I wrote this last year in the diary I keep. Hopefully it will be in my book when it comes out next year. Please enjoy it.
The 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 box bottom 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 Oscar worthy stage presence. “I can’t believe you got me something so big!”
I heard an odd scrambling sound from inside the box and reconsidered 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 as 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 husbands 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 already anticipating the hour long drive home with three chickens sitting in the back seat. The party for him, 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. They 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 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 or chickens and go home. I should mention that it is a hour long drive from their house to ours. Enclosing three chickens in a PT Cruiser with the windows rolled up and the heat on can get a bit 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 me feet. The more I talked to them the happier they were. It was obvious that these were not your run of the mill coop-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 sleep in the fawn pen at night 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. They 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 visiting, talked to them in a silly accent or tried to revive whatever French they learned in high school. Monique, Jeanette and Fi Fi adored the attention and were 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 nested in fairly predictable spots and I easily found them. I would quietly collect their eggs when they weren’t looking and take them in the house with the rest of the eggs.
Then one day I noticed Monique watching me as I went to their nest and removed the 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 shell, 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 that a 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 stored 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 the 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 and giggling.
Two summers of daily egg hunts went by. One day I was laying 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 daily, but every few days I would find their characteristic dark brown eggs in the nest box. One sunny morning in Autumn, I found Fi Fi expired in the nest box, she had presented me with one final gift 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 to her 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 in one.
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 on 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 magically receive the gift of speech for Christmas. 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 who had not. They would ask blessings and prayers for those 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 ears to be carried to the baby. My son is grown now and lives in his own house down the street. Even without him on Christmas Eve, 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 as her breathing slowed. 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 fat white snowflakes drifting down. Christmas lights twinkled in the trees and the ground around us sparkled like diamonds. Far off in the distance, the midnight church bells rang. Holding my breath, I swear I heard the whisper of many voices drifting through the air. I looked down the street and there, on his back steps, stood my son. He remembered and was listening too.
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, now 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.
Merry Christmas and may your animals have only good things to say.
What a wonderful beautiful story. thank god i had a box of kleenex handy. thank you for sharing this with us.is there a way you can send it to me, so i can share it with my family.
Merry Christmas!! God Bless
Thank you so much for the beautiful story you have shared with us. I have decieded that I too will pass down to Billy a copy of this story and every year we will whisper to our critters and will too stand out on the front porch listening for the chatter of the critters. This year I will start, and will write a special note to him and enclose it with the copy of the story. Next year he will stand right next to me and we will share the time together.
Thank you so much for a beautiful tradition that I hope will now pass down thru my family...
Merry Christmas to you and your family and critters...
Roseane and Billy and assorted critters
Thanks so much for all the comments. You will never know what they have done for me. I have been going through a very difficult time of late and have not written anything in months. Your encouragement may be what I needed to get back to the book. I am so touched that this story may spark new traditions for families and will think about all of you while I stand outside tomorrow night. I have filled may animals ears with prayers and blessings for all of the wonderful people I have met through Dave's Garden..
Jylgaskin, I am on Arizona time, and so I will figure out what time zone you are in and when your clock strikes midnight, I will stand on my porch looking out at the stars and wishing you the best life has to offer.
I am a drinking girl, and so I will be toasting you as well...
Only an hour till midnight and all the animals have had their treats. I just looked out the back door and the some of the deer I raised this summer are home eating the apples and carrots I put out. I haven't seen most of them in three months. WHat a gift to know they are still alive and thriving in the wild!
Three hours here in AZ. I'm going to walk out into the desert. Don't know if the birds will waken; don't know if the snakes will move in the cold; don't know if the coyotes will come this close. There is light from the moon and stars. I'm just going to walk out into the desert, say a silent prayer for the wild things in the desert. Then I will stand and listen.
It was very quiet out tonight. With much listening I could hear a very distant dog and then the pigs mumbling from under their hay. I couldn't understand what was being said but it must be the language of Christmas. Merry Christmas everyone!
12:05 am.. my roo's started talking.. not crowing so much but talking.. then the neighbors started talking as well. All was quiet by 12:15. Guess maybe my clock wasn't correct with their clock. Merry Christmas everyone!
At 950 my time last night, as the house was exploding with 3 children and my daughter I said to all they were on their own. I grabbed my glass and my jacket and ran out side. I walked out to the arena which is the middle of my place. At midnight, I could hear softly the sounds of the night.. I looked to the stars and wished everyone a Merry Christmas, and raised my glass to J peaceful in knowing she was out listing across the sky. I wished for Grey to have every thing she was wishing for. I wished for C Moxon to pass her exams, and Kelly to be patient with her... I wished for My Other Kelly to NEVER FORGET her recipe for soaked cake and that I was ALWAYS on her list. Most of all I wished for Peace and health in the coming year for all my critters and my friends.. I heard a rustling behind me in the shadows.. Behind stood my ever faithful Heeler, watching out over me. I called her to me and she walked up to me and layed down at my feet. I marveled at the peaceful feeling that had overcome me, who not 10 minutes had not threatened to wring 3 children's necks... I smiled at the wonder of the peaceful feeling that had overtook me..
As I headed back to the house, I said Merry Christmas to all my critters and thanked them for being my best friends... I think God for letting me live another day to see the wonder that will not be a tradition.
By 11:45 my time, I was toasty from the whiskey, and again traveled out to the arena. This time I sat on a barrel, where the heeler was again at my feet. I thought of my parents and my sister hoping they were in heaven smiling and playing crazy eights. I thought of my son who has grown to be a young man and glad he was in the states, maybe next year we can be together. As I was in deep thought I swear I could hear whispers... I hoped that my critters were telling Jesus we were very good ...
Here is wishing all A very Merry Christmas
Jylgaskin, I just loved your story, I have 3 pet chickies mine are not french just Henry, Pat and Sally. Having pet chickens is entirely different than having a pen of layers. I hope you find Joy in this glorious season.
At midnight I had just filled the stockings with care, tucked in daughter and hubs for the night and was giving my baby goaty-girl her last bottle before bedtime...the wind she was howling, the rain she was flying...
I agree, pet chickens, ducks, geese, peacocks, turkeys, etc. give you a whole different persective of poultry. Then when people call them stupid and such you have to wonder if they have ever really gotten to know any of them.
I had something happen to me today that let me know that even wild birds are quite intelligent. I had let my chickens out for the day. It is the first winter for most of them so snow drifts were things of terror and the single digit wind chill and strong winds left some of them brain numb by late afternoon when I went out to shut the door. I was sure they had all gone back inside the house shortly after the shock of what the outside was like. But I discovered 7 still outside and so cold and brain numb they didn't have the will or whatever to take themselves back inside. They would have frozen to death before morning. I usually don't lock them up at 4 in the afternoon but I decided to today after seeing some in that situation just outside the back door. Anyway, after getting all of them back inside and counting to be sure all were present and accounted for, I closed the outside door and noticed some rather nervously twittering wild birds on some cages outside the building but not far from it. I had seen them in the area early in the afternoon. When I noticed them and the way they were acting I realized that they are accustomed to spending the nights in there with the chickens, pigeons and Moses peacock. I had seen 2 sparrows inside already. So I reopened the doors, praying none of the pigeons or chickens would come back outside and stepped out of sight. All of the wild birds immediately took advantage of the open doors and went inside. There were Titmouse, sparrows, chicadees, and one I'm not sure of. About a dozen or so. I have had other birds get trapped in the house sometimes and once even found an injured female starling taking shelter in there(I doctored her back to health much to my DH's shock) but I think this is probably the first time I have discovered a flock of mixed birds who obviously live in there.
I ran into the same thing.. I spent all day plucking chickens out of the snow who didn't have sense to stay where it as dry & putting them back in the coop area that was sheltered. They would just stand there in shock.. looking completely bewildered by the snow. I locked mine up around 4:30. Threw some bread inside & closed it up.
I won't be letting anyone out of the birdhouse tomorrow with the predicted temps. The wild birds will have to stay in there too unless they get out when I open the door to put out fresh water and more feed. I'll add bo sunflower seeds to the rations in there tomorrow for more calories for everyone. My banty hens are still laying a few eggs even in this weather. I've even thought about buying some laying mash to make hot gruel for them this winter. I use to do that all the time. Hot in the winter, cold in the summer. When we had lots of ducks and geese as well as chickens that kept us and others in eggs year around no matter what the weather.
A mix of laying mash and water or other liquid. Kind of like the hot cereal we would eat. I've heard hot cereal called gruel most of my life. I think it is a southern term. I even made it for my goats, cattle, horses, pigs, and any other farm animal we had. I don't think the sheep ate it very well if I remember correctly but they were the only ones who didn't love it especially in the winter months.
Gruel is a British word, too; I think Dickens used it.
We feed our chickens inside the coop when it's miserable out, and although we open the doors they usually stay inside. It's raining out now and washing away the two feet of snow we got, so theoretically they could venture forth. Some of them did, this morning, because I also spread some food outside where the geese could get it. We have young Cuckoo Marans and Cherry Eggers that were hatched in the beginning of July, and they're laying up a storm! We do provide light in the coop, though.
Thank you so much for such a beautiful story. For the first time all week, I'm glad that I have had a cold, and a box of Kleenex next to me. I think what got me so much is that my girls too are pets. They will fly up on my lap and rub their combs against my cheek. They just started doing that. They are 8 months old now, and the bond between us is amazing, and growing every day. We've had to keep them in the house a lot the last couple months because of all the snow, and the below zero weather. As much as I've hated all the snow and cold weather, and the poopy clean ups, I wouldn't have traded that time with them for anything.
Oh, what a lovely story and yes, I had tears in my eyes at the end, too! Folks without chickens will never realize what they're missing! The personalities, the antics, and yes, the eggs - all wonderful!