Penny died resting in the palm of my hand. It was a fluke that I happened to be there, a freakish sort of coincidence that split through the hard shell of the routine and struck it with a bolt of the sublime. It left me dazed, witness to the warp and weft of Life’s fabric in a way that was detached enough to not turn my life completely inside out.
It was dusk; the campfire, our first of the season, beckoned, was being manned literally by The Boys who were waiting on us Girls to tuck in the chickens for the night and close their door to predators and the Boogieman. (though the Boogieman is notoriously afraid of Chuck Norris) We peeked our head inside the coop to make sure all was well, and my quick scan found Penny on the floor. Immediately I knew something was wrong. I rushed to her side, heard her gasp and wheeze and put my hand gently beneath her head to support her. She turned her head, looked me in the eye, and in a moment was gone. Isadora was standing right beside me.
Penny was the last of three Bovan hens we ‘adopted’ in the spring of 2008. They were professional layers, just past one year old, and were at the point when the ratio of feed consumed to egg output skews dramatically toward more feed and less eggs, making a hard case for an egg farmer with a bottom line to meet. We had just recently inherited our flock, so what’s three more, right?
The three aging ladies brought with them many things. They were abundantly sweet and friendly and even neighborly, in a way that a human neighbor couldn’t pull off without seeming a busybody; the Bovans were endearing. They also brought lice, which they were unable to treat themselves with proper preening, having had their beaks clipped as chicks. We’ve been struggling to eradicate the lice from the coop ever since and are about ready to throw in the towel and reach for the bottle of ‘garden dust,’ the one that bears a scull and crossbones warning on its label. Garden dust? It’d be a cold day in hell before a speck of that touched my garden…but we’ve tried everything else we can get our hands on, without wearing gloves and a mask, that is. I’ve recently read, however, that tobacco is useful in treating lice, so that seemed a good enough reason to order some heirloom seeds from another seedsaver to cultivate my own antidote. It will be some time, though, before those seeds transform into anything capable of bringing down a louse.
We lost our first Bovan hen not long after adopting the threesome, too soon, even, to have been dubbed with a name. Raccoon. People door left open by mistake, with just enough access for the agile paws to swipe and kill. It was our first incident with a predator, and it left us a little shaken.
I believe it was the raccoon incident of Spring 2009 that accounted for the loss of the second. Her name was Penny too, though she was the first one. She was perhaps the most friendly of the three and spent a lot of time hanging around the front porch chatting with us. I recount the story here. At the tail end of that saga is a story about Penny 2.0, the predecessor, who refused to roost in the (newly bolstered) confines of the coop for several weeks after the raccoon attack, but beat the odds and lived to tell the tale. Somehow, she roosted somewhere, in a damn good hiding spot, and managed to elude the local varmints. For weeks and weeks, until she resumed lodging in the coop. We tossed out all kinds of theories about what was going on, but our favorite was the Shape-shifter Theory, where she turned into vampire or werewolf and PREDATED on the villains. Were we or were we not completely carried away by the Twilight series?
It’s handy to have multiples of chickens when your children are too young to really do a headcount, because chickens die – naturally or otherwise. It’s handy to transfer the name of Penny to the last remaining Bovan without missing a beat and sidestep the whole topic of DEATH. But it’s a luxury that is completely out of the question when that death occurs right in front of the little eyes you’d like to protect. It was Isadora’s second experience with death in a few short months – she had attended with us the funeral of an extended family member and saw firsthand how people mourn. It shook the foundations of her little world for a bit, as she struggled to wrap her brain around the finality of it all. It was that same mourning that she modeled the night after Penny’s passing. I got the feeling that she thought she knew how she was supposed to act, so she did so, but was confused by the change of context. I think our lack of serious mourning was confusing and frustrating to her, along with her own confusing emotions. And that very night happened to be the night that we began reading a picture book about death, though I had no idea when I started. I had to abort the book right in the middle and switch to the tried-and-true lighthearted Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct instead. But we couldn’t skirt the subject for long – we finished the book about death the following night and a week later finished reading Charlotte’s Web, our very first family chapter book, who’s ending, you may remember, is bittersweet. We’re now reading James and the Giant Peach, which accounts for the peach reference in the title of this post. And I’m deep in the process of planting seeds and sorting through terms like scarification and stratification, which provided the poignant analogy of the tough outer seed coat.
A week or two after Penny’s (2.0) passing, we walked into the coop early in the morning and found Blanche sprawled on the floor, long dead. Now Isadora refers to our chicken chores as letting them in or out and checking to see if any have died. The beneath-the-shell inner layer that was exposed briefly for the witness of Penny’s death has quickly callused over and we’ve fallen back into the rote, the ordinary, which now allows for some chicken mortality. Which is entirely healthy, considering the 80 birds we’re raising for food.