptable. So I went into the yard andsat on the grass right next to one of those little yellow feather piles and calledthe two old ladies over for a pet and a chat. After they had settled comfortably,I explained to them that those chickens were MINE. MINE! All those chickens wereMINE. And if I saw another pile of yellow feathers again I was going to get my .22and bury two old cats in my garden. But, as long as they would leave MY chickensalone, they would be fed and petted. And allowed to continue owning our yard.

    You may not believe this, but my conversation worked. Onsubsequent days I sat on the back porch and watched little peeps pass through thefence and walk right in front of one of these cats. Grandma or Nibble would eye themand permit them to walk right back to their mother. They had gotten the message aboutMY chickens.

One day, one of our typesetting customers who also lived in the San Fernando Valley,gave us a baby crow fallen from a nest in her yard. Her house was not large enoughto permit her to raise the crow. Would we like to raise it and care for it? The ideawas exciting.

    When I was in grade school a fellow student had "owned"a pet raven. This bird would fly over to the schoolyard at recess, land on its boy'sshoulder, and then fly home at the end of recess. And the raven could talk. So Iimagined wonderous happenings from having a crow in our space, and built a largecage, and made special crowfood concoctions out of ground meat and liver and vegetables,and hand-fed this fledgling. And named it José Cuervo, which in Spanish, meansJoe Crow. I spent a lot of time talking to José, teaching it to say "Ole,José!"

    José grew rapidly, into a large, friendly black bird.When let out of his cage he loved to sit on my finger while I gently stroked thefine feathers behind his head. He would hop around on the living room carpet. Andone day he began experimentally flapping his wings, and with great effort, reachedthe curtain rod over the living room window and perched there. Cleaning up an occasionalcrow dropping from the carpet was possible. But from the white drapes, never. SoI took José down and set him back on the carpet. And it occurred to me thatJosé would have to soon be set free. Maybe he would stick around like that schoolboy'sraven.

    First, there was the matter of handling Grandma and Nibble.With José still hopping around on the rug, I called the old ladies over to theback door as though to feed them a special goodie. Then Nibble looked into the livingroom and saw this baby crow hopping about on the rug. Suddenly all I could see ofNibble was four claws and jaws clinging to the screen as she tried to force her wayinto the house. José was a little scared at the sudden movement, but did notunderstand "cat."

    Something had to be done about my cats or there was goingto be no easy way to accustom José to being outdoors and giving him some flyinglessons. So out into the yard I went for a little serious conversation. I explainedto Grandma and Nibble that this black bird in my house was not a wild crow they hada license to eat, but was a black chicken, and like the other chickens, was MINE.Then I told the ladies to wait for me for a moment while I brought out this chickento show them. Then, for the first time in his life, I brought José outside andset him down on the grass right in front of Nibble. And dared Nibble to do anythingto MY chicken.

    Of course, Nibble did nothing, even when José walkedright over to her and gently pecked her on the leg. And Grandma only watched. Andaffected total boredom with the whole scene. So every day for the next few days Itook José outside, set him on the lawn, and allowed him to walk about. Then,surprisingly, he flew to the top of the fence, perched there a minute and then flewaway. And never returned. So much for my dreams of a pet, talking crow.

    I have always hoped that, for the sake of his longevity,José developed a more sensible idea of "cat" than he got from thebehavior of Grandma and Nibble.

    A year or so later it came time for us to leave Los Angelesand move to Oregon, I bought a large cat cage, set it in the shade in the yard andbegan putting the food dish inside. The two old ladies got used to going in the cageand eating. One day, I surprised them, shut the door on them, loaded them into thecar and we drove off.

    Both cats stuck at the new place. I did not have to smearbutter on their feet (local lore) but only had to put out their familiar food dishfirst thing. Grandma, though already quite old, survived three Oregon winters inour unheated woodshed, burrowed into a hay pile beneath my garden cart, cuddlingwith Nibble. One warm spring day, she just died. No warning, no suffering.

    Nibble lived on for another year, but was depressed, lonelyand bored without her friend. One day as I drove my car up to the house, Nibble,sitting quietly by the driveway's edge, suddenly threw her body under my tire andwas crushed.

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