On the last day of the two weeks, Baby Sister told Charlotte that she had a special job for her. Papa were entertaining that evening, and Cousin Margaret had asked Baby Sister to serve squab, a fancy name for baby dove (a pigeon if you’re English), and it was going to be a tough order. Squab were small and a pain to clean, and it took a mess of them to make a decent meal, but orders were orders.
One guess who Baby Sister expected to collect the birds—Charlotte of course. Fowl houses stunk to high heaven, and it was a smell that stayed with you for days. Until then, Charlotte had done every job without complaint, unless you count a quivering lip or two, but she performed every one of them.
This time, though, she said no. As many as two hundred pigeons lived in the dovecote that time of year, and they flapped and flutter around in terrifying disarray at the slightest disturbance. Charlotte was certain that she could go mad in there.
“You’ve just got to send somebody else,” she pleaded. “I’m afraid. The birds will get stuck in my hair and poop all over me. You just can’t send me in there. I’ll have a heart attack and die and it will all be your fault and Papa will be angry. I’m sure you see how important it is not to send me.”
“Well, missy, I’m sure that you don’t want me tellin’ your papa that you refused to do an important job, ‘specially after I asked you so nice,
and all,” she relied. “So I’ll be leavin’ it up to you. You go collect the birds and I won’t mention it to your papa, or we’ll go speak with him right now.
“No pressure, Miss Charlotte it’s all up to you. Now what’s it gonna be?”
“I’ll go get the dang birds,” Charlotte said.
“You’ll what, Miss Charlotte?”
“I’ll go get the adorable little creatures out of the dovecote.”
“And you’ll do it with a smile on your face, right?”
“Yes, ma’am, I’ll do it with a smile on my face, but you can’t make me like it.”
“I didn’t ask you to like it, I only asked you to pretend yourself a smile.”
Charlotte left the kitchen by the back door flashing the toothiest grin anyone had ever seen. Her fists were in knots and she was mad enough to go in there and rip that whole birdhouse apart. She could have found the cote in the dark or with her eyes closed because it stunk a hundred times worse than the other fowl houses.
It didn’t look anything like a chicken house, though, it was a two-story brick cylinder the size of a small grain silo, but it reminded her of a tower in a fairytale where the fair damsel waited in distress. Rapunzel would have been right at home there.
The structure on the right is a beautiful 18th century dovecote. The steep roof is to discourage predatory birds from being able to sit on the roof and wait.
This book: KITCHENS, SMOKEHOUSE AND PRIVIES is one of my favorites. I know you'd enjoy it.
A small door with a rounded top was the only access into the cote, or as she liked to think of it, the hell hole. From the exterior, though, the dovecote was beautiful, kind of like a tall gazebo with solid walls. It had a conical roof with a huge finial at its peak, and the roofline was so steep that there wasn’t a hawk in the county that could perch there long enough to waylay a pigeon.
Plantation owners always maintained dovecotes. Some were cylindrical like the one at The Abbey, others were simpler wooden structures, but everybody kept pigeons because all they required was a place to nest and some grain, and the birds did the rest.
You could eat the adult birds, although they were stringy and tough, but the baby birds, squab, were delicious and were fat enough to eat in only four weeks.
Doves also could be raised for their down, but Cousin Margaret said that people were skittish about doing it, because there was an old saying that if you had even one pigeon feather in your pillow when you were on your deathbed, your passing would be long and painful.
The best reason for raising the birds, was for the guano. Papa said it was the best damn shit you could find. “A little goes a long way.”
That was good, of course, because like all birds, pigeons were pooping machines, but they were so small that their poop didn’t add up very fast.
Wearing short leather boots, a dress that she planned to throw away, and a tea towel tied onto her head, Charlotte was as ready as she was going to get. The one good thing was that she didn’t have to go into the cote alone. Baby Sister ordered a teenaged kitchen helper named Cicero to go with her.
“Are you ready, miss?” Cicero asked politely.
“I guess so,” Charlotte said on the verge of tears.
One last look, and they slowly opened the door to the cote. It creaked open like a castle door leading into a dungeon, and it smelled worse. Rotten corpses would be nothing compared to pigeon poop. The moment they stepped inside the door, the birds flew to the top of the cote in mass, flapping and fluttering and setting off a blizzard of feathers and poop.
Unaccustomed to the darkness, Cicero and Charlotte bumped into each other, almost knocking each other into the slushy, stinky guano in the bottom of the cote.
“Watch out for the snakes, Miss Charlotte,” Cicero whispered.
“Black snakes and coach whips. They love pigeons. Don’t you know anything?”
“I just know I want to hurry up.”
“All right, then, let’s do it.”
More than a hundred small nesting boxes not much larger than building bricks, lined the walls of the cote, forming rows of concentric circles. To reach them, you had to climb a revolving ladder called a potence. The ladder had a long arm at its top that was attached to a pole in the center of the cote. The arm enabled the ladder to revolve around the pole something like a library ladder sliding along a wall.
Just as Cicero was about the mount the ladder, they saw something slithering beneath the guano. “A snake!” Charlotte screamed. “A snake!” As if they were joined at the hip, Cicero and Charlotte sprang for the door in unison and escaped out into the sunlight.
Charlotte ran around going: “Eeee!” and Cicero bent at the waist, put his hands on the dovecote’s brick front and took a deep breath.
“That like to scared me half to death, Miss Charlotte.”
“Me, too,” Charlotte gasped. “I’m not going back in there no matter what.”
“Maybe you can do that,” he said, “but I gotta go back or I’ll get a lashing.”
When Charlotte heard that, she had to go, too. That was the kind of self discipline Papa was trying to teach her. She just didn’t know why she had to learn it in snake-infested guano. “All right,” she sighed after a long pause.
“I don’t want you to get a lashing, Cicero. I’ll go with you, but what do we do about the snake?”
“We kill it. I’ll go get a machete. Do you know how to use one?” “No,” Charlotte said. “I’ve never even touched one.” “It ain’t hard,” he assured her. “I’ll teach you.”
He returned with a machete half as tall as he was. “This machete’s too big for you to even pick up,” he said, “so I’ll have to do it. You stay here until I holler for you, so I don’t hit you by mistake.”
Hesitantly he entered the cote, dragging the heavy machete behind him. Then it got as quiet as a tomb inside that cote and Charlotte wondered if Cicero was still breathing, when all of a sudden she heard a big thunk! She poked her head into the darkness of the cote and found herself nose to nose with Cicero.
“I kilt him! Look!” he said, tossing the snake into the yard.
“I reckon he’s a five-footer, Miss Charlotte. That’s the biggest one I’ve ever kilt.”
“You’ve killed snakes before?”
“Well, o’course I have. Snakes is everywhere.”
“What kind of snake is this?”
“A black snake. They ain’t poisonous, but they’re mean tempered and they’ll chase you and bite the tar out of you. ‘Make you sick, too.”
“Are they like garden snakes? I’ve seen lots of garden snakes.”
“Sort of,” he said, “only they’re bigger an’ meaner. I’m going back into the birdhouse. Are you coming?”
“I’m going, too,” Charlotte said, cinching down her tea towel. “I’m scared, though.”
Cicero climbed the ladder and reached into the first nesting box searching for the baby birds. He found two, which is what he ended up finding in most of the other ninety-nine nests. Without even speaking to each other, they worked out a system.
Cicero would hold the birds out to his side, and then on Charlotte’s cue, he’d drop them into her outstretched basket. The most time-consuming part of the job was moving the ladder, and both of them praised Jesus as they captured the last of the chirpy little birds.
As they walked the hundred or so yards back to the kitchen, Cicero and Charlotte gave each other a grin, and then they parted ways. They had just gone into hell together, but their bond was severed the moment they had harvested the last of the chicks.