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'Chickens and Park Vase' by Albertus Verhoesen - may not be representative of my chook set-up. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

‘Chickens and Park Vase’ by Albertus Verhoesen – may not be representative of my backyard chook set-up. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

My heart sank, emptied. There were only two of them, not three.

But I had to keep moving.

I went into the shed and got the pellets and scratch-mix together, and then went back to the coop. Still just the two of them. I filled the feeder and then lifted the door to the coop proper. There she was, on her side. Dead. My heart sank – emptied – even further.

I poked my head in just to be sure. Amazingly her eyes opened. But how sick she was. She could barely move. She appeared paralysed, or half-paralysed. She looked as though she’d been run-over. She had been such a beautiful bird, so black, almost crow-like, but what a deeply glistening chest of red. And placid. And very friendly. Never any trouble. I knew what I had to do, but it was first thing in the morning and I wasn’t up for it. I needed a coffee first. Strong, black.

When the coffee was done I went back out to the run. I could hear her chirping (as though still a chick) to her sisters outside. Despite barely being able to move her body, she wanted to be feeding with them. I found an old stainless-steel cat’s bowl, filled it with pellets and scratch-mix, topped it with a dollop of natural yoghurt, and placed it beside her. She looked at the food but her body was too weak to eat. I went back into the house, made myself a second coffee. I googled ‘sudden partial paralysis in chickens’. Marek’s disease. That was the obvious answer. No cure.

There was only one way to solve this.

I went back outside. Somehow she’d made it down the ladder-ramp but was huddled in a dark corner. I checked the cat’s bowl of feed I’d got together for her – it hadn’t been touched. How on earth had she managed to get down to the ground? Desperate to be with her sisters, had she simply tumbled out? I had no way of knowing.

I went back inside, went down the hallway to the writing room, and got to work. Tried to get to work. I remembered how some months ago I’d suddenly lost a hen who’d come over half-paralysed and had died by day’s end in the dark corner of the coop. Her body looked contorted; it hadn’t been an easy death. I’d give today’s sick hen till lunchtime.

At noon I went outside. Now she was moving around in the sun, gingerly, but she was pecking at this and that, as if she was trying to find a kind of natural rhythm. At 3pm I checked again. Now she was giving herself a vigorous dust-bath. She looked as steady as ever. Three chooks again: all of them back to being as happy as I’d ever known them. What had happened during the night? How come she’d become so squashed and mangled and mostly motionless?

The only explanation I could think of was this: now that winter had come they’d huddled themselves right up, but she’d found herself beneath her sisters. They’d squashed her in their bid for communal warmth. Almost to the point of death. All it had taken was a handful of hours in the sun for her to unravel and feel herself again.

Just before going to bed last night, I went out with a torch to see how they were. All three of them were roosting in a row, staring at me as if to say, ‘What do you want?’

There’s no way to sugar-coat this: it was a cruel blow. She’d been sick for weeks, months, most of her life.  She’d twist and jerk her neck, as if she was doing a strange dance, but also as if she had something stuck.  Last year I took her to the vet, who appeared undecided about what to do, so I took her home and declared that dear old Woo was now officially on palliative care.  I picked her up and massaged her crop so that whatever was stuck or blocked would hopefully be cleared.  It seemed to work.  I also gave her a mix of garlic and yoghurt, and that seemed to work too.

With the on-set of winter, all chooks going off the lay, Woo declined rapidly.  No matter how much I massaged her, no matter how often I administered the garlic-and-yoghurt mixture, she looked so terribly uncomfortable.  Every second day, I’d think, Okay, this is it, I have to do it, it’s for the best.  On a number of occasions I woke in the middle of the night to mentally workshop the best method.  Always, however, in the morning, there she’d be, Woo the hen, looking as bright as ever, as if to say, ‘Something wrong with me?  I don’t think so!’

Except there was something wrong with her.  To the point that she no longer came down from the coop, her wings hung low, almost lifeless, her eyes were now mostly closed, and it looked like she was gasping for breath.  She’d once been the most royal chook in the run, a grand display of brown plumage.  And a good layer.  And she loved a chat, and she loved being held.  So I gave her another day.  She managed to get herself down from the coop, but she didn’t eat. I picked her up; under her still wonderful display of feathers she was so thin, just bones.

I had to do this. I googled techniques, I looked on Youtube, I even found in my library (as in the real one in my real house) a book about backyard animal husbandry.  But it all seemed complex – would I end up making a horrible mess of it all?  So I got the mallet from the shed.  I stepped into the run.  I went over to Woo.  I crouched down.  She opened her eyes.  She looked at me.  Feeling way too much like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, I lined up what I had to do.  And did it.  The blow knocked her forwards, her head pressed hard into the dirt of the run.  Her eyes closed slowly, but she gave me one last look as she went, I know she did.  As soon as her body relaxed out came a flood of liquid from her beak – her crop was so blocked that she’d been drowning.  I know this now.

I put her body in a plastic shopping bag, and put the bag in the rubbish bin.

The next morning, to my surprise and delight, one of the other hens, a hen who’d not lain once, gave me an egg.  And the next day, too.  And that’s how it’s been for a week now, egg after egg, as if to say, On the other side of death is life, it’s always been this way, nothing will change.

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The past