Farmer James had been bitter ever since his pigs had all succumbed to an epidemic that swept through the heartland and–like the hand of fate—had stayed at his farm.
He felt bitter toward the farmers who had been spared through no visible virtue or precaution on their part. He felt bitter towards fate, or whoever was in charge of the world, for allowing such unfairness. Not having stepped inside a church since his wife had died two years ago, he didn’t know where to place the blame; so, he blamed the chickens for surviving while their more intelligent brethren had not.
The pastor of the local church still visited from time to time, apparently hopeful that another lost lamb could be brought back into the fold. But if truth be told (and in an oblique way he had told the pastor this), he had never listened to his sermons, unless some reference had caught his attention, such as the best time to plant soybeans or the baseball game that afternoon. And as soon as the sermon returned to its main theme, usually about something irrelevant to what James considered his personal affairs, he would be thinking about the roast his wife had popped into the oven as they left the house. By the time the closing hymn was wrapping up the weekly service, his mind would be back at home with the sizzling juices seeping into the peeled potatoes which always stood guard around his wife’s Sunday roasts until they returned.
Farmer James didn’t quite know what to make of it when, during one Sunday morning’s tour through the chicken coup, with a pail of grain in one hand and a basket for eggs in the other, he locked eyes with Mary. He didn’t usually think of the hens by the names his wife had given them, but he recognized Mary’s yellow top-feathers which had reminded his wife, also a Mary, of a halo. James ‘knew’ such features to be nothing but superficial variations, exhibited by animals everywhere without rhyme or reason. But this morning, Mary was looking at him in what his wife would have called a ‘soulful’ way.
Over his solitary breakfast later that Sunday morning, he noticed the clock as it struck nine times—indicating the time when his wife would have been urging him to get ready for the 10 am service. For two years, Widower James had scarcely ever looked at the clock or listened to its faithful ticking. But this morning, he kept his eyes on the pendulum rocking back and forth, as a strange thought came to him: these are the moments of my life and they won’t return.
At a loss about what he was supposed to do with such a thought (after all, he couldn’t stop those moments or ignore the animals who depended on him), an old trope of time lifted him off his kitchen chair. He stood up, shaved, put on a clean shirt and, before he could pause to wonder what was happening, his truck was driving past neighboring farms on its way into town.
While sitting in a pew and successfully ignoring the theme the pastor was doing his best to develop (his voice rising and falling like a sports announcer for whom running around the bases amounted to a flight of freedom), James kept wondering how Mary’s attentive gaze that morning had set something in motion in him.
After the service, when he was approached by a neighbor whose pigs were apparently doing splendidly, instead of feeling the resentment he had harbored for months, he found himself talking about his chickens and what fine, intelligent creatures they were.