From the neck down, guinea fowl are handsome. European chefs rightly prize them — easily the best poultry I’ve ever tasted. But I can as readily imagine a lemming ranch as a commercial, EU-regulated guinea farm.
In South Carolina, tobacco allotments were small and about the only source of money. Farm families lived close to the bone. But many kept guineas, which they neither ate nor fed. The guineas cried puhTRAK! puhTRAK! whenever a car drove by, a hawk flew over, a door slammed, or somebody sneezed, but they also ate tobacco hornworms, which otherwise ate the precious tobacco seedlings. They roosted in trees and were regularly picked off by owls, but a few generally survived long enough to raise a brood and keep the flock going.
For reasons reason cannot elucidate, some people in Bowdoinham keep guineas. They don’t eat them, can’t domesticate them, and have to feed and shelter them through the winter. They hope to wake up one morning and discover the whole flock has run away and joined the circus. Instead, they remain, repeating their grating, compulsive note — puhTRAK! puhTRAK! from dawn to dark.
We have a neighbor who is no longer young. Call him McDonald. And old McDonald had some guineas: puhTRAK! here, puhTRAK! there; here, there, everywhere puhTRAK!, etc. We’d hear them in the woods behind the house, or see them standing in the middle of Route 24, puhTRAKing urgently. (Another, more distant neighbor also had a flock and had a customized highway caution sign — Guinea Xing — beside the road in front of his house. The trouble is guineas don’t X; they confer, blocking traffic in both directions.)
Of course McDonald’s flock shrank, depleted by traffic, fierce wild beasts, and Hereditary Pretraumatic Stress Disorder. Finally there were three, then two. Then there was one, a hen. McDonald named her PuhTRAK, so she could talk to herself.
One October morning, I was backing the boat into the garage, a tricky maneuver. Suddenly, there in my rear-view mirror, next to the trailer’s right wheel — more precisely, the right hubcap — was PuhTRAK, insistently introducing herself to her reflection. I backed the trailer against the garage’s side door, opened it behind her, herded her inside, and drove her over to McDonald’s. My story didn’t surprise him: turns out PuhTRAK spent most nights under his truck and a good part of every day puhTRAKing away at its hubcaps. Guineas are, he explained, pathologically gregarious: A flock’s a sort of phobic reinforcement support group, I guess — McDonald is an observant, original man — just what we need these days.
We saw her once more. In November, a gang of wild turkeys regularly rummaged under our birdfeeder, and one day, rummaging with them, was PuhTRAK. When they took alarm and scuttled off, she did too. We hoped she might find acceptance, a new identity, and a new vocabulary for herself.
But we heard she returned home and resumed sleeping under the truck and conversing with the hubcaps. That winter, snowbanks reduced McDonald’s road to one lane. One bitter day, the sander came rumbling up it. PuhTRAK — guard dog? Miss Lonelyhearts? lunatic? — ran after it, yelping. It stopped to turn around in the last driveway. Perhaps she scrambled up the snowbank to get away, then tried to fly over the truck. Somehow, she wound up in the back of it. She was reportedly last seen in Topsham, swaying precariously atop a pile of shifting sand, southbound.
To some, her spectacular exit suggested apotheosis. Local mythographers accordingly prophesy she will one day return in glory, cry out from a high place, and our lonely nation will respond in ecstasy: PuhTRAK! PuhTRAK!