The adventures of Emily the Bantam hen


Hilda Evelyn South

In the back garden of the timber cottage a boy crouched, his hand extended to a number of fowls which crowded around to eat food from it. Behind him stood two younger boys, their brows puckered, their gaze fixed on the birds. One had fifty cents to spend and he wished to purchase the best fowl.

Although still Springtime, it was a day of hot sunshine with a faint movement of air from the north, such as comes to Victoria between bursts of cold, wet or windy weather even in the middle of winter.

Now in November some fruit trees were still flowering and spring was nearly over.

A portly black Labrador, his breed always quick to feel the heat, panted as he watched his master with urbane geniality.

From a more remote look-out, the grey paling fence with which most back suburban gardens in Melbourne are enclosed sat a second observer - a tabby cat of the most ordinary kind, yet with an air of well-groomed and prideful dignity about it.

The bantams were the centre of the scene. "You can take your pick" said the owner. The pullets'll come into the lay in a couple of months. They'll make a nest - you have to watch out or you never find them until they walk out with the chicks."

He added after a minute: "That's how this lot got hatched. She made her nest in the wood shavings under Dad's work bench. He used his electric drill and did hammering and all. It never shifted her. Now Mum says I've got to sell them."

The thinner of the two, the lad with fifty cents, complained. "The cocks are better looking. The hens all look the same."

"Not really. This one's sort of pink-brown. That'ee 's darker. This'ee 's striped on the breast. That'ee 's got dark wing-tips. I know 'em all."

There was another silence, then he said: You can have two cockerels for fifty cents."

He poured some wheat from a tin into the palm of the prospective buyer. Here. You feed 'em."

His frown disappeared as the beaks pecked his palm. The males snatched the food, darting back and forth. The soft feathers of the pullets brushed his fingers as they ate daintily. "The girls have good manners" he grinned. "The boys are greedy." He knew which bird he wanted. He touched her; she was especially tame. "She's pretty. Her head is different." "Yeah. Sort of silver. And brown back and dark tail."

The transaction was concluded and the two lads set out for home with the bantam trembling in a carton held under the new owner's arm.

It was unfortunate that on the way they met a friend and his fox terrier. The boy thrust his hand into the box and displayed his terrified captive, which leapt from him in panic and landed, shaking with fright and in a precarious manner, on a white picket fence.

Shouting instructions to each other the three boys surged forwards while the fox terrier leapt at her with deadly precision and intent. In the split second before he hurtled upon her she sprang into the air, flying upwards with all her might.

A house roof rose before her and with flailing wings she beat above it. Like Superman, so familiar to the boys on their television set, she went Up, Up and Away. Unlike him, who on some televised astral flight pierces the immensity of space in dignified silence at incalculable speed, his eyes forward, body rigid, cape fluttering faintly behind - unlike him, her flight was one of agonized endeavour, accomplished on madly beating wings, while her shrieks of distraction and terror rose from her tiny throat in a pulsating crescendo that blasted the quiet Bayside air.

The difficult upward flight exhausted her. As the roof fell away behind her she wheeled to the left where a grey paling fence similar to those of her home presented itself in full view. Her eyes were protuberant and almost sightless and she passed over other fences without seeing them; her co-ordination was poor in her exhausted state and she overshot her mark and fell into long grass behind it.

Here she remained for four hours, undetected, silent, motionless. The sun reached the zenith and moved towards the watery horizon of Port Phillip Bay. The hour approached when she was accustomed to being fed. She stood up and looked about her.

It was a neglected old place. There were a couple of decaying apple trees and an old broken-down plum. Grass covered the yard and in some places it had grown to a height of fifty centimeters or so. The house which backed this area was low. There was a back verandah. Here, in a cane chair rather frayed and battered, sat an old woman, drinking tea and enjoying the sunshine.

Hesitating at first, then more confidently the bantam stepped delicately towards her. It approached until it was a couple of metres away; it halted, first turning its head to observe her with the left eye, then turning again to use the right eye. It drew one leg gracefully to its breast and continued to contemplate her.

She was sizing her visitor at the same time: the creature probably weighed not more than one pound. What a charming bird, she thought; what a delightful surprise for her.

The mandibles were apart and she saw a slender, tapered, pale pink tongue; under the sheen of satin feathers there was a panting pulse. "You look thirsty!"

She tossed biscuit crumbs and the bantam advanced and ate them. Rapport having been established, the woman went inside, returning with a cup of water. No sooner was it placed on the ground than the bird moved forward, placing her beak tip in the fluid, and lifting its head repeatedly to swallow each mouthful.

Her every action was elegant and beautiful. The woman smiled and took the cup to a garden tap, turning it so that a slow drip entered the cup beneath. "Itís a Limoges product, my dear" she remarked. "The saucer broke about forty years ago. I knew some day I would find a special use for this."

There was plenty of natural food in the neglected garden: insects to be dug up or found in the grass. An ancient honeysuckle, trimmed in past years to grow on one strong trunk, made a good sleeping place. It stood near the back verandah and in its umbrella of branches she chose to perch. As she slept each night the tendons of her feet locked in position. No matter how deeply she slept it was impossible for her toes to uncurl until she awoke.

The woman was pleased that the bird stayed. When she came to the  verandah the creature responded by moving close to her. She formed the habit of talking to it. One morning she sat in the old cane chair and the bird came right up to her, so she bent and, picking it up, placed it on her knee, where it settled itself, without alarm; and she told it: "We shan't have long together, my dear. My heart... it is as if a hand seizes it. So painful. More frequent. Then you'll have to find a new home. You'll cope. I wonder will your new people be as grateful for you as I am?  I know you were sent to me. I've been rather frightened of the change ahead of me... can't see myself like you, with wings. But God sees all and He loves all."

The weather changed, cold winds blew from the south; there came a week of bitter greyness; the sunshine lacked warmth and the old lady stayed in-doors, wondering if the bird would dare to enter the house. Each morning she put down a slice of bread for her and one day when she had eaten her fill she hesitantly entered the room, and liking the warmth and stillness permitted herself to be picked up and placed on a knee. Soon it became usual for them to sit together in this way. About a month later, on a lovely summer morning, the old lady could not rise from her bed.

No bread was given to the bantam, nor was the telephone answered when it rang, and the friend at the other end drove over to see if all was well. There were calls sent for doctor, and the woman's daughter, an ambulance and so on.

The bantam did not see her protector again, but she stayed in the garden, scratching for food and drinking from the cup until the day when the new owner moved about her inherited property to assess it. I She turned off the dripping tap and picked up the Limoges teacup; there were pink rose garlands around it and the gold painted handle and rim were unworn. "What a lovely piece" she thought. "Why ever did Mum put it here?" She carried it home with her.

The bantam, now without water, flew into the next garden to look for it. She was immediately chased from it, and from others until she came upon one which had certain resemblances to her refuge; the grass was short, but there were lemon, orange, nectarine and apricot trees somewhat like the ones she had been used to. She noted, placed under a tap, a large bowl of water from which a black retriever was drinking. He looked not unlike the Labrador she remembered.

She perched on the fence for a time before flying down. The old dog lifted one eyelid and watched her, but he did not move. She paced to the bowl and drank, pausing to let the water run down her throat and also to observe him.

There was a wooden house; she thought of bread and stepped daintily towards it. After some time a grey-haired woman appeared and saw her. "Now where did you come from? Who owns you?"

The bantam was pleased when she put down a plate of stale bread soaking in water; her expectations were fulfilled; she spent the night in an apricot tree and in the morning when the door was opened she walked right in. A few days passed and Mrs. Lucas spoke about her to a neighbour whom she met in the supermarket. "You keep bantams, don't you?

Do you want another one? It's a pullet which is living in my back yard." "How did you come to get her?" "Well, she just flew in. None of the people about own her. But an old lady a few doors away died last Sunday week. I wouldn't mind keeping her - she'll be laying soon. I love those eggs! - but every6time I open my kitchen door she walks right in. I can't stand having a hen in my house!" She frowned and shook her head. "She actually comes right in my house!"

"Bantams are rather special. They're too little to destroy the garden as big fowls do, and they eat a lot of insects which is good. It would be fun for Ann to find a new arrival." "Then call in and see her on your way home." So it came about that later on Mrs. Lucas ushered her friend through her home and opened the back door, whereupon a bantam moved out from the shade of the fruit trees.

Mrs. Lucas smiled as the fowl approached. "She eats from my hand, lets me pick it up, even put it on my knee. It acts like an old lady's pet!" Her smile disappeared as she added with some irritation: "But every time we open the door, in it comes. 1 won't have in inside! n won't learn to stay out! So it's got to go!"

She looked at the other woman. "You haven't got a box to carry her in?" "Let's see how she behaves with me first." She bent down, picked some gravel from the path and, squatting, let it run through her fingers. The bantam was interested; the stuff looked like sand, but it was worth approaching. The woman appeared not to be watching her. She scraped up another lot of sand and let it run through her fingers. The bantam was close now, eyeing the action; it was easy to put a left hand over her, and cover her head with the right, and as she rose to her feet saying to Mrs. Lucas:

"She's so quiet, and I've such a short way to go home. I'll hurry off with her like this." Delicate and tiny, not so very much larger than a pigeon, the quivering the woman felt against her hand was also of minute size; her bantam felt cold; whereas one or two minutes before she had been warm now she seemed to be shivering with chilliness. But her dread of the un-known was of short duration, for she was placed on the ground where she remained, shaking but not too upset to notice a short distance away a small flock of her own kind. Composure soon returned, but she did not eat any of the grain which, tossed nearby, brought the bantams close to her. The cock, Samson, rushed forward and, one wing tip brushing the ground, displayed what looked like antagonism as he circled the new arrival.

She looked slightly intimidated but stayed near the woman. When the food had been eaten the females formed a guard around their cock and hurried him off to another part of the garden. Later on, when Ann and her mother were watching the guard under which the hens kept their cock, the latter asked "Will you call her Emily? She has such composure and there is something sweet about her." "It's an old-fashioned name.

Don't you think modern girls can be sweet?" She added, "But it does suit her." For three weeks or so it was usual to see the rooster, red, gold, green and blue, with his quietly-coloured hens beside and behind him, exploring the garden while Emily followed sufficiently far behind to avoid attack. She did not appear disturbed by her lowly station and continued to eat well and to grow.

The sleek feathers of her head were divided by a central parting in which grew pinker and thicker a comb, the sign of her approaching maturity. She was now almost the size of the others and such preening caused her feathers to shine and lie immaculate and true. There were many long days of summer sunlight, and enough rain to make the gardens sweet-scented with roses, stocks, lupins and gay with zinnias, petunias, asters and sweet-peas. When the epiphyllum flowered around the trellis by the tool shed, Emily chose it as her first nesting place.

She finally settled on one corner against the shed, and standing with her back to it, tossed over her right wing straw, leaves, and any twigs within reach. These she spent some time arranging, in an unhurried way. Finally she shaped a nest in them by snuggling, wriggling, turning until they fitted nicely. To this small, circular depression she came daily to lay one egg. Her colouring was so harmonious with its background and the eggs so camouflaged with downy breast feathers that it was not detected until the pale eggs, rounded at one end and a little more pointed at the other, numbered eleven.

Next day Emily was not to be seen: she had started to sit on her clutch, five eggs of which were removed and used in the kitchen. After ten nights, Ann removed the rest in order to candle them. In a cardboard carton she cut a central aperture about four centimeters long by two and a half wide. She weighed the eggs - "Over an ounce each - not bad for a bantam" - she placed one in the hole cut had cut in the inverted carton, in which on an extension cord an electric light bulb had been placed. In the dark room this was the only light. It shone through the egg, which showed a dark mass surrounded by blood vessels and fluid; the air space at the rounded end had increased in size. The other eggs were the same.

"All fertile!" she pronounced. "Emily wasn't entirely scorned. She and Samson have made regular rendezvous!" She added: "I'll take her photo tomorrow." After school next day she took a camera to the place, moved a spade in order to obtain an uninterrupted view and surveyed the hen through the viewfinder.

The picture was not clear as Emily's colouring blended so well with her surroundings, so Ann brought a white board and put it directly behind the nest. The outline of the back was now clear and Ann took the photo. Throughout these alterations the bantam remained calm, giving the impression that she was just too busy to bother about trivialities. About eleven o'clock each day she left the nest to get a drink, to scratch the surface of the earth more for exercise than food, for she was not hungry, and to have an occasional dust bath when the weather was hot.

She then appeared to have nothing on her mind, shaping a bowl and lying in it to throw sand through her feathers, exposing first one wing and then the other to sunshine... until suddenly it was time to return to the nest at a fast run. Settling herself on her eggs, with her beak she turned each over and sometimes drew one forward from the back. Ann usually lifted her off each afternoon to give her grain.

Emily spent some time pecking at this in an inefficient and desultory way, and in rushing to and fro rather pointlessly, uttering avian ejaculations of startled and irrelevant nature. As the time of brooding lengthened, the exercise period shortened. She ate even less, showed more agitation, uttered fewer exclamations and rushed back to the nest sooner. An afternoon came when Ann, attempting  a to lift her, found Emily resisting with all the strength of/two and a half pound hen: she stiffened her body, fluffed her feathers, hunched her head and gave deep, throaty warnings.

Ann put her hand under to feel the eggs: from one a chicken, still confined by an unbroken shell but breathing from the air space, felt the caress and amazingly responded by uttering a faint cheep. Emily's feathers rose in admonition as she clucked in soothing reply.

"Tomorrow must be the twenty-first day" Ann told the family. "Emily's chicks should start hatching soon." Inside each egg an imprisoned chick, head twisted down beside a wing, depended on its own vitality for survival. On top of the beak was an egg tooth, soon to fall off after hatching, which would hammer the shell near its circumference as the bird struggled and tapped until the now brittle shell gave way, and from this hole the nostrils would receive outside air to give energy for tapping, turning and straining until the egg cracked around the middle and broke asunder. Should this process take too much time, in dry weather the membrane which lined the shell could dry out, encasing the baby in a strait-jacket, making it helpless and its struggles futile.

The earth around Emily's nest had been moistened by some rain falling through the lattice and the chickens were strong and came very efficiently into the world. The two youngest were still attached to the membrane when Ann saw them in the morning; these, limp and bare - their down not yet fluffy - lay exhausted, out of but not yet ready to leave the shell.

She left these untouched but as three sleek, brown-striped heads gazed from Emily's front, she explored for six half-shells and brought one indoors to show the beautiful neat line of break without jagged edges. Meanwhile the two last rested, breathed, lifted their heads and fell free at last of their shells. One egg contained a half-grown animal and this Ann buried.

The family was allowed to admire, to withdraw chickens and replace them, Emily half-rising to settle her babe before carefully sinking down again. She let them rest for a couple of days before taking them for a short outing in the sunshine. Within minutes they tired, and she settled herself over their complaining minuteness until the plaintive note changed to one of contentment and drowsy warmth.

Each walk took a little longer and the interval of rest a little shorter. Each day they grew stronger and explored more of the garden for the tiny insects Emily dug up for them; her dainty legs scratched indefatigably for them and they grew strong and lively. When Samson's five hens, who had every one been able to peck Emily with impunity, came forth joyfully to bite her young, they were disconcerted to find that she turned on them with fury, extending her lowered head from the midst of a vertical shield of feathers and leaping upon them with shrieks of uncontrollable rage.

Soon they left her alone. About two months later, on a hot still night, Emily decided to leave her chickens, which, partly denuded as they lost their first feathers and developed new ones, had grown less attractive and rather scrawny and she felt were old enough to look after themselves. She made her way to the apricot tree in which roosted the other bantams. On Samson's left side Emily saw a small gap and into this she leapt, pushing away the hen near him.

This hen shoved her neighbour and there was some shuffling and re-adjustment along the line. The chicks which had followed her to the tree returned to the box which weeks ago Emily had chosen as their home and consoled themselves by huddling together for warmth and companionship. When night fell, they slept. Traffic decreased as the hours passed and the distant noise of the city of Melbourne subsided. All was quiet in the yard. The faint light of the streets paled the heavens, but almost overhead - it seemed - the greatest star of all, Sirius, the star of the hunter, pierced the haze with silver brilliance and to the south the Southern Cross shone low in a blue midnight sky.

Emily never returned to her brood. She took her place in the flock.

Her adventures were over.