It all started with a chicken and an egg.
And another egg, and another… Make that a chicken and a nest of eggs.
Enter a hungry polecat (Appalachian for skunk) and you have a nest full of eggs and no chicken.
It was cool outside, early spring. I was 12 and I was living with my Nana and my Pop in the mountains of Tennessee.
Pop had bartered with a local farmer and gotten some laying hens. It was exciting because we were going to have fresh eggs every day.
Down the hill and behind Memaw’s (Great-grandma’s) house, I sat watching him patch and bang the old, weathered boards together on the small rickety shack.
“Gotta keep them polecats out,” he explained.
“What’s a polecat, Pop?” I asked.
Smiling at me like I was his favorite Yankee, he said, “It has a stripe down its back and it stinks.”
“A skunk? Why would a skunk bother chickens?” I asked.
“Polecat’s gotta eat too,” he said. “There’s all kind of things in these mountains that’ll eat chickens. Mountain lions, weasels, foxes,” he said, trying to rebuild the dilapidated hen house that probably hadn’t been used in a dozen years.
The chickens moved in, and true to form, we had eggs in a matter of days.
Before and after school everyday I would tear into the hen house to check, running back up the hill with an egg or two for Nana.
One of the hens laid a full nest and Pop suggested we leave her eggs to hatch, so I made checking on her part of my routine.
Every day there she was, keeping her eggs warm.
I admired her dedication, sitting there watching the other hens and the rooster scratch and peck. While a whole world of little chicken lives went on around her day after day, there she sat, waiting.
One fateful day Pop trudged up the hill, into the house and broke the news. She was gone.
“Polecat musta et ‘er,” Pop said in his matter of fact, simple way as he handed me a box with her eggs in it.
He warned me he might not have found them in time but I could try to hatch the eggs if I wanted. “If they start stinkin’ we’ll know purty quick they ain’t no good,” he said.
I stuck the box behind the wood stove in the kitchen and began to wait.
To this day I suggest the patience born to birds is unrivaled in the natural world.
It drove me crazy.
Every day I checked those eggs. I held them up to the light one-by-one, checking for even a microscopic crack to let me know something was happening.
Days turned into weeks and there was still nothing.
No cracks, no tremors and no stinking. Just nothing.
It was a mystery to me. What was going on inside those eggs? Maybe they were too cold, maybe too hot. Maybe they were no good from the start. Were they drying up, rotting, empty?
One thing I knew for sure — they weren’t hatching.
Every day felt like an eternity and as each morning dawned on the box behind the stove I became more cynical, more disenchanted and more convinced they were never going to hatch.
Patience is a virtue — I knew this then as I know it now. In fact I venture to say we all know these words but they become trite and clich