Sentinels in Long Still Rows

Sentinels in Long Still Rows

By Virginia Hamilton


Virginia Hamilton Smiling - Sentinels in Long Still RowsMy mother, Etta Belle Hamilton, was a perfectly round, small woman, not five feet tall. As a youngster going on 12, I soon was as tall as she. But she had a commanding presence, and a stern look from her could stop me cold. She was awfully good to me, though, and a wonderful teller of tales. I did my best to please her.

Mother was a farm wife, a flock owner with some 600 chickens. “Go take a look at the rainbow layers,” she’d tell me. “I bet you can gather a heap of Easter eggs.” I had many names as a child. One was Baby, until I grew out of it. Another was Ginny, which stuck to me all through school until after college, when a coworker in New York named me, of all things, Gin-Gin. But for Mama, Etta. Belle, the flock master, I was Virginia, the egg gatherer.

And as the hens milled around in the chicken yard, I went to the hen house to empty their nests. Occasionally, I would find variously colored eggs in some of the nests. Turquoise and olive eggs, pinkish eggs and eggs in shades of brown. They weren’t as brightly hued as were the ones we hard-boiled and painted in the kitchen with food coloring. But they were beautifully tinted by nature. Mama’s rainbow-layers laid eggs in colors. They were the exotic Araucana chickens she sent away for. I believed she got them out of the Sears catalog, because most every thing came to us from it. But now, I’m no longer sure about that. She got baby chickens from somewhere, some of which grew into the proud Araucanas.

I knew that chickens laid tinted eggs long before most children had heard the news.

When I told my class at school about my job as colored-egg gatherer, some of the town kids snickered, “Both you and the eggs are colored!” The country kids who came by bus, knowing that all manner of mystery happened on farms, kept their mouths shut.

I was on my own with rainbow chickens and colored baby chicks.

I told Mama and she said, “Go take a look in the library.”

“For what?” I wanted to know.

“For the rainbow-layers,” Mama said. “There’s more than one kind of chick with color. More than Araucanas.” And then she gave me what I thought of as a secret smile.