In this final chapter, our puppet dictator finds herself in a white trash nightmare of her own making... The grass was bare. The shrubs scratched to the roots. The plants either eaten by chickens, or merely tortured by them. Like bored delinquents the chickens moved from one plant to the next in search of, if not food or bugs, another opportunity to spread havoc and anarchy in my well-tended garden. All the soil around the plants and patio had been kicked to new useless areas, which then became pools of mud in the soggy Portland winter. And in their final show of superiority, they staked out their favorite place to rest from the exertions of their destruction: the double french doors on our deck, where they pooped and watched the humans inside while they preened and dug out the flower box.
When the yard could no longer become any worse, the chickens started to molt. Mimi began dropping little black and white feathers behind her in a slow stream. Zuzu, still not laying eggs and apparently not going to, dropped a larger number of feathers, primarily in the coop at night. Lola seemed to hang on to hers greedily. But when noticing their molt, I also noticed that Lola was injured.
Her foot was swollen, and she was limping a bit. And while I was completely fed up with their abuses in my little Eden, I couldn't bear the thought of her being in pain. So I took her into the vet to have her checked out.
As we pulled her from the pet carrier filled impressively with bird guano from the short ten minute drive, she exploded like a broken pillow, beating her wings and throwing off more feathers than I've ever seen. Down floated above the vet, the assistant and I, while Lola complained bitterly about her treatment. She continued shedding her black and gold feathers like confetti at a ticker-tape parade as we wrestled to examine her foot. The room was black with feathers, every sterile surface covered, my formerly lovely bird instantly scruffy once again. Back to the beginning, a vulture for a pet, her molt completed in one traumatic swoop.
The injury had taken care of itself. My vet, a sympathetic dreamer herself who only gave me a little piteous glance when I explained my saga, assured me that Lola's infection had sealed itself off, protecting the rest of her from potential harm; if we were to open up the old injury, we could introduce a much worse infection because she was, by merit of being a chicken, filthy.
So I left behind all of Lola's feathers, and a bunch of our money, and took my homely chicken back home.
As their first birthday came around, so did I. No chicken was going to ruin my paradise; who were they to dictate the rules of the game, anyway? Just a bunch of overgrown suppers with a sense of entitlement. Sure, I was completely culpable in their assumption of rulership, but things were going to change around here.
I moved the enclosure so that it created a run in the bamboo forest that followed the north fence, reclaiming one third of our yard. That should be good enough for a bunch of chickens; they ought to be thankful for what they have! And they would have schedules; I would let them out in the yard for an hour or two, not the whole day...
....and I would give them a new home.
That was really the solution. My girls were an experiment I had undertaken with verve and enthusiasm, but an experiment with no happy end. The yard had been destroyed, the deck hosed down every couple of days, the whole lawn needed to be re-sodded. The girls refused to be shut into the run and made such a ruckus that they were almost as loud as Garbanzo the rooster. My husband was beginning to show signs of extreme impatience with them, which of course I translated as impatience with me.
And I began to do the math. Materials, food, time and plants, landscaping, vet bills, dignity: well over one thousand dollars. If you added in the cost of the re-sodding, it was closer to two. Those were some of the most expensive eggs we ever ate.
Gigi was broody, and hiding in the nest box. The rest of the girls were molting. None of them were laying because of the broody/molt conundrum. But I wrote up my last chicken ad:
Urban Layer Chicken Flock, eccentric and charming!
I have four lovely standard-sized hens, whose one-year birthday was yesterday. Optimally I would love them to go together, because though eccentric, they seem rather devoted to each other...
...I would like to consider only offers of taking the whole crew; they're sort of a one-stop-shop for your exotic standard hens. But they're worth it, I promise. Even with the silly non-layer Zuzu, you won't be disappointed. Twenty bucks a pop, with the charity case Zuzu thrown in for free. But you take Lola, you take Zuzu, no choice. A girl has to have standards.
Get it, "Standards?" You know, "Standard Hens"? Heh.
I had done my best. I really had, and now I felt like I had failed. But since there was no rush to move them along, I could screen their future homes, be selective. Lots of queries came in, some of them nice, some of them bizarre. Often they wanted to break up the crew, take one but leave the rest. But I could be patient; after all, they had a coop. It's not like they didn't have somewhere to live while I waited.
Finally a letter came in from a woman caring for her farm and her mother with Alzheimer's Disease. The farm was her way of keeping sane, and her flock was a reminder of her childhood in Nebraska:
My girls have an idyllic life here on the farm. Scarlett, Luna and the Star Sisters free range during the day in their coyote-safe pasture, dine on organic feed, dessert on organic scratch and huddle up on a roost in the barn at night. They have designer nesting boxes (me being the designer) in attractive blue and yellow tones...
She wrote about her girls with the same sort of detail and affection I wrote about mine; these weren't egg machines or dinner wrapped in feathers, these were pets that she tended with great care as a therapeutic release from her other concerns. My girls had found their new home. They even had their own pasture.
• • •
The girls were gone in a flash. Mimi, Lola, and the loyal Zuzu carried off to their new life in a pasture on a farm with a chick band called "Luna and the Star Sisters," clucking their way into the hearts of their new master.
But in a moment of nostalgia and a keen desperation to make the experiment work, I kept Gigi, my big broody dope of a girl. She had been sitting on an empty nest for five weeks, hoping against hope that the mighty lords of poultry would deliver a miracle.
And they did. I bought a bunch of little bantams, the very chicks I had been encouraged to buy the year before, advice I had recklessly ignored and forgotten. I brought the chicks home, and gave them to Gigi, who, after a couple of false starts and chaotic moments, became a truly devoted mother hen. Now the hard luck loser in the old flock was the Big Kahuna, and she could call the shots. The meek really shall inherit the earth, at least in our yard.
Her little foster chicklets have grown into little tiny chickens. We have five, two over the limit, but I figure at a quarter of the size of standard hens, we've actually got two complete chickens: Gigi the Gentle Giant and four little parts of one big hen. They have silly names like the last girls, but my husband can't keep them straight this time; they are too similar to each other, and too unlike our first girls to make the switch in his mind.
But I love them. They are my second chance at an idyllic chicken fantasy, having learned through folly that I am not a farmer and chickens are not pets. Not really. They are too chickeny, too utterly alien in their dispositions and behaviors for them to be truly companions. But they are good at being chickens, and that's good enough for me.
Houdini has escaped the chicken run again, and she's scratching up the yard looking for grubs. But at her tiny size, she doesn't destroy, merely tends. And she crouches before me, confused at her own nature, but unable to resist my rooster charms. I pick her up and give her a cuddle, and put her back in the run with the others, who are too stupid to figure out how she gets out, while she's too stupid to figure out how to get back in.