Nora Batty, Eveready and Duracell came into our lives shortly after I finished my radiotherapy treatment. Rescued from battery farms at only 18 months old, they were bedraggled, bald and anaemic. They looked worn out and I knew exactly how they felt.
The children picked the most sorry-looking hens they could find, telling me they’d need the most love and care. I sobbed quietly all the way home; thinking about responsibility and second chances and survival.
The hens were so still and silent on the way back I wondered if they’d even make it through the night. The children told them about our other hens and all their names. When we got home the children carried them with care to their new home, a small cage within the run, until our other six chickens got used to them. The new hens simply gazed about, bewildered and unwilling to eat.
At night we put them in the henhouse; when it’s dark chickens just sleep and ignore each other. In the morning, they went into the smaller cage where they peered out uncertainly. I was still too sore to bend and lift and help the children but at six and seven, they loved being in charge. They cuddled the hens and fed them mealworms until they began to show some interest in life.
During the morning, they gave us an egg; a small, solitary thing which lay on the dirt. It was as if they were trying to say thank you.
Eggs are one of the most nourishing and complete foods you can eat. I associated them with my mum’s cooking: scrambled eggs with butter on winter evenings, fried on Sunday mornings or poached in our magic poacher. Boiled eggs belonged to my gran. I’d tap the top and peel it off and dip in my soldiers, arranged like the hands of a clock around my plate. Boiled eggs were wholesomeness, security and love. After my treatment I ate eggs every day. I thought of all the good nutrition in eggs made by healthy and happy hens, produced in a calm, soft, hay-filled henhouse.
After a few days, we let the new hens into the main run. Our other hens were not happy. There was much pecking and clucking in annoyance, which worried the children but I assured them it was normal. I hoped. Rescuing chickens wasn’t something we’d done before. We fed them mealworms and decent feed pellets, added iron-rich syrup to their water. I shared my nutrient-rich salads with them.
Nora Batty, Eveready and Duracell hadn’t walked before. Or scratched the ground, or flapped their wings properly. Their claws were long and made walking awkward, and they tiptoed uncertainly around, as if they were wearing massive high heeled shoes. They cowered in corners and shivered. Eveready was so anaemic that anything that should have been pink was pure white. One eye looked so tired and old that again, I wasn’t sure she wasn’t going to survive.
She fixed me with that eye and seemed to say, ‘I’ll try. But I’m not promising anything. We’ve really been through the mill, you know.’
‘I know,’ I replied. ‘Me too. But you’ve got to keep trying. For the children.’ They didn’t know I was talking about me, as well.
I took out cups of tea and watched them whilst the children were at school. I was under orders to rest which I didn’t find easy at all. Despite the constant pain I was left with, I wanted to live and work and do things. My skin was red and thin; and chafed under my clothing.
I looked at the chickens’ bald backs. ‘Your feathers will grow back.’ I told them. ‘And so will mine.’
They responded when I talked to them. Nora had the biggest voice and let out long clucks. When I spoke, they’d tiptoe to the feed dispenser and start eating, so I talked to them often.
At the same time I fed myself as much nourishing food as I could. I bought smoothies and vitamins, ate the rainbow, as the cancer books suggested I should, and tried hard to take care of myself. For the chickens I spent a fortune on healthy additives and boosters from the pet shop and after a few weeks, we noticed spikey things poking out of the bald bits. Their feathers were re-growing. Areas of pink began to appear even on Eveready and the eye that had looked wary and ancient began to look grateful. Nora got louder and Duracell learned to scratch in the dirt.
The children marvelled at their recovery. ‘You did this,’ I said, as they hand-fed the hens. ‘You’ve given them another life.’
Meanwhile my skin was healing and I could shower more often. I kept filling myself with good food and added eggs to every breakfast. I came down one morning after a shower and found the three new hens learning how to dust-bathe; happiness, henness glowing from them.
Winter showed signs of being over and my hens began to lay more. The ex-batteries’ yolks had been pale yellow; now they were a deep gold. They learned to walk in proper hen-style and flap their wings. Eveready decided she liked being inside the house and when I opened the door, in she came, right through to the lounge as if she owned the place. Nora clucked disapprovingly at her but she looked at me with that eye - now a knowing, deep gaze in it - and came to my feet, waiting for food.
One day I was hanging out the washing, much like I had been when I first felt something bad was coming - the ‘something bad’ that turned out to be breast cancer. The nine hens were in a flock, pecking for worms. I suddenly realised something: there was no pain.
I lifted my arm again to check and grinned at the hens.
‘I feel better!’ I said.
And Nora clucked a loud reply, ‘Yep. Us, too.’