Peeps in the Attic

By Betty Lou Mell

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    Teddy and I checked the victory garden every day, weeding and harvesting what was left of the summer crop. Then we watered the tiny vegetable trays mother kept on the windowsills. We tried to grow food in every possible way, so I suppose it was a blessing when Father came home one afternoon with a box of peeps under his arm.

    I remember the air raid siren had sounded the all clear signal. Mother, Teddy, and I climbed the stairs and continued preparing our meal. Teddy, who always ran to the window looking for damage, shouted, “Father’s coming!”

    Sure enough, his cap bobbed along above the hedges, and in a minute he turned in at our gate. That day he wore a broad smile and carried a box. He kissed all of us, gave Mother a hug, and pointed to the small wooden container.

    “Come see what I’ve brought!” he invited.

    We all gathered around, and as he lifted the lid, fluffy yellow and brown balls of feathers began peeping and begging for food. He reached into his pocket and sprinkled some tiny seeds and the chicks pecked, making the seeds disappear.

    “Oh, Arthur,” Mother gasped. “What on earth?”

    “Now, Lucile,” he smiled. “No need to be alarmed. We’ll raise the chicks and have poultry to eat.”

    “Raise them!” she exclaimed with peaked eyebrows. “Where?”

    “If they were a little bigger and winter weren’t coming, I’d build them a coop outside. But, as it is, I thought they might be all right up in the attic.”

    “In the attic!” Mother exclaimed, glancing around in a panic.

    “There, there,” Father soothed. “It’s not that bad. You’ll see. I’ll build a cage. Then all we’ll have to do is clean the cage and feed and water them. They’ll do fine.”

    Mother relented, the cage was built, and the chickens grew in our attic. Then Teddy, with his big mouth, began telling everyone what nice pets we had in the attic. I could have died of embarrassment. Still, it wasn’t fair to blame him—after all, he was barely six! It was too good an opportunity for the kids to pass up though, and even my best friend Natalie Thomas began making fun of us.

    Teddy and I walked to school that autumn, looking neither to the right nor to the left, but holding our heads proudly as Mother had said we should.

    “Katie and Teddy sleep with chickens!” came Natalie’s singsong chant as we neared the school yard.

    I clutched Teddy’s hand tighter, lifted my chin higher, and my knuckles turned white against the dark edges of my books. It isn’t true! I wanted to shout, but I wouldn’t give my friend the satisfaction of knowing how much her remark hurt. No, I thought determinedly. It’s better to ignore ignorance.

    Still, it was always a great relief when I heard the dismissal bell. Again, I would clutch Teddy’s hand and drag him home. Once inside our house, I blew my nose while Teddy wiped his eyes. Then we went about our chores, trying, as everyone else did, to act as though nothing were wrong.

    But there was a lot wrong. That year, the Germans blockaded the English Channel and bombing raids came almost daily. Many of the houses were left burning, and people everywhere were suffering. Lunch was little more than dried biscuits, and there was no longer any jam. During class you could hear a constant grumbling of stomachs, and my head often ached from hunger. Even Natalie, who I no longer spoke to, had made new holes in her belt, for her clothes bagged even more than before.

    Then we had our first snow. It fell in huge fluffy flakes and covered everything with a soft white blanket, and our shoes made gentle squeaks as we walked. I wondered how many people would be able to keep warm through the winter.

    As Teddy and I crossed our threshold that first snowy day, we smelled a most delicious aroma. My mouth watered as I lifted the lid of a simmering pot. Inside was a colorful mixture of noodles and carrots floating in a golden broth. Teddy’s eyes got round and happy as I lifted him up to see.

    “It smells so good, Katie!” Then he grinned. “Do you think we could have a taste?”

    “I don’t see the harm,” I replied as I blew on a spoonful of hot broth.

    The rich, warm liquid trickled through our lips, then Teddy’s face twisted into a smear of lines. “It’s chicken!” he sobbed.

    “Of course it’s chicken,” I agreed. “What did you think it was?”

    He held his mouth and ran from the room. Then, and only then, did I think of our peeps. Slowly, I replaced the spoon and climbed the stairs to the attic. I counted four chickens where there had been five. My stomach rolled over and I sat down to gather my senses. One chicken is gone.

    At the bottom of the stairs, I heard Mother call, “Katie, Teddy, are you home?”

    I descended the stairs slowly and Mother must have read my face. She asked quietly, “Katie? Are you feeling all right?”

    “We tasted the soup, Mother,” I replied, staring at the floor. “It’s … it’s chicken soup.”

    Mother sat down on a chair and unbuttoned her coat. “Yes, dear, it’s chicken. Are you terribly upset?”

    “I don’t think I can eat it,” I said quietly. “I thought of them as pets.”

    “We all did, dear,” she replied. “But your father explained—”

    “Oh, Mother!” I sobbed, suddenly losing complete control. “How could you?”

    Mother grasped my shoulders and hugged me close. “I’m sorry, Katie, I really am. But in times like these, we do what we must.”

    “We have vegetables,” I sobbed.

    “Yes, Katie, we do, but unfortunately there are those who don’t.”

    I sniffled and looked up into her face. “What do you mean?”

    “Natalie’s mother has been giving her children most of their food and going without herself. I went there today and she looks so thin and pale, with dark circles under her eyes. It’s hard for her with her husband fighting in the war. Would you deny a neighbor food?”

    I thought of Natalie’s hurting chant, “Katie and Teddy sleep with chickens!” And for a brief moment I almost said, “Yes!” Then I thought of her sagging clothes and looked down at my own. We were all thinner, paler. The world was at war, and these were hard times shared by all. “So you made the chicken soup for them?” I wondered aloud.

    “I made it for all of us, Katie.”

    I nodded and stared at the table.

    “They’ll be along soon, dear. Would you please set the table?” Mother asked as she stood to hang her coat on a peg.

    “Is Natalie coming too?”

    “Of course,” Mother nodded.

    With a smile, I reached for the bowls and began setting them around the table. As I did so, I reasoned with myself, Maybe Heavenly Father sent the peeps to us because He knew we could take the jeers without becoming revengeful. Maybe He even knew that when the time came, we would share what we had. It made sense to me, and I liked to think that it was so. I determined to explain it to Teddy that way. Maybe then he, too, might understand about the peeps in our attic.

    Illustrated by Dick Brown