Early one morning, in that blissful pre-alarm semi-sleep state, I heard a clucking outside my window. For a moment I thought I had dreamt the sound, but I opened my eyes, rolled over, and the sound persisted. The window is an arm’s length away from my bed; so I dragged myself towards it, propped myself up on my pillow, and poked open the Venetian blind with my fingertips. Now there wasn’t any doubt. There was a chicken in my front yard. It clucked away happily to itself while scratching through bark chips and under bushes. It was a small red bantam hen, its feathers an almost metallic bronze in the morning sun.
When my cat discovered the chicken, it scrambled up to the window and forced its way through the blind, leaving its rear legs and twitching tail on my side, while salivating against the glass. Meanwhile, I ate breakfast, showered and dressed for work. By the time I walked out to the car, the chicken was nowhere to be seen. It was almost as if I had dreamt it.
But the next morning it was back again, clucking and scratching just outside my bedroom window. I discovered that after its morning feed, the chicken would climb into a nearby bush, where it would roost on the higher branches for the rest of the day. I began to worry that it wasn’t getting enough to eat, and began leaving breadcrumbs on the ground around the bush where it hid. My daughter, L, built a hutch out of boxes and left it near the bush in the hope that the bird would crawl inside to keep warm.
The chicken was still outside my window on the weekend, so L and I set about trying to find its home. We each took a different street and began knocking on doors. I didn’t think that the question – “Do you keep chickens, or do you know of anyone who does?” – was that weird, but judging by the looks and responses I got, I may have been mistaken. One woman looked at me with the kind of face one would reserve for someone from another planet.
L had similar experiences, however, at her third house, she got lucky. She was told that an old man in the adjoining street kept bantams. She found the house, knocked on the door, and was greeted by an elderly man who moved stiffly with the aid of a walking stick. It was, indeed, his hen, although he hadn’t noticed it missing, nor did he display any gratitude that we had found it. He explained to L that he was crippled and could not come to collect the hen. He asked that we catch and return it to him.
I was relieved to find the chicken’s home, but less than enthused by its owner’s response. Nevertheless, we set out to try and capture the bird. Our first attempt failed miserably, and the chicken simply flew into a nearby tree and refused to come down until we’d left. We then developed strategies involving boxes, blankets and a variety of disguises, but the chicken was too quick for us, and we only succeeded in scaring it into an adjoining yard. This arrangement suited me fine, but L was not impressed. “We can’t just leave it there,” she whined. She needn’t have worried. Within a couple of minutes it was back in our garden.
A new week started, and the chicken was still living in the bush outside my window. Every morning I would wake to its silly clucking. I would get up, feed the cat, and then shuffle outside to feed the chicken. It came to expect me, and would wait on the doorstep, do a little dance when I opened the door, then dash back to its hiding place in the bush, until I’d left its food and gone back inside. Begrudgingly, I grew to like the chicken, and looked forward to saying “hello” to it when I came home from work each day, and when I got up in the morning.
Some mornings it would climb up on my windowsill and peer in at me. This would excite our cat greatly and it would climb up and press its nose against the window. The chicken didn’t seem to mind. In fact, it almost seemed to be taunting the cat.
On Wednesday, the weather changed for the worse, and dark clouds blew in, along with a chilly wind. The chicken spent less time in the open, and more time in the shelter of its bush. I could see its football-shaped silhouette in the half-light of evening, perched on a branch in the middle of the bush, its little head bobbing nervously.
The following morning it did not greet me at the door, nor the morning after that. But I could still see it hiding in the bush. I’d bought some proper chicken food at a local pet store and left a pile of it on a sheltered patch of dry ground. The chicken eyed me cautiously from its hiding place. It seemed thinner than it had when it first arrived a week earlier. I hoped I was just imagining things. I really didn’t want to chicken to die.
It’s now early Saturday evening. The chicken is still out there. I can see a dark chicken-shape in the bush. I wonder if it’s cold or lonely. I wonder if it’s hungry. I worry about the wind and the rain. I worry that the chicken might not make it through the night.
All of a sudden the chicken is the most important thing in the world.