Like all the other waifs and strays, HennyPenny limped into our life a mere shadow of her former self. We should have a sign on our house saying ‘Soft Touch Suckers Live Here’.
I answered a knock at the door to a woman whom I vaguely knew through another friend, but it took a moment to figure out who she was. Seeing my confusion, she re-balanced the box she was holding in both hands and said “Hi, I’m Eve’s friend Jo.”
Eve sold free-range eggs at the Farmers Market. We’d been chatting and I told her Mark and I wanted to get some hens. I asked Jo if she’d like to come in.
“Well, no,” she said, looking embarrassed. “You see, I’m probably being pushy coming to see you, but you’re the last hope.”
“Sounds intriguing,” I replied, intrigued.
“Our house backs onto a chicken farm,” she continued, “and they cleared out the battery hens. Trucks came and took them for slaughter. Except this one escaped.” She pushed the box she was holding towards me. “We found her yesterday under our hedge, she was cold and wet so we took her in, but we can’t keep her. I thought Eve would want her, but she doesn’t, so she suggested you . . .” She pushed the box further towards me until it was impossible for me not to take it, like being served legal papers.
“Oh, right,” I said dubiously, looking down at the weightless box I was now holding. “So the chicken is in here?”
“Yes,” said Jo looking very relieved. “The chicken is in the box. We called her HennyPenny.”
I peered though the gap in the top of the box and saw HennyPenny’s glassy eyes peering back at me, her pale pink comb hanging listlessly to one side. She nestled on a bed of straw, and apart from three straggly feathers protruding from where her tail should be, she was completely naked. I understood why Eve didn’t want her. “I see.” I said to Jo. “She looks a bit sorry for herself, doesn’t she?”
Jo smiled and nodded, anxious to leave before I changed my mind or the chicken died, which looked imminent. I carried the box indoors, opened the top flaps and set it down next to the warm Rayburn. HennyPenny might look plucked and oven-ready, but there wasn’t enough meat on her to feed a mouse. I fetched an old wool sweater and wrapped it round her, and placed a dish of bread and milk in her box. The least I could do was help her die comfortably.
Later that evening I found Mark sitting on the floor next to the box, telling HennyPenny a bedtime story about earthworms. Her comb was the most pitiful sight. It should’ve been bright red standing proudly atop her feathered head, but instead it hung limply, faded to anaemic pink with brown tinged edges. She was literally fading away.
Overnight Henny ate another dish of bread and milk, drank a bowl of water, and looked very surprised to still be alive. My friend Sadie came and gave her a Reiki treatment, using her hands to spread healing around HennyPenny’s frail body. The chicken sat motionless on Sadie’s lap with her head tucked into her chest and eyes tightly shut. Afterwards, we placed her back in the box and re-wrapped her sweater while she continued to sleep. Not wanting to disturb her, Sadie and I took our tea into the other room.
“What do you think her chances are?” I asked.
“Not much,” sighed Sadie. “To be honest, I think she’s almost gone.”
We agreed that at least she’d tasted freedom of sorts, and drank our tea in silence.
Henny slept that whole day, and the next morning she tried to preen her three feathers. Mark found her a larger box which we filled with lots of fresh straw and breadcrumbs, and put her outside in the sunshine. She pecked some crumbs, nestled in the straw and bathed in sunshine and fresh air. Each day she ate a little more, and grew a little stronger. HennyPenny was a fighter.
When Sadie visited the following week, HennyPenny raised her head at the sound of a voice she knew. As Sadie walked in the kitchen, the chicken stood up in her box and shook her little body, ruffling imaginary feathers. Sadie greeted her with a cheery hello, and Henny stretched one wing, then the other wing, and then lifted each scrawny foot, flexing her toes. Then she turned and looked at Sadie. Sadie knelt over the box sending healing energy, and HennyPenny’s eyes fixed on Sadie, locked on to the radiowaves of Reiki. It was a sight I’ll never forget. Sadie and I looked at eachother, shrugged and smiled. Henny coopied down and went back to sleep.
HennyPenny continued to thrive and it was joyful watching her become a ‘proper’ chicken again. As she began walking about it was obvious she was lame on one leg, but it didn’t stop her helping us in the garden, and she quickly learnt to scratch the soil and dig for insects. Serendipitously one afternoon I met Martin, who ran a chick-rearing unit nearby. He asked me if I wanted an odd hen who had escaped from the unit and evaded capture until he saw her roosting on the front gate. If I had any use for her, he’d take her to the farm. That evening I returned home with HennyPenny’s new housemate, Martina.
Mark built Henny and Martina a chicken palace at the top of the garden. They had a large wire-covered run, with a little ramp leading up to a hen sized door in the side of the garden shed. The first time we put them in and carefully shut the gate, Martina demonstrated her Houdini technique, squeezed through the wire and did a victory dance on the roof while Henny watched in awe from below. The escapee was swiftly recaptured and Mark re-enforced the wire mesh while Martina stalked the boundary searching for another flaw in the fortifications, strutting about like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape.
As dusk fell, Mark and I quietly walked up to the chicken house to check the girls had found their way inside and feed their night-time corn. Martina was squawking at Henny, who couldn’t figure out how to walk up the ramp. Martina did a demo walk strutting like a supermodel on the catwalk. At the top, she stood by the door and flapped her wings while Henny watched from the ground, but Henny kept walking under the ramp. Martina marched back down and pecked the old chicken until she was facing the correct direction. Then Martina pushed Henny up the ramp in a display of chicken wrangling at its best. Our chicken had her own carer.
HennyPenny and Martina were inseparable. They devoured all the weeds snails and slugs in the garden, and most of the flowers, while chattering to eachother in a soft question-and-answer rhythm. When the morning sun moved round to face the hedge, they’d scoop a dug-out in the soil and settle down for a nap, but if Martina saw a frog or a mouse in the undergrowth she’d launch herself like an Exocet missile, running, flapping her wings and semi-flying until she caught it and ate it with a satisfying gulp. One lucky frog was rescued when he defiantly spread-eagled himself across her mouth and refused to be swallowed. That afternoon when Martina stood on the kitchen windowsill pecking at the window, we took our tea and biscuits outside, and she sat on Mark’s lap drinking tea from a saucer and eating custard creams while Henny nibbled cake crumbs. Afternoon tea was so much tastier than a frog.
Martina laid a large brown egg each day, and heralded its arrival with a fanfare of squawks while Henny stood chirruping encouragement; Henny’s eggs were tiny inedible ‘fart eggs’ but we made a fuss over them and praised her because the old girl did her best. Home-baked cakes rose to great heights, with saffron-yellow sponge, and omelettes took on a whole new dimension. If you added the cost of chicken corn to the time spent tending the girls, they would probably be the most expensive eggs in the world, but they were our eggs from our hen, and they were priceless.
One afternoon while Mark was at work, the girls were sleeping under the front hedge while I painted furniture in the garden. The phone rang and I went indoors, and when I came out the girls had gone. I called but no answer . . . and then I saw Henny’s feathers by the dugout and another pile of feathers by the chicken coop. The fox had been. Henny would have been an easy lunch as she sat still and awaited her fate, but Martina had made a run for safety, her stick-legs racing across the garden to the chicken coop, but she couldn’t outrun the fox. Nature is cruel and the garden fell silent.
When life is so full of heartbreak and death, it’s difficult to find importance in the demise of two chickens. Mark and I wept at their departure but kept our grief between ourselves. When the bigger picture is too daunting to contemplate, you bury your feelings in something more personal, something that you can actually feel. In processing the smaller picture, the larger one becomes more bearable.
We had other chickens after Henny and Martina but they were ‘just chickens’ and while their eggs were every bit as large and brown, they were ‘just eggs’. People, animals, events come in and out of life and we can’t stop change any more than we can halt time. Cakes still rise and the world still spins. In the words of Rumi:
‘This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.’