‘Stay close to the ground’: what chickens taught me about life (and death)

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Oct 8, 2016 in Rat News | Subscribe

I am sneaking food to the chicken under our kitchen table. It is hunched by my chair leg, a ragged bundle of brown feathers. Mum is too ill and Dad too busy feeding her to notice, and my brother doesn’t mind. Besides, who could begrudge it my leftover welsh rarebit when it is so miserable? I know it is miserable, because I am fluent in chicken.

Chicken is a subtle dialect. The “cluck, cluck, cluck” mimicked by humans everywhere is the vocalisation of a contented bird, but is just one of many. When disgruntled, a chicken sounds closer to a flustered WI member who has dropped a trifle. We all know their warning call and, on hearing it, run to chase off lurking foxes. This is not to be confused with the screeching that signals aerial predators or, more likely, hot air balloons. None of these threats is what has driven the chicken under our table, however. It is there because it is an outcast. I can empathise: talking chicken has always come easily to me, but communicating with my own kind is another matter.

It is the late 90s and I live in the Somerset countryside with my mother, father, brother and other animals. Town dwellers sometimes confuse our home for a farm, but the truth is my family just loves animals. My mother has adored ducks since she used to de-stress from her doctor’s training by feeding them at Regent’s Park in London, and my father, an engineer, shares her passion. Our neighbours have a smallholding and wildlife frequents our garden. Cats, rats, ducks, bats, chickens, badgers, horses, hamsters. I can’t imagine a childhood without them. Do other children really not throw leftovers out the window, where some small stomach will take care of them? Have other children not sheltered a hedgehog over winter; nor cried bitterly when, on the night it was released, a badger left its gutted hide, like an abandoned hand puppet, on the lawn? Do other children not own a misogynistic cockerel that attacks women 20 times its size? One day, my aunt tries to defend herself with colourful scraps of fabric tied to a bamboo pole, thinking that a good shake of this will frighten the cockerel away. The attempt fails, but I shall never forget the sublime beauty of my aunt morris dancing with a chicken.

The only creatures missing from my youth are other children. I wonder if this is for the best, as my experiences at secondary school have led me to believe I must be a species apart from the gaggles of other girls, some of whom can henpeck just as sharply as our chickens. I’m not without friends entirely, but am confined to the outskirts. It is easier to vanish into books and the countryside.


Socialisation wasn’t always this hard. In primary school, I was the bossy queen of pretend. Friends often came over for tea, and to feed our ducks. Once, my eight-year-old self took charge after a breakout of goats from a petting zoo, leading the panicking adults carrying the bleating creatures back to their enclosure. Then, I wasn’t afraid of anything. That time was the “before”, followed by the “after”; the dividing line the fuzzy border of my mother’s progressive multiple sclerosis, diagnosed when she was 38 and I was nine.

The horror of multiple sclerosis is that it can steal everything from a person. In my mother’s case, it ate at her mobility until it had all but locked her within her own flesh, and slowly, insidiously, corroded her mind. The changes it wrought were so radical that I can only think of my childhood as being populated by two mothers, two families, two mes. In the face of my mother’s illness, we must have become unrecognisable. In the space of a few years, our house no longer rang with the laughter of friends, but a heavy silence. Though we weren’t alone, not quite; the animals remained.

If anything, they were more present than ever. The ducks rapped on the french windows to beg for spaghetti and the chickens snuck in to steal cat food or, better still, whatever was on the table. More than once, we watched as our lunch retreated at great speed as a fluffy chicken bum disappeared into the distance. When they fell sick, pets came to live in a corner of my bedroom, the sad patter of their feet stirring against newspaper during the night, often to be found cold and stiff in the morning. One chick spent months recovering from an operation in our bathroom, so that I sat, covered in bubbles, as a bullet of cream feathers flew about my head.

In the absence of other children, the animals became my friends and teachers. From our ducks and chickens, I learned to be close to the ground and grub about in the vast and small tangibility of life. Our cats showed me how to find ease in my own body and never mind the odd looks I got for kicking off my shoes to curl up in public spaces. Human priorities seemed skewed; animals taught me that following your instincts and finding a comfortable way of being in the world was far more important than appearances. And all our pets taught me the meaning of birth, life and death.

‘From our chickens, I learned to grub about in the vast and small tangibility of life.’ Photograph: Jon Tonks for the Guardian

In the late noughties, I left home for university, choosing one because I’d heard the psychology department kept puppies to herd the lab rats. I was extremely gullible at this age. Keeping my own pet rats was compensation. When I felt lonely, which was often, I’d lie on my bed and watch them huddle, so close one normally sat on the other’s head. I hungered for the intimacy they shared.

I made some friends. These connections never ran as deep as I’d have liked, but they were people with whom to act out the obligatory student experiences. It turned out not everything I learned from my pets was helpful. The primal noise and dark of clubs triggered an animal panic in me. I danced with my eyes on the floor, too scared to meet the eyes of people I fancied; after all, staring is considered a threat by most animals. When friends approached to hug me, I drew back. Our chickens and ducks always hated being held. I practised the art of camouflage, blending into my environment. My favourite part of nights out was the walk back in the quiet before dawn, when even the streets seemed to sigh at the respite from humans. To see a fox or badger flash past set my body afire.

When I returned home, I found that my mother’s closest companions were animals, too. She loved nothing more than to be wheeled on to the patio to watch poultry bustle about the garden and, when it was too cold to venture out, she lost whole days in front of the bird feeder. Her paralysis offered the tiny mercy that such stillness allows wild birds to feed freely, barely an arm’s length away. It also meant the cats adored her – at last, an eternal lap.

I also noticed there was something increasingly animal about my mother herself. Her keen intellect had long since crumbled and the diseased tension of her muscles had taken on a predatory coil. Social inhibitions meant little to her any more. She considered it appropriate to yell out in the cinema for the villains to “bugger off” and loved to remark if someone’s bum was particularly fine or fat. Much of the time, she didn’t have the capacity to do even this and lay in her recliner, groaning. Worst of all was when she parroted, repeating one word over and over and over, tasting its shape on her tongue long beyond the point of meaning. To listen to this was like water torture, but must have been far worse to live. Even in the depths of her illness, she was always loving.

I wouldn’t realise how precious this was until it was too late but, in her last years, we learned to relate in a quiet, animal fashion. Though neither of us had the words to reach the other, I gave her hugs or held her hand. Sometimes, I brought her favourite treats of chocolate or coconut mushrooms, offering love in the form of food from my hand to her mouth, as I did with our chickens.

One day, nearly 15 years after my mother’s diagnosis, I visited her in hospital. It was not uncommon for her to be rushed in with infections. She had pulled out her drip by mistake and, as it was the weekend, I sat with her for hours, waiting for a doctor to put it back in. She was beyond speech and seemed unaware of her surroundings, but when I held her hand, she squeezed back. As I left, the nurse remarked that my mother’s forehead felt warm, but I thought little of it. The phone call came just after I got home. By the time I’d rushed back, she was gone.

We had spent so many years watching her die, a little each day, that it was hard to believe she had died completely. For a year, my nights were haunted by dreams in which I carried my mother on my back as she swung between life and death, or was trapped in a mysterious in-between state. It always took a few seconds on waking to remember that she was gone.


It is a few years later, and I am sitting in a cafe with friends. Or, at least, they are sitting; I am curled up, feline. It strikes me that I have finally found my own breed, good people who indulge my strange animal ways. We might not huddle like my rats did, but the same intimacy is there.

A weight has lifted, hand-in-hand with the awareness that my difference from other people is more a product of anxiety than taxonomy, and it’s common to feel disconnected from the human race. I can embrace the lessons I learned from animals but also be close to humans. My mother is the quiet tragedy I wear beneath my skin, but how many can honestly claim to be free of scars?

There is a gap in my life where animals should be; the uncertainty of lodging in a city means I am hesitant to bring one into my life, but they are never far away. Seagulls raise their young on the rooftops of my street, and last year an abandoned chick made its way in to live under my bed. Some nights, wild creatures screech and scamper through my garden. The sounds both terrify and thrill, because I know only a wall lies between me and an existence that is utterly alien. I enjoy watching rats along the riverside, and if I eat my lunch outside, it is certain a beady pigeon eye will fix upon me, hungry, hopeful, questioning. A writer, I write my way into the bodies of foxes, octopuses, tigers and other animals, to try to grasp how fantastically different the world is to their senses.

When the sorrow comes, I go in search of animals. I do this on the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death. The pond is quiet in the thin morning light, but it takes only my crouching for the birds to gather, and I think of my mother doing the same thing all those years ago in Regent’s Park. Ducks, pigeons, seagulls, all jostling to be fed. There is wonder in a pigeon landing on my hand. There is a weightlessness to a seagull snatching bread from its upward arc, joy in wet beaks nibbling at my fingertips. I am fluent in duck, which is how I know their quacks are happy.

Emma Geen’s debut novel, The Many Selves Of Katherine North, is published by Bloomsbury Circus at £14.99.

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