Potomac Review Vol. VII No. 4. Fall 2000, p. 15-19.
"The Giant Egg"
by William R. Stimson
About a half hour south of Havana on a propeller-driven plane lies the sleepy Caribbean island where I found the giant egg. Some thirty years ago, when I lived there, it was called the Isle of Pines. The Communists have re-named it the Isle of Youth and it's not so sleepy any more. By all accounts, the main town, Nueva Gerona, has grown considerably.
When I was a boy, we lived on a small farm, five miles outside Nueva Gerona. Among other things, we had chickens. We didn't raise them in any systemic way, really. We built a thatch-roofed chicken house that had boxes filled with dry grass for them to lay eggs and poles for them to roost on at night. We kept a gunny sac of corn in a side room that had a separate door. You really didn't have to feed chickens in Cuba. There was plenty to eat -- bugs and stones and little berries and leaves. They pecked around constantly. But it was fun to feed them the corn. We learned from Horvalito to yell the sound that you say in Cuba when you want chickens to come: "Heep, Heep, Heep, Heep." I loved to stand in front of the chicken house with the bucket of corn, flinging yellow kernels on the ground all around me, and yelling that sound out at the top of my lungs like heaven itself was at hand. The chickens came running madly from all directions. You wouldn't believe chickens could move so fast.
I overheard Horvalito inform my mother one day that a wild chicken lived in the forest down by the arroyo . He'd seen it when he was clearing away some underbrush. I kept an eye out for the mysterious hen. Sure enough, one day I spotted her. She was a Plymouth Rock -- gray and white speckles from top to bottom and lived down there in the woods all by herself. For the longest time, she kept her distance and stayed far away from us or our other chickens. But in time even she couldn't resist the feeding craze. The sight of all the other chickens running like crazy from all over the farm to that one spot with their necks outstretched and their wings flapping as they ran must have made the wild hen wonder, "What am I missing?" Eventually she joined in too.
At first she stayed around the edges of the madly pecking flock, daring now and then to venture just a little bit closer to peck up some corn that had fallen on the periphery. Seeing her shyness, I threw her a handful of corn, then another. Immediately she was surrounded by other chickens. In time she mingled right in with them all. Once I was surprised to find her right at my feet. I set down my bucket of corn and picked up the wild chicken and held her, just for a second, in my arms. She was afraid, but so stuffed with corn that I could feel the hard mass of kernels thick in her crop at the base of her neck. I let her go immediately, because I didn't want to scare her.
I saw a big red rooster on her one day and some time later she came parading proudly up from down by the arroyo surrounded by a brood of the prettiest little chicks you ever saw. Their colors were all mixed up. One of those chicks grew up to be the rooster that was mine. He later became the cock of the walk on our farm, a beautiful big and strong Plymouth Rock rooster all speckled gray and white but with pure golden feathers down his neck and red and gold feathers on his head. He grew a big proud comb that finally flopped over to one side, sort of like a French beret, indicating he'd made the grade. He was the king. I like to think he was the father of the giant egg, but I can't be entirely sure. I just found it one day sitting in one of the straw-filled boxes in the hen house.
I don't know what got it into my head to go collecting eggs that day. Usually, we just went back and grabbed a bunch when we ran out of them in the kitchen. The rest we left to hatch. Our flock of chickens got larger and larger until all the chickens hanging around the back door started getting on my mother's nerves. Before washing dishes after meals, we scraped the plates off outside the kitchen door. The backyard chickens came running to peck up the leftovers. It was like another feeding for them. Quite an accumulation of chickens took to hanging around outside the kitchen door. It got to be that every time we opened the door, they would come running, just to be the first ones there in case we had any food scraps to throw down. My mother would complain to Horvalito she couldn't go anywhere without stepping on chickens. A day or so later, I'd see her out in the back yard running around with a machete hacking at them. She never really got that many. Chickens aren't as easy to catch as you'd think. Horvalito was the one that got most of them. He snatched them up by the head and, with a single movement, raised them high overhead, twirled them in a quick loop and with a snap of his wrist sent their bodies flying through the air. The head, he still held in his hand. The headless bodies ran and scrambled around spurting blood and flapping their wings until they petered out and keeled over. It was a horrid sight to see and I stayed far away from the whole affair until my mother and Horvalito had all the chickens hanging neatly upside-down on the clothesline with clothespins on their feet and had started dunking them in boiling water one by one and pulling out all the feathers. After one of those chicken-kills, the freezer would be chock full and we'd have arroz con pollo for dinner, months on end.
When I first spotted the giant egg, I checked and double checked because I couldn't believe my eyes. All the other eggs I had gathered up that morning and the ones I had not yet gathered to take to the kitchen were ordinary sized eggs. Only this one was a giant egg. It was two or even three times bigger than a normal egg! Unfortunately, unlike my brother and sister, I had precious little going for me. I immediately recognized this was the break I had been waiting for all my life. There was no doubt in my mind what I was going to do.
As soon as I arrived in the kitchen, I set all the other eggs on the counter. My giant egg I carefully wrapped in a clean terry cloth dish towel. I placed it up in a basket on a wire mesh shelf behind the refrigerator where we kept our bread so it wouldn't get moldy.
Mold, mind you, was the least of our problems in Cuba. Worse by far, if you ask me, were worms and beetles. When my mother served up oatmeal at the morning table, you had to have your wits about you. Oatmeal in Cuba needed to be studied. You didn't let her put the milk in for you. That's what she wanted. No, you poked around in the bowl first to make sure there weren't any cooked worms or beetles in the oatmeal. When we found them, she always pretended she hadn't noticed, but then she'd say, as if it were perfectly logical, "What's the big fuss! It's all protein anyway."
I seemed to recall we had hatched eggs up there on that shelf before with the heat which rose up from the back of the refrigerator. So I had every reason to suspect my plan would succeed. I remember going over the details with my mother. She just nodded and said a few little things. But then later that night I got up from bed and went into her room. It was all too exciting and I felt I had to lay it all out to her in far more explicit detail. It was a giant egg, so what would come out would be a giant chicken. We would breed giant chickens. Nobody else would have them, only us. "Imagine a drumstick twice as big as normal!" I reasoned with her. "People will flock to buy the bigger chicken, you can bet on it. We will be the only ones who have the big chickens. There's money in this -- a lot of money!"
I'd read the fable about the woman who, while she was daydreaming about how she was going to make a fortune from a bucket of milk, tripped and spilt all the milk into the mud. So I didn't bother to tell my mother or anybody else about my plans to become a cattle rancher from this. With the money from the chickens I would buy a little calf and raise it until it was big. When I sold it to the butcher, I could get enough money to buy several calves and raise them, repeating the whole thing until I had a small herd.
There were various kinds of cattle down there on the Isle of Pines. The kind I had in mind were the big white Zebu breed from India. They had strange humps on their foreshoulders and were beef cattle. There were lots of them in Modesto's pasture right behind our farm and I figured it was a reasonable thing to expect that, if I saved up the money I earned from selling my steers, I would have enough to buy that pasture from Modesto so that I could raise even more cows. I was only twelve and a half. Time was on my side. It stood to reason I could become a millionaire from all this.
I checked on my giant egg up behind the refrigerator every day right after I got home from school. I turned it periodically. It was staying warm up there but it seemed to take forever to hatch. Then, having so many other things to do, I just forgot about it for a while. When the guavas began dropping off the trees, making guava jelly took over our life. The whole kitchen became one big guava jelly operation. We had three or four big pots of it on the stove at a time. We put it up in jars and then melted wax over the top so mold wouldn't get in. The mold sometimes grew on top of the wax but it didn't get in the jelly. The rest of the year we would take peanut butter and guava jelly sandwiches to school in our lunch boxes.
Then there was grapefruit season when everything else gave way to making grapefruit rind candy. The juice we'd freeze in the freezer if there was enough space between the chickens. One year we made grapefruit wine with it.
Our first pig, which we had just bought and were fattening up, surprised us all by turning out to be pregnant instead of fat. We never suspected until we went back to feed her one day and found her lying on her side with a whole mess of little piglets lined up on her underside busily nursing away. They were all different colors.
Finally, there was the boa constrictor that fell out of our thatched roof onto my brother's bed. True, it was only a baby boa. But why did everything exciting happen to my brother? Fortunately some woodpeckers opted to make a nest in the bottle-nosed palm trunk that held up the roof and was in the corner of my room, next to my bed. Also the bell pepper plant I had planted outside my bedroom window started having peppers which I collected in a bag. On Saturday when we drove in to town, I sold the bagful of peppers to the Chinese grocer for a nickel.
When finally I remembered my giant egg, I ran to check it. Sure enough something was happening inside. There were cracks in the shell. I knew I should be patient. I put it back up in its nest behind the refrigerator. But the egg seemed to be hatching and it was too exciting. I kept taking it down every few minutes. In the end, I couldn't help chipping off just a little piece of shell to peer inside. Everything looked gooey and underdeveloped. I was sure I had ruined the whole thing. Just then there was a "peck, peck" from the inside and a new crack appeared. I helped out, peeling off the fragments of shell that had been pecked loose. It took a while but what emerged there on the kitchen table when the chick and I were finished hatching it, was a very sad looking and wet, slimy anomaly with a disproportionately huge stomach covered with veins. Either this was some abnormality or I had ruined the developmental process by digging the chick out of its egg prematurely. It clearly was not going to survive. I wrapped the whole mess back up in the towel and put it back in the basket on the warm wire shelf behind the refrigerator.
Later that day, I was surprised to hear a peeping sound coming from up there. I took down the basket and opened the towel. There was the chick all fluffy and perking with life. It looked to be a giant chick! I took it out into the back yard to compare it with some newborn chicks one of the our hens was parading around with. It was a giant chick! -- two or three times bigger than the other chicks. I knew I was sitting on a fortune.
I fed the giant chick a little bit of everything. Whatever I pecked my finger on, it ran forth and gobbled down. I even rolled up leaves of different kinds of weeds and fed these to the giant chick. I figured these might contain some rare trace nutrients not yet discovered by science which could perhaps, in some way or other, further the chick's development.
I kept my giant chick in a big box in my room. When I let it out to feed it, I discovered a remarkable thing. The giant chick followed me wherever I went. It thought I was its mother. I was very touched by this and felt a new sense of responsibility. Everything was for the chick now. The chick came first. I couldn't just think of myself anymore. I had to consider the chick. I took it with me everywhere I went because I knew it needed exercise to grow up strong and healthy. I didn't have to carry it. It just followed me naturally enough if I remembered to walk slow. If I walked too fast it would come peeping and flapping its fuzzy little wings and moving its little feet as fast as it could to keep up. When I held it, it was so huge that it filled both of my hands.
My friend, Fred Swetland came over one day. We both collected wild orchids but I didn't want to talk orchids that day. Every word out of my mouth was about my giant chick. He got tired of listening. I think he was jealous. My brother took him back to see the new baby pigs. I followed along behind, walking slow so my giant chick could keep up with me. No sooner did I get in the pig pen, then Fred let out a loud laugh.
"The pig just ate up your giant chick," he announced, beaming.
I turned and stared at him. Then I looked around. My little peeper was gone. I looked everywhere, figuring Fred was playing a cruel joke on me. "What'd you do with it?" I demanded.
"I'm telling you, the pig ate it up!" Fred said. He was beaming from ear to ear.
"You saw that?" I demanded.
"As soon as the giant chick followed you into the pigpen, the pig ran around behind you and gobbled it up," he replied. I saw he wasn't kidding.
Just then, a mother hen with her flock of chicks strayed near the pig pen and one of her fuzzy little black and yellow chicks came trundling unawares under the log fence enclosing the pig pen. Over trotted the pig now, right before my eyes, and, in one bite, gobbled the little thing up. I didn't know pigs ate chicks. But now I'd seen it with my own eyes. Later I discovered this was a known fact and that pigs even ate rattlesnakes. They ran back and forth over the coiled-up snake, trampling it to death. The snake's fangs don't penetrate the pig's thick hide. The pigs gobble the snake right up, just like our pig did my giant chick.
It was my fault because the giant chick had trustingly followed me. I'd led it to its death. I was to blame. I marched back to the house and declared to my mother the pig had to go, as well as the piglets. I remained so adamant that within a week we were eating pork chops and suckling pig. But it didn't help much.
What I missed was my giant chick himself, not all the stupid plans I'd built up even before he was born. The whole farm seemed empty now without my little peeper following behind me, flapping his fuzzy baby wings to keep balance, moving his tiny feet as fast as he could -- dreaming someday he would be as big and strong as his momma.