LITTLE CHICKEN, BRAVE HEART
How a blind chicken taught my family about the dangers and joys of taking risks
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.