Maybe Emily knew something when she dubbed one of our hens “Mister Catherine.” That was years ago, and the rest of that chicken flock as well as a contemporary flock of laying ducks have all died of old age. We joke that Mister Catherine is immortal, out living them all, out living her own life expectancy. And she’s STILL LAYING EGGS.
This “live free or die” hen comes and goes as she pleases and roosts in the trees, so our children have been on a continuous Easter egg hunt for her hidden eggs most of their lives. Every so often our kids come running in saying, “we found Mister Catherine’s clutch!” And we make a big pan of school bus-yellow scrambled eggs.
Years ago during the first week of her stay in our yard, she asserted her rights and escaped high into a tree to roost at night. She’s so cunning and quick, we never caught her since. Ok, once I cheated by climbing stealthily into her hackberry tree and nabbing her in the night. The next morning when I checked on her in the coop I’d put her in, she stood forlorn in a corner, uninterested in a pile of grain. She was so lethargic I thought she was sick. One of my early jobs was in a chicken factory farm, where I was scarred by dealing with chickens packed tight into cages, never once feeling earth under their feet, or sun on their wattles. So maybe Mister Catherine knew a softy when she saw one, because as soon as I opened the door of the coop to see if she wanted to free range a bit, she exploded into action and took off into the wooded borders of the yard. Never to be caged again.
But lately this free bird’s life took another turn. All of our ducks but one had died, and so had the other chickens, after years of laying eggs and free ranging the yard. This last duck went mostly blind. There is a fence around the pond to protect visiting toddlers, and it has a tiny duck door in it that this duck was now having a hard time finding. Mister Catherine became her seeing eye hen, leading her to the water and back. In fact it seems they looked around, said to each other,”It’s just you and me kid”, and became partners of sorts. There must have been a quiet negotiation as to who would wear the pants, because soon enough Mister Catherine began to crow like a rooster! Well not exactly like one. As if recalling the sound from her distant memory, when years ago we had roosters that I turned into dinner, she began to boldly crow to the sun in her own sassy style, something like “arooo-er er er!” I had to hear it to believe it. Soon after, their courtship was cut short by the duck’s death. Mister Catherine now stands most mornings near where she watched me bury the duck in a compost pile, and crows her heart out before going off somewhere to lay an egg.
As the whole issue comes up of how to label bathrooms in a society that’s having to finally face its true diversity, I think of how so many tribes of humanity world wide have recognized genders beyond male and female. The Navajo example of “Two Spirit” people has gained attention lately. They saw at least four genders that were fluid: masculine man, feminine man, masculine woman and feminine woman. And there were in various tribes people who changed their genders during their lifetime. These people were often shamans and were revered. Then there’s the circumstance of hermaphrodites, who in Ancient Greece were said to at once contain the spirit of Hermes and the spirit of Aphrodite. They too were revered as living fusions of male and female, whose combination was the animas underneath all life. Hermaphrodites are born in modern times, it’s just that our culture usually surgically determines their genders at birth.
I think too of Sophie, a homeless person who sought refuge in a women’s shelter run by an agency I worked with years ago in a northern inner city. She claimed to be post operative, meaning no longer physically a man, so she was given a bed in the women’s shelter. Then one night Sophie left the bathroom door unlocked and a woman witnessed her standing over the toilet. There was a hullabaloo, as abused women who believed there were no men in their midst realized they were living with someone with a male body. Sophie hit the streets and disappeared, as did several other transgender folks who came through the agency looking for shelter from the storm over the course of my three years working there. What a very different fate than the transgender shamans of old seemed to have. And yet what else could be done, in a situation with battered women who needed to feel safe from men at this time in their lives? There never were any clear answers, and transgender homeless people were among the most haggard I ever saw because there was no safe haven for them.
Mister Catherine is my hero for her daring independence, her refusal to submit to tyranny and amazing ability to survive year after year of foraging for food under the shadows of hawks. But she also wins my heart for responding creatively to change and radically redefining herself as a rooster-hen. This is one confident self-actualized bird. Just when nature seems clear and simple, boy is boy and girl is girl, the lines blur. Nothing is so simple. Maybe one day we’ll finally grasp this as a culture, and will spend a lot more time being fascinated by a world of such astounding variety rather than offended by it. Here’s to the day we bury the idea of “us” and “them” and finally move on. May we one day know that peace…