The One That Got Away

Blanco is the chicken that started the latest cycle, the cycle that begins with joy and inevitably leads to resigned sadness. The length of each cycle is highly variable, but each ends by snake, hawk, or quadruped.

Blanco arrived still in egg. A neighbor called asking us to take in the chicks of a pathological hen that was pecking her babies to death. Blanco arrived with one sibling, already pecked above the eye. When Blanco’s egg hadn’t hatched by the end of the day, my older son carefully peeled her out of her shell.

For days my sons cuddled the chicks, trying to keep Blanco’s sibling from scratching its sore. But there was no way to protect the chick from itself, and its screams were painful to all of us. After a few days, my husband ended the chick’s life. I’ve been called to this duty too—compassionate killing. It is not a facile chore.

Because chickens are social animals, we soon bought three chicks to keep Blanco company. My sons gave them, too, Spanish—and, regardless of sex, masculine—names: Loco for the chick that pecked the others’ toes; Stupido for the chick that was not as precocious as its cohort and turned out to be a rooster; and Diego because it was fun to pronounce as if a character in a cheap Western.

Blanco grew quickly and soon outsized the purchased chicks, a breed named Ameraucana. That brief tenure as largest chick earned her an unwonted place in the pecking order. For as the Ameraucanas grew to their much larger adult size, Blanco never grew much larger than a mourning dove. But her size belied her fierceness and independence. She intimidated the other two hens and spent most of her time with the rooster; she often wandered off on her own, and she foraged among the wild turkeys as well as among the various species of doves that stopped in the yard for seed and water.

We had a happy flock. My younger son was the chicken whisperer. He talked to them, they answered. If he walked outside, they came. They followed him everywhere, and even the ornery rooster allowed himself to be carried and stroked. But then the attrition started—one evening we returned home just past dusk and Diego was gone. My son shed his tears, hugged the remaining chickens, and added the loss to the many he’s suffered.

It became clear quite early that Blanco was determined to become a mother—perhaps to prove that her mother’s illness was not hereditary. We were uncertain as to whether her eggs were even fertile—she literally could back out of Stupido’s attempted couplings. But one winter she sat on her nest of tiny white eggs peppered with the much larger green eggs of Loco. She sat and when it seemed they would never hatch, they did—the first four over two days, then two more later. She rejected the last two, but that is another story.

Blanco became a proud, protective mother. She stayed with her chicks for weeks until one day she made it clear she was ready to be out foraging with the other adults. Within no time she started laying eggs again, ready to hatch another brood.

One Sunday, a clear, bright day, the chickens were out in the yard, pecking the ground, rolling in the dust, eyeing us through the windows. I was at the kitchen table when I realized the chickens were clucking as they do when the cat walks by or they become separated. I looked out and saw Stupido and Loco standing calmly beside a bush. The clucking got my younger son’s attention, and when he returned much later, he was on the verge of tears. “I can’t find Blanco anywhere.” The rest of the afternoon was spent first worrying and then mourning, for as the day went on the hope that she had wandered off by herself and would reappear faded. I tried to comfort him, but in response to my condolences he said, “I know mom, but it was Blanco.”

We all suspected a hawk—her disappearance was so rapid and not even a feather had been left. When I looked out the kitchen window early the next morning with the last glimmer of hope I would see her there, I told myself the fantasy that I would have told a younger son, “Perhaps she decided to leave with the doves.” Perhaps she was the one that got away.

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