My cousin and his husband founded and run Horse & Cart, a small theater company here in Denver with big ideas. They write and produce original plays, they host an annual playwriting competition, they perform undiscovered work in unexpected places and generally “want to play in different locations while mixing theater up with music, dance, digital publishing, installations and filmmaking.” (From their website.) Their latest flash of genius is a series called Live Anthologies, in which local actors present fresh, original works by writers from around town and across the country at Paris on the Platte, a venerated Denver coffee house and bar. I’m madly in love with the premise, and when my cousin offered me a crack at one of the Twelve Days of Christmas for tonight’s holiday edition, I jumped at the chance. I’ve actually always rather hated this particular Christmas Classic, except for maybe Miss Piggy and the Muppets’ version, but Three French Hens was one of my choices, and I figured how hard could it be? At least I wouldn’t have to shoehorn eight girls with cows and buckets into some sort of storyline.
I grew up in a city, my grandparents lived in a condo — I don’t know if this is typical chicken behavior or not, but for a long time, those three French hens just sat there. They clucked and pecked and got up to pretty much nothing; you know I love my writing prompts, but this one, if you’ll pardon the expression, was laying an egg. Eventually a French boyfriend came along, and I really wanted the three hens to be his visiting Gallic mother and her two busy-body sisters — I even named them and got them as far as the Denver airport, where they sat expectantly clutching their little metaphorical purses, looking at me like, Well…? I eventually followed my lifelong daydream fantasy of a big-nosed Parisian boyfriend to its logical conclusion, and we washed up on a farm in the Loire Valley with three feathered friends.
I’ve never had a piece of my writing “performed,” and I can’t wait to see someone interpret my vision. I don’t even know yet if the actor who’s doing it is a man or a woman. But I do know I’ve never been so excited to hear seventy-eight non-returnable white elephant gifts parceled out — if for no other reason than I’m dying to find out what the heck a person does when he wakes up to twelve drummers drumming around the Christmas tree.
Sunday December 22nd, After I’ve Been
That such a boring and uninspired song could turn out to be crazy inspiring is in itself something of a Christmas Miracle. “Two” tackled the joys of a gift that poops pretty much head-on; like many a family Christmas, “Four” ran down the crack between heartwarming and get-the-hell-out; “Six” was a quiet celebration of small miracles stalked by grief; “Eight” was set in the Playboy Mansion, “Ten” was set in a fairy tale kingdom, and let’s just say the drums were not the only instrument the drummer in “Twelve” got some sound out of as the narrator’s search for The Perfect Orgasm eventually bore fruit. Pa rum pum pum pum, indeed…
The same (delightful) actress who read Twelve also read my Three. She read it with feeling, and she read it with Jean-Claude’s French accent — she read it wearing a dang apron, which might not sound like much in the prop department, but pretty much captured the tone of the story perfectly, I thought. I loved seeing something I wrote “come to life,” if you’ll pardon the cliche, and hope fervently to get in on the February Valentine’s edition. But let’s not put the Cart before the Horse, ha ha: the Third Day of Christmas is right around the corner — I’ll share the piece I wrote for Live Anthologies here in case you’re still looking for gift ideas. And if your True Love is one of those traditional types, I hope the pears from that tree are delicious!
Three French Hens
In my defense, every proposition sounds like a reasonable one when it’s pitched in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Trust me, if a Frenchman with jeans even half as tight or hair even half as insouciant as Jean-Claude’s sat you down at a café table with a view of the Eiffel Tower and asked you to poke yourself in the eye in the name of romance, you’d reach for the stick and ask questions later. And besides, “Would you like to move with me to the French countryside?” is not an especially difficult question to answer.
Apparently, there had been an aunt—Hortense, or something equally unlikely—who had apparently had a farm. She had also apparently bought the farm, and willed her country estate to Jean-Claude, who had cherished memories of spending his summers as a kid frolicking on the banks of the Loire, and who, more to the point, hated his job in Paris and wanted to take a whack at the country life. I came to France three years ago with a suitcase full of lies about wanting to bask in the art and soak up the culture and write myself famous. What I was really looking for of course was a French guy with a big nose and a little butt who wanted to teach me French and feed me cheese and, you know, guide me through the streets of the City of Love, wink wink, and Jean-Claude had proven himself to be a very qualified applicant. He accepted the position a year and a half ago, and if the countryside was where he wanted to take me, then off to the countryside I would go.
Note: “farm” turned out to be something of a wild exaggeration. The house was adorable, at least from the road. Large windows, cheerfully curtained, and a photogenic wooden gate around which Jean-Claude was confident it would be a cinch to rebuild the wall. “Régardes,” he said—Look!—“The stones are all still here.” Scattered around the garden, I noticed; they seemed to be its main crop. Around back, the house was less charming. I use the word “less” as it seemed to be a theme. The kitchen, for example, was easily accessible from the back garden, what with the door and a good portion of the wall gone. Scavenged, perhaps, although Aunty had only been gone for a couple of months. More likely eaten by the goat that came after my shoes each time I stopped moving. He was tailed around the yard by three clucking chickens who stopped to peck at the earth each time he stopped to peck at my feet, and that was pretty much it in the farm department. We had both grown up in cities—he in Paris, me in Pittsburgh—but I knew amber waves of grain when I saw them, and this wasn’t it. No rolling fields to plow; no pens of livestock to fatten or sell or milk; just an indoor/outdoor kitchen, a goat, and three French hens. My luck, I found myself sulking: if our commitment to monogamy precluded leaping lords or drumming drummers, could I at least have landed in the part where I get five pieces of gold jewelry? Three French hens? I always hated that song.
Jean-Claude is a pharmacist by training, and I don’t technically have the legal right to work here, so guess who plays Old McDonald while he’s at work all day? Which mostly means I move stones around the garden in case we ever plant anything and I chase the goat out of the kitchen; we’d have eaten goat ratatouille a long time ago, except I think I’m almost ready to try my hand at making cheese. I throw the occasional “Bonjour” over the back fence at our neighbor Francine, but for most of the day, it’s pretty much me and my friends the hens. They come and go as they please—we’re still working on that back door—and follow me around the house; it’s like having cats that cluck. And Francine has a rooster, so they pitch right in. I’m not saying I’m the kingpin of an egg empire, but I can fancy up an omelette come dinnertime that would knock your socks off.
This is our first Christmas here on the farm. We agreed no presents, but I got my hands on a goose from Francine, and we’re about to eat the hell out of this Christmas dinner. My sister knits like a madwoman, and I asked her to send me a scarf that I could give to Jean-Claude; it came in the mail the day before yesterday. It’s gorgeous, he’s gonna love it, and thank God, because the journal he gave me this morning has had me all emotional for most of the damn day.
“I made it myself,” he told me.
He just shrugged. “Internet,” he said. As if that explained everything. Which these days I suppose it often does.
It’s amazing. Especially considering he doesn’t care a thing about writing. Good, heavy paper; the cover is made from the poster I forgot we had from the first play he ever took me to see. I barely understood French then; I only remember asking “Quoi?” after every line; who can remember what it was actually about?
“I know you wanted a new laptop,” he said. “I wanted to get you one, but at least you can write in this?”
“When I finish writing ‘Merci, Jean-Claude’ it’ll be all full,” I told him. He smiled. I cried. Again.
He’s sacked out now, bless him; snoring beside the fire while the goat picks at his sweater. The hens are in the house, too, pecking at the bits of parsley and celery and I don’t wanna know what all else I’ve dropped on the floor getting this goose together.
It’s not Paris. It’s not Art. It sure as hell ain’t ‘five gold rings.’ These Three French Hens aren’t much, but they’re enough.
Unless they stop laying eggs. Then we’re moving back to Paris. Right after I fix us a big ol’ basket of fried chicken to eat on the train.