J.A. Parente is the author of numerous short stories which have inexplicably remained grossly under-appreciated… until now! In more recognized endeavors, his consulting career has centered on workplace research and organization assessment. He holds graduate degrees in Psychology from CCNY and the Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies at Adelphi University. Mr. Parente is optimistically completing work on his first novel along with everyone else at Starbucks.
Saint Greta the Chickenhearted
by J. A. Parente
St. Greta appeared at Our Lady of the Ascension Church on Sunday, April 8, 1951 at 10:22 AM through totally fortuitous circumstances that left more than a few local families to make do with a mundane Aglio e Olio, #9 thin-spaghetti dinner, not the more exotic, semi-obligatory, Sunday chicken cacciatore.
It all began innocently enough when Antonio Benito—the local “Chicken Master” as he dubbed himself—was about to fill Mrs. Palacio’s customary order that Sunday morning. Unfortunately for him, he failed to note a certain cunning “Mediterranean” breed of chicken lurking near the crate’s door amidst flailing wings, fluttering feather bits and piercing cackles of her fellow poultry-death-row inmates. As Mr. Benito reached into the wooden crate to snatch up a juicy victim by the neck, St. Greta (that was not her name yet) seized the moment and chomped down with as much vigor in her beak as she could muster on the less-hairy inside of his bare forearm and tore out a cricket-sized chunk of her captor’s flesh. Whether the chicken aimed for this particularly sensitive piece of human landscape through crafty forethought or just plain luck remains up for debate.
“Yeow! Pollo stupido!” Mr. Benito yanked his throbbing arm back out of the crate. Greta immediately trailed behind the afflicted limb and shoved the jail’s door wide open. She and a dozen other frantic, confused chickens surged out around Mr. Benito, creating a colossal ruckus. St. Greta was the only escapee with enough presence of chicken-mind to bolt for the polleria’s slightly ajar front door.
She headed left and scampered full tilt down 23rd Street, flapping and clucking riotously, leaving a scant trail of white fluff in her wake. When the wayward chicken arrived at Our Lady of the Ascension she made a hard right turn and flew up the Church’s 13 concrete steps to the welcoming heart of Father DiPatria who, moments before, had opened the ponderous front doors for the 10:30 AM Sunday Mass.
Father DiPatria clasped his hands in delight and smiled broadly when he spotted the wayward chicken. As fate would have it, Father had had a treasured pet chicken just like her as a boy on a small farm outside of Pisa, Italy, and the priest almost instantly fell in love with this white-as-pristine-Alpine-snow apparition.
Mr. Benito had followed the chicken-feather trail in hot pursuit of his escapee as fast as his own skinny chicken legs could carry his huge protruding pot belly. The truncated shadow of the profile he cast in the early rising sun resembled an ass-backward Centaur.
“Santuario! Santuario! Il pollo ha santuario nella mia Chiesa! (The chicken has Sanctuary in my Church!)” Father DiPatria yelled commandingly, physically blocking Mr. Benito, who by now was fuming, from entering the vestibule to recapture his errant prey. St. Greta had taken strategic refuge amidst the posterior folds of Father’s long black robe and repeatedly poked her pure white head out to mock Mr. Benito. You could practically hear the clucking taunts: “Bring it on, belly boy!”
“DiPatria! Lei – e – mio!” (She – is – mine!), the “Chicken Master” shouted between grindingly clenched molars. But Father was not budging, not an inch.
“Basta! Non lei tocci!” (Loose translation: “Enough! If you touch her I’ll wring your miserable neck like you do with those other innocent chickens!”). Father had yelled so fiercely that Mr. Benito, realizing there was more going on here than an AWOL chicken, stopped dead in his tracks and gingerly backtracked down the Church steps.
“Pazzo sacerdote,” (loony priest) he blurted over his shoulder at about the same instant the back of Father’s fingertips slid up from his Adam’s apple and flicked off the edge of his gray-stubble chin.
And so exactly one minute and forty-three seconds after her unexpected arrival, the self-liberated chicken was canonized by Father DiPatria as St. Greta. “Io corona ti St. Greta,” he announced ceremoniously and grinned as the chicken bowed her head in reverence, or because she spotted remnants of the stale bread Father had scattered about for the local pigeons. But Greta’s newly-bestowed sainthood came with significantly more baggage than her tiny chicken brain could comprehend.
Father DiPatria had named her Greta after his childhood sweetheart, the one true love of his life, who, also unmarried and childless, now ran a small children’s nursery school somewhere in the northern reaches of Puglia. Both were deeply nurturing souls, he with his plants, she with other people’s offspring.
Their parents’ small farms lay adjacent to each other along the border of Piemonte and Lombardia. Giorgio’s family grew a modest assortment of crops for their own consumption and to sell, or often give, to others; Greta’s family tended limited batches of livestock and more than a few chickens that provided eggs, as well as more chickens. Between the two families’ ceaseless backbreaking labor, bartering for goods, and long days at market, they all lived precariously close to the bone but remained relatively self-sufficient.
The two young children would giggle shyly at each other through the rails of the weather-battered split-rail fence that acted as a perfunctory division between the farms. Then as they each sprouted taller, she a bit more precociously than he, they secretly admired one another over the fence. One bright yellow morning when they were about 10 and 9 years of age respectively, Giorgio had gathered a diligently selected collection of wildflowers, and Greta had purloined a lovely albino baby chick from a recent brood, their faces flushed in anticipation as they approached their usual meeting spot at the fence where they exchanged their precious gifts, and, on this warm, sun-drenched Lombardia morning, their hearts.
And so it remained, even now across the years and the ocean, with him naming this silly chicken, not Greta, but Saint Greta, and her spinning tall tales for her students at story time of Giorgio the magic farmer who could make sunflowers reach as high as the clouds and grow peppers bigger than houses.
Since Mr. Benito had given up on his quarry, Father DiPatria turned and ushered St. Greta down the Church aisle, through the Sacristy and out into his garden wonderland where she quickly realized she had almost died but had gone to Heaven here on earth. While Giorgio DiPatria was now a dedicated priest, deep in his soul there remained the devoted son of a calloused-hand, stoop-shouldered, life-long worker of the land. God had graced Father with a green thumb, and an even greener brain possessed of a Jungian collective memory for growing just about anything.
His mini-Babylonian empire behind the Church sacristy garden was laid out in geometrically precise rows. The obsessively and lovingly tended plants and vegetables lay in raised plateaus of dark, richly composted soil, thanks in no small measure to the culinary remainders from Sister Virgil’s school cafeteria. The pathways had been layered with four levels of newspaper then covered in thick scatterings of straw and mulch to discourage weeds. From these underpinnings, Father DiPatria successfully grew some obscure varieties of flowers that prospered elsewhere only in the remote hills of Uruguay. His eggplants were the size and perfect blue/black color of bowling balls fresh off a Brunswick assembly line. The priest could plant a feather in late autumn and have a muster of peacocks popping up at springtime.
St. Greta quickly settled in as self-appointed guardian angel of Father’s floral and vegetal domain and became his dearest friend on whom she imprinted and subsequently followed just about everywhere. And every now and then in Father’s confessional late on a quiet Saturday afternoon, one could sometimes hear a muffled cackle which the priest quickly tried to mask with an unconvincing cough.
Father doted shamelessly on St. Greta, giving her full run of the Rectory, even allowing her to sleep in his bed, perched most uncomfortably for both of them, atop Father’s compost-smelling feet. The chicken/priest pair looked ridiculous… and heart-wrenchingly sweet. He even concocted his own special chicken feed mixture of corn, parsley, a dash of oregano (he swore Greta was of genteel Italian heritage), eggshells (cringingly cannibalistic but needed) and some repulsive mashed bug concoction.
This accidental pair, rescuer and rescued, spent many tranquil days enriching each other’s lives through more than a few planting and harvesting seasons in the plot behind the rectory. For his part, Father assured vegetal provisions for the rectory diet and highly unwelcome supplies of beets for the school cafeteria while St. Greta maintained a tick-free environment and an appropriate balance of other various and sundry bug populations.
So it went over time… until, alas, one early Tuesday morning Father strolled out into his little tract of paradise and St. Greta did not follow, except with her beady, adoring eyes. And the canonized chicken wilted slowly in the weeks that followed, like a daffodil in early June, then began failing more rapidly until she took her final leave of Father’s Babylonian empire and his companionship forever for another grander piece of acreage. Father tried in his mind to accept St. Greta’s passing as a natural part of life, but in his heart his grief led him to look around to assign blame.
“God knows what she endured at that cursed polleria before she escaped,” he muttered, except in Italian.
As personally wrenching as he found it, Father DiPatria presided over what was probably among the most ornate, if not impious, Christian burials… of a chicken, ever. Angelo Carbone, the choir baritone, flaunted his stellar a capella interpretations of “Ave Maria” and “Amazing Grace.” Pastor Marino’s heart beat in tune with Father DiPatria’s in his love for all creatures, well, almost all—he could not abide possum snouts and three-toed sloths, and he recoiled from anything with more than four legs. The soft-spoken Pastor offered up some specially edited prayers for the deceased.
“O God, grant that the souls of thy servants, thy handmaidens, and thy faithfully departed… uh… chickens, especially our beloved St. Greta, may be numbered among the redeemed,” Pastor Marino prayed without a hint of irony as Father DiPatria sobbed quietly.
Two of OLA’s senior altar boys, the same two who helped Father wrap his fig tree in layer after layer of burlap every fall, obligingly did, well, the digging, then the refilling. A full complement of Our Lady of the Ascension School’s nuns was in respectful, even though requisite, attendance, including Sister Virginia the school cook, who had quietly expressed severe reservations about the appropriateness of all this to Madre Superiore and, one could sense, entertained certain unseemly culinary ruminations involving extra virgin olive oil and paprika.
And so, St. Greta departed from her loving flock of humans, and left Father DiPatria to retreat into his flora sanctuary, trying unsuccessfully to fill the aching void in his heart, and handing out excessive penances to every unfortunate penitent who visited his confessional, unaware of his grief.
Approximately ten days after the tender farewell to St. Greta an article in the local newspaper reported some vandalism at Mr. Benito’s “Chicken Master’s” polleria. It read in part:
“No money or valuables were taken from the store, but the wooden crates that lined three of its walls had all been emptied of their occupants, leaving the formerly-doomed poultry free to flee out the suspiciously ajar back door and scatter about the immediate neighborhood, which they gleefully did. Most have yet to be recovered.”
And in Father DiPatria’s confessional the following Saturday, parishioners’ lists of recurring petty sins were intermittently interrupted by multiple muffled cackles which the priest quickly tried to mask with pathetically unconvincing 3-pack-a-day cigarillo coughs.
Copyright 2014 by J. A. Parente