The Week I Watched A Chicken Die
Is It Well With My Soul?
Almost a year ago was the first time I killed an animal without an exoskeleton. A mole had been caught in one of our traps but not killed and I dispatched it with a hatchet after my mom had recoiled. It was an oddly unemotional act. I wanted to put the poor creature out of its misery but I also wanted to avoid dulling the blade by hitting it on the trap. I stood up when it was done and knew it was a moment of significance but felt nothing extraordinary. And two days ago I sat next to the laundry bin lined with blankets in which I had placed our fatally ill chicken and cried with a violence that has become unusual for me.
She can’t hold her head up anymore and it lolls to the side like that of a different sort of bird, sleeping. She is limp and has hardly moved since I brought her into the house. I placed a Tupperware container of water next to her and she has not touched it but when i dipped my finger into it and let it drip onto her beak she lapped it up, so I got a shot glass from the kitchen and held her head upright to drink. When she swallowed the water her eyes opened fully for the first time that day and she looked at me as if she only now noticed I was there. Soon after I could here her stomach churn.
When my mom left on vacation she asked me to watch the chickens, to collect eggs and close the coop door at night and open it again in the morning and make sure they had food and water. She had told me that Francine was looking sick but this was the first time I had really taken a good look at her. She was sleeping in the coop but she didn’t have the strength to walk up the ramp to the roost with the others and all day she would sit in the dirt by the water dish. When I offered her a spoonful of the leftover couscous I was feeding the other chickens she pecked at it energetically but then let it fall to the ground.
I stood there looking at her, that afternoon, and knew one thing – I could not let her die like this; she was so clearly suffering I could not just walk back inside and do nothing. She looked badly egg bound but should have died from it weeks ago if she was. I believe she has another sickness, egg peritonitis, that looks similar but lingers. It is curable but not cheaply, and Francine was a $3 chick from the feed store. So I took her inside and put her into a warm shallow bath, hoping maybe I was wrong and she would lay a monster egg and be fine. The water cooled and she was unchanged and so I resolved to keep her warm and comfortable until she passed. I could not think of anything else to do. This was when I sat on a stool next to the laundry bin and began to cry. I told myself, I told her, I would stay there with her until she died. It was good that I decided otherwise since it has been three days and though she is fading she is still alive.
When I check on her, each morning and then periodically throughout the afternoon and evening when I get home from work, I pet her and talk to her, but I wonder if she would rather be left alone. A human, or even a dog, might appreciate the company, but were she healthy she would hardly let me touch her, so it seems likely that her docility is just a sign of severe weakness. The helplessness of it is what strikes me, my own inability to do literally anything to help her. I cannot cure her; I cannot ease her pain; I cannot comfort her. My presence is probably just one more trial to be endured before her death. For all I know she would have been happier out there in the dirt watching her sisters scratch and peck. She might have passed quicker out there, without my help.
My freshman year of college I attended the opening lecture of a continental philosophy conference being held at my school. The speaker, a strange, sweating, morbidly obese man, spoke about how when he was a child his dog grew sick; he spoke about cleaning out puss-filled sores while he waited for the animal to die. He spoke about our hostility, as humans, toward other animals, how the animal in us is what is evil. He spoke about the asteroid impact that destroyed most of the life on earth some millions of years ago and how we are accomplishing much the same thing without any interplanetary collision. I sat there, next to a girl whom I loved deeply but would never touch, listening to this, and felt viciously alive. I was almost buzzing with a weird, kinetic, erotic, energy. If it was not spring it was late winter. I wanted to strike out against the coming extinction, rage against the night, kick the darkness until it bled daylight. But I knew no way to do this so I went home and early that morning I found bedbugs in my room. I captured one in a ziplock bag and kept it pinned to my bulletin board for months, periodically prodding it to see if it was still alive. I don’t recall how long it lived in there but it was a long time. We had to get rid of the bed frame my grandfather had made for my mom when she was a kid because the poison the exterminators use can never really penetrate a wooden structure like that.
My grandfather died when I was three from a brain aneurysm during a routine surgery. He had part of the operation, and then a bad headache, and then the rest and he never woke up. I don’t remember it but I have heard about it enough times that I feels like I do. My mom says it was a mercy that he went quickly, that he was a good man but belligerent and bad tempered and he would have made a terrible invalid.
I don’t know what to do with death. I read these ancient philosophers and so much of what they say is that death is nothing to be feared, but they say this believing their souls are soon to depart for Olympus, and I have no such consolation. I wish I could believe what Pullman wrote, that the gates of Sheol have been opened and that all we have to fear is the torment of the harpies if we do not have stories to tell them, that we will dissolve into the dust from which we were made and be a part of the world soul forever, but I cannot forget that he wrote this as a fantasy. The dissolution of consciousness is beyond my comprehension. I cannot understand death, I cannot fight it or accept it, I can only sit here, on this stool next to the laundry bin, crying, the object of my mourning incapable of appreciating all that I cannot do for her.
Francine died sometime during the afternoon on May 8th, two days after this piece was written. She was a little over a year old.