Do you ever wake in a dark funk, irritated by everything and everyone, no matter how benign? Do you ever, then, manage to talk yourself out of it, aided by strong coffee, a bite (or three) of a child's Nutella-smeared crepe and an lovely interlude of knitting by a crackling morning fire while children amuse themselves without whining about their need for television and computer games? I did all this this morning, and then, to top it off, I decide to convey myself down to the barn to do my chicken chores on our new, two person, inflatable sled.
If you have looked at any of the picture of where we live, you know that our house is perched atop a hill so high and gently rolling that I could probably use it as a skiing bunny slope. It's a great sledding run, and we've been enjoying it since this week's alternating melting and snowfall rendered the hill solid and slick enough (beneath a nice powder topping) to let us slide instead of sink. I sat atop the sled, holding a snow shovel, a grocery bag full of kitchen scraps for the chickens and an empty egg carton to collect my prizes. The trip down was exhilarating and erratic; I used my one empty hand to brake but still managed to hurtle downhill (part of the time backwards), fly over the lip of the barn drive and slide a bit more down the road before stopping about a hundred yards from the barn itself. I was laughing when I landed, in spite of a bruised and frozen left hand (brake.)
I left the sled in the road and took my provisions to the outside chicken pen to dig out the area in front of the gate so that the birds can continue to range in the snow. I noticed the other day that they seemed agitated: the Rhode Island Red rooster, Poo Poo Jolly (guess who named him?) pecked maliciously at one of the guinea hens and the Leghorn rooster, Spot, flew at my legs, talons out, when I came to refresh their food and water. I attributed the tension to their being, sorry for the pun, cooped up due to the snow piled up outside. I thought that if I could open the gate during the day, as I was doing before the snow came, they might settle down.
It took only a few minutes to clear enough snow to get the gate open, and I scattered the scraps--celery root peelings, stale bread and bagels, leftover arugula salad (with grapes and blue cheese, no less)--under the canopy that shields part of their outdoor pen from the weather. Then, back inside the barn, after first shoveling the entry by the big sliding door; this was my first trip down with a shovel since the snow fell, though we've had the road plowed, mostly out of fear of not being able to reach the chickens once the snow gets much higher.
When I slid open the door to the horse stall that serves as our chicken coop (the previous owner converted it, completely enclosing the roof and walls in chicken wire, opening it up to an outdoor enclosure that in turns opens into the electric-fenced outdoor pen--it's quite an elaborate set-up, and one I credit with the relative success we've had in keeping our birds safe from predators) I noticed one of the hens sitting still in front of one of the guineas. The guinea's position was odd--her feathers fluffed, but neither head nor feet visible. Sleeping? The other hen moved and I realized. The smallest guinea, the one the kids named Rudolph (as in Red Nosed Reindeer) lay dead, her head at an odd angle, its blue color dissipated, her feet stretched out beyond her body towards the back of the stall.
I don't know what happened. This bird was somewhat crippled; one of her feet had gotten tangled in some string, and though she seemed to get most of it off, I could never catch her to see if she was healing. Was she the one that Jolly was pecking? Were the roosters, certain to become aggressive, everyone tells me, responsible for her death? I don't know. I took the pitchfork my L.A. girlfriends gave me as a going away gag gift, and gently lifted her body. She was heavier than I expected, and it took some careful maneuvering to slide her into an empty feed bag so I could carry her to the end of her ignominious end, in our trash can. I took the egg carton into the coop, and gathered eight eggs. I refilled the waterers, and the outside feeder, and then carried Rudolph, the shovel, the eggs, and the sled back up to the house. I thought about the darkness of the morning, the euphoria of my slide down the snowy hill, and the death (and life) that greeted me in the barn. Inside, I scrubbed my hands, and then carefully washed and put away the new eggs.