True Story #9
“Minerva is not doing too good,” is how Sophia, my sixteen-year-old, put it that cold January morning, coming in from her morning egg check. It was a weekday, and I was multitasking in the kitchen, packing a lunch for my son, drinking coffee, buttering toast, and waiting to see whether there were enough eggs for everyone’s breakfast. “What’s wrong?” I asked Sophia. “Do you think she’s too cold out there?” The nighttime temperature had been dropping below zero for a few weeks, and I was always concerned that our flock of seven laying hens wouldn’t have enough hay in their sleeping box to keep them warm overnight.
Sophia kicked off her rubber boots and handed me four small brown eggs, warm from the laying box. There were four already in the egg basket on the kitchen counter, so that would do. “No, I don’t think it’s the cold. She’s sleepy and doesn’t want to come out of the coop.”
This was disappointing news; our family’s Maran-Ameraucana-cross hen was young, just nine months old, and she laid pretty blue eggs. But, as a pragmatic vet in our community says, “A sick chicken is a dead chicken.”
Eight years ago, this vet tried to discourage me from spending a lot of money and energy attempting to save my first-ever sick chicken, Big Ann, a Rhode Island Red who produced large brown eggs on a very predictable schedule. I was not deterred, and spent one hundred dollars on antibiotics—a chicken itself costs only ten dollars—and Big Ann died before I could give her the first dose. I didn’t think the vet was a very nice man, but I have repeated his motto to my children every time we’ve had a sick chicken. After nine years of keeping hens, I’ve lost a fair number, and I no longer take measures to slow or halt illness in our small backyard chicken coop. I suppose I have become a not-very-nice person also.
But sometimes chickens just stop being healthy. I had seen this pattern before: both Renata, Big Ann’s sister, and Eve, a Barred Rock, had gotten sleepier and sleepier and then died, seemingly of old age. In each case, it took less than a week from when the hen first showed symptoms to when she was dead. Neither of them seemed to suffer much; they just slowed down and eventually stopped.
It’s sad when chickens die, and we still give each one a burial, but I no longer shed tears over them, as I did over Big Ann. They’re just chickens.
“Ah, too bad,” I said. “Awfully young, isn’t she? It’s weird.”
“Should we take her to the vet?” Sophia asked. She had cared for the chickens since we first got them, when she was seven, back before backyard chickens were common or even legal in Saanich, our suburban municipality on Vancouver Island. But I always oversaw the operation and was ultimately responsible for their well-being. Recently, though, things had shifted; I had stepped back, and the chickens had become entirely her responsibility. I didn’t do much for them anymore, aside from buy their feed and check in from time to time to make sure Sophia was keeping the coop clean.
“Oh, I don’t think so, pumpkin. A sick chicken is a dead chicken. It’ll probably just be a few days for her.”
So we watched, made sure she had lots of hay to keep her warm and that she wasn’t being harassed by the others, and waited for the end.
• • •
It had already been a hard winter, full of loss. In November, a raccoon had attacked in broad daylight and torn one of our two identical white Silkie-Cochin bantams to pieces. It was our most gruesome chicken death ever, but as awful as it was to clean up the aftermath, we all felt worse for her sister than we did for ourselves. The two had been inseparable, always within a few feet of each other as they wandered the backyard, foraging for bugs, their fluffy white butts waddling over the lawn. At night they liked to be extremely close to each other, so much so that it was difficult, in the dark, to see whether it was one or two chicken bodies making up that big white mass.
“Still,” I said to Sophia on the evening of the bantam’s death, “it’s good, in a way. We never did name those two properly, because we could never tell them apart.” We always called them Güzel One and Güzel Two, or sometimes just “the white ones.” After one of them died, things were simpler. There was only Güzel. Very convenient.
I was not so cool and detached about what happened just a week later. After a long and sad decline beginning with an infected abscess, our beloved cat Blackberry, twelve years old, finally succumbed to a whole raft of afflictions stemming from the infection. She had been a Christmas present to Sophia when she was five; our friend Martin had been feeding a feral mother in his backyard, and when she had a litter he caught them all and found homes for them. Blackberry was six months old by the time she came to our house, and she stayed a bit wild her whole life. If you sat very still on the living room couch—especially if the fireplace was burning—she would curl up in your lap. But try to pick her up from the ground and she would squirm hard and scratch. We loved her independent nature and feistiness.
My son, Sebastian, born after Blackberry joined the family, had not lived any part of his life without her, and when the time came, he couldn’t accept that we were going to euthanize her. “We can wait,” said the vet, pulling me aside into a different room while the kids cried and petted Blackberry in the examination room. “With the drugs we’ve given her, she’s in no pain, and your son is not ready. Let’s give him some time to process everything and we can reschedule for next week.” I took my weeping son, sniffling daughter, and frail, no-longer-feisty cat back home, having made another appointment. The plan was to help Sebastian understand why this was the right choice for her and give him a few days to come to terms with it. Whether he did or not, though, we would euthanize her on Monday.
The next afternoon she asked to go out for the first time in several days. It was cold, but not raining, and I let her out, walking alongside as she made her slow descent down the stairs outside our kitchen door. When she hadn’t returned by bedtime, we searched the yard and the street and called her. We couldn’t find her and she didn’t come when we called, which was not like her. On a cold fall evening we could usually count on her to spring into view when we called out, and come inside for the night.
I was in the waiting room at the dentist the next day when Sophia called in tears. She had found Blackberry, curled up and cold, in the neighbors’ yard, right against the fence that separated it from ours. It was a spot we had checked the night before. She had been hiding from us then. She had died on her own terms. In making the decision to euthanize her, I had taken control of her life. Then she took it back again. I thanked her for that.
My usually unsentimental husband, Tobias, insisted on choosing an attractive and soft cloth to wrap up her body, and we buried her in our backyard, next to Güzel Two.
In the following days, we took comfort in the presence of Merlin, the stripy gray kitten we had adopted earlier in the fall. This little fellow was everyone’s best friend, completely charming and easygoing, loved to be picked up and petted. He was mischievous too: constantly hopping onto the kitchen counter and dining room table, which Blackberry had never done. We loved him for reasons that were totally different from the reasons we had loved Blackberry. As the winter gloom descended and the days got shorter, I held in my mind a vision of a happy, joy-filled Christmas. Blackberry would not be there, but Merlin would. I worried about whether he would try to climb the tree or pull it down, and I was comforted to be worrying about this small domestic detail. It would be a fun family celebration, and a demonstration to the kids that life goes on.
December 25 came, and it was joyful, and Merlin’s presence made it extra fun. We were getting ready to go to dinner at Tobias’s cousin Noel’s house when we got a text from Noel. We were supposed to stop on our way to dinner to pick up Noel’s father, Vern, who was in the hospital. He had been there for a couple of weeks, after being diagnosed with lung complications associated with rheumatoid arthritis and put on immunosuppressant drugs. He had been ill for several months, but with the diagnosis and the drugs, we expected him to recover. But the text said that the doctor had decided that he shouldn’t leave the hospital. “Not even for Christmas?” I asked. This was our first realization that his illness was very serious.
So our family and Noel’s met in Vern’s hospital room to celebrate the day with him. He was happy, and said he felt surrounded by love. Since Tobias’s father had died ten years previously, Vern had been more like a father than an uncle to him, and they usually spent time together every week. Vern was a constant figure in all our lives—a master craftsman, a cabinetmaker and carpenter who had lovingly redesigned and renovated our bedroom and bathroom. He had been in the middle of an extensive renovation on our kitchen when he started to get sick.
Tobias, Noel, and I were with Vern when he died on January 6, Epiphany. On the “Patient Information” board in his hospital room, in the section labeled “Today’s Goal,” someone had written, “Peace.” Vern was religious, like me, and I thought he would have appreciated the symbolic beauty of achieving his goal on the day that commemorates the three wise men’s discovery of the Christ child.
I saw Vern take his last breath, but somehow that didn’t make it easier to accept his death. It took me a long time to really understand that I wouldn’t ever again hear his heavy work boots tromping up the back staircase to my kitchen, wouldn’t hear him open the door (he had built both the stairs and the door) and say, “Oh, hi Rebeca,” as if he were surprised to see me there. To realize that he wouldn’t finish the kitchen, which he had put so much of himself into over the course of six years, was a shock. I had always thought he would get better, even in the final days.
By the end of January, when Minerva started acting strangely, there was a sense of grief fatigue in our family. I remember counting how many days it would be until we left on our winter vacation, and thinking two weeks was plenty of time for her to die and be buried before we took off to Spain. We usually schedule a family trip to somewhere bright and sunny in February, when the Pacific Northwest reaches the zenith of gray gloom and the adults in the family start to get the winter blues. I hoped the timing of Minerva’s death would be right so our house sitter, Natalie, wouldn’t have to deal with the corpse.
Sophia continued to pull on her rubber boots over her polka-dot pajama bottoms every morning and go out to feed the chickens. When she came back inside, she’d give me the report: “She’s sleepy, she’s not moving.” Any day now, I thought. After a week I said, “What’s going on with that chicken? Is she getting worse? Staying the same? What’s the deal?”
“Sometimes better, sometimes worse, sometimes the same.”
It began to dawn on us that maybe we should euthanize Minerva. It seemed cruel to allow things to go on as they were. Then again, she didn’t really show signs of pain or distress, just extreme tiredness. Maybe it was extreme to kill a chicken for being tired.
• • •
On February 4, we left for our holiday, telling Natalie not to feel guilty if Minerva died on her watch, since she was already poorly. Natalie, Sophia’s best friend, didn’t particularly like chickens. She had six Rhode Island Reds in her backyard a couple of blocks away whom she never interacted with or cared for at all, leaving that job to her stepdad. While Sophia loved chickens, Natalie preferred frogs. But she was also in love with Merlin, and that’s why she was willing to house-sit for us. She agreed to handle the chicken care as part of the deal.
While we were away, we got reports by email: “Still alive.” After the first week, my dad took over the house-sitting duties. One morning, there was an email with the subject line “Chicken.” “Finally!” I thought. I was glad to be free of this strange mystery of the sick chicken who wouldn’t die, and the associated guilty feeling of not taking any steps either to help her get better or to end her life.
Then I opened the email. “Chicken died, but not the one you said would die. Black one. No idea why, just cold in the coop this morning.”
Sudden chicken death was another type of hen loss that we’d experienced a couple of times before, but like the sleepy sickness, this had happened only to older hens. And honestly, I feel it’s excellent manners for hens who have passed their laying stage simply to curl up and die. Rather than becoming non-contributing members of the flock, they have the decency to end things decisively, without causing any worry. While finding a cold, stiff feathered body in the coop in the morning is a shock and a downer, I recover quickly these days. I’m not as tough as a farmer—I’ve still never slaughtered one of my chickens—but I’m tougher than I was the day that I brought home a bag of syringes full of antibiotics to give to Big Ann.
The black hen was young, though, so her sudden death was strange. We started to wonder whether there was something Minerva had caught and passed on. My dad said the black one didn’t seem sick beforehand, though, so that seemed unlikely. Still, it was unsettling.
More upsetting news reached us while we were holidaying. My sister’s best friend, Beth, had been admitted to the hospital with a very painful headache and been diagnosed with a brain tumor. She was a thirty-five-year-old mother of two girls, aged four and five. My sister was spending a part of every day at the hospital. Beth’s husband, parents, and brothers were in shock. The doctors were planning out an aggressive treatment plan, and moving quickly to understand the scope of the cancer. My mom emailed every couple of days to keep me updated on the situation.
I’m not Catholic, but I love the Catholic tradition of lighting a candle for a loved one when visiting a beautiful cathedral. I lit one for Beth at the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, knelt in front of it, and prayed for her cancer to be healed.
We returned home from vacation to find Minerva slower and sleepier than ever. She had difficulty walking and would sometimes teeter over when she made the attempt. Her comb, normally red and upright, had flopped to the side and faded in color. She had lost weight. It was obvious that her illness had pushed her down to the bottom of the pecking order; even Goldilocks, the teeny bantam who was everyone’s punching bag, was now pecking at Minerva as she slowly and groggily made her way toward the laying pellets Sophia tossed out for them each morning. I had become accustomed to a certain amount of pecking in the coop; I didn’t like it but had learned that it was a natural part of flock behavior. But seeing Minerva’s coop sisters bullying her was disturbing, and we started separating her from the rest for most of each day to protect her, and to make sure she wasn’t being blocked from food and drink by the other, stronger chickens.
• • •
A week after we returned from vacation, Beth died in her sleep. The cancer had spread too far for any treatment plan to be effective.
The funeral was held on the final Saturday of February—a cold, wet day. The drive to the church took about an hour, and the funeral itself was very long and very sad. Seeing Beth’s little girls, her stricken husband, her ashen-faced mother, her brothers in dark suits choking back tears, put my own loss into perspective. I saw that Vern’s death was normal and, ultimately, okay. It was sad, but not a tragedy. He had gotten to see his grandchildren grow up, and had a long life with many friends and meaningful work.
Later that night we sat in the living room after dinner: Tobias, my two kids, my sister, and me. We talked over the funeral, all the people we hadn’t seen in years, what the future would look like for the two motherless little girls. I had been praying for their mother, and now I would pray for them.
As my sister was leaving, Merlin darted toward the front door. “Don’t let him out!” Sophia said.
But it was too late. He was off into the darkness, likely hiding in the cedar hedge, where he always went when he escaped the house. He loved to hide, and we were forever hunting him down and bringing him back inside. Sophia had just brought him inside and didn’t want to go out to get him again.
Tobias said he would go find him before bedtime. Half an hour later, he went out only to find six-month-old Merlin had been hit by a car and killed.
Now began a grief that eclipsed all the others we had experienced over the fall and winter. Merlin was perfect, innocent, and such a comfort to us all after the loss of Blackberry and Vern. We sat together on the floor of our half-finished kitchen crying and taking turns holding his furry little body. He was the most angelic creature I had ever known, and when I went to bed that night I closed my eyes to pray and could see only water rising. I was drowning in grief.
We had now lost two chickens, two cats, and two humans in four months. I wondered if our family was cursed, and whether we would ever be happy again. I knew it could be worse; I remembered Beth’s mother’s face at the funeral, tried to imagine her pain, couldn’t. I recognized, on an rational level at least, that the death of a thirty-five-year-old human was a true tragedy and the loss of a grandfather normal, and that the loss of a kitten, while sad, could be beneficial to children in building emotional resilience.
And maybe in the long run, this would all be good for Sophia’s character, but for now, as the primary animal caregiver in the family, she was suffering the most. She woke up the next morning and headed out to the backyard to carry out her duties with the chickens, with tears running down her face.
Minerva’s weight continued to drop, and her mobility decreased. She was separated from the flock twenty-four hours a day and spent her days in unnatural, un-chicken-like positions. She would sit in the hay with her legs straight out in front of her, like a toddler or a yogi. Unfortunately, she couldn’t get up from this position; she would have to fall over on her side and then flap her wings to get up with her legs under her again. She could take a few quick steps, but she would quickly topple back over. We had done loads of web research about her condition but still not taken her to a vet. I hypothesized, based on her loss of mobility, apparent confusion, and sleepiness, that she had had a stroke. She also had trouble recognizing food and water; even if you put it in front of her, she wouldn’t make any moves to take it. This suggested some neurological problems. Some chicken owners I spoke to confirmed that a stroke was a possibility. Her strange movements and her nervous disposition suggested a new nickname, as well. Sophia’s daily “Nervy” report was usually not good news.
She had now been declining for over a month, and it didn’t seem as if whatever was wrong with her was going to kill her. It did seem possible, however, that she could die of dehydration unless we started to take much more care of her than we had been. Nervy’s neck had disappeared into her shoulders, and the normal chicken movements for eating and drinking (to borrow the nonjudging language of my favorite yoga teacher) “weren’t available in her body.” And eating wasn’t the only thing Nervy couldn’t do for herself anymore. She had never been a fastidious bird. While some chickens are diligent about taking dust baths and preening their feathers to keep them clean, Nervy’s hygiene was more mediocre. Now it had become abysmal, and we had to give her warm baths to clean the feathers around her vent. The number of things that might now kill her was increasing: infection due to feces sticking to her feathers; exposure to wind and rain; starvation. Three crows randomly decided to attack her one morning, and pulled out several feathers before Sophia chased them away.
On a rainy afternoon, I came home from work and Tobias said, “That chicken is looking pretty bad today. Did you see her? She’s just lying there. She might be dead.”
I ran out to the backyard and saw Nervy spread out on her side in the middle of the lawn. I assumed she was dead, because I’d never seen her so immobile, unable even to right herself and seek shelter. But her eyes were open. I ran for a towel and wrapped her in it. She was shivering, and her feathers were wet. I rubbed her gently until she seemed to be dry, then brought her into the enclosed sleeping area of the coop. I got fresh hay and put her, in her towel, on top of it. Being handled agitated her, and since I wanted to lower her stress, I left her alone.
At bedtime, she was still alive and had stopped shivering. Sophia put her beak into some food and water, but she didn’t take much. I didn’t expect her to make it through the night.
But the next morning she was still breathing, and her eyes were open just a slit. I’d read on poultry-care websites that warm cooked eggs could be a good feeding option for chickens who were sick or had a protein deficiency. I wouldn’t have thought to feed my chickens’ eggs to them; it seemed, frankly, bizarre, even mildly cannibalistic. But then, I reasoned, it was no more bizarre than us eating eggs. So I made Nervy a scrambled egg and spent twenty minutes trying to get her to eat a few bites. I actually picked up her whole body and tilted her beak into the food dish, then lifted her up again to give her a chance to swallow, mimicking the chicken’s normal eating movements. I looked around to make sure my neighbors weren’t in their backyard. If our backyard chickens had seemed a peculiar hobby before, this would appear downright kooky.
A sick chicken is a dead chicken? Maybe we didn’t believe that anymore. Sophia was now giving as much care to this hen as I had given to my grandmother before she went into a nursing home. It felt odd to be going to such extremes for one little chicken, but the idea of another death was so heartbreaking that we couldn’t face it.
The circumstances of Merlin’s death had made for a lot of feelings of regret. If only he’d not gotten out that night, if only we’d run after him. If only we’d cut down the cedar hedge like we’d been planning to do for ten years. Maybe we should have followed through with the notion we had to train him, using a squirt gun, not to wander onto the road.
I think we all felt at this point that whatever happened to Nervy, at least we would have no regrets. Even though I had never heard of a chicken making a recovery from such a state, we had to try our best.
Once we started sitting with Nervy several times a day and making sure a little food and water got into her, she put on some weight. At least, she didn’t feel like just feathers and hollow bones anymore. Then Sophia, in a fit of optimism, decided to teach her how to walk again.
“How are you gonna do that?” I asked.
“Just like they do with people who are recovering from stroke. I’ll hold her and show her how to move, and maybe, eventually, she’ll remember how.”
In mid-March, Sophia started doing physical therapy sessions with Nervy every day, lifting her up and moving her legs in a walking motion. It cannot be said that the hen enjoyed this process. It cannot be said that anyone really thought it would work. But Sophia kept trying, day after day, and what can be said is that Nervy stopped getting worse. She was mostly calm and still all day, sleepy but with periods of wakefulness, and she was cooperative during feeding time, when she still needed our help.
At spring break, Sophia was going to go away for a few days on a school field trip, and I would completely take over Nervy’s care. Since I am not a natural nurse, not that caring, compassionate type of person who has a special place in her heart for the weak, ill, or injured, I didn’t relish this job, but I wanted to do it as well as I could, as well as Sophia wanted me to.
I cooked Nervy scrambled eggs in butter, mixed in some warm water, and mashed it all with some softened laying pellets. I picked her up and gently dipped her beak into this mixture, patiently waiting for her to decide whether or not she would take some of it. I cleaned her vent feathers again. And yes, I did the physical therapy sessions with her on the lawn. And in doing it, I began to believe it would work. Just spending the time with her and doing the work of caring for her made me start to see the situation differently: What if I viewed Nervy not as a sick chicken but as a disabled one? She wasn’t going to die, necessarily, but she was going to need a high level of care as long as she lived. Would I be willing to give her that care?
To be sure, there were arguments against it. She hadn’t laid a blue egg for seven weeks at this point. She would probably never lay again. And she wasn’t much of a pet. She was no longer beautiful or interesting to watch. And despite all this care, she still didn’t like us much. The little movements she was able to make all seemed to communicate her desire to get away from us, to escape the humiliation of the therapy session and the discomfort of being dipped into water, however warm.
But it didn’t matter to me. I talked to her as if she were my own newborn infant, maybe prematurely born or having trouble latching on. “How’s my little baby girl today? Are you going to have some food, baby? Yeah, you want some? How about a little walk? Do you want to try to move that leg? No? How about that other one? Also no? Dat’s okay, my little pumpkin. I’ll do it for you. You’re just fine, Nervy. You’re going to be just fine.”
I wondered whether crazy cat ladies, or people who will their estates to their Pomeranians, have just had a lot of death around them at some point, and then they eventually snap, and if I was headed down this path. I didn’t care much. I was falling in love with Minerva and didn’t care who knew it, or what anybody thought about it. She was now my favorite animal in the world. I resented the rest of the flock because they would bully her if given the chance. When I put them to bed at night, carefully blocking off one nesting box for Nervy to keep her safe from their pecking, I called them “stone-cold bitches” and berated them for their cruelty to my precious baby.
When she came home, Sophia was delighted with the Nervy report I gave: “Eating and drinking well, with help, and not too stressed. Still not walking or moving on her own.” She reassumed the role of primary caregiver and kept the faith, until one morning when Nervy’s little legs seemed to actually respond during the walking session. Sophia tried gently putting Nervy down on the ground, to see if she could stand unassisted. Her legs held. Her comb was pale and flopped and her neck was still hidden, but she could stand. Granted, she fell when she tried to take a step—but even so, standing on her own was progress. She had gone from not being able to support her own weight to free-standing for short periods of time. It was the most impressive thing I’ve seen a chicken do.
The sight of Sophia bent over, holding Nervy’s small, orange-feathered body just off the ground and tapping her gnarled scaly feet along the grass, making the motions of walking, reminded me of scenes, twenty years old, that I’d virtually forgotten.
When I was a teenager, my grandmother lived with us for a few years, in between the time when she could live independently and the time when she needed so much extra help that she moved into a care facility. Every day, a professional caregiver would come to our house for two hours to offer support to her and the family. Usually these women, after bathing and feeding Abuelita, would either sit and watch Days of Our Lives with her or clean our perennially messy kitchen to help out my mom. But one day I came home from school to a startling sight. Abuelita was out of bed, out of her room, out of her wheelchair, and actually walking around the house on her tippy-toes, with a new twentysomething caregiver walking backward in front of her, holding her hands and guiding her slowly through the rooms. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen Abuelita on her own two legs, and indeed, they seemed spindly and shaky, not at all up to the task. My instinct was to tell the caretaker, “She can’t do that! Put her back in bed immediately!” But then I thought, well, she’s a professional at this, so maybe—even if none of the other caregivers have ever tried this—she knows best. What I remember most is the look on Abuelita’s face. Her eyes and mouth were open wide, as if she were surprised—who wouldn’t be?—and her eyebrows were halfway up to her hairline. “I can do eet! I am walkeeng!” she said when she saw me.
Nervy looked just like Abuelita, as surprised as anyone that she could once again stand on her own two legs, and Sophia looked just as determined as the young caregiver had that day, full of hope, uncynical about what she was doing.
Easter approached. As I do every year, I had been observing the religious fast of Lent, which for me means abstaining from social media, booze, coffee, meat, cheese, fish, and chocolate from Monday to Saturday for seven weeks. Or, put another way, I was processing the winter’s grief without my usual emotional crutches, and this made everything feel sharper. I was looking forward to being free of my fast with more than the usual Lenten anticipation. A nice glass of garnacha every day after work, that’s what I needed to forget Güzel Two, Blackberry, Vern, the black chicken, Beth, and Merlin. “I will feel better when Lent is over,” I said to Tobias. I think some strange, confused, magical corner of my subconscious mind thought that when Easter Sunday rolled around and we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus, our chickens, cats, uncle, and friend would come back too.
As Lent progressed, so did Nervy. Now, she was able to lower her head to the ground to peck, and to settle back down onto the ground in a regular chicken position, with her legs tucked under her, totally different from the unnatural, legs-out-in-front position she’d been assuming since she got sick. I wrote in my journal, “I’m trying to stay open to miracles but keep my feet on the ground. What’s happened so far is completely unexpected, but she could also go at any time, or take a turn for the worse.”
On Palm Sunday, I wrote that Nervy felt “warm, calm, alert, and not too light. Maybe today will be a good day for her. Maybe she will die.”
In the final week of Lent, she started taking steps. They were awkward steps, tilted over to the right and very fast, and after about ten of them she would topple over. But they were steps nonetheless. On Good Friday, she spent nearly the whole day standing, and did a good job of balancing herself and controlling her descent to the ground when she wanted to roost. Her walking pace became less frenetic, closer to a normal pace, and she stopped falling down at the end of each walking session. Sophia didn’t bother doing physical therapy that day, because she didn’t think Nervy needed it anymore. At bedtime, she actually flew up to the nesting boxes in the chicken coop, about three feet off the ground. This was something I’d never seen her do, even before she got sick.
The next day, I was squatting in the backyard, watching Nervy totter uncertainly about, scratching here and there. It was Holy Saturday, the final day of Lent, and I was focused on surviving the final day of my fast. As I watched, Nervy started to stretch out her neck, and soon had pulled it up to its normal position. She didn’t hold it there long, but it was unmistakably her normal profile, save for her tail, which she pushed down low for balance.
On Sunday, relatives came over for lunch and an Easter egg hunt in the backyard. People said Nervy looked off-balance and wrong, but they had no idea how sick she had been. “This is a huge improvement!” I told them, watching proudly as our little miracle hen walked almost normally around the yard, brushing her beak along the ground at intervals. When she had lost her ability to drag her beak along the ground, it grew longer and curved. Chickens’ beaks are like our fingernails. They keep growing throughout their lives, and the scratching movements whittle them down and keep them short, sharp, and useful. During Nervy’s immobile period, her lengthening white beak made her look as if she always had a runny nose, just about to drip onto the ground. Now, her beak was returning to its previous grandeur. Her comb, too, which had become almost white and lay flat on her head when she was at her sickest, was regaining its color and shape. Now it was pink and straighter. Soon it would be red and totally erect.
In the liturgical calendar, the period following Easter is called Ordinary Time. And that was exactly what I wanted, some ordinary life. We found a builder who would take over the work on the kitchen Vern had left unfinished. It wouldn’t be the same as having him complete the project, but at least the room would always have some of his work in it. We started trawling the SPCA website for cats to adopt.
The weather got warmer, and Sophia decided to reintegrate Nervy back into the flock. It was one thing for her to be strong and healthy wandering around the yard by herself all day, but eventually she would have to live with the stone-cold bitches again and be able to defend herself if they decided she was going to stay at the bottom of the pecking order. Sophia started putting her with them for an hour at a time, then increased the time. I stopped asking anxiously for the Nervy report every morning. I figured no news was good news.
“I have learned that it is folly to be always looking forward,” I had written in my journal in the days following Merlin’s death. “I have been looking forward to a time when everyone would stop dying, but that’s not a realistic expectation.” Things might get better, but maybe they won’t. Maybe the future holds darkness that will make me wish that I had enjoyed this time more, right now when it is happening. With Minerva, I tried to view her recovery as something that was happening in that moment, and tried not to be always looking ahead to the next milestone. Nonetheless, I knew exactly what I wanted for her at each stage. After she started spending all her time back with the flock again, her walking normalized. Soon, she was holding both her head and her tail up at all times, looking like her former, beautiful self again, and there was only one thing left.
On the second Sunday after Easter, I sat drinking coffee in my kitchen, looking at our new cabinets, which had been built by Vern and installed by the new builder. Sophia tromped up the steps and opened the door.
“Oh, hi Mummy,” she said.
“What’s the Nervy report today?” I asked, for old times’ sake.
She smiled and held out her hand. In it was a tiny blue egg.
* Illustration by Anna Hall
Rebeca Dunn-Krahn lives in Victoria, BC, with her husband, two children, five chickens, and a cat named Howl. She writes about travel, food... read more
An interview with Hattie Fletcher
Hattie Fletcher has been the managing editor of Creative Nonfiction since 2004. With Lee Gutkind, founding editor of CNF, she co-edited... read more