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.

fortuna

I locked the two cats in my bedroom, so that I could stare at the living room floor in peace.

The birds started small, just like she did. Baby sparrows, fallen from the nest, their nests neatly snapped as Fortuna laid them on before the back patio door. Her kill was almost dainty.

After that, I found a live bird in the garage, nestled in a temporary haven between the step in the concrete and the garage door, feathers strewn around its hiding place. I picked it up and took it outside, and I petted its feathers. Just another sparrow, the kind you’d find anywhere. After a few minutes, it chirped twice and flew away.

My mother blamed herself. We had a bird feeder in the back garden, its post wrapped in metal to keep the squirrels out (ha!). And when the birds would come in, they would pick through the mix of seeds to get to their favorite treat, spilling some of the rest on the grass below. By the bushes. And when the birds would run out of seed, they’d fly to the ground to pick at it there. Our cat was less than a year old at that point, but she displayed talent for the hunt. And she liked birds. Moving from the city suburb to northern Idaho did not hinder this. Especially since, courtesy of our new houses’ last owner, the house came with a series of dog doors.

Fortuna was a beauty. Her fur was short, black, and glossy, her body small and lithe. Some cats chase string when you dangle it. There was nothing that Fortuna wouldn’t chase. She’d go for blades of grass, keys, phone cords, even my wooden practice daggers (courtesy of martial arts training). She’d scratched and bloodied my hands several times, whenever I was stupid enough to try to make her pounce on the toys I offered. Always enthusiastic, never cruel.

We were a dismayed, though, when we found the dead bird scattered around our new house’s bedroom halfway through the remodel. From what I could tell, it had been another sparrow, but this time all we found were feathers and a head. Another followed that, in another room. Then she’d managed to catch herself a starling.

Back to the living room. We had tiled and carpeted the floors. The rooms had gone from a hideous 80’s pink-walls-with-a-green-carpet to boring beige, which in a house of this make was really all that could be done. Asian furniture in cherry graced the corners, and managed to make the giant iron wood-furnace less hideous. Nothing there could distract from the large black duck.

Black, gray, and very dead, it reclined on the new carpet just past the tiled entryway. Its neck held a particular angle that suggested that it had been snapped. Feathers were missing from its tail, torn out and played with all along the hallway.

And to think, I’d been petting that cat…

dacha’s revenge

I just killed a character. And now I’ve been having a terrible time trying to write.

I really liked the character. But it was time for her to go. I had a situation where it would have been nearly impossible for all three characters to escape from, and this particular woman would have broken a later plot at the end of the chapter. I killed her well, without needing to stretch events to set her up. No ‘I’ll hold them off!’ lines (instant death in almost any genre). It set me up for a great fight scene between a scary-as-hell spearman and my hero.

And I’ve written twenty words on Blue Crystal in the last three days. Like a ghost in a haunted house, I can’t seem to leave that scene.