A Sitting Hen
‘What a scatterbrain, what a feckless girl’—so my mother would say of me to a guest, a visiting policeman, a neighbour coming over about some farm problem. ‘What a harum-scarum!’ Did she believe in the evil eye? No. And the Chinese, who, we are told, may say of their own, ‘This is my worthless wife’, ‘This my useless son’. Are they averting the evil eye? ‘She’s such a flibbertigibbet,’ usually said with a fond little laugh. What could she have meant? But the real question came much later, for if you are thirteen, fourteen, what she says has to be taken as true. This knot of wants, needs, angers, attitudes, a confusion of emotions, amounts to being a scatterbrain, the feckless child? Later you had to ask, how could she have used those words on this over-serious, critical bookworm of a girl? A mystery.
Was it in order to cure my flightiness that she said I must look after the sitting hen ‘from start to finish’? Was she curing me of irresponsibility? But I was already bound to the hen, kneeling in front of her cage, an hour, two, most passionately identifying with this incarcerated one, who was as united with those eggs as if tied to them, peering out from the bars as the long hours, and days, went by on our farm in the old Southern Rhodesia.
Before my mother had made the hen my charge, I was gathering up her eggs. A hen, doing what her nature suggests, lays eggs under a bush, returning to add another, and another, but it is unlikely that an unguarded egg could survive more than a day or so. Wild cats, porcupines, hawks, rats, the watchful little mammals of the bush, would see the egg, and eat it on the spot, leaving a telltale smear of yolk, or roll it away to their own nests. If you wanted a hen to sit on a reasonable number of eggs you had to hunt about in the bush, find where she had hidden them, keep them safe, and then, when there were enough, show them to the hen. She might or might not be broody. A sly trick, that, to feed a spoonful of sweet sherry to the hen, who then nearly always went broody, her cluck changing to the deep maternal clucks and calls appropriate to a matron wondering what had happened to those eggs she had left, she thought, in a good place. And here they were, all together, brown and white and fawn-coloured, some at least hers. This hen was a Rhode Island, the big heavy hen that can brood sixteen, seventeen eggs, really big eggs, not the ‘large’ eggs of the supermarket, which are only half their size. A slender white Leghorn, the other kind of hen pecking about over the hill, could sit on only twelve eggs.