The Hen that was Born Again

old chicken house on our farm
old chicken house on our farm

I’m not terribly good at maintaining friendships.  In fact, I need to take this post to heart. You see, the pursuits I most enjoy are solitary ones–writing and art. But I know the value of friendship.

Friends are the ones we live, love, teach, laugh, cry, drink tea, make wedding bouquets, make funeral bouquets, and exercise with. I know I couldn’t have made it to today without the help of friends.

(Thank you, my treasured ones. Forgive me for being so careless about our friendship. You know who you are.)

I know when I’ve been a friend, too– when I’ve been there at a critical moment in someone else’s life.  And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

The times I most recognize the value of friendship are the times when I’ve let it slide, for whatever reason. So, by the grace of God, I can’t help but see the parallels in this story about a hen I’ll call  Hephzibah.

(Real farmers don’t name their hens.)

One hot August, our six surviving hens started dying off. At five years old they’d enjoyed a fat and mostly eggless dotage for two years, though we still saw the occasional double-yolkers or shell-less eggs that wobbled, membrane intact, like gelatin in straw.

(Real farmers would have turned unproductive hens into soup at three years old.)

I was sad when I found the first dead hen near the forge. When two corpses marred the pecking yard next day I looked the birds over anxiously to figure out why. Nothing.

I researched. I prayed. I cleaned food and water containers. I changed the straw. Two days passed. Three hens dug in the yard and fluffed themselves with dust. I breathed a sigh of relief.

It was short-lived.

chicken coop rules
chicken coop rules

On Day 6, two more hens lay sideways in the yard. Only Hephzibah remained. I observed Heppie closely for signs of impending demise.

She scratched in the dirt. She ate wild plums from the tree over the water trough. She roosted in the hen house at night. She watched two-foot Norway rats suck chicken feed like vacuums and multiply in the burrows that crisscrossed the yard.

But she didn’t die.

Slowly, however, she began to look about, running from the empty peeled-oak roosts to the empty nest boxes and back again. Like you and me, God made chickens social animals. They need their peeps.

But Heppie didn’t have any.

the neighbors' chicken house
the neighbors’ chicken house

She began to pluck her pinfeathers out, then her soft down. Bare patches studded her body. She stabbed herself raw. She lost weight until her skin hung, one size too big. The light went out of her eyes.

I had to do something.

I know–real farmers…blah, blah, blah.

I bought five new chicks. I locked Heppie out of the hen house. She was skinny, naked, and weak, but natural instinct–fight or flight– might lead her to kill the newcomers.

She knew something was up. Faint peeps escaped the edges of the tiny hen house door. Heppie stood at the top of the ramp for hours, listening. She began to nibble on layer pellets.

After a few weeks, I set a decorative concrete block at the top of the ramp and opened the door. The chicks could poke their heads out and Heppie could poke hers in. But neither could pass the block.

Heppie started eating in earnest.

rooster art by Anya Zarnecki
rooster art by Anya Zarnecki

Soon, her skin fit better. Funny little sticks sprang from it like baby porcupine quills. Heppie and the chicks held quizzical conversations through the concrete block–she in long, low tones and the chicks in loud peeps and tiny squawks.

The day came to release the young hens to the lush world of the hen yard–and Hephzibah. I loaded a scoop with chicken feed. Heppie followed me curiously.

I bent down and removed the block.

The hens blinked at the unfamiliar opening. Heppie blinked back. No one moved.  I sprinkled chicken feed on dirt. “He-e-y chick, chick, CHICK-eees!”With squawks and beatings of wings, six hens plunged down the ramp and into the food. Heppie had her peeps again.

Weeks later, I watched the hens under the plum tree. They clicked and clucked, scratched and bobbed.

But I couldn’t take my eyes off Heppie.

young hen
young hen

Plump, glossy, and gorgeous, she walked like a Queen, head swiveling in the midst of her subjects.  Her long red feathers gleamed like polished copper. Her eyes flashed bright and sassy.

The old biddy looked like a new hen.

Those chicks had brought Hephizibah back from the brink of poultry heaven. She lived four more glorious years.

She even laid a few eggs.

***********************************************************************

Well–I’m not planning to lay any eggs, but I look forward to connecting with my peeps again. Thanks for being here. I’m off to make a few calls, maybe write a snail mail or two. Blessings!

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *