Three French Hens
Four years ago, my best friend presented me with a large gift box on Christmas Eve. My eyes immediately shifted to the paltry box of cookies I had baked for her gift. Maybe they were from scratch and I did use the expensive chocolate chips, but how could they compare with the wonders that must be in this fabulous box? It’s probably a good thing that my mind was racing as it prevented me from noticing the soggy status of the bottom of the box and the fact that everyone in the room was stifling giggles.
Gullible as I am, I humbly accepted the offering and knelt on the floor to open it. The giggles in the background were suspiciously louder and punctuated with the occasional guffaw and snort of delight. My husband was getting nervous, but I gamely played right into their hands. “What ever could be in here?” I asked with stage presence worthy of an Oscar. “I can’t believe you got me something so big!”
I heard an odd scrambling sound from inside the box and thought better of opening it. I’d been friends with Jannie for over 20 years and knew better than to trust her when she was giggling so hard she snorked. She was snorking up a storm on the couch as her husband Jim sat with one hand over his face while peeking out his fingers. This could turn embarrassingly ugly at any moment.
The box rustled again. Moving back a few steps, I carefully raised the lid and turned away in case anything like a tiger or elephant seal came lunging out. Nothing happened. You could hear a pin drop every guest leaned forward to peer into the now open box. A red feathered head bobbed into view. It looked about for a moment and then hopped up onto the rim of the box. It was a chicken. A Rode Island Red hen to be exact and there were two more still in the box. I looked at Jannie. She was lying across the arm of the sofa with tears of laughter rolling down her cheeks.
“Chickens?” I asked. Chickens for Christmas?” My obvious confusion only stirred the crowd to a higher state of hilarity.
Between paroxysms of laughter my loving and considerate friend managed to choke out “Of course, silly. They are the Three French Hens!”
I could hear my husband’s teeth clench as several people tried to sing the 12 Days of Christmas. The party had been a good one and they soon discovered that consumption of bourbon and wine does nothing to help an already aging memory. I could tell that he was a anticipating the hour long drive home with three chickens sitting in the back seat. The party for him at least, was over.
While the other party guests entertained themselves with the chickens, I helped clear some dishes and cornered my friend to thank her for such a thoughtful and heartfelt gift. She started to giggle again. It was only a matter of time before she was snorking and at our age that usually resulted in a mad dash for the bathroom.. It took a moment for her to regain her composure after she came back. It turned out she explained, that a friend of hers had brought home the hens as chicks when his son’s first grade class hatched them in an incubator. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but the family soon found themselves with three full grown chickens living in the laundry room. The lived in town and were in no mind to turn their tiny back yard into a chicken run. The chickens would have to go.
Evidentially, whenever someone who knows me hears the words “It has to go” pertaining to an animal, one name pops into their heads. Unfortunately, that same name also pops right out of their mouth, followed by elaborate plans to deliver said animal to my unsuspecting house. These plans, just witnessed, were a bit more elaborate than most. I was now the proud owner of the Three French Hens. On the spot, I named them Monique, Jeanette and Fi Fi.
Nothing breaks up a party like three chickens in the middle of the living room so we determined it was time to pack up our chickens and go home. I should mention that it is a hour drive from one house to another and enclosing three chickens in a PT Cruiser with the windows rolled up and the heat on can get a little, well, aromatic. By the time we pulled into the drive, we had the windows down and snow blowing through the car.
It was late when we arrived and I had no desire to tromp through the snow to the chicken coop, so we put the hens up for the night in the fawn pent next to the house. When I went out to move them in the morning, they eagerly ran up to me and clustered around my feet. The more I talked to them the happier they were. It was obvious that these were not your run of the mill chickens. These were PET chickens! Now I have stated before that I don’t eat pets and don’t pet what I eat. This meant that the French hens absolutely could not be put in with the common laying flock. Goodness, word might get around that we actually consider chickens food and the French Hens would be mortified. They would stay in the fawn pen and have full run of the yard during the day.
Each morning from then on, I would go out the back door and call “Ladies, where are you” in a lousy French accent and the girls would come running. The normally followed me about the yard and gardens hoping for a tasty treat, but if they were absent all I needed to do was call their names and they would appear. It got so every one talked to them in the silly accents or tried to revive whatever they learned in high school French class. Monique, Jeanette and Fi Fi loved it all and became official back yard ambassadors.
There was one draw back to having the “petite’ amours” loose in the yard. They hid their eggs. It was like and Easter egg hunt on a daily basis. All three hens tended to lay their eggs in the same spot, so if I found one egg, I found three. That was the only advantage. At first, they lay in fairly predictable spots and I easily found them. I would quietly collect their eggs and take them in the house with the rest of the hens production.
Then one day I noticed Monique watching me as I went to their nest and removed their deep brown eggs and slipped them in my pocket. She looked at me, then went to the empty nest and looked there. Again, she looked at me and looked at the nest. She looked at me once again and I detected an evil gleam blooming in her eye. The game was on. Never, would she make it easy again.
Some days I would find eggs, some days I wouldn’t. There were times that I would go several days without finding a single brown oval, and then suddenly I would stumble upon a dozen or more carefully hidden under a bush or garden bench. They never seemed to express an interest in setting on the eggs; they just didn’t want me to have them. Once I went over three weeks without discovering their stash. I had finally decided that either they had stopped laying for some reason or a blue racer snake or raccoon was beating me to them. I was wrong. On a hot July day, I was trying to get to the wading pool in the back corner of the garden shed. I struggled to move the snow blower and nearly stepped on a huge pile of eggs. It was like a great pyramid built of big brown eggs! I knew I they wouldn’t be any good in the heat of summer, so I very carefully gathered them up and disposed of them in the garbage. As I made the last trip, I noticed three red hens peeking around the corner… giggling.
Two summers of daily egg hunts went by. One day I was lying on my stomach trying to reach a stash of eggs under the smokehouse and my husband asked why I just didn’t pen up the chickens and make it easier. Covered in dirt and debris, I rubbed the lump on my head where I had smacked it on the smoke house door. “What, and miss all this fun?” I replied as I proudly held up 6 unbroken eggs. Men just don’t understand.
A fox broke into the yard and took Jeanette the next spring. For their safety, I integrated the remaining two hens into the laying flock in the coop. They seemed to be heartbroken at first, but quickly made friends and became celebrities as the oldest chickens in the coop. Being rather elderly hens, Monique and Fi Fi no longer laid eggs every day, but ever few days I would find their characteristic dark brown eggs in the box. One sunny morning in autumn, I found Fi Fi, expired in the nest box, she had presented me with one final, perfect egg, before dying. We were down to one French Hen.
Time passed and Monique became such constant in the hen house that I almost forgot her origins. She didn’t lay often, but on occasion there would be the beautiful deep brown egg that I knew was hers. She still greeted me whenever I opened the door and I still addressed her in poor French.
Last week, on a cold winter afternoon, I was cleaning the hen house and noticed Monique huddled in the corner. Picking her up, I could feel how thin and frail she had become. Old age had caught up and her time was running out. It seemed wrong to leave her to die in the cold, so I brought her into the house. She started out in a laundry room; she might as well end there.
I found a big plastic tub and filled the bottom with clean pine shavings. Gently placing her in the tub, I moved it next to the hot water heater where she would be warm. She hardly moved all day and I did not expect her to last the night. In the morning I went to check on her and she was standing in the tub looking up at me as if to say “ Croissants se vous pley?” It wasn’t croissants and café’ aut latte, but I got her some scratch and water for breakfast. She ate heartily.
Over the next few days, Monique rallied. Every time someone would pass through the laundry room, they would greet her or offer her a friendly pat. She relished the attention and extra treats and never tried to get out of the tub so I left her there. She was there till Christmas Eve.
Each year of Christmas Eve, it has been tradition for my son and I to stand outside at midnight and listen to the night. As a small child I had told him how the animals receive the gift of speech at midnight. They would sing carols and each would get the chance to whisper in the Baby Jesus’ ear. They would tell him of the people who had been kind to them and those who had not. They would ask blessings and prayers for the ones they loved. If you were there at midnight and listened very carefully, I told him that you would be able to hear them singing in the night. Each year, we take pains to give every animal in the yard, wild or tame extra treats and attention in the days leading up to Christmas. Sometimes we whisper a prayer in their furry or feathered ears to be carried to the baby. Even though I now follow the Buddhist path and my son is grown now and seldom home on Christmas Eve, somehow I still find myself standing in the night and listening.
Tonight was no different. As I was passing through the laundry room to the back door, I noticed that the little red hen was failing. She hardly reacted as I gently picked her up and tucked her under my coat. I carried her out into the back yard with me and stroked her silky feathers. I told her that I was grateful for all eggs she had laid and for her companionship over the years. I whispered in her ear to tell the Baby Jesus, “Thank you.”
We stood there in the silence of the night, with large white snowflakes drifting down. Christmas lights twinkled in the trees and the ground around us sparkled like diamonds. Far off in the distance, I heard the midnight church bells ring. Holding my breath, I swear I heard the whisper of many voices drifting through the air.
I wanted to stand there in the magic of the moment forever, but the cold seeped through my clothes. My reverie broken, I came back in the house and put the small, still body of the red hen in her box and closed the lid. As I went to bed I pictured her, strong and young in a stable, whispering in a baby’s ear.