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I woke to poultry screeching in the night. “I thought I heard a chicken,” I told my wife in the dark. “I think it was a chicken,” she said, sounding shaken. The tremble in her tone was due less to the sound of the freaked-out bird than my having lurched from snoring slug to street-fighting sheet-flinger in a split second. Last week when a midnight backyard lightning strike dropped thunder that rattled the house to its bones and raised the entire family, I slumbered like a baby in a bassinet. And yet other triggers — the sound of fire pagers, a baby’s whimper, late-arriving teenagers and chickens under assault — galvanize me. I don’t so much wake as erupt.

This sounded as if it were directly below our bedroom window. Which made no sense, since all of our chickens were tucked safely in the coop clear over by the granary. I had locked them down myself before coming in for the night.

Just as suddenly as I kipped off the mattress, the chicken had gone silent. In fact, I was already questioning if I had heard it at all. It was already becoming dreamlike. I dropped my head to the pillow and was out again. I once awoke in a tent in Budapest to feel a thief kneeling on my feet and rummaging in my backpack. It was pitch black, so I just rared up and punched the darkness. My knuckles smacked a face, I heard a body tumble backward, I heard feet running away in the night. And I went right back to sleep. My wife suffers from insomnia and is displeased that neither thunder nor thieves nor squalling birds prevent my dropping off to dreamland in a trice.

At dawn it occurred to me that I couldn’t recall seeing one of our favorite hens lately. It was possible that I’d overlooked her in the flock, but she was bright and distinctive and usually first to the feeder, and she hadn’t been leading the charge down the ramp lately. Also, a week ago when we were working in the garden, she appeared out of nowhere and from the direction of our deck rather than the coop, where all the other chickens were fenced in. At the time, I had written it off to her intelligence, small size, and propensity for finding even the smallest gap in the netting. But now I realized she might have been nesting and not returning to the coop at night.

Sure enough, down around behind the deck at the base of the lilac tree, I discovered a clutch of eggs. Two of them were broken. Worse, I saw a scatter of feathers in the hen’s distinctive pattern. They trailed out of the weeds and across the yard.

So it was no dream, it was a varmint. Maybe a coon, maybe a fox, perhaps a fisher. One sweet little chicken, gone in the night. I have no snappy wrap-up. Sometimes that sound in the night is exactly what you fear. And by the time you hear it, there is nothing to be done. Over on the hutch there is a catalog. You can order chickens and they arrive peeping in the U.S. Mail. In times of darkness we appreciate little miracles.

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An original “Roughneck Grace” column exclusive to the Wisconsin State Journal. Audio versions may air on “Tent Show Radio”(tentshowradio.com). Read more from Michael Perry at www.sneezingcow.com.

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