Farnier was a centuries old, rambling house and farm deep in the mountainous, central part of France called Auvergne. It was my first visit there, although I had the impression I’d been there before, probably because my recently acquired French husband had been telling me about it ever since that romantic day we met in the Luxembourg Gardens and had fallen in love. The property belonged to his mother's side of the family. The house was five stories high. Built of stone, it had countless bedrooms for Georges' parents, their children, grandchildren, au pairs, and hired maids. Georges had spent childhood summers there, and I could sense his elation as we drove up the hill and turned into the well-tended courtyard. It was an imposing sight. The house towered over surrounding hills like a Gothic cathedral and dwarfed an old, sprawling linden tree that provided shadow and shelter in the entrance way.
Earlier that day, long before the sun had filtered through the Parisian mist, we had loaded our oversized camionette with painting materials, long rolls of raw canvas, wooden stretchers, sketchbooks, brushes, paints, and suitcases of clothes, cosmetics, and sundries. After reassuring ourselves that nothing crucial had been left behind, we set out from Paris and headed south for the French countryside. Eager to escape the noise and chaos of the city, we both looked forward to working in the country and perhaps a chance to mend the rips and tears that over the past year had undermined a once idyllic marriage. We hardly spoke. From time to time during the long drive, I turned to admire his classic Gallic profile, his prominent nose and thin, sensuous mouth, and felt a familiar wave of desire sweep over me.
Upon arrival at Farnier, Georges set up his studio in an unused part of one of the farmhouses, and with the exception of meals, vanished from sight to prepare an exhibition of his paintings scheduled for the following winter. Being a painter myself, I empathized with his need to concentrate, but couldn't help wondering if he might be using his work as an excuse to retreat from our problems. Besides, I was less single-minded than he. In Paris, often I put my paints aside to meander through the Luxembourg Gardens, browse in a bookstore, or linger in a crowded cafe. No such distractions existed in the country. Wandering around Farnier, the old house felt cold and unwelcoming to me. There was no one to talk to, no relief from the isolation or solitude. I explored the empty rooms. Opening shutters to let in light, I eventually chose a small room on the top floor with a sweeping view of the countryside as my studio. Unlike Georges, I could never start painting right away. It took time for me to feel at ease in a new place, time for my roots to sink and take hold in unfamiliar soil.
Adjacent to the old house was a working farm that was tended year round by a sour, taciturn, and middle-aged couple, Maurice and Françoise, who had lived on the property for a generation and who provided Georges’ family with chickens, eggs, and vegetables from their garden during Easter vacations and the month of August. On the first floor was a huge kitchen with a back door that opened onto steep stone steps leading to the courtyard of the farm. The courtyard was busy and thickly populated with exuberant chickens pecking about, a few closely-knit families of ducks, and a single, self-congratulating turkey. One morning, soon after we arrived, I stepped into the courtyard and noticed walking alongside me a reddish-brown chicken with a vermillion wattle flapping under its beak. “Bonjour toi,” I said offhandedly, smiling to myself that finally, someone was paying attention to me. Since no one was around, I struck up a conversation. One sided, perhaps, but she seemed interested. As chickens do, she looked straight ahead, but her eye was actually watching me from the side of her head. I went on, babbling about this and that. Strangely, she remained at my side, keeping up with me as I strolled around the courtyard. I didn't give it a thought, but the next morning, to my surprise, the chicken was waiting for me at the foot of the kitchen stairs, and from that day forward, each morning she waited for me to join her in the courtyard. At first we exchanged no more than fragments of conversation, but gradually our visits lasted longer and longer until by the end of that first week, I was telling her everything: the latest news, family gossip, what we were having for dinner, whatever crossed my mind. Unfailingly, she stayed at my side, eyeing me attentively, nodding her head, and flapping her feathers. When I drove off in our Volkswagen camionette to do the marketing in town, I would watch her in the rearview mirror, clucking along the driveway and following me until I had turned out of the driveway and driven out of sight. On my return, she would be waiting for me at the entrance to the courtyard. She would waddle over to the car like a duck, make a fuss, fluff her feathers, and settle down beside me as I unloaded the car.
“Look,” I said to her one morning, “I bought all sorts of things in town. See these raspberry tarts? Aren’t they beautiful? They’re from our favorite bakery. And these peaches. I got them at the Farmers' Market. I think I’ll try one. Umm, delicious! And here’s a pound of coffee, and Kleenex – we ran out.” She never missed a step. She caught every word and nodded responsively. Maurice and Françoise were walking nearby. They were convinced I was odd.
“Impossible,” said Maurice, snickering. “Chickens are the dumbest of animals. It’s common knowledge.”
“They don’t even bother to look when they cross the road,” added his wife, as if this tired, old cliché proved her point, once and for all.
“My chicken is different,” I insisted. “She’s attached to me.”
“Attached to you? Mais oui! Bien sur!” she said mockingly.
"Chickens have no sentiment," concluded Maurice dismissively. They shrugged and shuffled off.
Farnier was located several miles outside the town, Le Puy, which means ‘the well.’ Surrounded on all sides by miles and miles of rocky hills and fields, glimpses of occasional farmhouses could be seen in the distance. Georges was working on a powerful new series inspired by the rude, harsh landscape with its arid fields and stunted shrubs. Sometimes driving around the countryside, I would come upon hidden farmhouses that seemed cut off from civilization and untouched by changing times. Solemn, old-faced children huddled close to forlorn houses and scurried inside like frightened mice, startled by the unexpected sight of a stranger passing by. How harsh life must have been for these isolated peasants in their struggle to survive with scraps of farmable land that had been carved up, exhausted, and passed down through centuries by their ancestors. The French often say that people from Auvergne are pessimistic, avare, suspicious of outsiders, and cover up their wealth to give the impression they are poorer than they actually are. Warmth and friendliness are not traits generally attributed to the people of Auvergne. Georges’ family came from the heart of Auvergne.
We had been in the country for two peaceful and productive months. My chicken remained devoted and never missed a day waiting for me in the courtyard for our morning walk. Often in late afternoons, stretched out on the wooden bench under the shimmering leaves of the linden tree, I would glance down to find her reclining at my feet, her head drawn deep into her auburn feathers, her eyes darting in one direction and then another, as if she were contemplating the world around her. She had a wise and all-knowing air about her, and just having her nearby made me feel at peace. Except for these tranquil moments, I was busy marketing, cooking meals, cleaning house, sketching, painting, and had settled contentedly into a daily routine. By now, I had discovered the amazingly sharp light and dramatic sunrises and sunsets at Farnier and the surrounding countryside. Vibrant colors reverberated over rocky and unruly landscapes, beguiling me and daring me to put them on paper. I, too, had been conquered by the savage beauty of Auvergne. Moreover, tensions had eased between Georges and me, and we had recaptured the harmony that had eluded us over the past year. Our marriage seemed renewed and I dared to believe was once again secure.
Two weeks before the entire family was to arrive, Georges’ mother arranged for the sixteen year old daughter of one of her Spanish maids to stay with us to help clean and prepare the big house. Her name was Pacquita, a simple and curvaceous country girl, not unaware of her charms. Her bushy, reddish hair cascaded over her shoulders toward her hips, which trembled like a soprano’s vibrato as she walked. It was the first time she had been away from her family, and both Georges and I wanted her to feel at ease. We invited her to have meals with us. I didn’t think of her as our maid; she helped me, and I helped her. Little by little, however, I observed that Georges was paying her an inordinate amount of attention. Although she wasn’t exceptionally bright or clever, whatever she said amused and delighted him. Increasingly, it occurred to me that I was the one getting up from the table to get bread from the kitchen or clearing the table, as the two of them were so engrossed in animated and prolonged conversations. Since I rarely saw Georges outside of meals and bedtime, inwardly I was outraged and had to restrain myself from punctuating my displeasure with flourishes of a sharpened bread knife. In the past, I had heard unnerving stories of Georges’ life prior to our marriage. One of the stories intimated that Georges had slept with a different woman every night. Of course I never believed it. I attributed the story to a fictional exaggeration of his youthful, Bohemian, Beaux Arts excesses, and anyway I was certain he would never be unfaithful to me. But as exchanges between Georges and Pacquita grew increasingly flirtatious, I began to have doubts.
“Could he be two-timing me?” I muttered under my breath to my chicken as we wandered around the courtyard the following morning. As usual, she matched her pace to mine, slowing down and stopping when I did, and waddling rapidly as I increased my speed. I wondered if she sensed my anguish. “I’ll strangle him if he’s sinking back into his old habits,” I went on. “Oh God, could he be sneaking off to one of those empty bedrooms to make love to Pacquita while I’m off doing the marketing?”
It’s not that my chicken reassured me, yet the tilt of her head and a rather knowing look in her eye was comforting.
“My father is so mean,” murmured Pacquita that evening, coyly dipping a finger into her chocolate mousse. “He never lets me go out with boys. He might as well keep me locked up in a cage,“ she said, giggling and lowering her eyes.
“Ah, Pacquita!” said Georges, stroking her shoulder paternally. “He’s right to keep you under lock and key. It would be dangerous for you to be on the loose!” The two of them burst into gales of laughter.
“That does it,” I exploded as we were getting ready for bed. “This schmoozy friendliness between you and Pacquita has gone off the deep end.”
“You’re being silly,” Georges countered. “It’s meaningless. I was teasing her.”
“Bullshit!” I shouted, not even attempting a French equivalent.
That night I slept in another room. I was miserable, but what else could I do? If I didn’t draw the lines of battle now, what was in store for me later? Early the next morning, Georges crept into my bed and snuggled close beside me, imitating the cooing sounds of pigeons as he often did when he was being affectionate. I held my body rigid and resisted as long as I could, but in the end, succumbed. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps my imagination had blown everything out of proportion. From then on, I was emboldened to give Pacquita friendly but firm orders to fetch bread from the kitchen while I remained seated at the table. The subject was never mentioned again, and life returned to normal.
Early in July, Georges’ parents and the rest of his family descended en masse. Farnier was suddenly transformed into a flurry of activity with children and maids bustling about and days centered around preparing and eating long, drawn out meals. Afterward, the family would gravitate to a glassed-in veranda, a recent addition to the old house from where in the distance a huge electrical plant under construction could be seen, spreading its ugly tentacles and scarring the landscape. The silent countryside would slowly and irrevocably be eroded by modern houses and industry creeping ever closer to the family property. For hours after meals, everyone would sit motionless on the overstuffed chairs in the veranda, exchanging gossip, and smoking fashionably short cigars. As the only non-French daughter-in-law, I wanted desperately to fit in, and tried, but I hated passing my afternoons so inertly. I longed to escape through the glass walls of the veranda to run along sharply winding country roads, jump over rocks, and climb hills to work off the lamb roasts, wines, and cream sauces. Not only that, but the family used the informal and affectionate ‘tu’ among themselves, to children, maids, farm animals and cats. Only when speaking to daughters-in-law did they use the formal ‘vous.’ Georges said it was a sign of respect, but to my ears, it sounded distant and cold and made me feel like an outsider. Besides, during the past months, we had established our own rhythm, and secretly we resented the invasion. Farnier had become too overpopulated for Georges to concentrate on his work. We decided to spend the month of August in Paris. I said goodbye to my chicken and made Françoise promise to look after her.
“You should take her with you to Paris,” she said with more than a touch of sarcasm. “I’m sure she would love la Tour Eiffel!”
“I wish I could,” I shouted after her as she sauntered away, chuckling to herself over her witticism.
We drove off and planned to return in September when the house would again become a quiet retreat. I didn’t mind spending August in Paris, a time when the usual frantic pace shifted into a relaxed and unperturbed low gear. The city emptied of Parisians and except for a few tourists wandering about, it belonged to the two of us. The romantic glow of Farnier persisted, and we were getting along like newlyweds. When early in September we drove back into the courtyard at Farnier, a strange sight awaited us. There was my chicken, quite beside herself. She circled about me, flapping and fluttering her feathers wildly. Maurice and Françoise rushed out to greet us.
“It is very bizarre,” said Maurice, shaking his head. “She has practically not eaten since the day you left for Paris!”
Françoise frowned, pinched her lips, and added, “Ce n'est pas possible, but one would think she was having a depression!”
From that day on, my chicken followed me everywhere. When I went to the barn with Françoise to collect eggs, she would hop along beside me until we arrived at her nest and then flap her feathers excitedly as I reached in to extract the eggs, making me wonder if she hadn’t laid them especially for me. Every morning, she would climb the steep, stone steps in the courtyard and waddle into the kitchen. She would spring up on a chair, jump onto the long, wooden table, then settle down and watch my every move. Often I sat down with her for long talks, and by now, she was eating from my hand. I had named her ‘Poulette’, and it seemed each time I spoke her name, she responded knowingly. Even Maurice admitted there was something unusual about my chicken.
“It can’t be,” he said in disbelief, “but, Mon Dieu, one would think she had feelings for you.”
Late one quiet autumn afternoon, my chicken was with me in the kitchen. She was perched comfortably on the long wooden table, watching intently as I washed, diced, and prepared vegetables for dinner. Without my noticing, the “chat roux”, a rust- colored farm cat had squeezed through the door, which had been left ajar, and had sneaked into the room. In the courtyard, chickens and cats co-existed with a kind of uneasy, non-aggression pact. But here, one-on-one, the “chat roux” had other ideas. He spotted Poulette on the table, and in an instant, before I could stop him, he sprang onto the table with his claws viciously reaching out toward my chicken. “Va t’en!” I screamed hoarsely, fearing for her safety. “Get out of here!” I grabbed him by the scruff of his neck a second before he pounced on her and threw him out the back door into the courtyard.
My chicken misunderstood. Maybe she thought I was shouting at her. Or perhaps the sudden shrillness of my voice or the violent act of throwing the cat out the door altered me in her eyes. Slowly, mechanically, she got down from the table, hopped onto a chair and to the floor and walked listlessly out the kitchen door without ever looking back. She hobbled down the stone steps of the kitchen as though in a daze, settled down in a corner of the courtyard, her head buried deep in her feathers, her eyes half closed, and she never ate again. I tried everything. I talked to her. I explained that I had raised my voice at the cat, not at her. She hardly looked at me. A week passed. She became weaker every day. I held her limp body in my hand and offered her food, but she turned away. Maurice told me that chickens could be cruel. I didn’t believe him until I saw the other chickens shove her until she fell on her side and peck mercilessly at her frail body as she lay helplessly on the ground, too weak to defend herself. I pulled and dragged them away and tried to protect her, but it was too late. Several days later, she died. I buried her on a hill behind Georges’ studio with a small rock for a tombstone. We stayed on at Farnier through late October, until he had finished his paintings for the exhibition, and then returned to Paris.
In time, Georges and I separated. After that, we rarely saw each other. But many years later we arranged to meet at the Café Le Dome in Paris, where we had had many rendezvous when we were together. Seeing him again was bittersweet. We spoke of many things. And then, over a glass of wine, he told me that farmers in villages near and far around Farnier still told over and over the story of the chicken who starved herself to death because of a broken heart.
To learn more about the author, Marjorie Price, visit her website.
Causes Marjorie Price Supports
Doctors Without Borders, National Resources Defense Council, Common Cause, Greenpeace, Planned Parenthood, UNICEF, Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund