By E.P. Lande
I try to visit my family in Miami once or twice a year and when there, I see people with whom I’ve maintained a friendship since I left, to live in northern Vermont. Jessica was one of these people.
When I first arrived in this country from my native Cuba—via Italy, Spain, and Mexico—Jessica hired me to help run the front desk of the boutique hotel she managed in South Beach. I guess she liked my work ethic because soon afterward she promoted me to front-desk manager. I left that job to pursue other interests, but we kept in touch, and when I come to Miami to visit my family, we often have dinner together—Jessica, her husband, Alfredo, and myself. On this visit, she suggested an Argentinian restaurant on the fringe of Miami itself.
“They play tangos during dinner, José, and there’s dancing.” Jessica enjoys dancing Argentine tango, whereas I prefer salsa—but, as my partner’s mother always says, ‘That’s what makes for chocolate and vanilla’. I can’t argue with that. especially as she’s Aaron’s mother.
As we entered the restaurant, there was a hen and several chicks by the doorway.
“Jessica, do you see the hen?” I asked, stopping in front of the hen and bending over to pat her.
“She’s here most nights, the owner told me,” Jessica said.
“But, who does she belong to?” I continued patting the hen who was making the most adorable sounds. Back in Cuba, I used to have chickens. We kept them in our backyard. To me they were pets; to my grandfather, they were food.
“Nobody’s,” Jessica said. “She comes here and people feed her.”
We entered the restaurant where the owner, Frederico, and his wife, Mariella, greeted Jessica who introduced us.
“Jessica told me the hen outside comes here almost every night and brings her chicks,” I said.
“We love having her around, but it’s sad, really,” Mariella told me. “When she first came here, she came with eleven chicks.”
“What happened to the others?” I asked, as that night the hen had only four.
“Killed by passing cars,” Frederico told me. “I’ve even seen a car crush one, just the other night.” That was enough to kill my appetite. I wished I hadn’t asked.
Mariella brought us to our table and we ordered a bottle of Argentinian red wine. All the time we were looking over the menu I was thinking of the hen and her chicks. Perhaps I’m somewhat more obsessed than others about abandoned animals and animals in the wild, but I couldn’t concentrate on my meal, nor on the conversation.
“Am I the only one disturbed by seeing the hen with her chicks?” I wondered, looking at Jessica and her husband.
“What do you mean, José?” Jessica asked. “I think it’s rather sweet that Mariella and Frederico let her come. It seems she’s a real attraction. Customers love to feed her.”
“But no one cares about what happens to her,” I noted.
“I think all the customers do; after all, they feed her,” Jessica reminded me.
“No, what I mean is that no one feels sufficiently disturbed to take her home with them—to protect her and her chicks,” I explained.
“José, I think if anyone did that she’d end up in a pot for dinner,” Alfredo speculated.
“Alfredo, don’t joke like that,” Jessica told her husband. “José here is very sensitive to the plight of animals. To him it’s a serious matter. Am I right, José?”
“What if I adopted the hen and her chicks?” I thought.
“And do what with them?” Alfredo asked.
“Well, I have a friend who runs the SPCA in Homestead. She might rescue them and either keep them or find them a permanent home,” I told them.
“But that SPCA rescues horses, doesn’t it?” Jessica wondered.
“They do, but I’ve seen other animals there, like a goat, a pig, and various birds, so she might be willing to take the hen,” I explained. “If Mariella and Frederico will let me, I’ll contact Lorrie at the SPCA and ask if she’d be willing to rescue them.”
“How will you manage to bring them to Homestead?” Jessica asked.
“I haven’t figured that out, but would you be willing to help me?” I asked.
“Sure, José. I’ll do whatever you need of me.” That was reassuring, because going through my mind was asking for a room at the hotel she managed as I couldn’t bring the hen and chicks back to my sister’s apartment where I was staying.
When we had finished eating, I asked to speak with Mariella.
“Mariella, you told us the hen doesn’t belong to anyone.”
“José, there are a number of chickens in this neighborhood. They roam free, like the cats in South Beach.” I knew of that problem, as I used to own a condo at the bottom of Ocean Drive and had rescued—and brought back to Vermont—several stray cats from that neighborhood.
“If she doesn’t have an owner, what would you say if I told you I would take her?”
“You mean, the hen with her chicks?”
“Yes. I told Jessica that a friend of mine runs the SPCA in Homestead; I’ll ask her to find them a home.”
Mariella fell in with my idea, and on the drive back into town with Jessica and Alfredo, I explained what I planned to do—as I needed Jessica’s cooperation.
“You mean you want to bring the hen and the chicks to my hotel?” she asked, shocked but smiling.
“I’ll fetch them from the restaurant tomorrow, but I’ll need a room overnight. The following day, I’ll bring them to Homestead.”
“But you still haven’t asked your friend if she’ll take them,” Jessica reminded me.
“I will, as soon as you drop me off at my sister’s.”
Fifteen minutes later I called Lorrie who, without hesitation, agreed.
“I can’t keep them here, but I know someone who will gladly adopt them. She has hens and is actually looking for more, so it won’t be a problem, José.”
Shortly after my call to Lorrie, Jessica called.
“The only room I have is one with an ocean-front view; do you think you and the hen can handle that?” she laughed.
The next morning—after sleeping sporadically all night, thinking about the hen and her chicks—I said goodbye to my sister, and called an Uber. I went first to PetSmart where I purchased a dog carrier large enough for the hen and her four chicks, bird seed, and a bowl for water. I next had the driver take me to a food store where I picked up several cans of corn, remembering that back in Cuba our chickens loved corn. Then the Uber driver drove me back to my sister’s condo. I called Mariella to make a reservation at her restaurant for that evening and to remind her that I would be coming with a carrier for the hen and the chicks. It never occurred to me that the hen might not show up.
But there she was, at the door of the restaurant with her chicks, as though she were waiting for me. I sat on the step at the entry and petted her. Gently, I picked her up and held her in my arms, while she made the kind of sounds a happy chicken makes. Her chicks looked at me, probably wondering what was happening. I then put the hen in the carrier which I had placed—open—beside me. Three of the chicks followed their mother into the carrier, but the fourth started wandering off. I quickly closed the carrier and followed the chick, not running so as not to frighten it. But it was approaching the highway where cars and trucks were speeding by. Realizing that the chick was going to try to cross the highway, I walked faster and into the oncoming traffic, waving my hands for the cars and trucks to avoid both me and the chick. With cars and trucks racing by on either side of me and the chick, I leaned forward and grabbed it firmly, but not forcefully, and cuddled it in one arm while with the other I continued to hysterically wave away the oncoming vehicles.
I returned to the restaurant—having saved both myself and the chick from being road kills—where several of the restaurant guests, who had been standing outside its front door, watching, began clapping and cheering. I placed the fourth chick in the carrier with its mother who made sounds of happiness while the chick scurried under its mother’s wings to join its siblings.
While I ate—actually, gobbled down—my shrimp pasta with a glass of well-chilled Semillon, Mariella kept the carrier with the hen and her chicks in her office.
“Let us know how everything turns out tomorrow,” she asked as I got back in the Uber to drive to Jessica’s hotel. Juan, the front desk person, had been advised that I would be arriving with a carrier—not that in the carrier was a hen and four chicks—and, without asking, handed me the key to my room. Placing the carrier in the bathroom, I let the hen and her chicks out to stretch her legs, while I opened a can of the corn. On a towel, I placed a small bowl of water and spread half the contents of the can of the corn together with some of the bird seed—and watched.
The hen looked at the corn kernels and bird seed, then looked up at me. She looked at her chicks, and a moment later walked over to the towel, followed by the four chicks, and the whole family began pecking at the corn. Within fifteen minutes the corn had vanished and they had
began eating the seed. I left them and walked back into the bedroom, leaving the door ajar, and turned on the TV to watch the late news.
I was sitting on the floor, not particularly absorbed by what was shown on the TV and going over in my mind what had happened that day, when I felt something on my lap. The hen had come out of the bathroom—with her chicks—and had nestled in my crotch with her chicks under her. I reached down and patted her, and she made sounds similar to those she had made when I came back from the highway with her fourth chick.
I wouldn’t move lest I disturb her. I must have dozed off for when I opened my eyes the TV had switched off and the hen and her chicks had returned to the carrier in the bathroom. I got into bed, but my sleep was fitful. I must have checked on the hen at least a half-dozen times until I finally got up at 6:00. The hen was still in the carrier, and when I turned on the bathroom light, she looked at me and started making those sounds again. I unfolded the towel onto which I placed more corn and seed, and once more the hen and her chicks pecked up one kernel at a time, until all the corn had disappeared; then they moved over to the bird seed. After they finished the bird seed, they walked back to their carrier—now their home—and settled in, the chicks under their mother.
I had arranged with my sister to leave her car at the hotel so that I could drive to Homestead with the hen and her chicks. I ate my breakfast—quickly—in the hotel dining room and returned to my room where the hen and chicks were still in the carrier. I picked it up and covered it with a towel and walked to the elevator. After thanking Jessica for allowing us to stay—and for the ocean-front room that we all appreciated—I drove to the SPCA with the carrier on the passenger’s seat beside me.
Paying attention to the road was hard, for I couldn’t take my eyes off the carrier, my right hand inside caressing the hen. When I arrived, Lorrie was waiting for me with the person who had agreed to adopt the hen. The woman was all excited and said she couldn’t wait to return home and introduce the hen to her other chickens. I handed her the carrier and for the last time, caressed the hen. I then turned and started walking back to my sister’s car, but before I reached it I stopped.
I couldn’t. I stood for a moment, then turned around, and walked back to the woman who was talking with Lorrie.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I can’t….”
“What is it, José?” Lorrie asked.
“I can’t leave them. I’m sorry.” The woman who had come for the hen looked at me, then at Lorrie.
“I can’t leave them.” I could see the consternation in the woman’s face, but she handed me the carrier.
“I understand,” she told me. “I would have done the same. Good luck.”
On the drive back to Miami I called Jessica.
“I couldn’t leave them,” I told her. “Can we still have the room? I’ll explain later.” I continued driving, wondering what I was going to do. I had a flight back to Vermont the next day. I called Aaron, my partner.
“José, I don’t think it’s allowed,” he told me.
“You can take small dogs and cats, why not a hen and her chicks?” I wondered.
“Chickens are farm animals,” he explained.
“So? They’re pets, too,” I said.
“When you get back to the hotel, call me. We—meaning you—need a plan,” he told me.
All I could think about was getting the hen and her chicks back to Vermont. There was no other alternative—at least to me there wasn’t.
“You’re in luck, José,” Jessica told me when I entered her office at the hotel. “You’ll have the same room. But how are you going to bring them back to Vermont?” That’s all I could think about during my drive, but I had a plan.
“In the carrier.”
“But will the airline allow you to?” she asked.
“How will they know? They’ll think I have a dog in the carrier.”
“Well, for one, they might ask to look.”
“Jessica, I’ll have my travel agent book a small dog in the cabin. That’s allowed.”
“Yes, but you have a hen and her chicks, not a small dog.”
“I plan to cover the carrier with a towel and tell them that the towel keeps the animal quiet.”
“And you think they’ll believe you?”
“I have to take the chance.”
“What if the hen makes, you know, noises that chickens make?”
“I thought of that too. I programmed a YouTube video of a barnyard with chickens squawking. I plan to play it the entire time, from entering the airport to when I’m seated on the plane, and if anyone asks what’s the noise, I’ll show them my iPhone with the video playing.”
While Jessica was skeptical, I was desperate. To me, my plan was near perfect. When I spoke with Aaron, he, too, was like Jessica, but supportive.
“If anyone can pull this off, you can, José. After all, you’re Cuban.”
I hardly slept, feeding the hen and chicks as much of the canned corn as they would eat, hoping that they’d be so stuffed by the time we left the hotel that they’d just sleep while we passed through security and boarded the plane. Once on the plane with the doors shut, what could the airline personnel do if they discovered what I had in the carrier?
The drive to Miami International Airport was uneventful. As nonchalantly as possible, I approached the check-in counter for my boarding pass, ready to turn on the YouTube video, if necessary.
“You have a small animal in the carrier?” the check-in attendant asked, her arms on the counter, staring at her computer.
“Yes,” I said. I hadn’t lied; the hen, never mind her chicks, was a small animal.
“The charge for the animal will be $125,” she said, now smiling. I handed her the cash while she punched in the receipt and gave it to me with my boarding pass.
“You’ll be leaving at gate 35. Boarding’s in 50 minutes,” and, looking beyond me, said, “Next.”
Clutching my boarding pass and the carrier, and glad that the hen hadn’t made a sound, I walked, casually, to security. As I was flying First Class, I hoped there would be few passengers in the Priority line, making my wait time short.
“Do you mind if I take a peek at your dog?” the attendant asked.
“It’s best to leave her be,” I told the attendant. “She’s quiet, and I don’t want to excite her,” I added. Again, I hadn’t lied.
“That’s okay,” she said. “We don’t want to disturb her.” I knew they might want to open the carrier as, with a live animal in it, they wouldn’t pass it through the X-ray camera. “Come
with me, please,” the attendant said. “I’ll bring you through the security line to avoid the X-ray machine.” I followed her, but I felt the hen start to move around in the carrier. Just as the attendant was about to leave us, the hen started chirping. I quickly turned on the YouTube video, when the attendant asked, “Is that a chicken I hear?” I saw her look of surprise, her eyes two large question marks.
“Actually, it’s on my iPhone,” and I took it out and showed it to her. “I like to hear chickens squawk, so I always have this YouTube video playing. I’m surprised you didn’t hear it earlier.” She hesitated. I turned, pretending to walk toward the Skytrain to take me to gate 35, but in reality, I was looking for the Men’s Restroom. The hen was now squawking non-stop, joined by her chicks as though in a chorus.
In the Men’s Restroom I entered one of the stalls where I took out the ziploc bag I had filled with corn back at the hotel. Laying the carrier on the toilet seat, I unzipped the carrier and placed a handful of corn in front of the hen. Immediately the squawking and its chorus stopped, and the hen and her chicks began pecking at the corn kernels. I watched, and when they had finished I rezipped the carrier and walked out of the stall and back into the airport, and entered the Skytrain. I still had 30 minutes before boarding.
None of the other passengers on the Skytrain even looked at us, and the hen and chicks were silent. Leaving the Skytrain, I walked to gate 35.
“Boarding pass, please,” and I handed it to the attendant.
“Oh, I see you have a dog with you; may I?” and she reached for the carrier. I thought I heard the hen give out a squawk; I immediately turned on the YouTube video and held it in my hand.
“Sorry,” I said to the attendant. “The little beast likes to hear chickens; it soothes her.”
“How sweet; go right on in,” she smiled, and began checking in the passenger next in line.
When I found my seat, the attendant asked that I place the carrier under it—thankfully not asking to look in it. In First Class I didn’t have a neighbor. I was able to relax, for the first time since I decided to bring the hen back with me.
On exiting the airport in Burlington, Aaron was there, waiting.
“You did it,” he smiled. “Let me see her,” and he grabbed the carrier and opened the cover. There she was, our hen peering up at us, with her four chicks tucked under her wings. Then she began to squawk, but I didn’t turn on the YouTube video.
“What should we name her?” he asked.
“Mia,” I told him.
“Mia? José, where did you get the name Mia?”
“Mia stands for Miami International Airport.”
“Of course,” he said, petting Mia and smoothing her feathers.
“You know, Aaron, that mía also means my. Mía Mia,” I said with possessive pride.
“There you’re wrong, José.”
“Wrong?” I questioned. “How am I wrong?”
“She’s not mía Mia; she’s nuestra Mia,” Aaron corrected.
At that moment we heard a strong contralto squawk followed by a chorus of sopranos, peeping. I took out my iPhone, thinking it was the YouTube video, but I had turned it off. We both looked down, and smiled. Nuestra Mia and her chicks were singing. Their journey had ended; they were home.
E.P. Lande was born in Montreal, but has lived most of his life in the south of France and in Vermont, where he now lives with his partner on a 500-acre farm. Previously, Lande taught at l’Université d’Ottawa where he served as Vice-Dean of my faculty, and he has owned and managed country inns and free-standing restaurants. E.P. Lande’s stories have recently been accepted by Bewildering Stories, Literally Stories, StoryHouse, Pine Cove Review, 10 by 10, C C & D,Ariel Chart, and Alice Says….