Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Rooster's Enigma

She turned the rusted handle and heard the heavy door groan on its elderly hinges. The dust-moted air she stepped into was stale and undisturbed but strangely and immediately familiar, a relic of her childhood indelibly etched along the stone threshold she was stepping over for the first time since her grandfather had passed away. 

It had been two years since the funeral and the final afternoon gathered in the kitchen around the table where her grandpa had once slathered butter thick on his bread while her grandma had poured countless cups of strong coffee. There hadn’t been time or desire to wander about the farm that day. 
Just a heavy yearning to be. Together, quiet, weaving what they knew might be a final memory.

Cousins. Aunts. Uncles. Nieces. Nephews. Siblings. All of them assembled one last time on a February day far drearier than it ever should have been. A dozen hearts quietly struggling to fend off the fraying thoughts that threatened to pull them apart a hundred ways over the coming months.     


Winter had passed twice before she had been able to drive the long road to the farm again. Her uncle, tending the property while the estate was settled, said she was welcome to visit and take whatever she wanted. And while she knew she couldn’t capture the familiar air of her grandfather’s chicken coop, she hoped she might be able to capture some of the essential rust.  Wandering past long rows of empty nest boxes and wired panels, she smiled at the memories of helping fill the feeders with scratch grains and reaching quickly under a hen to pilfer the smooth, warm treasure hidden beneath. Moving slowly and deliberately, she looked for pieces both functional and nostalgic…an old John Deere thermometer with chipping yellow paint…a garden rake worn smooth by rough farmer hands…a vintage stoneware water bowl...a metal scoop from the grain barrel. Everything had a right purpose and place in her mind. Until she approached the window.

Coming to a carpeted shelf below the pane, she stopped. Chicken pens lined either side, creating a kind of alcove. On one side hung an old metal medicine cabinet. Inside, among the mud dauber nests, were bottles of liniment and homemade hot-pick salve. She saw styptic powder, scissors and antibiotics. Everything needed to treat an injury on a bird. Nailed to the board above her head were lids, some orphaned, others holding glass jars that contained an afterthought of sundry parts. The space there was thick with cobwebs strung like gauzy chandeliers in a house long-abandoned. But it was the mirror to the left that gave her pause. Clearly from a much earlier era, the plaster frame had been ornately carved but was now crazed and crumbling, humbled by a lifetime in the midst of barnyard debris. The glass was covered in a layer of permanent dust, leaving any hope of practical use far behind.  In all her years of walking through the coop, she had never noticed it and now couldn’t imagine what purpose it might have served.

Build a comfortable ledge to lay down an injured bird?  Yes.  Install a cabinet for holding the blood-stop and Teramyacin? Yes.  But hang a decorative mirror for chickens?  Why?

As she pondered the mystery, the reason crystallized in a sudden rush of memory. In the coop, she had learned how to pickpocket eggs from a nesting hen. But outside, she had learned how to tightrope walk the roosters’ tethers to keep from getting flogged. 

You see, her grandfather, like his father and countless other men of their generations, had not only raised laying hens. They had raised gamecocks as well. She then remembered the tarpaper A-frames that lined one edge of the yard and the literal game of chicken played by the cousins to see who would cross the rooster’s perimeter and walk the line before a spur could slice a shin bone. She remembered the stack of game fowl magazines next to the couch in the living room and the plywood traveling boxes as they were loaded in the back of the pickup truck. It all made sense in that moment of flipping back through her mind’s memory album. 

The mirror was for training roosters.
…to churn their warrior instinct.
…to agitate their gladiator passion.
…to cement their rage against the semblance of themselves so that the first thing they attacked when entering the fighting ring was the shape they dimly recognized from their own reflection.

Standing there in the dust and emptiness, she also recalled the day she herself had raged against Grandpa. Probably ten or eleven years old, she had overheard the menfolk talking about going to a cockfight. Something had snapped in her and she burst into tears, screaming about horrible people and heartless pastimes. She had run out of the house trailing hot fury behind but was marched back inside immediately by her mother who demanded she apologize for her slashing disrespect. She didn’t have to agree with their choices but such insolence toward her elders would not be tolerated and so she had stammered her contrition from angry, trembling lips. 

At some point along the way, her grandfather had left the bloody business behind. Somewhere between her adolescent outburst and the onset of her adult years, the rooster tethers were pulled and the traveling boxes were stacked on the rafters of the coop where the mud wasps found seclusion for their earthen constructions. Eventually, her carefree days were packed away as well, replaced by wedding plans and moving trucks and then the long years of career expansion and family building. And the lips, once flushed with anger, then pressed fond kisses against her grandfather’s paling cheeks on the rare days of visits to the farm. How she wished time now permitted more. 

But Grandma had passed some 4 years earlier and Grandpa had decided to go 2 years later.  The remembrance of their absence blinked her back into the present moment and she felt afresh the puncture wound in her heart that had been unhealable since that day. Abruptly, she reached out to lift the mirror from the rusty nail. Having no idea what the filmy glass might be used for, she only felt a deep need to remove it from that conflicted place. So into the box with the grain scoop and the chipped thermometer and the Mason jars it went.


Winter came again with its crackling breath and catenating tentacles, pressing warm flesh deeper into burrows of fleece and pools of tea like a pursuing hound driving a fox into the depths of its den. She forgot about the box of farm relics, now stowed on a shelf in the tool shed, as her thoughts turned inward to the unfinished needlepoint in the sewing box and the stack of books that had been patiently waiting on her attention all summer long. It was the hardest season for her to endure as daylight shriveled and the nights seemed to swindle strength from a feeble sun.

It had been the hardest months for her grandfather to endure as well. The deep winter ache that unfolded fresh burdens on a body. The brooding thoughts that seemed too far from the rescue of an early April breeze. She understood the struggle as she waited for the surfactant of spring to arrive. But understanding, even empathizing, was no surrogate for knowing. Peace remained elusive as the flogging of her heart raged on.           

During one of those brittle winter evenings, while curled up, listening to the scraping winds rake the naked forest, she picked up a book about the ancients of Rome and their pursuit of beauty. She read about the thick, slathered makeup and aromatic pastes and the heavy, jeweled adornments that pulled earlobes low. And there, in a chapter about the earliest mirrors, she found a piece of her missing peace.

Nothing more than plates of polished bronze or copper, the book explained, a primitive mirror gave only distorted, perplexing images to the viewer. As a result, the ancients would never have known the fine features of their faces, seeing a fun-house warp of misshapen lines and contorted curves instead. With a furrowed brow, she contemplated the strange thought of struggling to recognize oneself and of having so many doubts about one’s appearance. The light of this revelation led her into the creases of Paul’s Corinthian epistle. Setting aside the history book, she flipped open her Bible to the thirteenth chapter and read the riddle again.

For now we see through a mirror dimly {enigmatically, darkly};   
but then {when perfection comes}, face to face;
now I know in part {imperfectly}; 
but then shall I know {fully and clearly} even as also I am {fully and clearly} known. 
     ~1 Cor.13:12 Amp.

She had always wondered why Paul was inspired to say it was impossible to see clearly in a mirror. It made no sense, unless it was covered in dust and grime or was cracked into a spider web of splintered, jagged reflections. She had often mulled over this mystery of how looking into a mirror could be an enigmatic, dark way to see oneself. It seemed, rather, it should be the form of highest clarity.  

Then suddenly, it all dropped into place. In a stunning revelation of God’s unreasonable love, she understood. Paul’s mirror wasn’t like the rooster’s mirror that she had discovered in the coop, but was rather a bronze plate that offered a muddled reflection. And perhaps more significantly, it symbolized the presence of judgment in the Bible. Time and again, disobedience, self-righteous pride, punishment took the form of bronze…Moses’ bronze snake in the desert, Goliath’s bronze helmet and spear, the bronze altar where sin offerings were burned.   

No one, then, striving to discern their identity can see themselves as forgiven, beloved, accepted while gazing into bronze. And even the clearest, most polished plate offers nothing more than cement that binds us to condemning rage. Not until our eyes have been turned away from the ruins of self and fixed on Love can the ache be relieved. That is the meaning of Paul’s mystery: we will know all things about God’s unplummable heart for us when we are face to face with the One who bore away our bronze.

There in the dead of winter she felt her lungs fill with warm, nourishing air. At last, the dying corner of her heart split itself open to life. Her squinting eyes ceased from their futile mirror-peering and the tethers of Why and How could and What if that had trapped her in long months of soul-suffocation slipped off.  

At last she knew.

Rest, apart from answers, came softly.

Peace settled her, to the higher plains of holy.

And in that moment, patient, persistent, gracing Love who had always known…
          her and him, 
stepped across the ancient threshold into their common dust to free the captives.
There is therefore, now no condemnation for those in Christ.         ~Romans 8:1

So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free.                                   ~John 8:36