Jess of the dairy fields
By Jessica Miller. The illustration is by Becky Blake
Published in September ’12
Autumn is my favourite season; I love the changing colours and still derive childish pleasure from kicking up the mounds of leaves. I started riding Dolly again last week, after her long summer holidays; she’s as fat as butter and terribly unfit, but I adore pottering along the lanes with her in the early evening, then watching the sun set over Bulbarrow Hill. But ever since I was a child, a strange melancholy overcomes me each year, one best summarised by Tennyson:
‘Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.’
It is a melancholy not assuaged by the death of Dennis the cockerel – former enfant terrible of the farmyard, pugnacious tyrant and habitual hen botherer, who escaped the axe by a whisker by dashing through the executioner’s legs on the day of judgement.
After his fellow cockerels in crime had been despatched, he found himself the target of naked hostility from the hens he had previously violated at will. He was an outcast, the hens tolerating his presence with ill-concealed disgust. They would shun his attempts to make polite conversation, drive him away if he sidled up for a bit of corn, and heckle him mercilessly. They would not let him share their perches; he spent every night squatting in a nesting box, which he must have found very emasculating.
Outnumbered 15:1, he spent weeks trailing along uncertainly behind them whilst they wandered around the farm. In time, he seemed to grow resigned to his lowly status. I would watch him stand well back and allow them to take their fill of the chicken pellets, before he would venture forward hesitantly to eat himself. He waited until they were all safely in the hen house at dusk, before he followed them in, and he would gallantly put himself between them and the prowling stable cat.
Gradually, the hens softened towards him; they grudgingly permitted him to feed with them and, shortly after, made space for him on their perch. Finally, he was permitted to lead them round the farmyard, but he was a reformed character, gentle and kind, treating each hen like a princess. I grew very fond of him, so I was concerned when he became ill a few weeks ago. I noticed he was limping one morning when he emerged from the hen house. Instead of hopping down the ramp and strutting off round the corner with the hens, he hobbled down stiffly and stood in the grass looking glum.
The next day, he was worse. I picked him up and examined his feet. There was a small growth on his right spur. He cocked his head and looked up at me while I inspected it. After breakfast, Jasper gave him a shot of antibiotic and I thought that would be the end of it. We watched him hobble off around the corner with the hens. A few days later, he emerged from the hen house in the morning and stood dejectedly in the garden. His once-rich red comb was an anaemic pink, and he had the tell tale tucked up appearance of a sick bird. I asked Jasper if he could ask the vet to call in on his way home. At midday there was a knock at the door.
‘Morning. I’ve come to look at a cockerel,’ smiled the vet, stepping inside. I showed him a cardboard box full of straw; inside lay a little white silky huddled with his head tucked under his wing. Dennis briefly tried to flap his wings, then he quietly allowed me to hold him up for the vet’s inspection. Frowning, the vet scrutinised the growth on Dennis’s foot. I watched the vet’s face, waiting for it to break into a reassuring smile.
Instead he shook his head and sighed: ‘The infection is too far gone to save him. I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do.’
Hot tears ran down my cheeks, and into Dennis’s plumage… I thought about his fondness for gardening and how, during a storm, he would come in to the kitchen and sit quietly by
‘Can you, er,… I couldn’t bear anyone wringing his neck..,’ I tailed off, biting hard on my bottom lip.
‘I can inject him, he won’t feel a thing,’ the vet replied gently; a receding then arriving crunch of shoes on gravel was the only sound as he went to his car, returning with a large syringe. ‘I’ll inject into his chest, it won’t hurt him at all,’ he said, parting the feathers on the breastbone.
Dennis didn’t struggle; a second later he was gone, his head falling over my arm, the feathers splaying out sideways like a clown’s ruff.
‘Thank you,’ I said to the vet, gritting my teeth. ‘Crying over a cockerel. Pretty poor show for a farmer’s wife…,’ I mumbled.
He smiled, patting me gently on the shoulder, and turned to leave.
A horse whinnied in a distant field, a tractor engine turned over and sputtered on the other side of the farm, then, another sound – one that drowned out the other noises. In front of me, perched regally atop the grassy ridge against the setting sun, crowing majestically to the heavens, stood a magnificent white cockerel: Son of Dennis.