by Tom Howell
Last night I met the people who live in my building, a carved-up 1930s house in Kitsilano, Vancouver. We met on the street because of the screams.
I wasn’t the first out. Lazy, trusting, I waited for the screams to explain themselves in laughter, or happy curses; I hoped they might disappear into somebody else’s problem. (Don’t panic.) My book—Chickens in your Backyard—provided the flimsy shelter of a duvet. It briefly hid me from the screams with its words: "Your friends will think you’re crazy if you try to tell them how interesting chickens are." From the apartment above, my neighbours thunked down the stairs (these neighbours had existed only as footsteps since I moved into the building two months ago. They had stepped, creaked, paced, but never before thunked) past my apartment and out to the harmless street. A man roared. The screams stopped.
We met on the street: nine of us, just after 11 p.m. The roarer’s name was (and is) Tim, my spontaneous upstairs neighbour. The screamer (I never found out her name) was recovering from a raccoon attack on her dog. Or that’s how she described it. Perhaps it went like this: The raccoon had been investigating garbage; the dog investigated the raccoon; a fight ensued. Blame is a matter of description.
So, brought together by violence, guilty of apathy, innocence restored, we added another coat to our credulous gloss. "It’s good to know screaming works!" said Tim. I laughed with the others but he was only part-right. Screams did half the job; a roar did the rest.
The raccoon is North America’s equivalent of England’s urban fox: the garbage-disturber, pet-destroyer. Throughout my childhood in London, I was dragged from many of Britain’s best television moments by the sound of screaming chickens under attack from urban foxes. The hens—a pair of them—lived in my parents’ back garden in a fourteen-foot run protected on three sides by chicken wire. The other side was a low garden fence. A chestnut and a hawthorn tree overlooked the run, and both trees housed grey squirrels that would scramble down to eat the chicken’s food, causing the enraged birds to roar.
Unfortunately, due to the limitations of a chicken’s programming, their roar sounds identical to their scream. (Perhaps our own limitations are to blame. But the chickens have no voice to argue this.) So many of those television moments were wasted on scaring away squirrels, not foxes. Within seconds, the chickens would forget their panic and, with philosophic clucks, return to scratching the dirt for worms. The pattern branded itself on my childish understanding: the cries of fear, the inner court battle between sympathy and apathy, the half-hearted judgment in favour of sympathy (also known as the threat of guilt). Apathy’s victory on appeal.
I have been reading Chickens in your Backyard recently because of New York. If there is no world war, I intend to grow up soon, find a sensible job and buy a house with a backyard, into which I shall install a pair of hens exactly like the ones I had before. "Exactly" is not a loose term; the thing about chickens—Rhode Island Reds, anyway (I know nothing of Bantams, Leghorns, and such)—is that they do not vary except in number. Four chickens behave differently than two because the pecking order affects their behaviour, but, as I discovered after those catastrophic days when foxes killed my pets, a pair of new chickens will soon adopt the personalities of their predecessors. The species emblematizes the quality of life getting back to normal. What an animal.
It didn’t take us long to get back to normal after the raccoon incident. Tim was actually the last to leave the scene. The woman with the victimized dog had quickly thanked us and headed for the safety of her home. I’m not sure how to explain Tim’s lingering. Perhaps he wanted to see if the raccoon would return; perhaps he wanted another catastrophe; or maybe he was reluctant to move from that physical space in which his roar—who gets to roar? Especially in Kitsilano—had really happened, filled the street, freshened the night, saved the day.
I suppose, now that we’ve met, I can ask him.