Who Could Love A Chicken?
It’s quite possible the opening question should be rephrased. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to ask something such as, “Who could resist loving a chicken….especially a chicken such as Henny Penny,” a little white hen who was determined to love and to be loved.
John, my husband, is addicted to almost anything with feathers, including chickens. His early childhood was punctuated with their clucking and crowing, watching intently as his father experimented with crossing various strains.
We decided to visit our local flea market one Saturday to scout out who-knew-what hidden treasures. I always stayed as far away as possible from the animal section, since it broke my heart to see the puppies and kittens and bunnies huddled together in over-crowded cages in the miserable heat or cold. This time, however, John immediately cut a direct path toward the tangled cacophony of bleating goats, barking dogs and a general ol’ McDonald’s atmosphere. I reluctantly tagged along behind him.
He veered toward the chickens, looking like a man with a single-focus purpose. He’d said nothing during the drive to the market but it was now apparent he wanted chickens at the farm he had for his horses. Great. The neighbors would surely love a few crowing roosters on Sunday mornings. I watched and listened to the negotiations between the chicken buyer and the chicken seller. Then I saw the man open a burlap-kind-of sack and begin grabbing chickens by their red-colored legs. Squawk! Squawk! Flap! Feathers drifting to the ground! I didn’t blame them. I, too, would protest vehemently against such inconsiderate treatment.
That was it. No other “shopping.” How could we with a bag of chickens to carry around? We loaded up and headed for the farm, where John untied the bag and unceremoniously dumped out three hens and one rooster. Everyone was a brownish/ blackish/grayish (I never knew much about chickens) color, with one exception.
“Why did you get that one white one?” I asked.
“Oh, I dunno’,” he answered vaguely. “I thought it might be interesting to see what kind of biddies she has.”
“Biddies?” I inquired.
“Babies,” he answered. I told you I knew nothing about chickens. I looked at the white hen as she stood somewhat apart from the brownish/blackish/grayish ones.
“But will those others accept her?” I asked. Even though I wasn’t drawn toward chickens, I didn’t want the little thing to be abused and, for all I knew, fowl might be color discriminating..
John shrugged. “Probably,” he said, “but maybe not right away.”
I did not like his answer.
I left the farm with an uneasy feeling about the little white hen. I felt a nagging prick in my conscience, telling me to check on the white hen as frequently as possible.
I waited four days before asking John, “How’s the white hen?”
“Well, she doesn’t seem to be eating a lot.”
“Are the others eating?”
“Yeah, they’re doing fine. I honestly thought they would accept the white one by now, but they haven’t.”
“Great,” I said. “You’re supposed to be the chicken guy. You should have known this wouldn’t work.”
“It’s going to be okay.”
“Yeah, when?” I shot back. I decided to drive to the farm in the early evening. It was summer, so twilight didn’t fall until after 8:00 p.m.
I parked my car in the drive, unlocked the gate and walked in. The brownish/ blackish/grayish rooster and two hens scattered as soon as they made eye contact with me. The little white hen, however, stood quietly in a corner, shaded by the sagging branches of a cracked, thick-skinned oak. I opened the door to the feed room and stuck my hand into a bag labeled Chicken Scratch. With the pulverized corn slipping through my fingers, I dumped it on the ground two feet from a white plastic chair. I lowered myself to the seat quietly, in a perfect position to keep one eye on the hen and the other eye on the brownish/blackish/grayish trio. Hopefully, the little white one would eat.
Nearly five minutes passed before the dainty hen picked her way to the feed. My vigil was punctuated by slaps at mosquitoes, flies, gnats and various other flying and creeping insects. I was never drawn to outdoor activities and, to me, this was roughing it.
The hen lowered her head to the ground. Peck. Peck. Then she picked up the pace and increased the rhythm, pecking faster and faster. The poor thing was half starved. She ate so much and so fast that I was afraid she’d be sick. After all, I had no idea how much a chicken should eat. I was thinking about all this when the hen suddenly began flapping her wings and making that noise that only excited chickens can make. Then, before I had time to do something….something such as run away to my car….the little hen jumped/flew straight into my lap. I was so startled that I let out a shrill “eeek” but it wasn’t enough to daunt the hen. She plopped into the middle of my lap, turned to face me and sat down.
I had no idea what she expected. Did one pet a chicken? Did one talk to a chicken? Or did one simply pick up the chicken and put it on the ground? And, speaking of that, what did a chicken do when someone picked it up? Was there a typical behavior pattern? And why did she jump into my lap in the first place? Was she grateful for the feed? There were just too many questions in this budding relationship for me to be comfortable.
Just then I heard a footfall behind me. It had to be John. It was.
“Hey, there’s a chicken in your lap,” he called
“I know that’s supposed to be funny,” I replied, “but it lacks something. I fed her because she was starved. Then, after she’d eaten, she jumped up here. What am I supposed to do?”
“Pet her,” he said.
“I don’t think so,” I replied. “She’s dirty. She could have fleas. Or maybe even lice. I don’t think she’s very smart and, besides, she’s a chicken!”
John gave up. He grabbed the hen in both his hands and put her on the ground in front of me.
“Thank …..” I couldn’t get the word “you” out before the little white hen was back in my lap.
Thus began a pattern. I felt guilty if I didn’t go to the farm every day. I didn’t know if the little white hen was eating. I didn’t know if she’d been accepted by those brownish/blackish/grayish chickens or if she might still be keeping a solitary watch under the oak tree.
“But she’s only a goofy chicken,” I wailed to myself. Okay. Okay. Even goofy chickens deserve care and consideration.
I went to the farm at least every other day. She was waiting. And, as soon as I sat down in the plastic chair, she clucked her way to me and jumped into my lap. It was maybe the third or fourth jump when I began stroking her white feathers. As I did, something like a cluck/purr came from her throat. She would close her eyes and burrow deeper into my lap. There were times when I couldn’t believe I was actually holding a chicken….a chicken I’d named Henny Penny.
Henny Penny was, without doubt, her own “person.” She had a way of “singing” when she was content. It was a sweet, gentle sound she made somewhere deep in her throat. In truth, however, I think she actually made the sound in her heart and just used her throat to turn it loose. She was a hen who wanted to love and to be loved. Somehow, with no conscious thought or plan, I found myself allowing her to realize her goal.
It’s hot and humid in Texas in the summer, and off-and-on cold and humid in the winter. Humidity means moisture and, with horses, moisture means hoof/feet problems. In an effort to curb the development of mildew and other moisture-related conditions, the stalls at the barn were constructed with a double wall. There was the exterior wall, which looked like every other exterior wall in the state. Then, on the interior, there was a second wall with a six-inch gap between the two. Moisture wasn’t trapped. No one ever truly determined if the double wall worked, but there were no hoof problems.
The brownish/blackish/grayish rooster and his hens always roosted either in the oak tree or on top of the barn. The little white hen couldn’t fly as high as they could, so she usually roosted alone. She selected a few special spots, and one of them was the ledge of the interior wall smack on top of the gap separating the two. It didn’t look comfortable to me but she seemed happy.
It took only five minutes for me to reach the farm and the little white hen was happy if I spent 10 or 15 minutes with her. It afforded her a chance to engage in her peculiar singing while I stroked her feathers which, by the way, were neither dirty nor lice ridden. I drove over, parked in the drive, went through the gate and waited for Henny Penny to run out and greet me, but on this particular day, she wasn’t there.
“Henny Penny,” I called. “Henny Penny.” Nothing. I began to panic. I pulled my cell phone from my purse and called John.
“Did you see Henny Penny when you were here this morning?” I asked.
There was a pause. Finally, “No,” he said. “Now that you ask, I didn’t see her anywhere.”
“Well I can’t find her. Do you think the coyotes may have gotten her?” Now I was frantic.
“No,” he said. “She would have put up a fight and we would have seen feathers.”
Oh, God. That really wrung my heart. To think of her putting up a struggle against a coyote, or maybe even a bobcat was nearly more than I could handle. I kept looking. I made broad sweeps of the entire pastures. I looked in every tree. I knew she didn’t fly very high, but I thought she may have changed her pattern to avoid danger. I called. I looked in stalls. Nothing. I dumped feed on the ground. I sat in the white, plastic chair. I slapped mosquitoes and I waited. Finally, just before dark, I left.
One day followed another and Henny Penny didn’t show herself. A handful of days went into a week, and new days began attaching themselves to the week. Then, one morning, John called me. “I think you need to come over here,” he said.
I shoved back from my desk, grabbed my purse and jumped in my car. Somehow, I knew the call had something to do with Henny Penny. When I arrived, John was sitting in the white plastic chair holding the little white hen. I fell to my knees in the dirt and grabbed her. I could feel her bones.
“Oh, my God,” I said, “she’s skin and bones. Where was she?”
John was shaking his head. “She fell into the space between the two walls. She’s been down there all this time.”
“How did you find her?”
“I went into the stall and she was singing,” he said.
“But why didn’t she make a noise before now? I called and called and she never did anything.”
“I have no idea.”
“I know she’s weak,” I said. “Do you think we can bring her around?”
“Maybe. I won’t say yes because I don’t know.”
I took Henny Penny’s feed home and boiled it into a thin mash. Then, holding her on my lap, I spoon-fed the little hen. She ate. And, on the fifth day, she sang.
There was a fairly rapid chicken turn-over at the farm. Something always happened and their life expectancies were relatively brief, making numerous trips to the flea market necessary for replacements. Henny Penny, though, was different. She stayed. The little white hen was tough. Five years went by. We were in the middle of a drought. Pastures burned to a crisp. Lakes all but disappeared. We weren’t allowed to water lawns. And wildlife such as coyotes and cougars strode boldly into the middle of civilization. They were hungry and they were thirsty.
One day I drove to the barn first thing in the morning. I parked the car in the drive, opened the gate and, as usual, walked through calling for Henny Penny. For the second time in six years, she didn’t come. I called again. And again. She didn’t come. I walked around the corner of one of the stalls and there, on the ground, were white feathers. I felt something happen deep inside me. I didn’t know then what it was but I later realized it was a crack chiseling a fault line into my heart.
I knelt on the ground and stroked the feathers. And I cried….very, very hard….and I never again stupidly asked who could love a chicken because I knew the answer.
I could…..I did.