I smooth her feathers from neck to wing and wonder if there is a definitive way to tell that a chicken is dead. Do you hold a mirror to its beak? Do you try to find its heart? Death can’t be in the eyes: Eliza’s are partly open when she passes, lines of amber glistening with her life light.
In the end, it happens quickly.
In the end, I know she is gone because she feels lighter, less warm.
Chickens are funny creatures. They have real personalities. Human personalities. Sometimes, with the way they are treated and the lessons they teach us, it seems that we are our chickens’ subjects and they are our poultry overlords.
Eliza was the lead chook. She was the lookout for the others, the first in line for hugs, the one to peck at our feet if she thought she was missing out on a pat.
The chickens stopped laying before Christmas, around the time the 43-degree day hit. That was when Eliza started having trouble getting in and out of the coop on her own. I checked and treated her for everything I could think of—dehydration, parasites, impacted crop, being eggbound—but she was a mature ISA Brown, and she had been bred for a short, fast life. I knew this before she joined our family. At her prime, Eliza gave us an egg a day, two if we were lucky. A huge toll on a little body.
It’s still light outside when I find her in the coop unmoving. But she’s not dead. She opens her eyes and raises her head when she hears my voice. I scoop her up and carry her to the grass. She cannot stand. She is too weak to pick at the soil.
She needs a bath, I decide. She loves her baths. I rinse the dirt from the pink bucket, the one that’s the size of a baby bath.
‘Bring jugs of water,’ I tell my son. ‘Hot water, then cold. Make it the same temperature you would for your sister’s bath.’
Our daughter, my littlest one, doesn’t need to be asked. She is already filling a container with Epsom salts.
When I place Eliza in the water, she floats. I stroke her neck and back, splash under her wings, wash the feathers at her vent. She lifts her head—is she saying thank you?—but her neck cannot support it for long. While she seems to be rallying, we all know this will be her last bath.
I wrap her in towels and prop her up to make her comfortable. We offer her water and yoghurt, which she loves more than sunflower seeds. She shows no interest.
She rests for the next hour or so, always moving to the sound of my coming and going footsteps, otherwise calm. It is sunset when she stops raising her head, when her eyes close incompletely.
‘We need to bury her. She’s already undergoing rigor mortis,’ my husband tells me, and I nod.
‘What’s rigor mortis?’ my littlest one asks.
‘It’s when you really know a living being has passed,’ I say. ‘Their muscles go all stiff.’
We each say a few words at her burial, thank her for being a good friend and a good chicken. Our funny girl. She was the best girl. I think she held on for us. I think she waited for me to find her, to give us the chance to say goodbye while she was still with us.
Then she is underground ready to become a part of the olive tree she has foraged beneath for nearly three years.
The mood is sombre after, for all of us, but my littlest one is the most sad on the outside. I hug her close, until she pushes herself off me. She is away with purpose.
‘Where are you going?’ I ask.
‘I’m going to dig her up,’ she says, newly bright-eyed. ‘She’ll be okay now.’
‘No, little one, she won’t.’
‘But how do you know? She might be alive.’
I hesitate. ‘Rigor mortis,’ I say. ‘She’s gone.’
I hold her back from the door and her little body melts into me. She loses her tears in wails; mine seep quietly into her hair.
The sky is dark.
It was ink dark outside when the contractions started but I waited until 5a.m. before waking him.
‘Are you sure?’ he asked.
‘Yes, I’m sure!’ I said.
‘Could it still be pre-labour?’
‘These are no Braxton Hicks. And they’re getting closer together. I’ve been timing.’
He had good reason to ask: my pre-labour had gone on and on for five days. My stomach, an ever-tightening ball.
I had lunch with my sister the day before, in the midst of a long run of these unreal contractions, and I would have to stop moving or talking to breathe through each one.
‘Should you even be out?’ she said, incredulous. ‘Are you going to give birth right now?’
‘No, it’s just pre-labour,’ I said. ‘I’ll be fine.’
We walked into a clothing store and the owner looked me up and down.
‘Don’t give birth in here!’ She was only half joking, I could tell.
‘I won’t,’ I said, and my sister, the shop owner, and I shared the same nervous laugh.
Twelve hours later, I was in labour for real.
I was already what the medical establishment called “late,” even though I’d done the maths based on my own cycle. In three days’ time, at 42 weeks, they would tell me I would have to be induced, with no possibility of the home birth I had planned, so I had been getting progressively more stressed, spending nights working on my own care plan because my midwives couldn’t.
When my son was born more than three years earlier, I experienced what I later learned to be called the “cascade of intervention”—where unnecessary medical interventions are introduced and stepped up and backed onto one another, reducing the risks to the hospital and its staff, but at a cost to the mother’s well-being. His birth left me with a trapped nerve, other latent medical issues, and ongoing trauma. I was determined to stay away from doctors this time.
I really looked after myself. I joined the Community Midwifery Program, did antenatal yoga once a week, saw a chiropractor for sciatica, put the best food into my body, and took liquid iron when they ordered me to get my iron levels up or risk being admitted to a hospital bed.
And then, on the night before my littlest one was born, I couldn’t sleep. I stayed up to refine my seemingly inevitable post-42-week care plan and accidentally started watching a Dutch horror movie that I couldn’t bear to see through when I realised it would end with a graphic birth scene. So I scared myself with what-if nightmares instead and woke up two hours later with contractions.
We’d had days of crazy heat in the lead-up, as we do every February in Perth, but this day was mild. Great weather for a water birth at home. Only I started too strong. When the contractions took hold, I mustered my arsenal of asanas and wore myself out early with too many squats and warrior twos.
I have a vague recollection of general care (from my midwife and husband), frustration (from my midwife, when I told her, ‘I don’t know if I can do this’) and screaming (from me: ‘I can do this!’). But what I remember most vividly was my beautiful man holding me up and out of the water to push because my legs couldn’t hold me anymore, my perfect babe in my arms, cradled by water and love.
Her birth healed me in ways I am still finding words for.
‘A superman birth,’ were the first words I heard from my midwife because the babe made her entrance unconventionally, announcing her arrival with one fist first exploding out and up, followed by the other.
My little water dragon was spirited from the start, a special girl, born in blood-warm water and the afternoon sun bathing us in glorious streams through the glass. A child of the elements. India Lucie. Water and light.
We project-managed our first kiss. Two project managers getting together, how could we not?
While we felt a special something there, we wanted to be sure. Because it doesn’t always follow that attraction and genuine connection go together. We had our children to think of.
For single parents, it’s too much of a luxury to seek short-term comfort. You have to think of your child. You are dating for your child. You are dating for yourself, of course, but you know that the person you are with will ultimately become a part of your child’s life, if it works out. Getting serious, rather than getting lucky, becomes the vital issue.
So just to see, we said to each other, we would meet up. At the beach, after work.
We had worked at the same place for years but ours was not an office romance. We knew each other enough to say hi in the corridor, or sit next to each other at a planning day, but we’d never worked together.
When people ask, I tell them that we got together over chess.
Our initial games were online matches with work colleagues. Then the two of us decided to meet for a face-to-face game at a local café, to see if it would bring an extra dimension to our respective games. I was meant to supply the chess set for our first non-virtual game.
But I forgot the chess board. When I unpacked the pieces, I could visualise exactly where it was—on the table at home, where it was of no use to us. He was happy just to talk; I was a little blind, I think, to how he felt even then, determined to make good on our original intentions. I got hold of a red square of tissue paper from a helpful staff member and drew a board, and we played. Best of three. He let me win. I still have that tissue-paper board somewhere at home.
My husband tells me that was the day he started falling for me.
After that, face-to-face chess was the only way to play. And we were talking, really talking, and I worried that he might be developing stronger feelings for me than I had for him but I was unconsciously falling. I found myself looking forward to his conversation and his smile, the hello and goodbye hugs in his windsurferly arms, more than the challenge of beating him on a black and white marble board. Then I looked at my phone one day and realised the empty feeling I had was that he hadn’t called and we hadn’t set a time for our next game. And that was when I knew, the week before we kissed.
I’m pretty sure that he brought the Eski and I brought the wine. Or maybe he brought the wine and I brought food. I don’t remember eating when we met up but I am, in general, the one who brings the food.
‘You’re a feeder,’ was one friend’s triumphant label of me after one of many over-catered events, followed with, ‘but that’s not a bad thing.’
If the kiss confirmed my emotional connection, I think that what he felt for me was not sealed until some days later, by a food offering: kale salad.
When people ask, my husband tells them that he fell for me over kale salad.
So I don’t remember bringing food to our meet-up, but I probably did.
I do, however, remember the achy body-tingling feeling of excited anxiety that preceded the lead-up hours, the flutters as I waited those last, long minutes for him to arrive.
I brought the picnic rug and the outdoors-friendly wine goblets. And I remember the wine was a Sauvignon Blanc and we were on the grassy shelf above the white sand and the surf.
It was a Tuesday afternoon.
We drank, sank into each other’s eyes, and delayed the inevitable with conversation, anticipation building. I began to wonder. I began to doubt. I began to worry about all the other people on the beach, whether they would be offended by our well-planned and public display of affection. I began to wonder whether or not this was such a good idea.
Then we set our glasses down and, very definitely, we moved our faces closer, closer, until our lips were touching, and those arms were enveloping me, and I was floating in an untouchable bubble, insensible to all other sights and sounds until the afternoon light turned pink and the sea turned up the volume on its waves, and there was absolutely no chess involved.
I’m not exaggerating when I say there were fireworks. But time didn’t stop: it rocketed on, too fast for us on that day.
We left the beach at the point that sunset gave way to stars, and I ached harder for him, for more than mere physical attraction, because this was the man I was meant to be with. I could see it in the water and light in his eyes.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Courtesy of author.