Lines written in a country chickenyard

The gift of this day is a handful of reminders, like bits of shell washed up on a storm-beaten shore.  The great paradox of life is how tenacious and fragile it is.  There is such a thing as a good death.  And no life should end unmourned.

Doorbelle was my favorite chicken, named for my grandmother’s pet hen Belle, and nicknamed for her practice of being the first of the flock to the kitchen door in the morning.  She was the gentlest and friendliest of the bunch, a lovely little red hen with splashes and splotches of white feathers.  I raised her from a days-old peep.

She started acting “off” a few weeks ago.  She was still eating and drinking, though, so I nursed her along with various remedies.  But today, when I let the other chickens out of their yard to free-range, she lay on the ground.  And lay there.  For hours.  When I lifted her to check her over, her breastbone stood out like a knife-blade.  It was time.  So when my husband came home to find me weeding like a madwoman–my favorite therapy and general cure-all–we ended it, and he buried her in the woods behind our house.  (Maybe I subconsciously let my garden get overrun with weeds because I know in the dark corners of my imagination that I will need those three-foot-tall weeds later for cathartic purposes.)

Of course, I bawled like a baby.  I don’t often give myself permission to do anything without thinking, but this time I did.  I put aside the possibility that maybe it is not totally mature or strong or pragmatic to sob over a dead hen.  I let go, at least for a few minutes, my tendency to obsess over what extremes of suffering someone or something might have endured, and just cried over my dead chicken.

I miss her.  I will miss her funny little hopeful chicken face at the kitchen door in the mornings.  I will miss the sight of her, red and white against the green grass, as she lived her short but, I hope, mostly happy life.  But after a good cry and a little percolating, I am ready to hold and examine the gifts she left me.

She must have been extremely ill.  As a means of self-preservation, chickens don’t show illness unless it’s dire.  In the pecking order, anyone who’s not acting appropriately chickeny is in trouble.  I could tell she wasn’t feeling well for weeks, but when I’d really start to worry, she’d seem to perk up and eat, drink, and forage as usual.  Whatever was devouring her from within, she fought it with tenacity and silence, until it became so overwhelming that self-preservation was no longer on her radar.  She was a scrappy little thing.  And yet, when it came down to the moment, she died so quickly.  The great paradox of life is how tenacious and fragile it is.

I don’t know if her death was a good one, but I hope that it was better than more lingering.  I hope that she didn’t feel much pain.  I hope that when animals die, there is no final moment of panic.  I hope that death comes soft and still and barefoot, that it folds them up in its arms and murmurs to them of green grass and sweet rain on the morning-glories that lace through the garden fence.  There is such a thing as a good death.

Doorbelle was just a chicken.  And my dog is just a dog, my family just a handful of the seven billion people on an overcrowded planet.  Some of us are bigger or more complex or smarter than others, but not a single one of us is any more alive than any other living thing.  Period.  All life begins in beauty, and I recognize that if I hate ticks and slugs and can’t understand why on earth there are earwigs, my loathings are a reflection only of myself and the compassion and vision that are not yet awake within me.  All life begins in beauty.  All of it.  And that deserves and demands my respect.  No life should go unmourned.

When I lifted her in my hands, she felt as light as a shell, her emaciated body like something polished by the tide.  She washed up on the shore of my life, hundreds of miles from an ocean she never saw or imagined or cared about.  I hold in my heart all the creatures who have washed ashore here–the dogs, the cats, the chickens, the turtles in the road, the baby birds fallen from their nests.  They are not flotsam and jetsam.  They are precious reminders of the painful beauty of this life, fragments hinting at depths I have yet to fathom.

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