Nikki, during her few spare moments, may often be seen with a cigarette and a coffee observing her chickens with a small beatific smile. In such a state, shortly after I arrived from
Already, Nikki had decided which one to keep, ‘if it wasn’t a rooster’. It was the smallest and she called it Slowly because it was always a little behind the rest. Caroline – a very handsome chicken, I must say; like some sophisticated gallus from a classical Nineteenth Century painting – was always backtracking for Slowly. The straggler. The runt.
Days later, Nikki bemoaned the devastation in her garden. ‘They show off when they have chicks. They strut with self-importance. But it’s not just pride; they have to stress their essential chickeness so the babies will understand what they are. They scratch and dig twice as much - to dislodge sufficient food for all, and to teach.’ Some of Nikki’s garden plants have been near to completely uprooted.
But poor Slowly. Over the last few weeks, her siblings have doubled, tripled in size, but she is not much larger than when she was born. She trails further and further behind. And it appears now that something is wrong with her legs.
Often, she can’t reach the rim of the water dish, or nudge out her peers for food. On hot days she struggles to move at all through the dust and leaves. In such a state I worry that even the ants – which are currently in plague numbers - might overpower her. And if not the ants, then the ever lurking crows.
Though Caroline has five other healthy offspring, she has not given up on Slowly. She speeds in to defend her – an awesome spectacle, feathers ruffled, beak targeting – despite Slowly’s limited hopes of survival. Nikki too has not given up.
Yesterday afternoon, she found the little chick far from her mother, marooned in a pile of leaves, plainly in distress, and decided time was up. Now Slowly is in a box in the kitchen with her own water and feed supply.
I have learned that the healthy chicks are leaving today. I wonder if Slowly can then be returned to her mother? Or will she require ongoing intensive care? Nikki will know. If there’s one thing she knows about, it’s chickens.
Princess is in her dotage now; she is grizzled about the jowls and walks with the wide gait of a crocodile. Somehow she has made it this far despite her terrible greed; she’s blind and can at last be fed in the manner of a normal dog, in a dish, rather than having her pal scattered as widely as possible across the yard to prevent her raiding the dinners of other animals fed at the same time. Princess shows little discrimination between what we would think of as food and other materials. She will automatically steal nutriments from humans and cats. She will also eat birdseed, chicken feed, dirty green lumps of bread dug up by other dogs, limp lettuce leaves, sheets of paper and anything vaguely tasty which she has snuffled out of the dust. Recently, after a particularly eclectic binge, she wound up on a drip at a veterinary hospital on the mainland. As Nikki would put it, Princess does not have a full button.
When I first encountered this dog, her immediate reaction was to cower and take shelter behind her owners. At this time, she was a svelte black and white puppy only a couple of months old, who seemed to believe I was the devil incarnate. All through that first night, she circled the house barking in confusion and fear. The following night too, and the next. No one could sleep.
I remember how embarrassing it was for me. I was a guest, but I couldn’t offer to leave. I was too far from home. And my pride made me baulk at being evicted by a dog. And we all thought she would get used to me.
Eventually, she disappeared and did not return until my departure. This was some relief, but I was mortified by the whole affair. Would people suspect I was abusing her in secret somehow, either psychologically or in some clever physical manner that left no mark? Nikki said it was because I was tall; Princess had, she said, reacted similarly to
The dog’s attitude improved only marginally with my subsequent visits. Usually, she would greet me fairly normally, but as the days passed her attitude would change. A shiftiness entered her manner and she would back out of any room I occupied, banging into things along the way. If surprised, she would scuttle madly out the door as if death himself was on her tail. And – perhaps most disconcertingly of all – she would peer at me through gaps in curtains, through bushes, through cracks – her eyes fearful, yet somehow drawn to that thing that most terrified her.
With the passing years, it would take longer for her to regress into this paranoid state, but eventually, inevitably, the strangeness would come. What was in this animal’s mind? What danger did she see in me? Did she perceive an evil in my heart of which I have no knowledge? Or did something happen to her in those few weeks before Nikki and Sid acquired her as a puppy? These, of course, are questions to which the answers will never be known.
Over my current stay, she has behaved like a reasonably normal dog. With old age and the dulling of her senses she seems to have at last come to accept me …
Unless, of course, in the next few days, she turns …