Chapter One: It Started with a Chicken

It wasn’t even my chicken, actually, but my father’s, which I was charged with caring for during the three weeks he went on holiday in France with his wife, Gail. This particular chore came with free use of his Spanish-style hacienda with a swimming pool just north of San Francisco, so I was more than happy to oblige. Besides the handful of chickens, there was an elderly cat, an idiot bulldog, and a duck. Nothing I thought I couldn’t handle.

Plus, I didn’t have much else to do at the time. Browsing through life in my late twenties, I was managing a small children’s theater and halfheartedly attending art school. My meager paychecks added up to a spare existence based largely on peanut butter and toast, so a three-week house-sitting gig in a fancy neighborhood sounded like just the thing. I packed my bags eagerly, anticipating lazy afternoons poolside.

“Quackers is bereaved,” my stepmother announced as she tucked a good navy cardigan into her suitcase for Paris. “He’s very lonely. He hasn’t been the same since Cheese died.”

Cheese, apparently, was the female duck. “He’s lonely?” I asked. “How do you know?”

She cringed. “Well, he sometimes has sex with the chickens. But it’s fine, really. He’s perfectly harmless. Just a lonely widower.” She smiled sentimentally. “Would you help me get this suitcase downstairs?”

And that’s how I met Quackers, the interspecies duck rapist. Every time I went down to the chicken run, there he was, humping away at a chicken. I couldn’t make out the specifics of what was going on, but he’d be up on some poor hen, furiously flapping his wings, and she would look really perturbed. They’d scoot around like this for a minute or two— unless I happened to separate them, which wasn’t so easy to do.

“Hey! You . . . duck! Stop it! Stop doing that!” Quackers ignored me. I decided it would be useless to appeal to his better nature and instead went for the garden hose. “How do you like that, Quackers?” I’d holler, placing my thumb over the aperture to get a high- pressure spray. This usually worked, and both duck and chicken would slink away, feathers soaked and ruffled, looking ashamed.

The garden hose method was effective over the weekend, when I could lounge by the swimming pool and keep an eye on things. But come Monday, I had to go to work, and I scowled at Quackers on my way out the door. “Don’t try any funny business, Mister,” I warned him. “I’m watching you.”

This was a blatant lie, and Quackers must have known it, because when I got back that night the hacienda was eerily silent. “They must have put themselves to bed,” I reasoned, taking the flashlight off the shelf by the door and heading down to the chicken run. “I’m sure they’re all fine.”

They were not. Or at least, one wasn’t. A single sweep of the flashlight told me all I needed to know. Feeder, watering can, chicken roost. Three little hens, all in a row. Also a small glass chandelier, because that’s how they do farming in Marin County. And one little hen, huddled up on a shelf, crouched in a way that instantly communicated something was wrong. I passed the flashlight beam over her backside, and that’s when I saw the blood. I ran for the telephone.

“What do I do?” I said in a panic, after calling my then-boyfriend Peter at his job. “It’s bloody. It’s bleeding. I think Quackers raped it to death!”

“It’s a chicken,” Peter reasoned. “Cut its head off.”

“I can’t do that!” I squealed. “These chickens aren’t regular chickens! They’re pets!”

And it was true: My dad and his wife had an unnatural attachment to their hens. Besides outfitting their coop in faux LouisXVI décor, Dad and Gail sometimes let them wander around inside the house, where they crapped on the carpets and hassled the bulldog. One time, a framed painting fell down, breaking a chicken’s leg. They didn’t euthanize it. They took it to the vet and had its leg put in a sling.

Peter’s voice was even and calm. “Then you don’t have a choice. You’ll have to find a vet who’s open and take her in.”

And I guess you could say that’s when my farming career began. I never much cared for animals, unless delicious slices of them were seared in clarified butter and presented to me with a sauce. But now here I was, following my soon-to-be-husband’s advice: wrapping the gory chicken in a towel and speeding away to the all-night veterinary clinic. Fumbling at the knobs on my dashboard, I found a Mozart minuet on the public radio station and turned it up, hoping the music would calm her.

Once we got to the clinic, the chicken went downhill fast. “I don’t recommend keeping different species in the same enclosure,” the vet announced, after I’d been anxiously waiting in his front office for half an hour. “Especially ducks. Ducks are nothing but trouble.”

I jumped to my feet. “Where is she? Can I see her?”

Instead of a chicken, the doctor handed me a sheet of paper. It was an invoice with a single item. “Chicken euthanasia,” it read. “Cloacal trauma. $345.00.”

Wait—what?” I asked, trying hard to be civil. “What’s a cloaca? And why does it cost three hundred and forty-five dollars to kill one?”

The vet smiled benignly, murmuring something about after- hours care. And then he told me what a cloaca is. Unlike human females, who have so many holes we might as well be pasta strainers, the chicken has one perfect, pristine opening, which handles everything. It’s her intestinal, urinary, and reproductive aperture. To put it simply, the cloaca is the chicken supervagina.

I have no idea how they control them. At any moment, this same hole could produce urine, a turd, or a baby chicken egg—a fact that, I imagine, must fill their lives with surprise.

I think it was the knowledge of this elegant organ, much more than the sense of guilt I felt at not being there to protect her, that made me mourn the chicken. The cloaca is so beautifully efficient, such a miracle of avian engineering, that it seemed doubly tragic to think it had been defiled by a sadistic duck.

I got over it, though. My father and stepmother returned from their trip and they tried not to blame me for the death. I went back to my own home, which at that time was a sailboat moored in Richmond, a sketchy part of the Bay Area just east of Marin County.

Slowly, I began to put the horrible incident behind me. But one day, I got to wondering about that duck and why his romantic advances had resulted in tragedy. So I Googled “duck penis,” and instantly regretted it.

The duck, I learned, has the longest penis of all vertebrates.

When extended, his penis can reach the same size as his full body height, a terrifying ratio when you put it in human terms. The mental image this produced was unspeakable: a sort of Boschian tableau featuring a Satanic duck with a six- foot cock.

Later that week, Gail gave a memorial service for her ill-fated hen. It seems the chicken’s name had been Chantal and she’d been as cherished as a miracle baby after a lifetime of infertility. In a troubling blend of fetish and sentiment, Gail had kept the cracked remains of Chantal’s first egg over the years, lovingly wrapped in tissue paper. These she placed in a spice jar and buried alongside the bird.

Not surprisingly, my father and stepmother didn’t invite me to the wake. This may have been because I was responsible for Chantal’s death, or perhaps because my father and Gail had an inkling that I might start giggling at a eulogy for poultry. Whatever the reason, the proceedings went on without me. To be polite, I did ask about the service, and it seems things didn’t go exactly as planned. Gail was vague on the details, but generally, in a case of murder and sexual assault, the assailant is not permitted to free-range at the funeral, pecking at lawn chairs and searching for bugs in the grass. Quackers, however, had roamed the lawn, fixing everyone with a cold, hard stare.

Gail had selected a Shakespearean sonnet to read at the graveside, but no sooner had she begun than Quackers strode lustily forward, causing my father to rear back in alarm. This was a wise move, and he didn’t even know the specifics of duck anatomy. A duck penis isn’t just huge; it’s spiny and shaped like a corkscrew. Clearly, species was no obstacle to this duck’s unnatural urges. Who would he fix on next? My father? The bulldog? Chantal’s recumbent corpse? The service came to an awkward conclusion, and Quackers was admonished for creeping people out.

Soon after, the bulldog died under mysterious circumstances, and while Gail was convinced he’d snacked on a box of snail poison, I had my doubts. Quackers still roamed the property, terrifying cats and small children, while everyone was careful to keep him away from the hens. He died a year or two later, and though a decade has passed since that terrible night, I still can’t feed ducks at the park. “Rapists,” I mutter, whenever I see kids tossing bread in the duck pond. “Why feed your treats to the rapists?”

This has won me some unkind looks from parents and nannies, but they should read up on their anatine anatomy. If they knew what they were feeding, they wouldn’t let their kids get so close.

I’d like to say this episode put me off rural living altogether, and for a while, it did. I certainly had no intention of hobby farming, even in the charming way my father and stepmother approached it. But our lives take unexpected turns. Somehow, within a few years, I was managing my own homestead in New Zealand, complete with chickens, goats, and even a few cows grazing in the pasture. The one animal I would not permit on my property was a duck. The very thought of one gave me the creeps.

If it seems strange that an artsy San Francisco dilettante should find herself living in a small rural backwater in northern New Zealand, then let me assure you, I’m as surprised as you are. For the most part, our peers back home lead conventionally successful lives: in their early forties, they run businesses, work as lawyers and scientists, have mortgages, and go to restaurants and parties. Meanwhile, Peter and I spend our time chasing cows down the road and executing chickens.

After much thought, I ascribe our unconventional life choices to three main things:

  1. The ocean
  2. George W. Bush
  3. Hobbits

Allow me to explain. For as long as I could remember, sailing for me was a joy. While I was growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, someone in my family always had a sailboat, and we went out on the bay every few weeks for a dinner picnic, to see the fireworks, or just to spend a day in the sun. San Francisco is known for its brisk ocean breezes, and sometimes howling gusts come shooting down the city hills along the major boulevards. We’d get slammed by a sudden wind, our boat would heel way over and surge ahead, and I’d panic, fumbling for a lifeline.

But my brother Brian was always calm. “Don’t worry about it, partner,” he’d soothe, patting my stiff yellow lifejacket as he adjusted the tiller. “This boat will not sink.” Then he’d explain the physics of sails, how the boat will heel only so much until the sails dump wind, and how she naturally comes back upright, keeping everyone safe on deck. “Always,” he said. “She always comes back up.”

I loved the wind on my face, the salt on my skin, the pleasant, sunburned drowsiness after a day on the water. Even turkey sandwiches with sour dill pickles tasted better in my brother’s cockpit. Most of all, I loved heading out under the Golden Gate Bridge, even if it was just for a day sail. I knew that past that horizon was ocean, then Hawaii, then worlds and continents I’d never seen. It was an endless blue wilderness that I had the power to explore, as long as I kept a strong vessel beneath my feet. And I wanted to get there.

For Peter, the ocean was a sanctuary. Although he’s a bright and imaginative man, Peter never did well in the classroom. Now he thinks he probably had an undiagnosed learning disability, but when he was growing up and failing in school, he just felt stupid. On a sailboat, things were different. He had a natural affinity for three- dimensional space, easily understanding which points of sail would chart the most efficient course. He sailed with his father in Long Island Sound, Chesapeake Bay, and down in the Caribbean. And when he was a teenager and his parents separated in an acrimonious divorce, the ocean was the only place he felt calm.

So when we met a decade ago in the laundry room of the Richmond Marina, we were both pursuing the same passion. Peter had quit his job in New York as a network engineer a few months earlier. Instead of marrying his girlfriend and buying a house, he’d poured his down payment into a California boat that would sail him around the world. And I’d just bought Sereia, a thirty-six-foot 1970s ketch that I had no idea how to handle alone.

Peter told me his boat was named Swallow. “That’s so sweet,” I replied. “What a cute little bird.” Peter’s smart-ass friends back in New York had thought a boat named Swallow was racy and hilarious. More than one wanted to know when he’d be getting a dinghy named Spit, so I think the fact that I didn’t tease him was a relief. We went on a date, we went to bed, and then Peter moved in. Within a year, he sold Swallow, and we were planning to sail Sereia across the Pacific.

This was 2003 and 2004, the height of the Bush years, and Peter and I were unnerved by the wartime zeal in our country. Most of our fellow liberals were threatening to emigrate to Canada or New Zealand, but as it turns out, we were the crazy ones who did.

It wasn’t all high-minded politics that chased us out of the States. The truth was I couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco anymore. The city where I grew up, full of artists and poets and revolutionaries, was now home to millionaires. Managing a small children’s theater, I had no idea how I’d ever afford to have a family: the cost of health insurance alone for a family of four was more than I earned in a month.

And that’s where the hobbits come in. I know it’s dumb to say we moved to New Zealand for Lord of the Rings, and now that I’ve lived here for a while, I can definitively say there are no elves. But it’s hard to overstate the impact those movies had on silly American dreamers like me—feeling angry and alienated in our own country, just wanting to live somewhere beautiful, where evil wizards are defeated and not voted back into office.

Peter and I started toying with the idea of emigrating to another country, and my first choice was France. “They have national health care,” I argued, “and croissants.”

But Peter, who had taken first-year French five years in a row, wasn’t so sure. “I don’t speak the language,” he countered. “I don’t think I ever will. I won’t be able to get a job.”

So we did a little research and discovered that most industrialized countries have national health care, including New Zealand. There wouldn’t be a language barrier. Peter’s IT skills, we soon learned, would put us on a fast track to immigration. And most important, New Zealand was downwind from California. We could get there by sailboat.

Peter moved onto my vessel, and we pooled our resources to throw off the dock lines and head out under the Golden Gate Bridge for an extended sailing voyage. As usual I had no money, but Peter had the proceeds from selling his boat, and a modest inheritance from his father. Figuring that would last us, especially if we caught our own fish and ate like the locals, we traveled through Mexico and Central America. From there we crossed the Gulf of Panama and sailed down to Ecuador and across the Pacific, stopping along the way at pristine tropical islands for cold beer and black pearls. In all those months of travel, I never once thought about chickens, unless I was bartering for a dead one with a local villager.

By the time we settled in New Zealand’s North Island, I was six months pregnant. Our first few years were consumed with the challenges of moving to a new country and starting a family all at the same time and not knowing a soul. We wanted to stay on land for a couple of years while our baby was small, and for that we needed a work permit. To get a work permit, we needed a job. And to get a job, we had to move to the coldest part of New Zealand, a place the Rolling Stones once called the “Asshole of the World,” a city so cold and bleak they have a hard time finding enough IT professionals, way at the bottom of the South Island: Invercargill.

When our son, Silas, was three months old, we bid our sailboat farewell, packed up the old Mitsubishi we’d bought, and drove eleven hundred miles to the bottom of the country. I took over managing a small youth hostel, and Peter accepted a job at a local technology firm. For fourteen months we toiled down there, bracing ourselves for the freezing Antarctic storms that blew in off the Southern Ocean. When I had a break from the hostel, I’d walk Silas in his baby buggy, a plastic cover pulled tight over his swaddled form as if he were a warm sausage I was saving for lunch. Every now and then, an icy wind would slip under the plastic and Silas would let loose with an ear-rending shriek.

It was in Invercargill that I began to understand the ways New Zealand was different from New York and San Francisco. “Artisan farming” here isn’t so much a hipster trend as it is a way of life. There aren’t gourmet grocery stores on every block, selling locally sourced radicchio and organic truffle oil. Outside the major cities, most people have a vegetable patch and keep a few chickens. Raising a couple of sheep isn’t considered farming, just good sense: you can kill one for the freezer and sell the other for some extra cash.

At first, this was annoying. Why couldn’t I get artisanal cheeses at my local Pak’nSave? But a few months into our Invercargill adventure, I discovered the local farmer’s market. And that’s when everything changed.

We found organic lamb from a farm outside Queenstown, the chops so sweet and tender we called them lollypop chops. We sampled Bluff oysters, some of the best in the world, with the clean, briny taste of the frigid Southern Ocean. We stuffed ourselves with kilos of juicy cherries, and not just one variety of potato, but six or seven, changing with the seasons, each with its own pretty name: Nadines for boiling, Desirees for salads, Red Rascals for a fluffy, creamy mash.

Pushing Silas’s buggy among the farmers’ stalls, I began to see that without a wealthy population of Wall Street executives and tech entrepreneurs, there just wasn’t a market for gourmet shops here. The only way to eat really well in New Zealand was to grow food yourself. Or buy it directly from the growers.

So I bought a few chickens. Hopes held high, I drove out to a local chicken farm with a cardboard box in the backseat. The farmer, a lanky man with oily hair and dirty blue coveralls, opened his barn door to a bedlam of peeping. There were thousands of chicks, tiny golden puffballs pecking at the ground and one another, climbing on their siblings in a roiling sea of cuteness. Without ceremony, he grabbed half a dozen puffballs and tossed them in the box and then handed it to me.

“Thirty dollar,” he barked. I could barely hear him over the din.

“That’s it?” I asked. “I don’t get to pick them out? How do you know they’re good ones?”

He looked at me as if I were speaking Inuit. Then his mouth broke into an easy smile, a wide, gummy gap in the front. “All good,” he assured me. “Chicken’s not good, ya chuck it in the pot!” Then he laughed as if this were a hilarious joke.

After a few months, we had fresh eggs for our family, with a few left over to share with the backpackers. It still didn’t occur to me to farm, though. I was too busy running the youth hostel and urging Silas to talk or point or at least say something other than “da.” By eighteen months old, he still wasn’t walking, either, and we figured he was just a little behind.

But then the tourist season ended, and my job at the youth hostel came to a close. We packed up our things and gave the chickens away to a neighbor. Residency permits in hand, we prepared to move back north, where the sunshine was warm and the winters were mild.

And that’s when we confronted the fourth reason for our unusual life choices, the one thing that kept us in New Zealand for good: DNA.


Reprinted from Dirty Chick by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2015, Antonia Murphy