It was a long journey for Dame Letitia Merryfeather and Miss Esther Von Strafe. Dark, stuffy and claustrophic, they were bombarded by strange noises and unfamiliar smells. Letty drifted off, but Esther was preoccupied, consumed with regret over how much she had eaten in the last few hours.
It’s true, she thought, I gorged, and I shouldn’t have.
In time, her discomfort resolved itself in the usual way, but that only added another layer of discomfort. She knew Letty wouldn’t mind. Indeed, she could hear Letty snoring as she sat, huddled in a corner. But it was not ideal. Definitely not ideal.
When the doors of the compartment finally opened the light outside was blinding. Letty and Esther stepped out tentatively, blinking, stretching, fluffing out their skirts. Letty scratched. They were alive. Then they heard the rain of seed and pellets showering from above.
“Brrrp,” said Letitia. “Don’t move, Esther dear. Not yet.”
She stretched her neck up and round, unfolded her snowy white wings to their full extent and gave a decisive flap.
“Smells different, but we have food, we have water and no visible signs of danger. Proceed with caution, dear.”
Esther and Letitia soon settled into their new home. The sleeping quarters were well-appointed, with none of the horrid draughts and evil smells of the old place. They didn’t even have to share a perch, although they mostly did, for comfort. The ground was enticing, with an array of succulent roots and little creatures to be found. And oh how Letty squawked when she found a little nest of worms behind the rotting log! How they ran when the rain flushed out a colony of ants!
“I wonder,” said Esther. “I wonder if I could fly to the top of that fence.”
They had been in their new home for several days, and they had inspected every inch of the terrain, thoroughly.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Letty. “Flying is so common. Flying’s for the birds.”
“But we are birds, aren’t we?” said Esther.
“We are chickens,” said Letty. She paused, puffing out her underfeathers and expanding her ample bosom with pride. “Chickens. Civilized, domesticated, loyal, and a cut above the rough and ready flapsters of the outer lands.”
“Bk...” Esther began.
“Brrrp. Not another word.” Letty fixed Esther with a sharp glance. Then, “I have the feeling of an egg.”
And with that she stalked majestically into the house to make herself comfortable.
“The feeling of an egg” was a daily ritual for Letitia that Esther did not entirely understand. A mere fifteen weeks out of the egg herself, she had yet to produce one of those curious objects which sent her sisters into such paroxysms of ecstacy. “Bkark, bkrk, bkbkbkbkaaaaark,” sang Letitia, as she delivered another perfectly smooth, perfectly white ovoid into the world. A few minutes later she would bustle out of the house, puffed up with self-importance, still chanting “bkaark” under her breath, before going to the waterbowl for a long drink.
“That was a good one,” she announced, regularly. “Maybe my best yet.”
“But what, exactly, is it for?” said Esther. As far as she could see, they disappeared as fast as Letty laid them.
“Oh, my dear,” said Letitia, with withering kindness, “one day you’ll understand. Our work is so important. So important. One day you’ll know.” And she went back to scratching at the tree root by the fence with a smug shiver of righteous industry.
The days went by, one very much like another. The awakening as rays of light poked in through the planks of the house’s wooden wall; the ritual check for danger and parade, led by Letty, to the water and seed. The feeling of an egg. Then a day of scratching and pecking, fluffing and preening and other ladylike pastimes.
And then, one day, it changed. Esther woke as usual, with a slightly stiff neck – tucked awkwardly under her wing, perhaps. Beside her Letty, all virginal whiteness, but for her lewd red topknot, was shuffling on the perch as she came to. She hopped down, peered out of the house, stretching out her neck to look at every corner of the run, then gave a curt “brrk.” All clear.
It was on the way to the water bowl that Esther noticed the gate drooping lazily on its hinges, leaving a narrow gangway between the door and post.
“Looook. Letty, look look look.” Letty was doing her stretches, but at Esther’s call she straightened her feathers and came to see what was happening.
“Oh dear. Oh dearie me. No no no. That can’t be right.”
“Look Letty, we can go out. Can’t we? Please?”
Letty stood stock still. As Esther stepped calmly, purposefully towards the opening, she heard Letty’s almost inaudible, “Bbbbt, bt but but...” but she couldn’t help herself. The call of the garden was too great. One minute she was contemplating the muddy concrete floor of the run, the next she was stepping out into the beckoning paradise of weedy lawn and sun-parched shrubs, with Letty running and flapping after her saying, “Esther, Esther, wait for me. I am the First. Remember the Danger. Wait for me!”
As Esther stalked across the lawn, relishing the wonder of grass under her feet, the giddy delight of an untrammelled horizon, she felt herself drawn to one particular area of the garden. Here there was no grass. Instead, it was all turned earth. Lovely, black, friable clods, calling her, inviting her to scratch and paddle, promising delicious morsels within. And beyond the dirt, more delights still! Tiny shoots, emerging like little jewels from the earth. Bright green leaves, just made, not quite unfurled from their stalks. Esther knew she should wait for Letty before sampling this unimaginably wonderful reward, but she had never had her companion’s self-control. She could smell the sweetness. It was heaven. Blind and deaf to Letty’s plaintive squeaks, she ran towards her prize.
Esther was pecking deliriously at the moist leaves of a lettuce seedling when she heard that terrible noise. A brain-addling, woody shout. She screamed. “Pupppupupupkaark”
The black and white border collie was only twelve weeks old, but he knew fun when he saw it. The dark bundle of brown, running with a chaotic peal of sqwarks was a new toy of unimaginable delight. He flung himself at it. It ran off – nice cornering – round the shed, into the thick shrubs. He gave chase, barely noticing the dense knit of twigs dragging on his fur as he plunged through the undergrowth. Brown thing was on the grass now, and he was gaining on it, closer, closer. Then, as Brown went into a last, desperate chorus of “pupupupupupkkk”, it suddenly began to climb through thin air, its scaley feet paddling against the nothing, its feathery arms flapping. The pup slid to a halt at the foot of the apple tree. Brown was above him, beak open, eyes wide, panting softly. What had happened? Dog and Brown were equally confused.
Dame Letitia, meanwhile, had been watching in frozen horror, unable to move. Seeing Esther, safe for the time being, on a branch three metres above the ground, her next thought was the egg.
Must, must make sure my egg is safe, she thought. She stood, uncertain, torn between Esther and the unborn, wishing she could disappear. Then, in her all-consuming and intense discomfort with the world, her tail feathers gave an involuntary twitch, and that was it. The white feathers caught the sun, the sun caught the eye, the eye saw the chicken.
By the time the puppy reached Letitia, Esther was already shrieking.
“Fly, Letty, fly. Flap your wings! Flap them hard!”
Instead of taking flight, however, Letty hunkered down in that last ditch defensive move of a hen bracing itself for the rooster, shoulders pinched, wing tips flared, hugging the ground. It was of little use against a canine. The end was quick and quiet and Esther watched with horror as the dog pounced, shook his prize, then lost interest in the silent white rag on the grass.
Stupid toy. Gone to sleep already, thought the dog. No fun.
Esther knew. She knew Letty wouldn’t wake up again. She knew it was just her now.
She looked out from her lofty perch and shivered with the intensity of it all. I have learnt much, she thought. I have tasted tender shoots, I have walked on soft grass, I have learnt to fly. And I have discovered the terrible dangers that lie outside the walls of our run. My run.
She took looked again at Letty’s abandoned body. She watched as the dog ran to the door of Big House and disappeared within. Then she made her way, darting from shrub to shrub, sprinting across the open grass, squeezing through the narrow opening back into the run, seeking out the dark, quiet mustiness of the house.
I have learnt much. And now I must learn to be First. I must learn...
Oooh. Brk. Bk bk brrrk.
A strange, new and not unpleasant feeling began to grow deep inside Esther’s tawny brown body, wiping out the morning’s tragedy.
A quickening, a good work. The feeling of an egg.
“Brrkkkaaaaaark!”, said Dame Esther Von Strafe.