The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

Visit us on FaceBookGenerations of Memories
from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge


By N. B. Dorman © 1986

Issue: August, 1986

One afternoon at feeding time an empty, messy-bottomed cardboard carton of the size to hold paper towels sat in front of the rabbit hutches. Muttering and mumbling at someone's littering, I carried it behind the shed, where a large, reddish brown strange hen suddenly fluttered timidly past the corner, squawking.

The box's resident!

She and I circuited the shed two or three times. She was faster. My ego is never bolstered by the fact that each small creature can outrace me - and this one had barely used her wings.

I didn't want to frighten her. Chickens are admirable yard pets, eating copiously of weeds and pests. They're sloppy? Such serene scavenging balance a great amount of theoretical neatness.

From a distance I watched as she investigated a foot of space at the end of the board pile, wriggled into that shallow cave to rest the night. When she'd settled, I went after her. Clucking calmly, she relaxed, no hen alien to human hands.

I carried her to the coop where my other four chickens, banties, were bedded down. A quarter hour later I checked on them. Fowl will fight, especially with newcomers. Would these five get along?

The roost was calm, but in the center of its floor lay a large brown egg, still warm.

Never had I been so quickly, bountifully, or modestly thanked for providing shelter. This gift was especially rewarding. I'd kept Princess, Mad Olga and the roosters for nearly a year. Neither hen had laid one single time. Olga's peculiar coloring - her comb is an unhealthy, grayish-pink had me assuming she was past bearing age. But she scratched for insects energetically.

This new hen quietly revolutionized the yard. A Rhode Island Red, she had evidently come from a commercial egg farm. Her beak had been clipped short, which keeps overcrowded, caged fowl from pecking each other to death. But her innate charm compensated for her shortened, un-closable, hare-lipped mouth.

Soon I could catch her easily. She learned to perch on my shoulder, peck bread or lettuce from my mouth.

And how she lay!

Her eggs may weigh a full three ounces - virtually duck sized. She'd lay every day for weeks, then alternate days, trickle to none, wait, resume steady laying. Sometimes a series of her eggs have crinkled shells, with a half to two thirds of one end corded in serpentine ridges.

Did that intricate wrinkling of shell mean some deformity caused by inadequate diet or malfunctioning body? I could not believe it, recognizing the miracle of her day's body-hot egg against my cheek. Such perfect cramming of rich orange yolk and white went into her stuffed convoluted shell for anything to be wrong.

Half a dozen books finally taught me how an egg is formed. Yolk and white slither down the birth canal merely membrane covered. At the last, the still soft shell deposits snugly around its contents. The sculpturing came from pressure by her next-to-be-born egg, already formed directly above the shelling one. The weight of that newest egg compressed the not yet firm shell. This surfeit of production created literal eggs of art.

I had thought eggs were merely eggs when I bought them by the dozen. But those were never eggs like hers, so thickly yolked I must beat and mash to break globes as stiff as brightened butter.

And was there ever a more enchantingly loving hen? She runs to me whenever I come outside, goes insane with glee in autumn when our [English] walnuts fall. The chickens get any traffic smashed kernels I find in the street. Or I may accidently step on one in the yard.

But whether there are nuts or no, she follows me, murmuring happy chicken talk. One afternoon she placidly followed me and a guest into the house, admired my decor, stayed for tea. She daintily nibbled raw oatmeal from the floor, politely contributed in her turn to our conversation, explored another room, dirtied only once. An elegantly gracious lady, she spends contented retirement in this informal yard. There is no time clock to her life here, no pressure toward achievement. She lays as a hobby these days, only whenever she is inclined.

Months later, I learned how she may have arrived...

Commercial egg producers rid themselves of hens old enough to molt. Egg production drops drastically at that time. It's cheaper to start over with pullets than to feed hens into their next laying cycle, which isn't as abundant. The older fowl are sold as stewing hens, or given, on a glutted market. Besides, this one's uniquely scrolled eggs would seem gross if offered by the dozen in a supermarket. How mankind hates and distrusts something unusual, even if it's merely a shell.

...A strange boy had come through the alley one day with three hens in the box, trying vainly to peddle them. I wish someone knew who he'd been. I would thank him profoundly for his abandoning gift to me.

There were additional, amazing bonuses besides her companionship. Watching her, Princess and Mad Olga reached some new hormonal decision. They began laying too. Sometimes they found separate, secluded places to lay in isolate splendor. As often, they shared a nest. Noon's or early afternoons I might peer cautiously - under the fuse box, beneath the garden cart, into one sitting half astraddle the other, each intensely ignoring all but her own internal summonses.

One afternoon I saw Princess trying to lay in their coop. My watching may have been too much disturbance. She finally flew down, walked away, laid in private later. An egg is obviously a hen's vitally consuming experience.

Her whole body will contract strongly, regularly. By egging's end, two or three times a minute the hen will have several second episodes which might compare with childbirth's bearing down pains.

It doesn't seem to hurt. The fury is of effort, not distress, as her entire being grows manic with expulsion.

How could I again take for granted even a thin yolked store egg, as wanly colored as the winter's moon?

Hens do not consider such vast labor lightly. The yard stirs with excitement. I am going to make an egg! I am going to make an egg!" Princess or Olga begin shouting loudly.

"She is going to have an egg! She is going to have an egg!" Both roosters start a strangely jealous crowing.

"Oh! She is going to have an egg!" The other, momentarily non-laying hen commences cackling, darting around in an ecstasy of nervous hysteria.

Even my placid Amazon catches the fringes of mob excitement, though, being a majestic, calm fowl, she is never completely enticed into their game. "Imagine that! Imagine that!" she does cluck, stepping smartly and looking briskly about.

Romeo and Juliet [the ducks] waddle from their honeymoon hideaway in the shrubbery. "An egg? An egg? Hear such nonsense? Suppose she can? Really?" they quack, patrolling the yard like sentries.

Poobah [the cat] bolts for the house. "Don't blame me!" his panicked backward glance implores.

Clunk [the dog] catches the day's disturbance, gallops the length of the fence, barking a threat to bees, butterflies and falling leaves.

"I am going to make an egg! I am going to make an egg!" the mother cries promisingly. After her announcements are shouted the yard quiets. The pregnant hen grows obsessively busy, the roosters and other hens discover lunch, the ducks resume their drowsy courtship. Poobah purrs tentatively from inside and Clunk assaults last night's bone.

The yard remains still for some unguessable time. It may be fifteen minutes; it might last an hour and a quarter.

"Oh! I have made an egg! I have really made an egg! You never saw this egg! I have made a grand egg! Fit for dinosaurs and kings!"

The farmyard bruhaha resumes.

"An egg! An egg! She has really laid an egg!" the roosters chorus in resentful frustration. They cannot even take quill to sonnet, while she - she - is creative as easily as - as easily as laying an egg!

"She has laid herself an egg! She has really laid an egg!" the second hen sotto voices.

"I wasn't sure she'd do it, but I guess she really did it," my debeaked Rhode Islander chuckles confidentially.

Romeo and Juliet waddle past alertly, congratulating themselves on escaping such fate in the midst of their romance.

Inside, Poobah thanks Heaven he has escaped from rioting and murder in the streets.

Clunk terrorizes a twig.

And I, having fixed the spot the exaltations arise from, soon stroll out for a small, fresh oval; off white for Princess, tan for Mad Olga. If it is laid in a new place, I add a sand filled plastic egg. Only one. Hens can't count.

I return with warm, fresh treasure in my fingers.

But my abandoned hen's are those fabulous marvels which seemingly triggered all other laying here, and they were responsible for her name.

An empty gunny sack was on the front steps. One noon I found - with no advance press agentry nor following commercial - someone's large brown egg there. Such delivery service!

On several other days, later, I caught her calmly laying. She'd sit motionless, wearing an abstracted expression as if she tried to decipher far off gossip. She never seemed as demonically possessed by her delivery as the banties were. Body sized contractions moved her, yet she appeared focused elsewhere, not on any internal seizures.

Later she'd nonchalantly stand, stare bewilderedly beneath herself. "Why didn't I notice such an uncomfortable lump before I sat down?" She'd shake her head, unruffle her feathers, go placidly away to scratch in the freshest seeded garden spot.

I've read that the maternal instinct has been bred from today's commercial laying hens, which may account for such indifference toward her eggs. But her personality hasn't suffered from selective breeding. Neither, it gradually appeared, had her instinctual pride in skilled craftsmanship.

After several such modestly laid eggs, what else could I name her? Humility she became, to produce regularly and beautifully without expecting praise, pay or honor.

But that slowly changed. One day Princess spied Humility's egg and began to boast. "I have made myself an egg! I have made myself an egg!"

I came running at such unexpected braggadocio from an unexpected time and place. "Did you ever see such an egg! I have made this marvel my own self. Ouch! Ouch! Such a monster of an egg!" she cackled. "The doctor thought I would die!" The other fowl milled about noisily, a Greek chorus for her sympathy seeking drama.

"You phony! You lay small white eggs. This is a big, brown one," I scolded.

"Ouch! Ouch! I have made myself an egg!" she insisted.

"She has laid herself an egg! her chorus echoingly agreed. "Pain, pain! Pain, pain! It is a giant of an egg! Her stitches won't come out till Tuesday!"

Humility was in the far center of the yard...bewildered...? Was she...was she ....thinking?

Such is the lack of honor in chicken yards. And among these lying examples, Humility's virtues slowly corroded. What else might I have expected? Debeaked and unable to fight, she began joining them within the limits set by her good breeding.

She hasn't yet become boastful enough to cry advertisements before and after, throwing the yard into uproar. But she has begun soliloquizing quietly, lengthily, after she has laid.

Lately she even lurks nearby, waiting for me, not yet insisting upon gratuities, but certainly alert to their possibility. She doesn't hold out for overtime, nor discuss portal to portal, yet she is somehow directly before me, her dear misshapen face arched inquiringly upward as she gently clucks. "Oh, I have made you an egg? See? I have made you such an egg? I made it only for you? For you? For I love you? Love you?"

Her first days she silently laid and left. Now she treads near my toes with, "Yes, I have made an egg for you? And if you wish to crush a nut for me?"

Sidestepping her, I do - nearly accidently - smash a [English] walnut. How greedily she devours it before the others come running at so promising a sound. But her egg is honest achievement. She must be hungry. She is certainly appreciative.

Somehow, though, her character appeared in better order before she began to learn the value of her talent.

If there's any moral to her story, it is probably not that sweet stray hens can delight new owners into spoiling them.

It might better be that if you move in with braggarts, you'll soon learn to crow or cackle for yourself. At very least, surrounded by liars, you'll begin to ask, "What's in it for me?"