It was my mom’s idea, as most unconventional ideas in the family usually are. She thought my brothers, who were 10 and 12 at the time, needed to start a business of their own and learn about responsibility. So she loaned them the start-up cash to buy a small flock of chickens and the materials for my dad to build a henhouse (he always gets roped into these schemes), and before they knew what had happened to them, my brothers were taking care of chickens, selling eggs, and deeply in debt by kid standards (we’re talking several hundred bucks – a fortune when you’re 10).
The six hens were already fully grown, and they were so terrified of their new surroundings that they insisted on living together in a box until they gradually grew brave enough to venture out. Before long, they were making themselves at home. Anyone pulling into the driveway was greeted by six clucking hens rushing excitedly at the car. The “girls,” as my dad called them, spent their days wandering the property, burrowing in piles of leaves, rummaging in the garden, and “playing” with my youngest brother, who, for lack of a more responsive pet, turned to the hens for entertainment.
He taught them how to jump impressively high into the air whenever a tantalizing green leaf was offered. He trained them to ride on his shoulder, though they never lasted long. When I saw him with a horrifically bloodshot eye, I asked what had happened. “I tried to kiss my hen on its beak and it pecked me in the eye,” he said.
Then the raccoons attacked. One hen was killed; another lost its eye. After my normally very peaceful dad went running out stark naked in the middle of the night with his shotgun to take care of a marauding raccoon, he figured it was time to reinforce the henhouse. The raccoon incidents had a significant effect on my youngest brother, who proceeded to create entire books of drawings that consisted of hens wielding machine guns, grenades, massive bombs, and tanks, complete with full military chain of command, in what he titled, “The Raccoon Wars.”
The boys then figured business was doing well enough to buy a few more hens. The flock increased to eighteen. Jemima, named after Beatrix Potter’s famous puddle duck, always ran away to lay her eggs behind the neighbour’s cottage because she didn’t want it taken away. Eggness wanted an egg to hatch so badly that she couldn’t be coaxed out of her box and became quite depressed when it didn’t happen. Henrietta was affectionate and actually enjoyed being held.
Their eggs were delicious and huge, with brilliant orange yolks from all the greens and compost they ate. Whenever they laid an egg, each hen would let out a triumphant squawk that could be heard from far away. Over the course of two years, however, their production dwindled, as is typical of egg layers.
A few days before my sister’s wedding last August, Mom announced it was hen slaughtering day. We stared at her in disbelief. “What? How?” we asked. She shrugged and asked me, “Well, didn’t you read about it in that ‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle’ book?” “Yes,” I stammered, “but I can’t just go out there and do it!” “Then let’s find out more.” She hauled the “Encyclopedia of Country Living, 10th Ed.” off the shelf and began to read aloud all the various methods for slaughtering hens. That’s when my dad put down his foot: “It’s not happening today. I’ll take care of it later this week, before the wedding.” He did, thank goodness.
Now there are no more hens, no flock of eighteen feathery fans running to meet me when I go for a visit. The yard is much quieter and the henhouse stands empty. There are rumours going around, though, that some more might be on their way come spring, so I guess I’ll just have to wait and see. But then, you never know. I also overheard Mom talking about all the many things goats are good for!