By Wendy Hodge
There’s a small scar, almost invisible now, on my right inner wrist. It’s been there for over 40 years. I remember the summer day I earned that scar. I was with my grandmother, tending the chickens. The heat in the chicken coop was oppressive, but I was happy to be there with her.
She wore a faded blue work dress with an apron tied across her waist. My little red tennis shoes followed behind her muddy work boots; an eight-year-old has to take extra long strides to match an old Southern woman’s gait, especially when there are animals to care for.
Egg gathering – a bouquet of sights and sounds… hens squawking, chicken poop festering in the hay, and a rooster outside crowing like he’s telling the whole county that his girls have laid many lovely eggs.
The one sour note in this chorus was the hen who lived in the corner of the coop. She was huge and had eyes like the devil… red and beady and always watching. I never named her – one does not speak Satan’s name aloud amongst all those precious critters.
I’d spent many fear-drenched moments standing an arm’s length from that devil-hen, trying to muster the courage to take the eggs she’d laid. But every time, I faltered, walked away, and cursed myself for being a coward.
That summer day, my grandmother knew (in her infinite wisdom) that it was time for me to face up to the hen from hell.
With her hand at my back, I stepped forward. There she sat, Beelzebub, waiting for my vulnerable little girl fingers.
“Wendy Lynne, nice and slow, just take that egg,” my grandmother whispered.
I reached out. The hen and I locked eyes. And I froze. I could hear my heart beat in my ears.
We stared at each other, that demon fowl and I, for what felt like an hour or two but could only have been moments.
In a flash, the hen leaped forward and dug her beak into my skin, leaving a gash on my wrist and a trickle of blood in the hay.
I don’t remember my grandmother taking care of my wound, though I’m sure she did. And I don’t recall whether that hen gave up her egg that day, though I can imagine my grandmother’s long fingers pulling it from its bed.
I do remember what she said to me. “It’s okay to be afraid. Only an idiot is never afraid. It’s what you do with your fear that says what kind of person you are.” Pearls of wisdom right there in the chicken coop.
That next school year, I encountered the only bully I ever had to face… until I became an adult and realized grown-up bullies are far more subtle and twice as dangerous.
She was a big girl – a head and a half taller than me and twice as hefty. To this day, I can’t recall what provoked her, but on a dreary fall day, she decided I was the enemy and declared to everyone on the playground at recess “I’m going to beat her a$$ after school!”
I remember being slightly thrilled by the mere fact that she’d singled me out and also embarrassed and a little shocked by the use of the “A” word. And then, as math and English and science lessons wore on, the fear set in. What started as a slight shudder of fright became a wave of dread and terror. By the time the last bell rang, I was a panicky mess.
I gathered my books and walked on wobbly legs to the front door of the school. There she stood, all 5 feet and 100 pounds of her, waiting…. Just like that old devil hen. I walked slowly towards her. Again, I could hear the familiar rush of blood in my ears, my heart beat racing. I stopped a few feet in front of her. I was frozen. ‘Oh no!!’ my inner voice screamed. Sweat ran down my back. My lips were dry as dust. And then I heard my grandmother… “It’s okay to be afraid. Only an idiot is never afraid. It’s what you do with your fear that says what kind of person you are.”
And so, in the space of two seconds, my frozen limbs sprang to life. I dropped my books, lowered my head, and charged forward. And the meanest girl in second grade, the biggest bully on the playground, took a step backward and stumbled. All I could think was ‘She landed on her a$$.’ And that made me giggle.
I think it was the laughter that did her in. She began to cry. My little girl heart felt so bad for
her. I knelt in the grass next to her, and put my arm around her, and a strange friendship began.
One born out of fear and laughter and a newfound respect for myself and for each other.
I have a friend, whom I love very much, who is frozen with fear. He’s been dealt an absolutely unfair hand in life, and the grief he’s felt has been overwhelming. From that grief, and the turning upside down of everything familiar to him, has been born a paralyzing fear. I can’t say I empathize with him. I do not. I’ve had grief too, but everyone’s grief is unique and their own to bear. I can, however, sympathize. I have most definitely known fear… and I have learned so much from it. Fear is an insidious and relentless thief… of our dreams, of our joy, and of our peace of mind. But fear is a tool, a reminder of all that we have to lose, and a yardstick for our growth as the people we are all capable of becoming.
Because he is my friend and I love him, I will hope that he learns the lesson that I learned all those years ago in that chicken coop and on that playground. Fear is inevitable.
It will most definitely visit us all. But it is what we do with that fear that says what kind of person we are.
And the scars we carry, like the time-worn spot on my wrist that I find myself rubbing as I sit and write this, are reminders of the lessons we learn from demon fowl and schoolyard bullies and life itself in all its brutal glory.
Wendy Hodge is an Opelika native, an empty nester and lover of all things Opelika. She previously had a column titled A Word or Ten, which was featured in the Tennessee Star Journal and is currently awaiting release of her first novel with Harper Collins Publishing Company.