Poule de Dieu (Tuesday, 2010 November 16)

November 16, 2010

So it turns out that Bonheur’s name is not actually Bonheur, it’s Brondon, which isn’t relevant to the story except that he says a few things and I’d like to have his name right.

I think this happened Saturday, after we got back from the deuil — which I haven’t written about, but I was a little tipsy and it was hot, so I was sitting on a chair and trying to rest. Suddenly I hear Brondon hissing, and I look to see that in the doorway is a black chicken. Brondon was trying to shoo it out. It didn’t look hostile, just confused, self-conscious, perhaps hungry.

"Une poule," he said ("A chicken"; interesting grammatical side note on the difference between poule and poulet, which is the same difference between "pig" and "pork").

"What is it doing here?" I asked.

"She’s looking for food."

I laid my head back down and considered this for a while. The next day I would discuss eggs with Cristina, and she would tell me that instead of buying the standard eggs for, e.g. 1700 CFA for 30, or one-at-a-time for 75, she preferred to buy the oeufs du village, "eggs of the village", which tend to be a little smaller and with a much brighter yolk, for 125 apiece. The brighter yolk, she would say, indicates the better health of the chicken, which are the free-roaming chickens that you often see in villages in Cameroon. The eggs you buy by the alvéole, literally "pit" but also the cartons that hold 30 that they use to transport eggs, tend to come from chickens in giant wooden buildings who don’t get a lot of sun or love, and probably only get what they need to survive, so the eggs are lower quality.

Brondon returned to cooking or doing dishes or eating or whatever it was he was doing and so it came to pass that as I sat and looked wonderingly at the doorway, the chicken came back. It was a little more insistent this time, standing its ground as Brondon shooed it away with short lunges and sweeps of the arms.

"Why is it here?" I asked. "Where did it come from?"

"She’s a poule de Dieu," Brondon said. A chicken of God. "She was probably used in some ceremony and then they let her go."

Which, I guessed, meant that she belonged to God now. "Do I have to feed it?" It seemed awfully rude to show no hospitality to God’s chickens. Does it bring good luck to feed God’s chickens? Is it like praying?

"It’s only that you don’t have a place to keep her," Brondon said. "If she stayed, she’d shit all over." Indeed, the chickens that my host family kept back in stage stayed in a little closet near the kitchen, and on my first night there I stepped in their chicken shit. I mulled this over, considering the possibility and concluding finally that he was right.

But the idea of a poule de Dieu stuck in my head for a while. What must it be like to be a poule de Dieu? Assuming you weren’t sacrificed or eaten, of course. Your existence had only really been intended for one thing; afterwards, what did you do? Of course it was hungry — it was unemployed. And increasingly desparate. At this point it was trying to get in through the glass pane in the door.

Somehow I began to feel a kinship with this chicken. I’ve had this goal, to be in Africa teaching computer science, for a long time. That it’s actually happened often seems like a giant accident, but sometimes (in the words of Neal Stephenson) that the events of my life "are wood behind the point of a spear". But then what? What do you do after your life’s work is over? One day I will have to come to terms with this. One day soon, I will be a poule de Dieu too.

I left then to try to find the chicken. I got to the courtyard in front of my house, looked around a bit, but she was gone. The courtyard is pretty empty right now, not a lot of plants or anything, so a chicken can’t really hide anywhere. She’d flown the coop, so to speak.

"She left," Brondon said. He’d come out to see what I was doing.

"I wonder where she went?"

"Maybe she’ll stay with someone else."

I looked off to the right. The sun was setting, and the clouds were all red and yellow. There was nothing for it, so I went back inside.

I don’t know where the chicken is now, but I hope she’s doing all right, supplying some lovely oeufs du village to some neighbor or maybe living free, like the feral chickens Gus told me about in Hawaii. Apparently they get by; they can flap up into a tree or something if a situation looks dicey. I know it’s unconventional, but somehow I hope for something like that for her — a life free of convention for a liberated chicken.

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