My daughter found him early Friday morning. “Momma, it’s Mr. Doodle,” she said breathlessly into the phone, not waiting for me to even utter the word, “hello.”
She was sobbing when she said, “he’s dead.”
Before you can understand the emotion, you must first understand the connection. Mr. and Mrs. Doodle were the last chickens my mother raised. We have carried them in our shirts, allowed them to roost on our shoulders, and finally, when they got too big and too heavy to do either, tucked them in the crook of our arms like a football.
The Doodles are family.
They are family because they communicate their desires, and because they give love equivalent to any other pet.
Mr. Doodle was Jamie’s favorite. If he was ranging free, as he often was, he would run-wings outstretched-all while sweet talking her into giving him another treat.
She always obliged.
Mr. Doodle was Mr. Personality, bobbing his head and sweet talking anyone who slowed down long enough for him to catch up. He walked with a limp, the result of being bullied by the other rooster, which is how we came to have them both. Winchesters do not tolerate bullying. Not by humans, or poultry.
Comparatively, Mrs. Doodle isn’t all that charming. While she is a Rhode Island Red, a breed known for being affectionate and also efficient egg layers, somehow she received a heaping does of not-so-nice. She is hard to catch. Hard to love. Hard to anything with. Only Mr. Doodle could keep her in line.
Their relationship was rocky. Often I’d pull into the driveway to find Mr. Doodle pacing with a worrisome stride to his step. He explained, in the best manner possible, that they were going through a rough patch. I could hear Mrs. Doodle down the hill, still in the pen, fussing. Oh mercy, can that hen fuss. I’d look at Mr. Doodle, he’d look at me and I’d say, “Ok, let me go get some feed, maybe she’ll let you back in the house.”
And so we would walk, down the hill where Mrs. Doodle would fluff her feathers like she was fixin’ to flog the feathers off the boy. Instead, she’d rush beside him and eat scattered corn. She is a gifted double-yolk layer and every other day we have the pleasure of collecting a treasure. However, she is so vocal during the laying process that Mr. Doodle would stand outside the nest pacing like an expectant father. Mrs. Doodle let us know when the process was particularly painful. I could hear her from the front porch and I watched him run to the edge of the pen and stand in the corner.
He was one smart rooster.
They have worked on their relationship. One recent afternoon I found Mrs. Doodle standing in the driveway and a panicked Mr. Doodle alone in the pen crowing like the second coming. Yes, they argued a lot. But they stayed together. I often let them out when I was going to tend the garden. While most Roosters stand guard from a distance and watch their hens, Mr. Doodle never left her side. They grazed in the yard, wing to wing, always touching . . . always.
At night he laid down first and she laid on top of him, winding her neck around his. They didn’t roost like other chickens. Despite my attempts to teach them to get off the ground and onto a perch, each night they scratched out a place in the hay and curled up in the Igloo doghouse.
That was how my daughter found them: Mr. Doodle dead, Mrs. Doodle lying on top of him, refusing to leave his side. No blood, no loose feathers, just Mr. Doodle, dead.
While many may mock our mourning of Mr. Doodle, those who have loved chickens understand. Perhaps they can relate when I write that the Missus has since suffered some sort of emotional break. Yesterday she refused to leave the Igloo. She cried . . . not cackled, or clucked, cried all day until my heart couldn’t bear it any longer, until I wrapped her in a towel and brought her inside.
And so we sat, on the couch. Her crying, me petting.
Her crying, me saying, “I know. Hon, I know.”
Because I do know.
The day before I had attended a Hospice Remembrance Service, had hung an ornament honoring my mother. I was going to write about that, but Mr. Doodle passed and Mrs. Doodle’s pain is real.
I held the hen until she nodded off. She’d grind her beak and I marveled at the similarity between humans grinding their teeth from stress and poultry grinding their beaks.
Suddenly, she would wake and begin to cry.
I would pet her again, “I know baby. I know.”
Eventually she settled down to the point where I placed her in the bathroom. Morning came and with it not much improvement. I carried her to the chicken house where she immediately entered the Igloo, checked every inch of it, and again began to cry. Occasionally, her head popped out of the opening, but not far. When she did leave the Igloo she flew out, puffed up her wings, flapped them like she could crow, and then flew back inside the Igloo. This afternoon I discovered piles of feathers she has pulled out. She hasn’t eaten much either. I finally coaxed her to eat a few kernels of corn from my hand.
I am worried.
I have said numerous times that grief wears no watch, that the process of mourning isn’t something that can be rushed, it must be endured, felt, processed over time, even for poultry.
Here’s hoping that Mrs. Doodle greets me with a cheerful cluck tomorrow because her sorrow is breaking my already fragile heart.
As always, I am interested in your stories. Feel free to comment. Thank you for reading. Please consider downloading my latest short story, Walking in the Rain, which is debuted last week at number one in Nature Essays.
Renea Winchester is the award-winning author of: Farming, Friends, and Fried Bologna Sandwiches (Mercer University Press, 2014. Print only-sadly, no e-book version); In the Garden with Billy: Lessons about Life, Love & Tomatoes (Little Creek Books, 2008) (e-book and print); and Mountain Memories: True Stories and Half Truths from Appalachia (Make Your Mark Publishing) (electronic version only).
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