Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Tragedy of Cruelty

There, in the yard, was one hen on top of another. Poor baffled Ostrich was underneath. In the wash of high hanging sunlight—the exploding sudden goldenness that told me spring was near—Henny Penny was pulling her feathers out. "No!" I bellowed. Tossing down my purse, a violin, a folder full of music and a hoodie belonging to my son, I rushed into the fowl yard and extracted Ostrich from the fray. Where before there had been a blackened lump, a purplish cast, now there was the addition of missing feathers and fresh scabs from the assault. My mother, ever at my aid, picked up Henny Penny, gently admonishing her while she looked with deep and skeptical attention at the people in her yard.

"I've got it," I told my mother, with the abrupt voice of sadness sticking in my throat. "You can go ahead and take Mikalh and go."

She did.

I took the hen from my mother and carted her off to the isolation of her former yard, where the little house she'd lived in with her water and food containers still remained. I set her down. As I filled her water and food, she looked at me as if to ask why I had removed her from her flock. Chirruping long and disturbed chicken noises, she paced about the area. I refused to really look at her. I made sure she had food and water, bedding and safety, and I left to go back and make sure Ostrich was OK.

Treating Ostrich's wound with saline and Neosporin, I wondered if she was damaged beyond repair. Birds are delicate. Ostrich, although bloodied, was thrilled beyond belief that her tormentor had been carted from the premises and dug happy holes in the earth of her chicken run where she cleaned herself in dirt. Her two gentle friends did not pick at her. All day I watched them through the window, every few minutes, terrified of the chicken instinct to go after anything that bleeds. No one hurt her. She chased insects in the dirt. Henny Penny, in her separate yard, paced like a panther, calling out loneliness I could not answer, in the universal language common to all things that have a heart.

It was 6 PM before I realized I'd left my purse and the violin outside and never picked them up. So troubled by cruelty and tragedy I'd been, I'd left them in the yard.

A week ago, the news reported some teenagers in our town doing something horrible and cruel, bullying another child—another child with autism. A video of what they'd done had been posted on Facebook. The local news added hyperbole to tragedy, telling us, "The video shows just how far teenagers are willing to push the limits," while my own teenager watched in horror.

It haunted me for several days, both the outrageous act and the commentary on adolescence that surrounded it. So much noise. Noise and anger. Comments calling for children to be locked up and hopes that they'd be raped in jail. So much anger. So much screaming and chattering and commenting and generalizing and carrying on.

So much that you'd almost forget that someone's child had been penned under another, still with fear as his feathers were pulled out, his flesh sundered, his soul bruised raw. So much noise you'd almost forget the howling universal cry of loneliness uttered by some children who society didn't know how to look after until they did real damage to someone else. Maybe more than one someone else, before they were caught. In this small town, we saw these kids grow up and no one knew what to do about them. Now they will be half-grown villains, when before they were only children without love.

This horrible transformation seems to me one of the most tragic, and perhaps personal, things of all.

My little red hen paces her yard, calling out. I have no words to explain to her why she has to be alone. "It's your own fault," I tell her. She looks at me and looks at the other chickens, and she starts her keen again.

I leave her there and go back to the three sweet hens, where I sit on a chair by Ostrich and watch her pecking, breathing in her happiness and freedom from tyranny, as I sit kissed by the spring-struck air.


  1. Thank you for posting this. In some ways, it's right to acknowledge that humans are not the only species that bullies. But, it hurts more so when we do and we interact with these bullies and victims on almost a daily basis, somehow, because we live here. I was heartbroken at the news last week, yet relieved that my son was not involved in any way, except by knowing some of the people involved. I feel vindicated in my overprotectiveness, while at the same time know that there may be such a day for him, while he lives in this town or elsewhere. Because bullies live. No matter how much we try to change things.

    1. These things hurt so much more because they feel personal.

      There certainly are bullies! I continue to wonder if there have to be, or at least if there have to be so many? And are they a special, bad kind of person, or is bullying a behavior—an adaptation that possibly could be unlearned? I read of a study which found that there is a correlation between bullying behavior in adolescent boys and girls and higher social status. Maybe it's our lizard (or bird) brains at play. Even in my fowl yard, the smallest hen with the baddest attitude is the one who rules the others.

  2. Well written.

    On the lighter side, I wish we were allowed to have backyard chickens here in Halifax (Nova Scotia).

    1. It's hard to imagine that this story would be a selling point for chickens! I do love having them, though. Truthfully, we aren't allowed to have them, either, but lots of people do. Our County officials know about them and the official policy is to ignore them unless neighbors have complaints. My neighbors seems to like them (thank God!) so I do OK.

  3. Very very well written. Proud to share it on my Facebook page.

    1. Thanks, Tamara! I appreciate your compliment and the share. :)

  4. Yes, unfortunately human beings do have their animal instincts lurking inside. We aren't necessarily born with the human instinct for compassion, but we are supposed to be able to learn it. I don't know how boys who do something like that can be corrected at this late stage - I'm no child psychologist - but I'm sure you're happy that your own son was horrified by what he saw.
    And I don't really understand Henny Penny either. You ought to find a chicken whisperer or one of those animal communicators - she sounds like she has a real psychological problem herself! And poor Ostrich - hadn't you better be taking her to a vet and get her neck injuries treated? She may need antibiotics.

    1. Sadly, chickens are known for their proclivity to both cannibalism and attacks based on rank. So, perhaps, for a chicken, Henny Penny is not so unusual. It's sometimes hard to solve a problem like this once it starts. Like a lot of homestead-minded people, I actually have assembled my own first aid kit and can treat most chicken injuries myself. This time, we had her on the floor with a cauterized pocket knife and all the disinfectants in the world. (All we ended up needed was the disinfectants and a pin.) I could even administer antibiotics, if I needed. Happily, She seems to be OK. The nasty wound is healing, and she continues to act normal, too. Poor Miss Henny Penny, though, keeps escaping her pen to pace outside their coop and cluck unhappily.

  5. Gorgeously done as always. It reminds me of some issues we had with bullies in our neighborhood. I remember actually tearing up while talking to the police officer because the "perpetrators" were ten- and eleven-year-old siblings who had no guidance, no foundation, no adult present enough in their lives to teach them limits and stop them from wandering the streets. They had been seen smoking in the park at the ages of six and seven and by ten and eleven were threatening other kids with knives, among other things. Who knows what a difference compassion and positive attention would've made in those kids' lives? And so, so many others.


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