LIT­TLE CHICKEN, BRAVE HEART

How a blind chicken taught my family about the dan­gers and joys of tak­ing risks

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Front Page - BY PENNY PORTER FROM READER’S DI­GEST, JAN­UARY 2000 IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY CELIA KRAMPIEN

THE EGG ON OUR CHICKEN-COOP FLOOR was far from or­di­nary. An ugly mud green, it looked as if some alien crea­ture had left it there. Nudg­ing it with my sneaker, I won­dered, Where did it come from? Had Mother Na­ture made a mis­take?

“Mama! You found Sam,” fiveyear-old Becky piped up be­hind me. Hold­ing up her much-read Dr. Seuss book, Green Eggs and Ham, she pointed at the scrag­gly crea­ture named Sam on the cover, then at the egg. “Sam’s in there,” she in­sisted. “I know he is. It’s green.”

My hus­band, Bill, and I and our six chil­dren raise cat­tle and horses on our Ari­zona ranch. But I’d re­cently de­cided I wanted chick­ens, too—and not just ev­ery­day Ply­mouth Rocks, White Leghorns and Rhode Is­land Reds, which lay white or brown eggs. I wanted Easter Eg­gers, a friendly mixed breed that lays rain­bow­coloured shells.

I pic­tured these beau­ti­ful eggs in the re­frig­er­a­tor. Like small, bright bal­loons, they would add magic to our lives. Ev­ery day would be Easter.

“Please, honey,” I’d said to Bill, “let’s or­der 100 chicks. I could sell eggs and make a lit­tle money.”

He looked skep­ti­cal but re­lented. I ran for the cheque­book be­fore he changed his mind.

Six months later, my chicks had grown into fat hens. Brown and white eggs ap­peared ev­ery day. But where

were the mag­i­cal colours? The mud-green egg on the floor wasn’t even close to turquoise or seafoam green, much less yel­low or pink.

“Looks like a hand gre­nade,” Bill said as he poked his head into the chicken coop. His words made me feel strangely pro­tec­tive. I cupped the egg in my hand. A cu­ri­ous warmth surged through its smooth, el­lip­ti­cal walls, and it took on a magic of its own. What is inside? I won­dered. There was only one way to find out— wait for it to hatch.

BECKY THOUGHT SAM might be lone­some when he ar­rived, so we nes­tled him among three other eggs—two brown, one white—in the in­cu­ba­tor in our kitchen. We turned the eggs sev­eral times a day, adding tea­spoon­fuls of wa­ter to keep the hu­mid­ity just right.

On the 21st morn­ing, we heard the tap­ping of tiny beaks. The shells quiv­ered and rocked. At last, the brown and white eggs burst open, re­leas­ing three soggy chicks. Becky named them A, B and C. But the green egg stopped mov­ing. “Mama!” Becky cried. “Sam gave up!”

“No, honey. He’s just rest­ing.” Tears welled in her eyes. “He can’t get out. He’s gonna die!”

Press­ing the egg to my ear, I could hear mourn­ful cheeps inside. Was the shell too thick? I won­dered. Should I help? Poul­try books say that you should never in­ter­fere be­cause a fail­ure to hatch is of­ten na­ture’s way of rid­ding a species of the weak and the im­per­fect. But I had a child plead­ing, “Mama, do some­thing.”

Pray­ing it was the right course of ac­tion, I cracked the egg open. A tiny gold beak popped through. Sec­onds later, Sam rolled out, a scrag­gly fe­male chick with pure-white eyes em­bed­ded like seed pearls in ash-grey down.

“She’s blind,” Bill said. “You’d bet­ter get rid of her now be­fore the other chicks peck her to death.”

I knew Bill was right. Chick­ens peck at any­thing in their search for food. Even if Sam sur­vived “chick-hood,” a blind chicken could never bluff her way past the knife­like beaks of full-grown hens.

I sensed some­thing spe­cial about Sam, how­ever. When she nes­tled in my hand, she dozed peace­fully, en­joy­ing the warmth of my palm like a baby bird be­neath its mother’s wing.

Since chicks eat and drink at fre­quent in­ter­vals, I de­cided to find out if Sam could lo­cate food with­out the noisy cheep­ing of A, B and C to guide her. When she was four days old, I placed her on the kitchen ta­ble, not too far from a soda-bot­tle cap full of mash. Sec­onds later she scut­tled to­ward the mash and pecked up ev­ery speck.

Maybe, just maybe, Sam could live a life of her own. And since I was re­spon­si­ble for that life, I had to keep

The chil­dren took Sam out fre­quently. They laid her in a doll buggy on her back, claws sky­ward.

her safe. I put her in a wire cage on the porch.

The chil­dren took Sam out fre­quently. They laid her in a doll buggy on her back, claws sky­ward. Sam re­mained con­tent while the girls danced around singing, “I am Sam. Sam I am.”

One af­ter­noon Becky said, “Sam likes to ride on the swing, Mama.” In­deed, wings out­stretched, ghost eyes wild, our Easter Eg­ger chick clutched the rim of the rub­ber tire Bill had tied to a tree branch. “She thinks she’s fly­ing!” three-year-old Jaymee squealed, giv­ing a too-hard push that

tossed poor Sam to the ground. But she was on her feet in­stantly, flap­ping her wings and stag­ger­ing back to­ward the chil­dren’s voices.

When the girls tired of the fun, Sam crouched on the porch alone, as though trapped within in­vis­i­ble bar­ri­ers she dared not go be­yond.

EARLY ONE APRIL MORN­ING, a stray Si­amese cat ar­rived at our kitchen door. His body was so starved that it hung over my arm like an empty sock. I was fas­ci­nated by his non-stop purring, even as he slept. The girls named him Ping-Sing and were de­lighted to have two pets to play with. Although Sam was safe in her cage, Ping was still a cat who ate birds, and I warned: “Be care­ful when you take Sam out. Make sure Ping is out­side.”

The day came when I over­heard Becky say, “Jaymee, maybe Ping and Sam could be friends.”

Too late to protest, I peered out to the porch to see Becky shov­ing twom­onth-old Sam to­ward the cat. The Si­amese purred like a chain­saw, hot glit­ter blaz­ing in his eyes. The young chicken ap­proached, be­witched by Ping’s strange vi­bra­tion. Nose met beak, and Sam stabbed. Ping re­coiled, in­stantly sub­dued. By af­ter­noon Ping and Sam were wedged side by side in the doll buggy, en­joy­ing a friend­ship ride.

To our amaze­ment, Sam began to shadow Ping as radar tracks a dis­tant ob­ject. When Ping lay down on the stoop, Sam nes­tled nearby. When Ping got up to drink wa­ter, so did Sam. The two be­came in­sep­a­ra­ble, and our blind chicken hap­pily dis­cov­ered life be­yond the cage.

Mean­while, as my hens con­tin­ued lay­ing eggs, all the colours I’d

Sam looked so con­tent roost­ing on the feed trough,

sound asleep. At last she was one of the flock.

dreamed about filled my bas­ket to the brim. I watched for more mud-green eggs but never found one.

Then Jan­uary cast a shadow on lit­tle Sam’s life. See­ing the sign at the end of our road—“Rain­bow Eggs for Sale”—a passerby stopped and bought three dozen in as­sorted colours. He was ready to leave when he glanced at Ping and gasped, “Where’d you find that cat?”

“He found us,” I said, “and Sam can’t live with­out him.” But Ping was al­ready cra­dled in the old man’s arms. “His name’s Elvis,” he said. “Can’t stop sin­gin’—in case you didn’t no­tice.”

I choked back use­less ar­gu­ments and waved good­bye to Ping.

Now Sam’s lonely bat­tle with life began in earnest. Cheep­ing the loss of her Si­amese friend, Sam paced in her cage. She stopped eat­ing. When I saw too many cast-off feath­ers blan­ket­ing the cage floor, I wor­ried. I let her out, hop­ing for a mir­a­cle.

SAM HUN­KERED DOWN near the porch. One day her cu­rios­ity drew her to­ward the sounds of my freeroam­ing flock, but an­gry ducks and stab­bing beaks forced her to flee.

Sev­eral weeks later I watched her wait for the hens to go to their nests. Then, squeez­ing cau­tiously through the trap door and into the coop, she found the grain in the feeder.

When night came, how­ever, I still gath­ered up Sam and put her back in her cage. At first, she’d snug­gle with plea­sure in my arms. But as the weeks passed, I no­ticed a re­sis­tance each time I car­ried her off. Then came the un­ex­pected peck on my wrist. Was she telling me to leave her alone?

One sum­mer even­ing I was later than usual lock­ing the coop for the night. To my sur­prise, Sam was roost­ing on the feed trough, sound asleep. She looked so con­tent, I left her there. At last she was one of the flock, ready for life among her own.

By her sec­ond Septem­ber, Sam still hadn’t laid an egg. At the same time, she be­came ob­sessed with a hole be­tween the rail­way ties that sup­ported the bucket of Bill’s trac­tor, parked next to the coop. As the days grew cooler, she seemed to find this to be a warm, safe hid­ing place.

One Oc­to­ber night I awoke to screeches of ter­ror from my flock. I grabbed a flash­light and Bill’s ri­fle and dashed out­side. In the beam of my light glowed the eyes of a rac­coon inside the coop. As the an­i­mal pre­pared to rip off my rooster’s head, I fired a shot into the air. The in­truder fled.

The next morn­ing at break­fast, Becky asked, “Did he get Sam?”

Cold fear gripped me. I didn’t know. I’d long ago stopped wor­ry­ing about leav­ing Sam with the flock.

We hur­ried to the barn­yard. Near the trac­tor, golden feath­ers lay scat­tered like fallen leaves. “Oh, Mama,” Becky said sadly. “Sam’s gone.”

“Maybe she’s un­der­neath,” I said to Bill. He climbed up into the cab. Hy­draulics whined, and the gi­ant shovel rose from its rest­ing place.

That’s when I saw them: four lit­tle mud-green eggs cra­dled in a straw­banked nest. A farewell gift from Sam? Maybe I should hatch them, I thought. But it was not to be.

Who, af­ter all, could re­place her? As she scut­tled bravely to the edges of her un­seen world, Sam, a mere chicken, had demon­strated how ex­tra­or­di­nary life is.

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