The first thing I remember well is staring up at the sky, although I didn’t know then that it was called sky. It was very blue. There were these big, white, fluffy things moving slowly across it. I later found out these were called clouds. I could hear all my sisters and brothers, making noises as they always did from the moment they got up every morning to when they settled down to sleep at night. I was just as noisy, of course. We would follow our mothers around constantly, sometimes running between their legs or jumping on their backs.
“Why are you on your back?” I heard someone enquire of me.
I turned my head a little, and could see that it was one of my brothers who had asked the question. He had his own head cocked, quizzically, to one side.
“I don’t know,” I answered him, truthfully. “Where are our mothers?”
“They’re coming,” he said.
Sure enough, within a few heartbeats, a shadow came over me, filling my vision with feathers. This was Dorcas, a Silver Dorking hen. Apparently, human beings like to give our different sizes and colours names but we don’t. There are brothers, sisters, mothers and daddies, friends and enemies. That’s enough for us to know. I never called my mothers by their names or breeds, not when I was with them, but I understand more now than I did as a tiny chick because I’ve had a lot of contact with humans – or rather, one human in particular. They were my mothers and that was enough for me, all I needed to know. Likewise, my mothers never gave me a name. They didn’t give any of us names. We didn’t need them. We were all loved and protected equally, except the sister who took sick; both Dorcas and Holly, our other mother, kept her away from the rest of us in case we caught the sick too. Then she died, because that’s what happens sometimes.
“Are you alright?” asked Mother Dorcas, her eyes full of concern for me. She was making fussy bok-bok-bok noises, bobbing her head up and down.
“I am looking at the blue and the white,” I told her. “Yes, I am alright.”
“But you started flapping your wings and shaking like the wind had gotten hold of you,” Mother Dorcas said. “You were throwing yourself about, this way and that, as if a fox had caught you and was flinging you up in the air.”
“What’s a fox?” I asked.
“Never mind,” said Mother Dorcas, nudging me with her beak. “I have enough trouble getting you to sleep under my breast feathers without giving you nightmares. Come on, get up.”
I struggled to my feet and wobbled a little bit. “Why did I do the throwing and the flapping and the shaking?”
“I’m your mother. It’s my job to teach you how to eat and what to eat, to keep you warm and safe. I have no idea why you were acting like that, though. I am only a hen and, remarkable as I am, I can’t know everything. Come, eat.”
I perked up at the idea of food and ran to join the rest of my family. Everybody was clustered around Mother Holly, a Silkie hen much smaller than Mother Dorcas but with soft feathers unlike ours and looking more like the fur on the rabbit that used to come and visit us sometimes through a hole in the fence, until the human came and blocked up the hole.
There were other chicks on the land but we didn’t speak to them. We weren’t allowed anywhere near those others, with their different shapes and sizes, and different mothers. Sometimes, a bird that looked like it was a mother – or was at least the same size as Mother Dorcas or Mother Holly – would try to come near me and my brothers and sisters. When that happened, our mothers went all big, puffing up their feathers and shouting “Go away! Go away!” until the other bird did go away. If the other bird did not do as our mothers told it too, one or both of them would chase it and peck it and make it scream until it said sorry and did as it was told.
“Mother,” I began, while pecking the ground, “what is the blue and the white?”
Mother Dorcas made a happy noise. “You’re so clever, little one,” she said. “Always with the questions!”
“She must be one I sat on for all those days and nights,” said Mother Holly.
Mother Dorcas turned to face her. “Oh really? Why? Do you think I’m stupid?”
“No,” said Mother Holly. “I just think I did a better job than you.”
Mother Dorcas huffed. “This is your first brood,” she said. “This is my third. You are learning as you go. From me.”
“I knew how to incubate my children from the very first day,” protested Mother Holly.
“Ha!” bokked Mother Dorcas. “You kept leaving the eggs. If we hadn’t shared the duties, you’d have let them go cold and when that happens, they die, you know. They never hatch into the world.”
Mother Holly turned to me. “The blue and the white is called the sky, dearest,” she said. “It is everywhere and far above our heads all the time. At night, when the bright thing goes to bed, the sky turns black and has lots of twinkles in it.”
I opened my beak to say something.
“Before you ask,” Mother Holly continued, “I don’t know what the twinkles are.”
“But I’ve never seen even one twinkle in my whole life,” I lamented.
“That’s because you’re tucked up under your mothers, fast asleep,” said Dorcas. “As for your whole life, why child, you’ve only been on this soil a very short time indeed.”
I thought about this. It was then I realised I was having thoughts.
“I think I am growing up,” I announced.
“You’ve a way to go yet,” said Mother Holly. “But I have noticed you are now aware of yourself in relation to the world around you. That is good.”
I didn’t know what she meant but I made happy noises.
“You’ve got some catching up to do,” said Mother Dorcas, concern for me in her voice. “You are much smaller than your brothers and sisters.”
This was true, just as all other things my mothers ever said to me were true. I had started out, they told me, the exact same size as my brothers and sisters, otherwise I would not have hatched from my egg. But then they all started to grow bigger than me. I was eating the same food and drinking the same water, so I didn’t understand why this was. And my mothers didn’t, either. They asked me if I ever felt the sick in me, and I answered no, honestly. I had never felt the sick, which could come in the tummy or the head or the legs or the eyes or the ears.
Both my mothers had asked me about all those parts, if I ever felt any pain in them. I didn’t. I knew what pain was, though, because sometimes Mother Dorcas would get so excited about finding us a worm to eat or a bug, she would dance around and accidentally tread on us. She trod on me once, making me squeak. She didn’t mean to. She was just so much bigger than us. Far bigger than Mother Holly, too.
“Will the sky ever fall down?” I asked.
My mothers glanced at each other.
“Well?” I persisted.
“We don’t know,” said Mother Holly at last. “It never has but that isn’t to say it never will.”
“I don’t think it will,” added Mother Dorcas.
I nodded and stretched my wings. “My back is wet,” I said.
“That is because you were lying on your back and the ground is damp and cold,” said Mother Dorcas. “Do you want to come and cuddle under me until you are dry?”
I nodded. I was always happy to go underneath either of my mothers. I walked on wobbly legs over to Mother Dorcas and lowered my head, pushing through her feathers with my beak. Inside and under, it was dark and warm.
I could still hear the outside, and my mothers, although their voices were muffled by Mother Dorcas’ feathers.
“I tell you,” I heard her say. “This little one has the sick. I just don’t know what kind of sick she has.”
“I don’t think she has the sick,” said Mother Holly. “You know, she told us: she feels no pain. And she is clever.”
“Yes, she is clever,” Mother Dorcas agreed. “But she is not right. I know she is not right.”
“Well, we are not abandoning her,” said Mother Holly. “Not just because you’ve got a strange idea in your head.”
“I did not suggest abandoning her!” exclaimed Mother Dorcas, sounding upset. “We agreed, the other chick was very sick. It was obvious that chick was sick.”
“And it isn’t obvious that this one is sick at all,” Mother Holly replied. “If flapping your wings was a sign of the sick, we could all be accused of it.”
“Put like that…,” began Mother Dorcas, “… I can see your point. I’m being very clucky, aren’t I?”
“We both are, dear,” said Mother Holly. “I was only hatched during the last warm times myself, but it was you who warned me of the changes that would come once the winter went away. You told me then I would want children of my own, and I laughed. I didn’t believe you. All I cared about was eating and drinking and avoiding the boys, because they wanted more than food and drink.”
“Still,” Mother Dorcas went on, “I worry.”
“I know you do.”
I didn’t hear any more of the conversation, if there was any more to be heard. I had fallen asleep in warm and reassuring darkness.