writing and death, as taught by chickens

Finals are over at school– I’ve still got assignments to grade, but for now, the worst is over. Academically speaking. I almost feel like a kid again. Summer vacation! Energy for my own projects! A return to my blog!

But… that’s a far cry from what I wanted to talk about today.

I’m a firm believer that to be able to write, and write well, one must have a certain amount of life experience. Artists can’t learn to draw the human figure without having a model to practice from, and a live model is always better than a photo; I think that describing a life when you haven’t lived one is even worse. My early novels in my teens reflected this– difficult problems would be trivialized, aspects of the characters underdeveloped, because I wasn’t aware that someone older than myself would have grown further than I could imagine. I see this in published novels as well, a one-sidedness to stories and a flatness in some areas that make it so very clear what the author thinks, assumptions she’s made about all characters. Flavored stories, limited by author experience and maturity.

I’m sure that I do the same. Like not being able to smell yourself, it’s not apparent until you’re four years older, find a cache of your old work, and either laugh or cry at how trite it all seems now.

A few weeks ago, I bought my first chicken.

I’d ordered some from a hatchery before then, and the anticipation could only be cured by ogling other chickens that I couldn’t have. I’d go to farmer stores where chicks would be put into wire cages with a heat lamp overhead, plastic water dispensers and feeders that resembled UFOs. And then I’d sit and stare at them. They’d cheep and mill about and be adorable fluffy beasts, only the tips of their wings grown in with feathers. They’d be colored like chipmunks, black and white, gray with crazy black stripes all about, or the cliche yellow, as seen in every other representation of chicks scattered over Easter decorations. It’s not hard to hold them– the pros showed me how, cupping their hands over the chick’s body so that only their head could stick out.

Then one day, I came into the store and found that there was only one chick left. A small, yellow girl, sitting on an open feeder and peeping like a car alarm– I’ve since learned that they do that when they’re lonely. It’s bottom had been stripped of feathers. Pecked by the other chicks was the guess. I’m not a country girl. I don’t have the sense of the farmers that shook their head in pity at the poor creature when they bought the others. The employee at the co-op gave me the chick for free, put air holes in a little box, and I took it home. I had the box, the heat lamp, and the food and water all ready to go. As said, anticipation leads to gross over-preparedness.

She never stood up. She rested on her feet and legs, knees bent. We tried to feed her with water from an eyedropper, ground her food into a puree mixed with water and a bit of sugar. She ate nothing, refused to open her beak, and died in a homemade nest of cotton balls in her sleep.

My parents attended the unnamed chicks funeral (yes, I’m a sap). I buried her near a tree, wrapped in paper towels. My dad made a speech. “Chicken, born of egg. Your life was short, but meaningful. May you ascend to the great free-range farm in the sky.” He paused for a long moment, I sniffled and tried not to giggle, and he found the final words for the service. “Thanks for not pooping on me.” My mother made me swear not to bring home any more dying animals.

A week later, I found the Americauna chicks that I’d very much wanted, that everyone else was sold out of. That I hadn’t been able to order from the hatchery. The breed is very popular– these chickens lay blue eggs. It was ten days before my shipment of chicks were to arrive. I bought three, and named them. Piper was a brunet chipmunk that could not stand still– she raced around out of control, bowling over everything in her path; I was completely charmed. After the unnamed chick, I wanted one with energy. One that wouldn’t die. Rosamund (formally Rosemary, but after seeing that her real name was Death To Bugs, I felt that Rosamund fit better) was black, with just a hint of brown on her head. Anna reminded me of my little sister, Annie, just a bit. She was a blond chipmunk, and the first thing she did when she got home was to start grooming herself.

Anna and Rosamund did well. Piper stopped running around after the first day. She had the same symptoms: lethargy, a declining interest in food, then a noticeable difference in size. Anna and Rosamund outgrew her in days. Out come the eyedropper, the pureed food, the isolated nest. She lived three days ofter I bought her, and died on a sunny Monday morning.

Point one: Never, never treat healing magic as trivial in a fantasy world. The power to heal changes everything.

Point two: There is a good reason outliers are looked on as bad. A practical man will never take home anything with unusual traits. They’re the first to die.

The Monday after, last week, in fact, I had a box of day-old baby chicks, shipped from the hatchery through the postal service. Ten silver-spangled hamburgs, five blue andalusians, and ten silver phoenixes– a fluffy pure white chick with a single comb thrown in as my bonus for ordering them. They were put straight under the heat lamp, and they shivered for several minutes until they were warm again. Except for the wet chick that I found on the bottom of the box, stepped on by her litter-mates, barely moving and almost certainly near-dead. I did a count of the others, and decided that this was my tenth phoenix.

What do you do with dying birds? There’s really nothing to be done. Keep them warm, provide food and water, and hope for the best. I separated her from the others and held her close to the heat, and watched her brown and white feathers dry. She was noticeably smaller than the others– she barely weighed anything at all. I decided that she’d probably die, too, and kept her in a tuperware partition in the box.

… Except.

She dried out. She started pecking at the food. She yelled at me when I tried to dip her beak in the water. One week later, I can’t tell her from the rest. ‘Runt’ happens to be any phoenix that looks small and helpless.

One week later, one of my hamburgs has stopped eating. Once the same size of the others, she’s now much smaller. Her wings were different– mostly white with some black, as opposed to the standard black with a little white. Today she’s stopped eating and only wants to sleep. I’m guessing she’ll last until Wednesday– two days seems to be standard once the symptoms kick in. And I’m fairly happy that it’s just one out of the twenty-six. I’d expected to lose at least five.

I think my ultimate point is that I don’t think that I can treat character death the same way I did last month. The meaning has changed, and fairly quickly.

It only took a few chickens for me to catch on.

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5 thoughts on “writing and death, as taught by chickens

  1. Heh. I’m still checking on them seventeen times a day. Imagine what I’ll be like when I have kids.

    The hamburg died only an hour after I posted this. 😦 Poor little girl.

    • We had australorpes and one beautiful silver-laced wyandotte. The fancies are so lovely. I wish we could have chickens again, but we are stuck in suburbia :/ Sorry to hear about the hamburg. Good luck with the rest!

      • Ooh. I’ve seen pictures of the silver-laced wyandottes. Those were just breathtaking animals… I’d wished some were available when I wanted them. I was lucky just to get some ameraucanas. The farmers around here are crazy… the chicks sell so fast…

        Anyway. I’m glad to report that the babies are almost three weeks old, and I’ve not lost another one. The runty one I never thought would make it can’t be picked apart from the rest. 🙂

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