Earlier this week we had to kill one of our three chickens. Well, I say we, but it was Nathan who did it. Wringing an animal’s neck is not something I’m keen to add to my list of accomplishments just yet.
She was attacked the previous morning in the early hours between five and six, when the air is just beginning to shake off its cloak of darkness, heavy with the dew-fall of a Spring night. I was awake with the baby and heard the commotion, barreling through the softness of the dawn sounds and jolting me from the comfort of my meandering morning thoughts as I lay cocooned with my child, milk-drunk and dreamy. The dogs, natural protectors of our small flock of three, were barking at the injustice of having their territory intruded upon.
I’m not sure what it was, a fox or a cat. I suspect a cat, as they tend to hunt for sport, in the suburbs at least. A fox doesn’t have a quiet corner of the cul-de-sac to retreat to in the damp, grey light of dawn, so perhaps would have left only feathers behind as evidence of his crime. As it was, a flurry of feathers still remained, but amidst it all lay one of our hens, Old Red, on her side. I ventured out into the half-light to find her, a limp body gently heaving in the aftermath of a hen’s worst nightmare. The other two hens (nameless – in fact, Old Red had only recently been named due to the ring of red-brown feathers around her neck, contrasting against her otherwise black plumage) were raucously trying to inform me of the morning’s turn of events, as they huddled close to the dogs.
I bent down and stroked her gently, looking into the one beady eye that was facing upwards. She clucked apprehensively as I breathed a dismal apology,
“I’m sorry, darling. I’ll see what we can do for you.”
There wasn’t much we could do for her besides make her as comfortable as possible in the small hutch in the corner of our yard. She wouldn’t move on her own accord, but I was hoping that she was just in shock, and might recover her bearings in a few hours.
Later that morning, as the bustle of our household was in full swing, Nathan went out to check on Old Red in that quiet corner beneath the neighbour’s overhanging boughs. The other two hens had made themselves comfortable beside her inside the hutch – an unusual place for them to reside in the middle of the day, and a touching display of camaraderie. He returned to the kitchen with a small, round, warm parcel in his hand.
“Old Red’s parting gift,” he said, with a sigh and a hint of sadness, as he handed me the egg.
“Is she gone?” I queried softly. I couldn’t bring myself to say the word ‘dead’, even for a chook.
“No, not quite. But I don’t think she’ll make it.”
So we continued about our day, doing all the usual things. Dishes, laundry, discipline, laughter. It was Sunday, the Holy day, supposedly. But everything felt so beautifully mundane, not particularly special or sacred.
And every so often my mind would wander out to the hen in the dusty cage and I would say a silent prayer that she might make it through the night.
And I would look at that egg and wonder how I could eat that last sacrifice, that holy offering from a small, lowly, injured bird. It wasn’t that it was any different from all the eggs before, but the circumstances under which it was produced had brought into sharp focus the sacredness of life and death.
I think sometimes we miss the everyday holiness. Perhaps holiness is hard to grasp because its shining, ephemeral threads are woven through every single thing, and every experience. These threads are easy to miss, like thin cobwebs strung between old trees. But every so often, when the sunlight catches in just the right way, we see that cobweb shining in it’s strength and beauty. That same sunlight casts golden rays through the windows of our home and illuminates those otherwise invisible clouds of fine dust. We realise that it is everywhere, always. We breathe it in, it settles on us.
And we realise that it is all holy.
Find yourself in that sunlight, let it move and rest and settle in your soul. Let it string its fine webs between those trees in the hushed places.
As I explain the disappearance of the third chicken to my son, upon his discovery that she was missing, I realise that there is a holiness in everything. That there is a capacity for redemption in all things, even the passing of an insignificant hen.
As I try to find the words to tell him about death, and that Daddy had to take Old Red away, and I hear his sweet voice, in dismay,
“But I didn’t want Daddy to take her away…”
My heart swells and breaks under the weight of his depth of feeling for this bird.
This bird who gave us our first egg only two years ago.
This bird who gave her last egg amidst the holiness and earthiness of death.
This bird who had her last breath mercifully wrung from her in the dim light of the following day.
We get so busy aiming for the mountaintops, that we miss those faint threads and those fine, atmospheric particles, and we forget that miracles occur in the mundane.
That there is redemption all around us, we just have to pause, and look, and sometimes get our hands dirty, and then hold that dirt up to the light.
That there is life and hope and nourishment within the fragility of that egg, even if it was borne within the throws of pain and suffering.
That there is a sacredness in the smallness and that there is holiness in the death of this almost-nameless bird.