I smooth her feathers from neck to wing and wonder if there is a definitive way to tell that a chicken is dead. Do you hold a mirror to its beak? Do you try to find its heart? Death can’t be in the eyes: Eliza’s are partly open when she passes, lines of amber glistening with her life light.
In the end, it happens quickly.
In the end, I know she is gone because she feels lighter, less warm.
Chickens are funny creatures. They have real personalities. Human personalities. Sometimes, with the way they are treated and the lessons they teach us, it seems that we are our chickens’ subjects and they are our poultry overlords.
Eliza was the lead chook. She was the lookout for the others, the first in line for hugs, the one to peck at our feet if she thought she was missing out on a pat.
The chickens stopped laying before Christmas, around the time the 43-degree day hit. That was when Eliza started having trouble getting in and out of the coop on her own. I checked and treated her for everything I could think of — dehydration, parasites, impacted crop, being eggbound — but she was a mature ISA Brown, and she’d been bred for a short, fast life. I knew this before she joined our family. At her prime, Eliza gave us an egg a day, two if we were lucky. A huge toll on a little body.
I find her in the coop unmoving. But she’s not dead. She opens her eyes and raises her head when she hears my voice. I scoop her up and carry her to the grass. She can not stand. She is too weak to pick at the soil.
She needs a bath, I decide. She loves her baths. I rinse the dirt from the pink bucket, the one that’s the size of a baby bath.
Bring jugs of water, I tell my son. Hot water then cold. Make it the same temperature you would for your sister’s bath.
Our daughter, my littlest one, is already filling a container with Epsom salts.
When I place Eliza in the water, she floats. I stroke her neck and back, splash under her wings, wash the feathers at her vent. She lifts her head — is she saying thank you? — but her neck can not support it for long. While she seems to be rallying, we all know this will be her last bath.
I wrap her in towels and prop her up to make her comfortable. We offer her water and yoghurt, which she loves more than sunflower seeds. She shows no interest.
She rests for the next hour or so, always moving to the sound of my coming and going footsteps, otherwise calm. It is sunset when she stops raising her head, when her eyes close incompletely.
We need to bury her. She’s already undergoing rigor mortis, my husband tells me, and I nod.
What’s rigor mortis? my littlest one asks.
It’s when you really know a living being has passed, I say. Their muscles go all stiff.
We each say a few words at her burial, thank her for being a good friend and a good chicken. Our funny girl. She was the best girl. I think she held on for us. I think she waited for me to find her, to give us the chance to say goodbye while she was still with us.
Then she is under ground, ready to become a part of the olive tree she has foraged beneath for nearly three years.
The mood is sombre after, for all of us, but my littlest one is the most sad on the outside. I hug her close, until she pushes herself off me. She is away with purpose.
Where are you going? I ask.
I’m going to dig her up, she says, newly bright-eyed. She’ll be okay now.
No, little one, she won’t.
But how do you know? She might be alive.
I hesitate. Rigor mortis, I say. She’s gone.
I hold her back from the door and her little body melts into me. She loses her tears in wails; mine seep quietly into her hair.
It is dark outside.
[RIP Eliza, 8 January 2017. Beloved sister of Rhonda (an oft broody Rhode Island Red) and Emiline (a striking Australorp), both of whom have started laying again.]