Day 9, Story 9: The Olive Egger

The star of the family flock was an Olive Egger named Louise, truly a legend among hens. 

The daughter and animal lover of the house, Lily, was really the only one who could pick her up. Not her father or brother. And usually, not her mother Jane. Lily and Louise had somehow bonded when the now impressive chicken was just a fuzzy flightless nub. 

Lily found the contented clucks of her favorite chicken therapeutic. But for everyone else, especially Jane, Louise was not a source of relaxation. Not at all.

Jane once had to treat Louise’s scratched eye after a hawk attack—though the hawk fared worse—and her attempts to capture the hen had all the action and suspense of a sporting match. The thing is, Louise never, ever panicked like the rest of the flock. She was calm, focused, utterly determined, and highly skilled. 

Truly, Louise could put the NFL’s most elusive running backs to shame. Jane would have her cornered, only for Louise to defy gravity by deftly leveraging wall-as-vertical-launchpad. She would bend down, thinking she had her, at which point Louise would go up and over her useless hands with a quick ping-pong maneuver. Or Louise would pull a lightning-fast nutmeg and leave Jane red-faced and out of breath. Smooth as butter, easy as pie. That was classic Louise. 

Sometimes Louise would sit on the window sill outside the breakfast nook, side-eyeing the family as they ate. While Louise’s signature cheek poufs gave her an unserious look, and Olive Eggers tend to land in the middle of the pecking order, she was in charge. 

Louise even had solid pack status in the eyes of the dog, a squat corgi mix named Sam. They knew this because of what happened when Lily let a couple of curious neighborhood kids into the yard after they asked her some questions about the chickens. 

One boy, about five years old, bent down to try and hold Louise, and Sam growled at him, a deep, low warning to back off. Stella picked up Louise, and handed her to the boy, and all was well. There was a chain of command. 

Sam didn’t have the same protectiveness toward the other chickens—at least not that they could tell. Sam’s seal of approval seemingly solidified Louise as a part of the family.

When an ailing raccoon languished like a furry drunk in the small creek bed just beyond their backyard fence, Louise did not leverage her apex status within the pecking order to lead the other girls to safety. She stood at the fence and shrieked as if outraged at the raccoon, her followers chiming in from behind her. “Our neighbors must love us,” sighed Jane.

vintage tan brown stripe feather image

After letting the chickens out into the yard one early winter morning, Lily came in to show her mother the egg that Louise had just laid. It was much brighter green than the usual muted tones. “Interesting,” they thought, admiring the unexpected vibrancy. And they left it at that.

The next day, Louise seemed lethargic. Lily thought she was yawning, but Jane could see that she was gaping, a sign of respiratory distress. Illness loomed. 

Instantly, Jane regretted getting chickens in the first place, and letting sensitive Lily, who had been struggling to find her place and her people at school, get attached. The timing was unfortunate, adding loss on top of anxiety and loneliness. 

Jane worried about the rest of the flock catching the mystery ailment. They hadn’t yet lost a chicken in a year and a half of keeping them, and the prospect was hitting harder than expected. She felt a bit guilty, but kept her anxieties to herself.

They decorated the coop for Christmas, hanging a wreath with lights to brighten up the flock’s home. Lily said it might make Louise feel better. But the legendary Olive Egger’s condition only worsened over the next couple of days.

While she left the coop, Louise never went out through the run’s open door to hunt, peck, and explore with the others. Another chicken even had the audacity to peck at her. Louise’s perch atop the hierarchy was lost. By all measures, she was plummeting.

They tried getting Louise to drink, and only Lily succeeded in dipping her beak into a small cup of water. But Louise was disoriented and unable to control her neck. Soon she couldn’t even stand for more than a couple seconds at a time. Jane realized that while well-intentioned, their efforts were just prolonging the agony.

Jane decided that if Louise continued to deteriorate, she’d need to put her down. She agonized over how to explain all this to Lily. Again Jane wished that she’d never taken in the chickens, and the inevitable heartache that came with them.

As dusk fell on the third day of illness, Louise somehow found the strength to return to the coop from the run. Jane talked to Lily about the prospect of Louise’s life ending soon. That they’d miss her, but that Louise would no longer suffer. That Louise lived a wonderful life, to the fullest. 

Lily did not cry, at least not yet. She was sad but thoughtful and, frankly, it seemed to Jane, handling it better than her.

Jane didn’t sleep well. When morning finally came, she got up early to check on Louise. But before heading out, she heard little footsteps behind her. Lily said she wanted to come out with her, and Jane felt a jolt of alarm run through her.  But there was no way around it. They’d have to face this together.

The walk out to the coop seemed a mile longer that day. And sure enough they found, upon opening the back coop door, that Louise had died. 

Louise was slumped in the corner of the coop, beneath the roosts where the rest of the flock sat. Tears rolled down Lily’s cheeks. “Why did this happen to her?” she asked her mother.

“There’s no reason, Lily.” Jane put her hands on Lily’s little shoulders.

“Chickens who live free get to enjoy fresh air. Bugs. Room to run, and even sort-of fly!” Jane laughed gently. “But you know, that also means they’re exposed to dangers. Like bacteria and viruses from wild birds, or attacks from predators like hawks and foxes.”

“Maybe we should have kept Louise in the run. All the chickens should stay safe in there,” said Lily.

“Yes, they’d be safer. But you know how adventurous Louise was. I wonder what kind of life she would have had if we never let her explore?” Lily tilted her head to the side, thinking it over.

Jane gave Lily a hug, and then reached into the coop. She lifted Louise gingerly when an impossible flash of color caught her eye. Under Louise, nestled in the wood shavings, was a blue egg. The hue was dreamy and tranquil, with a slight tint of green like tropical waters. Light, earth colored specks added warmth. It was comforting somehow, and reminded Jane of sea glass. 

Lily’s eyes widened, and a hint of a smile could be seen at the corners of her mouth. “It’s a gift from Louise,” she sniffed.

Mom said, “I think you’re right. What should we do with this gift?”

Lily thought for a moment then said, “Let’s use it to make pancakes on Christmas morning. It’s what Louise would have wanted.”

Her mother nodded, then felt the spark of an idea. “Yes, and I know what else we can do.”

On Christmas morning, Lily emptied her stocking while Mom used Louise’s last egg in a batch of chocolate chip pancakes. “They taste extra good today,” said Lily, “Louise would be happy about that.”

Of course, Jane didn’t just crack and discard this seemingly miraculous last egg. 

Lily went to open the presents under the tree, and stopped in her tracks.

There on the tree, right at Lily’s eye level, hung a new ornament that glowed in the morning light. It was Louise’s blue eggshell. So very fragile, and all the more luminous for it.

Lily said, “Thank you, Mom! Now we have a way to remember Louise and how she was not like any other chicken.”

Jane gave Lily a squeeze and replied, “Yes, exactly. There will never be another Louise.”

The end

(Note: Previous remaining holiday stories can be found here, released each day through 12/24, and kept available ever after.)

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