Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


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The True Story of the Mama Hen

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She came to us because she wanted, desperately, to be a mother. And we welcomed her, not knowing all that this would entail.

She was our neighbor’s chicken, a black Astralorp hen named Shadow. And she was broody. It was her instinct, and her obsession. She gathered a clutch of eggs, and sat on them. She warmed them and turned them. And sat on them. For weeks. She wouldn’t leave her eggs to eat or to drink water. She fought any pesky humans who tried to pull her off.

She didn’t know any better. She didn’t know that her infertile eggs would never hatch. She never looked up from her nesting box and thought, “Hmm, there doesn’t seem to be any rooster.”

And so Shadow sat. And sat. And drove her pesky humans crazy.

The only real way to break a hen of her broodiness is to give her what she wants. Chicks. And if you live in the city and can’t have a rooster, one way to get chicks is to order them through the mail. Her first owners weren’t up for chicks, not this year, and so she came to be with us.

022A few weeks after she moved in to our coop, a grinning postal worker delivered a peeping box. Fifteen fuzzy babies, only a day and a half old. The night, when Shadow was fast asleep, we reached under her warm body and replaced eggs with chicks. In the morning, a new set of instincts kicked in.

She was, as we expected, an excellent mother. She protected her chicks from the other hens, and taught them important chicken life skills like how to take dust baths. During the day they rode around on her back, and at night they disappeared under her wings. She had beautiful instincts.003

But then, one rainy night when the chicks were just two weeks old, everything changed.

It was my job to lock up the coop at night, and one night I forgot. At four a.m. we were awakened by chicken screams. We ran out into the rain and discovered the grisly remains of a raccoon attack. Feathers and blood were everywhere, and the remaining chickens were huddled in the back of the coop. There were peeps coming from under a black chicken, but it was impossible to tell how many were left.

We locked up and gave up until daylight.

When the sun came up, we returned to the coop. As the traumatized chickens staggered down the ramp, I counted and prayed that Shadow was among the survivors.

The chicks were following a black hen, trying to jump up on her back. Was it Shadow? No, she ignored them and shook them off. A red hen pecked at one of the chicks and I waited for Shadow to respond.

There was no response. Five chicks and two hens were missing. And Shadow was one of them.

We locked up the chicks to keep them safe from the other hens, and I went to our bedroom to cry. I kept picturing her with the chicks peeping out of her wings. Why hadn’t I locked up the coop? How could I have forgotten? Everything in me longed to turn back the clock, but I couldn’t. She was gone.

And then.

There was yelling in the yard. Banging on the back door. “Get out here!” our neighbor called, “There’s a beat up chicken heading for the coop!”

And so we ran outside. A wet, bleeding black chicken was staggering across the yard. She could barely walk. Half her feathers were gone. Her back was ripped open, one of her wings was hanging down.

She was heading straight for the coop. The chicks started peeping madly. We looked at her gaping wounds, looked at each other. “Should we let her in there?” “Well, it’s obviously what she wants.”

Gingerly, we set her in the coop. She clucked at her chicks, gathering them under her remaining good wing. We stared, stunned. You could see every remaining muscle fiber in her neck and back. I sat in the dirt and buried my head in my knees. “She’ll never make it. There’s no point.”

073My husband lifted her and pulled her into his body. “We have to try” he said. “We have to.”

And so we brought her into the house and wrapped her in a towel. My husband is not a surgeon, but he is a cook, and let’s just say that he’s worked with chicken before. We found a needle, thread, distilled water, and hydrogen peroxide. We got to work.

She didn’t seem to feel the stitches. She was barely conscious, but every time she passed out, we brought a chick in from the coop. As soon as we held it in front of her, peeping, she would wake up and start clucking at it. We kept going.

Three hours later, we returned her to the coop and the chicks surrounded her. One jumped up on her back, right on her stitches, and I cringed. But we couldn’t separate them. They were the reason she returned. Her instinct drove her back, and-as it turned out-her instinct would keep her alive.

Shadow was, and continues to be, the mother hen.

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This story was written and performed for Listen to Your Mother’s inaugural show in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can see a video of me reading it here: