Cranston woke into a Bougainvillea-petalled morning, a rosy-fingered dawn of a morning. Soft, pinkish sunlight was streaming its way down from the bedroom skylight, his husband Sir Maracle was sprawled and snoring gently beside him, and Rose of Sharon was crouched on his chest, eyes closed in bliss, the low, vibrating hum of her purring making sleepy syncopation with Sir Maracle’s snores. Her bliss was doubtless because she’d found an especially helpful ray of sunshine that not only kissed her with its warmth but bathed her in glowing light, which displayed the highlights in her chestnut fur to a most flattering advantage.
Cranston stretched and sighed, which caused Rose of Sharon to open kiwi-green eyes at him and chirp a single questioning mewl. She wanted her kibble. She always wanted her kibble, and most mornings, either Cranston or Sir Maracle had to stop in the middle of their scurrying about dressing for their jay-o-bees to serve Rose of Sharon a big scoopful of kibble into one of her yellow-green bowls (the bowls matched her eyes), and to wash and fill the other with fresh water from the tap in the kitchen.
But there was to be no scurrying this morning. This was the first morning of the blessed furlough that was the weekend. The jay-o-bees could go hang for two days, and there was a bedroom full of morning light, his man sleeping by his side and Rose of Sharon basking on his chest.
With one hand, Cranston shovelled Rose of Sharon gently off him. She made a lazily offended mraow and landed thump on all fours on the floor. Cranston swung out of bed, took his dressing gown from the hook on the wall and shrugged it on. He shuffled his feet into his slippers. He stepped over a leather blindfold and wooden paddle that had been tossed onto the floor and tiptoed out of the bedroom. He could put the toys away later. Now, it was time for breakfast. Rose of Sharon wove infinity symbols around his ankles with each step he took. This weekend morning, that felt like endearing affection, not exasperating annoyance—though he still closed her out of the bathroom while he performed his morning ablutions.
When he got out of there, Rose of Sharon was busily cleaning and preening her wings with her rough tongue, stretching out her pinions until each individual feathertip was separated from the others. When she saw him, she snapped her wings shut and got to her feet. She rubbed herself against his ankles, purring, until he bent to scritch the back of her neck. When he dug his fingers into her scruff, she closed her eyes in purry bliss. He tried twice to stop, but she butted her head against his hand, begging. So he kept at it a little while more.
But it really was time for breakfast. Cranston straightened up. “Come on, then,” he said. Rose of Sharon chirruped a complaint at him for stopping so soon, but she trotted beside him into the kitchen. He scooped her some kibble from the big brown paper sack that lived behind the kitchen door. She stalked in circles, her tail an exclamation sign of impatience, until he put her bowl down and she could fall upon it like a hawk upon a mouse. While Rose of Sharon was delicately wolfing down her breakfast, Cranston had a look into the fridge. There was bacon, there was butter, and the bread was still fresh. There was spinach in the garden. It needed only eggs to make the meal complete. “Time to visit the sisters,” he told Rose of Sharon. It was time to let them out of the coop and into their run, anyway.
The only thing Rose loved more than tracking slugs was getting the back of her neck scritched.
Cranston let Rose of Sharon out the kitchen door ahead of him, and stepped out into the backyard, along the crazy-paving path that led to the vegetable garden and the chicken coop. He was picturing how he would manage, since of course he’d forgotten to fetch a basket from the kitchen, and he wasn’t of a mind to go back and get one. He figured spinach first—it would almost fill one of the big pockets of his dressing gown. One egg could be cushioned safely on top of that, the second egg in the other dressing gown pocket. He’d have to walk gently. Once he’d gone too quickly and had to wash raw egg and eggshells out of his dressing gown pocket. The third egg he would cradle in one hand, leaving the other free to let himself back into the house.
He picked a batch of spinach from the garden, shaking the occasional slug off the leaves, led on by the image of crisp-cooked rashers of bacon, six each for him and Sir Maracle, laid out on the big blue oval serving platter. Bed of barely steamed spinach in the middle of the platter, fried eggs arrayed on top, their edges crispy and their yolks over easy. To keep him company, Rose of Sharon tracked in among the beds of spinach, basil, chives and oregano and pointed out more slugs to him. She didn’t eat them. She’d tried that once, gotten herself a mouthful of slime for her trouble and had never tried it again. The only thing Rose loved more than tracking slugs was getting the back of her neck scritched. “You’ve got to be part hound dog,” he teased her. She gave him a bland stare and switched to chasing butterflies. Problem was, of course, that butterflies flit and flutter, while Rose of Sharon was more the “soar and dive” type of cat. Although she could fly more quickly than they did, the butterflies changed direction on a dime, and she couldn’t do that. She almost never caught one. Or perhaps that was part of the fun. When she did catch one, she’d crush it down to the ground under one paw, lift the paw and shake it delicately, and look in a kind of nonplussed way at the brightly coloured smear she’d created.
Cranston layered the spinach into one pocket of his dressing gown, and put some basil and chives into the other. The sweet smells of the basil and the sharp, fresh chives rose into his nostrils and made his tummy rumble. He got to his feet. “Come along, Rose.”
Rose gave a brief, cattish yip, batted ineffectively at one more butterfly and landed at Cranston’s feet. She flupped her wings shut and inquired whether she might have a scritch for the road. “Not right now, girl.” So she sighed and walked along beside him as he made his way to the chicken coop. As they got close to it, her ears perked. She sniffed the air, and her eyes went avid. Rose loved her some stewed chicken, and ever since Cranston and Sir Maracle had gotten the three hens, she’d suspected she might be partial to raw, recently-hunted-down-by-Rose chicken as well. “No, Rose,” said Cranston. “I keep telling you, they’re not good for you.” He gently pushed her aside with one foot while he opened the framed wire gate to the run and let himself in. She sat on the grass outside the run and evil-eyed him, her fur twitching in that way cats have when they’re chagrined.
The chicken run was a wire mesh pen with the wooden chicken coop at one end of it. Cranston took a scoopful of feed from the big bag they kept under the coop; much like feeding Rose each morning, it was. He opened the little door to the coop and began scattering the feed on the dirt ground of the run. He called out to the three chickens: “Here, Lunch; here, Dinner; here, Emily Breakfast!” The names had been Sir Maracle’s little joke. But Emily Breakfast had already had a name when they’d gotten her and her sisters from the animal rescue, so they’d let her keep it, and just added her new name on at the end. Cranston doubted that any of the hens either knew or cared that they had names, but it was the principle of the thing.
Hearing him call, the hens inside the dark coop began to cluck excitedly. Dinner, brick red with white feathers scalloped in amongst the red ones, rushed through the little door first. She almost always did. She hopped down to the ground and started pecking up feed, just as Lunch put in her appearance. Lunch was a kind of yellowish-brown that matched her beak. She was plump and round. “If you don’t watch it, girl,” teased Cranston, “you won’t be able to get out the door pretty soon.”
Of course she ignored him and hopped down to the ground with a clumsy half flap of her wings. She started pecking up feed faster than Dinner, keeping one eye on Dinner and rushing her every so often to scare her off a bit of feed that Lunch had had her eye on.
Emily Breakfast was late to the feast today.
“Emily?” Cranston called. No Emily.
“Come on, lazybones. Or are you trying to make sure I don’t get your egg?”
He stuck his head inside the coop. In the darkness he could make out the three straw-filled nests, side by each. Lunch had laid a brown egg, and Dinner her usual white one with purple stars.
The third nest was empty. No egg, no Emily Breakfast. Cranston yanked his head out of the coop, banging the back of his skull on the jamb of the tiny door as he did so. He barely noticed. “Rose of Sharon, did you get in here and make off with Emily Breakfast?”
Rose looked hurt. And actually, there were no signs of a struggle in the run; no feathers, no blood. Cranston looked all around the coop and the run, and finally had to admit it. Emily Breakfast was gone. Disappeared. Like the poultry Rapture had come.
Cranston left the henhouse and rushed past a baffled Rose. Yelling for Sir Maracle, he barrelled in through the kitchen door. Sir was up and washing the dishes left in the sink from last night’s dinner. He was also naked. Ordinarily, Cranston would have stopped to admire his husband’s fine brown form, the broad shoulders that narrowed to a lithe waist, the firm swells of his ass and thighs below. Not today. Well, not for long, anyway. “Emily Breakfast’s been rustled!” he told Sir Maracle.
“What?” Sir turned away from his washing up to face Cranston.
“She’s gone! Gone away clean! Not even an egg, not even a feather! What are we going to do?”
“You’re sure she’s not hiding somewhere in the coop?”
“There’s nowhere in there to hide. The straw’s not thick enough to cover a mouse.”
“Rose of Sharon didn’t get in and cause mayhem?”
“I don’t think so, Sir. I think a two-legged miscreant got into the henhouse and took her away from us.”
“Chickens walk on two legs,” said Sir musingly. “And kangaroos, sometimes.” “That’s not—”
Sir frowned. “Let me put some pants on.” He came and took Cranston’s hand, gave him a kiss. “We’ll figure this out.”
“We have to find her soon. Before she becomes just breakfast, no Emily.”
“I know, love. But first we have to eat. You know that neither of us can think worth a damn without a good breakfast.”
It was true. So while Sir was getting dressed, Cranston started fretfully in on making breakfast. He’d forgotten to take the two eggs that had been in the nests, but he didn’t have any taste for them right now. Not with Emily Breakfast missing and probably in peril. It’d have to be just bacon and spinach. Cranston laid strips of bacon into a frying pan on the stove. Into another frying pan he put butter, garlic and the chopped herbs.
Sir came back into the kitchen. He ground some coffee beans and put the coffee on to perk.
The butter in the frying pan had melted and was starting to smoke. Cranston tossed in the spinach, covered the pan, turned the heat off.
“Sit,” said Sir, pulling a couple of stools out from under the kitchen counter. “Let me serve.” He knew that nothing melted Cranston’s heart more than when he flipped the script a little.
Cranston beamed his thanks at Sir, but he was too preoccupied to show his full appreciation. “What are we going to do about Emily Breakfast? And the bacon needs turning.”
Sir leapt to rescue the bacon before it burned. “I figure we search the yard first, in case she got out of the henhouse somehow.” He set out two mugs, began pouring fragrant coffee into them.
Cranston nodded. “Makes sense. And I’ll check with the neighbours. She could have gotten over the fence.”
Sir flipped the bacon out of the pan onto some folded paper towel. He began serving it onto two plates, then gasped and stopped. He looked stricken. “Have you checked out in the street?”
“Oh, my god.” Cranston shoved his stool back and ran out the front door. Sir was right behind him. They went up and down their street, in both directions. There was no Emily Breakfast roadkill to be seen. Sir breathed a sigh of relief.
By now, their neighbours had begun to notice the two of them looking. Sally and Beth offered to call the police. “For a chicken?” said Sir Maracle.
So Sally and Beth sent their eleven-year-old son, Juniper, to knock on everyone’s doors and ask permission to look in their yards for Emily Breakfast. Sabina, who was Morrigan, June and Sam’s daughter, went with him. She was two years younger, and had a bit of a crush on Juniper. In the meantime, June was broadcasting the news to the neighbourhood via her herd of messenger lizards. Herd?
“What do you call a group of lizards, anyway?” Cranston asked her.
June frowned as she used a length of bright blue ribbon to tie a tiny rolled-up note around the middle of a squirming three-inch long lizard. “You know, I’ve never known the official term for it? I just call them a ‘scuttle.’” She released the lizard. “Off you go, Baby. When you come back, Mama’ll feed you some nice fresh crickets.” She sighed. “If it comes back, that is. If it’s not losing them to predators, it’s message recipients that want to keep them.”
Mr. Finkelstein brought out some lemonade for Cranston and Sir Maracle. “Fresh squeezed,” he said proudly.
Cranston muttered to Sir, “I’d really rather have my coffee.” But they both politely drank their lemonade down while Mr. Finkelstein sat in the rocking chair on his porch and chatted with them about heaven knew what. Good manners made good neighbours, after all.
By the time they got back to their house, half the neighbourhood was either mobilized or alerted in the search for Emily Breakfast. Rose of Sharon was on the kitchen counter, gobbling down the last of the bacon. Cranston scolded her and packed her back outside.
Sir sighed. “At least someone got to eat it before it got cold.”
“I’ll go get the two eggs from the henhouse.”
As reports came in from all over the neighbourhood, it became obvious that Emily Breakfast hadn’t gone walkabout. Not on her own, at least. Cranston was beside himself. He’d been polishing the padded leather bench in the play room, but his mind wasn’t on it. “Who d’you think would want to steal Emily Breakfast?” he asked Sir, who was arranging paddles on the wall in a row according to size.
Sir considered. “Someone hungry?”
“Oh, don’t. I can’t bear to think about it. Besides, there’s probably no one in this city who has a clue how to pluck and”—he swallowed—“gut a chicken.”
“I do. My ma used to keep chickens when we lived out Manitoulin Way.”
“But you didn’t take her, did you?” Cranston was feeling snappish.
“No, of course not.”
Cranston sighed. “I’m sorry. I just worry that we’re running out of time.” He polished a little while longer, then said, “Wanna go sit out in the backyard?”
“You just want to check the yard for her again, don’t you?”
“We might have overlooked her somehow. Don’t you think?”
Sir thought about it, nodded. “We might have.” But he didn’t look very hopeful about it. “When we get her back, I’m putting a proper padlock on the door to their run, instead of a latch.”
Cranston was already halfway up the stairs to the main floor.
Outside, the early afternoon sun was the soft yellow-white of Emily Breakfast’s plumage. Sunlight glowed through the leaves of spinach and the low grass that covered the rest of the backyard. The leaves gleamed a delicious kiwi green, the same colour as Rose of Sharon’s eyes. Sir and Cranston sat in their Muskoka chairs and pretended to be enjoying the sunshine. Rose pestered them for scritches, but they both got tired of it pretty soon. In a huff, Rose wandered off to do cattish things.
Sir blurted, “Suppose we don’t get her back?”
Cranston smiled a little at that. Sir was just as big a worrier as he was. He just didn’t like to let on too often. “Let’s not get her back first before we think about that, okay?”
Sir thought his way through that twisty sentence, gave a gruff, unhappy nod. Then he said, “Silly cat. Stop that.”
“What’s she up to now?” Cranston turned to look. Rose of Sharon was tracking through the grass in front of the henhouse, her nose to the ground and her head weaving from side to side, picking up the scent.
Picking. Up. The. Scent.
Sir must have been thinking the same thing, because he asked, “Maybe it’s you she’s smelling? You went to the henhouse this morning.”
A god-awful noise came from the henhouse, a cross between a growling and a crowing.
Rose turned toward the stone paving path that ran along the side of the house to the front. “I didn’t go that way,” Cranston replied. He and Sir Maracle looked at each other. Rose of Sharon was on the trail of whoever had been in the henhouse last night. Sir Maracle went and undid the latch on the henhouse door.
Cranston stood. “Here, kitty-kitty.” He tried to grab Rose of Sharon and missed. His foot slid on the grass and he went down. Sir Maracle leapt to help him up. He must have pulled the henhouse door open when he did so, and that was the moment that Rose chose to switch directions and dash into the henhouse. “Oh shit!” said Cranston. “Never mind me—get Rose!”
“Screw Rose. Is your ankle okay?”
“Yes, I’m fine. Get Rose!”
But Sir Maracle was already helping Cranston up instead.
A god-awful noise came from the henhouse, a cross between a growling and a crowing. It made the little hairs on Cranston’s arms stand straight up. Rose was in the middle of the run, standing very still in a stalking pose, one front leg raised to take another step. But she looked more startled than stalkerish; in front of her, Lunch and Dinner had puffed their feathers and drawn their bodies up to full size, which was a good six inches taller than they usually showed. Rose took an uncertain step closer to them. Dinner screeched another challenge. This one came with a small spurt of fire from her nostrils. Her spurs, normally tucked up harmlessly against her legs, descended. Cranston made it into the run just as Dinner and Lunch, snorting Bunsen burner–sized flames, both lunged spurs first for Rose. He pulled Rose out from under. Lunch’s thrust gouged a line down his the back of his hand. “Ow!” He tucked Rose under his forearm and hightailed it out of the chicken run. Sir slammed the gate shut behind him. Cranston put Rose down on the ground. She shook herself and stared disbelievingly into the run. Lunch and Dinner, chests out, were stomping around the run, glaring at her. They were still blowing little puffs of smoke from their nostrils.
Sir knelt and stroked Rose. “Now do you see why we don’t want you in there?” he asked her. “Chickens are descended from dragons, you idiot.”
“Now they’re never going to let her in there long enough to get Emily Breakfast’s scent.”
Sir looked at the chickens that were slowly deflating again as they calmed down. “I’m beginning to think that Emily Breakfast might be able to defend herself.”
“Against a cat, yes. But against a human?”
“I don’t know what else to do, love. Come. Let’s clean out that cut.”
“Wait! Check Rose out.”
Rose of Sharon was tracking again. They followed her along the paved stone pathway to the front of the house, where she veered off to the wall that ran along the front of their property. She leapt to the top of the wall with a flap of her wings. She sniffed around the top of the wall for a second, then leapt down to the ground outside their property.
“Bastard came over the wall,” said Cranston. “Find her, Rose! Go find Emily Breakfast!”
Rose didn’t even look up. She just kept following the trail.
Sir put one arm around Cranston. “D’you think that’ll really work? It’s one thing to track a slug through the spinach patch, but a human?”
“We still don’t know that it was a human. Don’t foxes get into henhouses?” “Damn. Let’s hope Rose doesn’t corner a fox.”
“Shit! I didn’t think of that.”
But though they went looking for Rose, calling out her name, they couldn’t find her, either. They finally gave up and went back home. “We keep this up,” said Cranston gloomily, “and we won’t have any pets left.”
A screech split the Saturday afternoon air. It was coming from down the street. Sir sighed. “What now?”
June was stumbling up the street toward them. “Ow! Get off me! Stop that!” She was waving her hands above her head. “Not the hair, you mange-ridden fleabag!” She was actually being harried in their direction. Rose of Sharon flew above her, dive-bombing her head from time to time with outstretched claws. And, worrying at her ankles with spurs extended and the occasional tiny gout of flame was— “Emily Breakfast!” Cranston flung himself through the gate and out into the street.
Emily Breakfast was magnificent. Sunlight glowed white-hot on her feathers. She was at full height, her neck all snaky. She strutted angrily, growl-shrieking her challenge at June.
When they got closer, Rose landed on the pavement and butted her head against Cranston’s shin, but Emily kept circling June, doing that hair-raising growl and menacing her with her spurs. June’s ankles were covered in long red welts.
June stumbled to a halt, her chest heaving. “Those animals are dangerous!” she said to Cranston, doing a little leap to avoid another welting from Emily Breakfast. “I’m going to call Toronto Animal Services to take them away!”
Cranston crossed his arms. “You may want to first explain to them why you trespassed onto our premises to steal one of them. Emily, it’s okay. Stop now.”
“Why should you guys have all the cool pets?” raged June. “Three chickens! You’d think you could have spared one of them!”
“Excuse me? Who’s the one with the trained messenger lizards?”
June scowled. Then she yipped, jumped to one side, and started batting at her ankle. Emily Breakfast had taken one more shot and had set June’s shoelace on fire with a snort of flame. Then Emily Breakfast turned tail and, squawking, did a waddling run over to Cranston, her wings held out at her sides, for all the world like an alarmed chicken. Which she was, after all. She was just the kind who got feisty when cornered. Cranston was so proud of her! He crouched down, but Emily Breakfast ran right through his welcoming open hands. She crouched under him and stuck her head out, scolding June from the safe shelter of Cranston’s body.
Sir Maracle had come over to join them. “Give it up, June. I’m beginning to think there’s a reason that so many of your lizards try to run away and never come back.”
“June,” said Cranston, “go home. Maybe you’ll be the one getting a visit from the animal shelter people.”
June huffed. Rose yowled at her. June took a step backward. “Bloody hen would have been too much trouble, anyway. Little bitch dropped an egg on my head.”
Sir laughed. “Good girl, Emily Breakfast.”
June glared at them and stomped off toward her home.
Rose leapt out of Sir’s arms. She hunkered down and peered under Cranston at Emily Breakfast. From a safe distance. Emily was back down to normal size. She stepped slowly out of Cranston’s lee, toward Rose. Rose got to her feet, ready to flee or fly. But Emily didn’t charge, didn’t swell. Her spurs remained sheathed. When she got close enough, Rose stuck her nose out and sniffed Emily Breakfast’s scent. Emily Breakfast stretched her neck out. With her beak, she scritched the back of Rose of Sharon’s neck, the way birds do to show affection to each other. Rose sighed and closed her eyes in bliss. Emily Breakfast kept it up a good, long while.
With thanks to Eleanor Rose Sims, in whose honour Rose of Sharon was created.