Spring hens

by Ari LeVaux

Easter Sunday would have been the 4th birthday of my eldest hen, Annabelle. She was the last of a tribe, all named Annabelle, all of whom arrived as day-old chicks on Easter Sunday, 2004.

In the intervening years, various Annabelles fell prey to dogs, skunks and finally, with the old girl’s passing last week, raccoons. Such is the life of the urban chicken. And such is the predicament of the urban chicken farmer, or any farmer, or any person for that matter – surrounded by life, stalked by death and living with the nagging truth that you could have done better.

Annabelle had lately preferred roosting on top of the coop, which I condoned. Thanks to the free will I allowed her, she tempted the raccoons and was plucked from the garden of life.

Rebirth is life’s answer to death. It keeps the numbers up and balances out the longing, regret and other accumulated byproducts of living. No wonder Easter is pegged to the vernal equinox. What better time to celebrate the transit of Jesus from death to life than the height of springtime, when dark and light are in balance, and the earth is reborn from the dregs of autumn’s killing spree.

But where does the Easter egg fit into all of this? And, what’s up with the bunny?

Some believe the struggle of a baby chick to escape its shell symbolizes the struggle of Jesus to escape the confines of death. The egg, like the bunny, is a symbol of fertility, celebrations of which have been enacted around the spring equinox since long before Jesus was even a divine itch in Mary’s immaculate loins.

After last year’s dog attack, which killed the rest of Annabelle’s generation, she was alone while I awaited the arrival of replacement day-old chicks, ordered online. As the minimum order was 25 birds, I found four sets of neighbors interested in raising chickens.

Annabelle, meanwhile, was prone to wander, as if looking for her lost friends. She crossed the road, hung out under the neighbor’s bunny cage (for the bunny food droppings, I hope) and roamed the back alley. To keep her around, I had to lock her in the pen.

The post office called me one Sunday night – they call immediately when live chicks arrive in the mail. In minutes I had them home, where they huddled together under a heat lamp in a big fuzzy clump. The cat was curious and jealous.

When the chicks were big enough, with real feathers, I put them outside with Annabelle, who seemed more annoyed by the chaotic intrusion than happy for the company. An upstart I’d named Baldy broke the tension by pecking at Annabelle’s mouth in a filial way.

Annabelle eased into her role as surrogate mama hen. She taught the little girls how to take dust baths in the bike shed, where the ground is always dry. She taught them how my digging projects around the back yard could yield easy worms. Luckily, she didn’t teach them to wander. Instead she followed me around like a puppy, waiting for something good to happen, making that gentle cooing sound I miss so much. In this way she taught them that, despite looking scary, I’m actually a nice guy.

The morning I found Annabelle’s remains, the new hens were still freaked out, having listened to the violent death of their mama hen. After I buried her beneath a rose plum tree, I let the survivors roam the yard.

They were surprisingly clingy, following me around like never before. Each hen was suddenly interested in hanging out, the way only Annabelle used to. At first, I assumed they were scared and looking to me for protection. But they weren’t acting scared. In fact, they were making those gentle cooing sounds that Annabelle used to make and giving me that look. It was as though I had become what Annabelle had been to them, their leader, protector and teacher. And at the same time, they became to me the bundles of chicken love that Annabelle had been. Perhaps this is the literal message of Easter.

Meanwhile, in the weeks just before Annabelle died, the new girls began laying eggs. Thanks to the diversity of my chick order, the eggs come in pink, white, blue and brown.

The raccoons that killed Annabelle were back the very next night, big as dogs. I chased them off, nailing the neighbor’s fence with a rock. While admittedly it would have felt good to hit flesh, I don’t blame the raccoons – they’re just trying to stay alive. Unlike the dog, who killed for sport, raccoons kill to eat. A few days after I buried what was left of Annabelle, something dug up her remains and took them away.

Immaculate conception, as evidence that light can spring from some place other than darkness, is wishful thinking; Easter is more realistic, acknowledging that life depends on death as the chicken depends on the egg. Chicken and egg, life and death – these states are framed by the murky thresholds that separate them. It doesn’t matter which came first. •