The Great Impersonator was not the first children’s story I’ve written. The one that I thought I would have published first was about our chicken, Henrietta.
Henrietta came to us as a stray. A stray chicken is most likely a phenomenon that only happens within the city limits of Portland, Oregon. But a stray she was, despite the fact that (by poultry standards) she was a fancy bantam hen, usually not kept as a pet, but more often a “show chicken.” Yes, this is a thing. One day, three and a half years ago, she just showed up on the front porch of an acquaintance of ours. Despite the fact that he lived in a busy part of town, he decided to try chicken keeping, and so got two pullets to keep her company. When one of the three was attacked and killed by a dog, he decided they would be better off with someone else, and so we took her, and her Silkie sister, whose fluffy feathers prompted us to name her Phyllis Diller.
Henrietta was impossibly tiny, with a long, elegant neck, and beautiful gold and silver feathers. She was as brave as she was tiny, and could be seen chasing away the cat or the pesky squirrels who tried to steal her cracked corn. They were bosom buddies, Henrietta and Phyllis – never exhibiting much in the way of hen-pecking, which is so common among birds. Later we added more chickens to the flock, but Henrietta was never supplanted as my favorite.
She would follow me around as I weeded and planted in the garden. Sometimes standing on my trowel, ready for the unearthing of a worm or slug, or best yet – a cache of slug eggs. She would gobble them down accompanied by a sweet, high-pitched appreciative peeping. “You’re welcome, mama,” I’d say.
Often while we worked in the garden, I would imagine the way I would write about her – how I would create her “back story,” of which in reality I knew nothing about. Where did that pretty little bird come from? How old was she? She obviously was used to people, as she tolerated not only being picked up, but even the occasional nuzzle (dare I say, it seemed as though she nuzzled back). I would have no trouble fleshing out her character, as she was such a character all on her own. Fearless, adventurous (as I discovered when a neighbor brought her to my door after a quick jaunt to the park, two blocks away), and sort of hilarious, in a tiny feathered dinosaur kind of way.
I knew letting my chickens roam free was a risk. I tried to limit it to only while I was home, though sometimes I’d leave them out and go, tired of chasing the unwilling back to their coop. But yesterday morning, I was home. Distracted, but home. I saw two of the birds out back, digging in the garden, obviously happy the snow had finally melted. A few minutes later, the crows were going nuts.
The crows go crazy a lot, for a variety of reasons. I thought perhaps I hadn’t put enough hazlenuts out for them. I grabbed the bag and went out front where they had gathered, dozens of them. Some were sitting on the telephone wire, and I swear they were screaming directly at me. Others were flying erratically through the sky. That’s when I realized I had seen this particular dance before. And then I saw the hawk.
Some crows were trying to chase it off, and others were standing watch. I looked down and realized they were watching over my sweet, fierce, beautiful little bird. She struggled to lift her head, and I knew her neck was broken. I yelled and yelled, desperately tried to call my neighbor, who I knew immediately would help me if I needed to end her misery. I stroked her, and talked to her, and finally lifted her in my arms, knowing there was no use in trying to keep her still. No help was coming. There was nothing to be done.
It didn’t take long for her eyes to close and for her to lie still. I kept saying, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” long after she could have heard my voice.
I have invited the birds in with feeders and shelters, and have chosen to let my chickens be the yard birds they are by letting them roam a bit. Am I sorry for that? No, not really. And although that was a terribly hard thing to have witnessed, I’m glad it was me she was with when she died.
I am in awe of the behavior of the crows, who I truly believe were trying to get my attention. I am not mad at the hawk – how foolish would that be – he was doing his job as a hawk, and life is a circle that has to be respected and accepted in all it’s glory and gore. It was, however, an incredibly sad day. And Phyllis, who was in her nesting box at the time, has not stopped searching for her sister, with whom she has slept nestled next to since she was a chick.
Just a chicken, you might say. But my attachments aren’t inclined to discriminating between species. If you’ve ever cared for, and grown fond of, an animal, I’ll tell you the affection for a bird is not all that different from any other. Even if you might not want to snuggle with a chicken. They’ve still got plenty to give.
I want to write her story more than ever now. Immortalize her for Ronin, who loved his “Hendenda.” I wish I had written it before this sad ending, but, as a fellow writer reminded me, I can choose any ending I want for her. It’s hard to imagine her resting in peace. Instead, perhaps I can tell a story that has leaving her little dinosaur body behind and soaring up to a hawk’s nest. When that egg cracks, she’ll finally have a body that more closely matches her indelible, fierce spirit.