The Christened Chicken and Grandmother’s House

Summers were dry and hot in Bucharest, Romania where I lived with my parents.  Most disturbing, in summer time there was no school and I was always shipped to my maternal grandmother’s  and her sister’s in the town of Iasi, a part of Romania called Moldova. My parents were originally from Moldova, but from different towns and when they were in college they met in Chisinau, which after the second World War became part of the Soviet Union.  In other words,  the place where my parents went to college, met and fell in love with each other was now on foreign territory and we were not allowed to freely cross the boarders. I was always listening to stories about “good old times”, before the Communists took over, but these stories were never told in my parents’ home, only at grandmother’s.  I liked those stories, they were like fairy tales, with princesses and queens and kings in them!

Everything was different in Iasi, perhaps that’s why, as a child, I was eager for the summers to come and to be shipped there, and I never wanted to come back to Bucharest when the fall arrived.

I didn’t even mind the inconveniences of not having paved roads, running water or a toilet in the house.  Walking with my uncle, my mother’s sister’s husband, to get water from a public water pump at the end of the dusty or muddy road, was an adventure. Pumping the water in the two buckets we brought with us was fun! Going all the way to the back of the back yard in the wooden shack which housed an unsanitary huge whole used as bathroom, was not equally rewarding. In fact it was disgusting and made me miss the little cold bathroom at home, in Bucharest, where I could at least flash the toilet after I peed.

But all these inconveniences were balanced by my grandmother’s cooking, her beautiful garden, the butterflies everywhere and the grape wine tended by my uncle.  Above all, I was fascinated by a hundred-year old walnut tree growing right in the middle of this mini-Paradise. Many times I rested under its shade. I wasn’t allowed to pick the walnuts and the branches were too high for me anyway, but once in a while they would fall on their own on the ground, or hit me in the head.  Only then, it was fair play to crack their crust and eat the delicious inside. After all, I rationalized, if they fell on their own, they asked for it!

Another adventure was when we went to the  open market to buy live chicken and fresh vegetables.  Some of the hens we bought, were kept in an enclosure in our back yard, close to the outdoors toilet, since it all smelled bad. The hens laid eggs and that was fun, but some most unfortunate ones were chosen for eating. The chicken, or hens, or roosters were bought alive and it was a man’s responsibility to decapitate the bird chosen to become soup.

The ritual of killing the “prey” was always the same: my uncle  sharpened a big knife and  took the chicken outside on the unpaved street, in front of the house. He put one steady foot on the creature’s body and with one hand held it’s head steady while with the other decapitated it with one quick blow.  There was always a lot of blood and most disturbingly to me, the body of the chicken kept moving and even jumping for a while as if wanting to reattach its head back on. I secretly wished it did, but that never happened and the process continued.  The now dead bird was boiled and the feathers plucked and then vegetables  added and ” gritz galuste” and somehow the soup was so tasty, the image of the slaughter faded somewhere in the back of my memory, to only come back later and make me feel guilty I ate!

After witnessing repeated chicken  killing rituals, I started waking in the middle of the night screaming. I was dreaming I was the killer and the victim would put itself together and come after me and in my nightmare, I became the victim!

One night I told my aunt, my mother’s sister, who together with her husband, lived with grandma. I still remember the warmth of her boosoms holding me tight and pressing me into her immense body. It felt so comforting!

The next day, she and I went to the open market on an unplanned trip.  The markets were always loud and colorful with lots of  people coming to sell whatever one wanted, from beautiful flowers to cheese, to vegetables or fowl.  We approached a table filled with little chicken. They were so little and  cute! Most of them had golden fluff instead of real feathers, like in the Easter postcards I saw later in life.

“Which of them do you like?” my aunt asked.

“Oh, I said, “I like all of them!”

“You may only choose one and I will buy it for you and that will be your pet and we will not kill it,” she continued.

My own pet! A dream come true. At home, I wasn’t allowed.  In spite of my many pleads for a cat or a dog, my mother decreed the apartment was too small, it would have been too much responsibility and most importantly all pets had germs! A miracle was about to happen, I was going, after all, to have a pet!

“That one,” I said, and chose the only chicken with red fluff  on her body and no fluff on its neck.  It had a featherless, bold  long neck. It looked different. I liked her… and decided it must be a girl to be so beautiful.

“Why did you choose the ugliest chicken?” my aunt asked.

“Ugly? … but its the only one with a bold neck, it’s different, it will never get lost or mistaken for another.”

“It’s your bird, if you like it that’s fine by me,” my aunt said and handed the peasant the money. The peasant smiled and winked.

Back home, there were some logistic problems: where to house my pet? She surely could not be with the rest of the chicken! She was special. Somehow I convinced my aunt to allow her to sleep in a small cage by the entrance, but inside the house. I fed, petted and decided to train her to sit on my head at command. Then, I realized that she had no name and was not Christened. I remembered how when I was very little I was told, one of my father’s sister’s took me in secret to be Christened so in case I died I didn’t go to Hell! What if my chicken died and went to Hell?! I had, by all means, to perform the ritual even if I were not a Priest. I was sure God would understand my noble intentions because that’s what Teta told me, and I remembered: God sees everything and rewards the faithful and punishes those that take his name in vain! I guess that would be my parents… or may be not, they didn’t take His name in vain, just ignored Him.

I felt faithful, like secretly doing God’s work which was against my mother’s instructions… but how would she find out? There was no way she would. I felt fearless!

I started to plot the whole ritual. First, I needed water and a lot of it. I couldn’t go alone to the public water pump and the bucket would have been too heavy for me to carry anyway. As I was trying to solve the dilemma of my chicken’s Christening, God answered in an unusual way: It started to rain. Because water was at a premium, in the  garden, there were several wooden barrels which collected rain water. It rained and rained some more, and when the sun came out I had enough water to Christen five chickens, let alone one!

What should I name her? A beautiful, unique name… I decided upon “Zinica” which means “Little Fairy” because to me she was a miracle:  One of my wishes, to have a pet, came true in the form of a chicken. Zinica it was!

One warm, sunny afternoon, I took Zinica which by now was a hen, and emerged her in the water three times, just like I saw a Priest do with a baby: “In the name of the Father…” I forgot what was said in the middle but it ended with  “and The Holy Spirit.  Oh, it was the Son, in the middle, I remembered later. I completed  the incomplete Christening and Zinica survived but didn’t look very happy, kept fluffing her red feathers and told me she didn’t appreciate, all in hen language, so I pretended I didn’t understand, but I actually did. Her body language spoke louder than words.

I knew in my heart I did the right thing and now if she died she went to Heaven, that’s all that mattered. Zinica just didn’t understand it was for her own good but there would come a time when she’ll be thankful! I was convinced.

Zinica was very smart for a hen and indeed I managed to train her to fly on my shoulders on command and come down and circle around me. She’d balance on my head, although this was not my favorite trick because sometimes she’d poop on my hair and that wasn’t nice. I could not potty train her, but I tried.

Then the summer ended and in spite of my crying and promising I’ll have straight As and take care of Zinica in Bucharest, the answer was NO. Zinica was to stay at my grandmother’s under the solemn promise of all she will continue as a pet and next summer I will see her again. However, I was warned that the life-span of a hen was not that long and it was possible she’ll just die of natural causes and no one knew how many days, or years one was “given” by God. My mother’s family, like Teta, believed in God and as I grew older I had more and more confusing feelings about God, Heaven and Hell and where dead bodies go?

In the middle of winter we received a sad letter announcing Zinica’s  death from natural causes!  The letter said they buried her in the back of the garden and  even said a prayer because they knew I loved her. There was a wooden cross on her little grave, which my uncle made and I could see it next summer when I was to be shipped again to Iasi.

As I wiped my tears, I was glad at least she was Christened. I knew she was in Heaven, a much better place where, I was convinced, they didn’t slaughter chickens!

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