Our gray Volkswagon beetle puttered along the dirt road route to Maracana church, releasing an enormous puff of dust behind us as our tires met unpaved road and swerved to avoid the frequent potholes. As we drove through the area, some people noticed the dust centipede from afar, crawling across the flat horizon, and closed their shutters against the billowing dirt. In other homes, diligent women and children hurried outside with dingy plastic buckets or dented metal washbasins full of water scooped from the nearby river. They splashed the water on the street in front of their house, trying to minimize the particles of dirt attempting to invade their homes—unwanted guests. Unwanted, but unavoidable. Try as they might to care for the few items they owned, the dirt was inescapable. A fact of life, just like the ants and winged cockroaches hiding in dark corners and damp crevices. But they still made the effort.
The houses—no more than shacks, really—were large wooden boxes constructed from unpainted planks of mismatched wood. The windows were holes in the walls, always equipped with shutters in order to discourage entrance of an array of unwanted visitors—robbers, stray animals, bugs and dirt. But the areas of hard-packed earth surrounding the homes were tidy, and the dirt yards were kept clean with a simple Brazilian broom, a bundle of sticks bound neatly together. Women shuffled along, hunchbacked as they bent over and swept. The strokes left decorative designs in the dirt and clearly marked a segment of recently tidied land. Some of the houses we drove past had luscious vegetables bursting from raised garden boxes sitting atop meter-high stilts. Chickens and roosters ran free around the yards scratching and pecking the ground, hungrily picking up bugs, filling their bellies and holding pests at bay.
Most of the church attendees lived in this neighborhood, and Maria was no exception. Every Sunday she gathered her family, freshly-washed hair still damp and bodies smelling of soap and talc powder, and they all walked in the sweltering equatorial heat to the little church.
When my family first started attending the small communal gathering, the service was held outside in a malaca, a gazebo built of wooden pillars and roofed with a thick layer of dried palm leaves. Later, the congregation proudly moved into a bare brick, one-room building. The floor was made of hard-packed dirt. The rafters were covered in gray Brasillete, a cheap gray roofing material, easily broken. The windows and doors were gaping holes. A sound system was carried in every week, strapped to the back of a bike, and plugged into a live electrical outlet housed in a closet near the front of the building. The closet had a door with a lock to keep people from “borrowing” the electricity.
The previous week, Maria had needed a ride to the pharmacy and help purchasing medicine for her sick son. My parents, the only attendees who owned a car and had the money to pay for the prescription, quickly agreed to take her. It was only natural and they didn’t think much of the action, but this little gesture, like so many small gestures do, ended up generating an unexpected reward. In this case, most of the benefits trickled down to me, the quiet little girl with the long, long ponytail and deep-seeded love of animals.
Maria came up to my mother after the service and thanked her again for her help the previous week.
“My son is much better this week, by the grace of God! Pela graça de Deus!” she informed Mom, as she warmly embraced her and kissed the air on either side of her face in customary Brasilian greeting. “I have a present for you,” she said. “I very much want to pay you back for your kindness, but I don’t have the money.”
“Don’t worry about it!” Mom said. “I’m just glad that your son is doing better.”
But Maria insisted. “I have a present for you. It is a chicken. Would you be willing to accept a chicken as payment?”
She continued to insist and Mom was torn. She didn’t want to take dinner away from Maria’s family, but Maria continued to persist. In Brazil, when a visitor comes to your home, it is customary to offer refreshments, even if your cupboards are completely bare. The guest, well aware of this fact, will always decline, no matter how thirsty or hungry she is. This allows the homeowner the dignity of offering the food she wishes she could provide. If the homeowner continues to offer the food, the guest is free to accept; this is a sign that she actually owns the offered object and wants to share it. Mom applied the same basic theory to this situation, and finally accepted the offered gift. She didn’t, after all, want to hurt her friend’s feelings or bruise her dignity by ignoring her generosity. I’ll just put it in the freezer, Mom thought.
“Wait right here!” Maria exclaimed. “I’ll be back in just a second. Espera um momento.”
She kept her word, returning a few minutes later with the promised item tucked securely under her arm: A golden feathered hen, very much alive, feet tied together with string. Mom was stunned. If she’d realized the bird was still breathing, she later recounted, she never would have accepted. But it was. And the traumatized bundle of feathers was being pushed into her hands. And her Portuguese was not yet at a point where she could explain her way out. So she graciously accepted the generous gift, and moments later, she joined us in the Volkswagen, new owner of a lovely little chicken.
I can only assumed that Maria thought the gift would be dinner. But, growing up as city dwellers, my parents had never slaughtered a chicken and had very little desire to learn! On the drive home from church we named her, and with the addition of an appellation, all odds of the old girl ending up in the stew pot disappeared. She was dubbed Buttercluck—continuing the family tradition of similarly colored animals named Buttermilk and Butterscotch—and the amiable hen easily assimilated into our growing array of animals—cats, parakeets, rabbit and macaw—as she wandered freely around our gated yard.
Buttercluck laid an egg every day. We had no rooster, so I naturally assumed there would be no little chicks. Every morning when I heard Buttercluck’s customary egg-laying squawk, squabble and rush of fluttering wings as she charged as fast as her little chicken legs would take her away from her hidden nest, I would go out and collect the egg, setting it careful in the cuba next to the store-bought eggs. A cuba was a giant egg carton that held 30 eggs. Instead of a hinged lid, the packaging simply consisted of two squares of identical paperboard egg cartons; the eggs rested in the bottom carton and the other served as the lid.
One day, I went out as usual to the nest tucked close to a side wall, back behind the outdoor laundry-washing area. I pushed the vines aside, squatted on my heels and reached into the chicken-shaped indentation in the tall weeds. Our maid, Regina, stopped hand-scrubbing clothes, walked over and squatted beside me.
“If you leave it there, it will hatch,” she said said in Portuguese.
I looked at her in surprise. She picked up the brown egg and held it gently.
“There is a baby chicken inside,” she repeated in simpler language, it case I didn’t fully understand her first sentence.
“E verdade!?!” I whispered in disbelief.
Astonished, I rushed back to the school room where Mom was teaching my siblings.
“Mom! Mom!” I yelled.
“Regina just told me that Buttercluck’s eggs will hatch if we leave them in the nest!” I exclaimed.
“But we don’t have a rooster.”
“I know, but she runs around all day and sometimes she gets out of the yard, maybe they ARE fertilized and we just don’t know it. Can’t we just let her try to hatch them and see? Wouldn’t that be cool if she had baby chicks and they just ran around our yard cheeping and scratching? Please, can’t we try and see? Pleeeease?”
“Okay,” Mom consented with a sigh and a smile. Buttercluck was allowed to sit on her little cache of eggs. There were only a handful, three or four, but once they were all laid, she sat on those eggs faithfully, pausing once a day to dart out and stretch her legs, taking a couple quick loops around the house. In those rare moments of physical activity, she ate the hard corn we threw on the packed brown dirt and drank some water, filling her beak and tilting her head way back as she swallowed. After that, she strutted silently back to the nest, ducked stealthily under the hanging vines and settled in over the eggs and sat as still as a statue. Only her eyes occasionally blinked as I peered in at her. It was remarkable how well her golden brown feather faded into the shadows and Amazonian dirt. If it weren’t for the occasional move of her head or blink of an eye, I never would have noticed her. What a fascinating sight.
One morning, Buttercluck didn’t leave the nest. When I checked on her, I heard something unexpected. Peep, peep, peep. The tiny voice floated up to my ears as softly as the orange petals from the flowering tree in front of our house rained gently on the ground below. And what was that rustle? A tiny head poke out from under Buttercluck’s wing and gazed at me with bright, beady eyes for a brief second before diving once again deep down into the feathers. School might as well have been cancelled that day. I couldn’t pay attention. Baby chickens were on my mind. Fortunately Mom was very understanding. I made several more trips to the nest over the course of the morning.
At some point, Buttercluck concluded that the eggs were done hatching and, clucking and scolding under her breath, she ruffled her feathers, shifted back and forth, and stood. Beneath her was one little yellow chick. She stepped out of the nest and the tiny ball of down feathers struggled to follow. He ran into a barrier at first, peeping frantically, but quickly found another way through the tall grasses and ran to his waiting mother. Buttercluck scratched and pecked casually, nonchalantly, around the back yard as I barreled into the kitchen and picked up two plastic bags with twisty ties. One was Buttercluck’s usual corn feed and the other smaller, unopened bag had been purchased in expectation of this very moment.
Buttercluck hungrily snatched up kernel after kernel in contentment, proud as could be of her tiny offspring. The little hatchling, egg tooth still in place, scratched at the soil and pecked at the ground corn I sprinkled down for him. I sat on the little ledge separating the the laundry room and the backyard and watched in raptured joy, marveling inwardly at the perfect ease in which the tiny creature transitioned from full-time egg resident to backyard inhabitant. From yolk to perfect little bird in just a few weeks! He already understood exactly what he needed to do. How did he know? The quiet thrill of perfect design flooded my soul in an indescribable rush. It was one of those moments where my mind seemed set somewhere higher than usual and my heart danced in perfect step to inaudible melodies. Beautiful design never ceases to thrill.