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At the Farmer’s Market, Saturday before last, there was a chicken farmer from Chico selling live chickens. Most of them were black-and-white roosters, but in a corner cage on the five-dollar end, sharing with a scrawny, cantankerous rooster, there was a little copper-colored hen. She didn’t look as if she’d make a whole dinner, even for one person. But there was a kid from the China Wok coming back to buy her, the farmer said. There was a big crowd and the farmer was busy dropping roosters head-first into five-pound onion bags. “Do you want to hold her?” the farmer asked. “No,” I said. “Oh, Mom!” the kids chorused. The farmer slipped the hen out of her cage and showed me how she liked to be held, firmly, under his forearm and against his ribs. I suspected the farmer of feeling affection for this hen, and he admitted it was true. “Does she have a name?” I asked. “No, I have a policy not to name them.” He mentioned having kept pet chickens as a child, gave me a meaningful look, shrugged. I understood. I had the hen in my arms when the boy from the China Wok leaned in, twisting between adult hips, with a fistful of dollars raised toward the farmer. The boy looked at me.
“Did you want her?” I asked.
“No,” he said nervously. “It’s okay.”
“Are you sure?”
He shook his head no.
“It’s all done,” the farmer said. “You’ve already got her.”
We named her Penny on the drive home. She got her beak caught in the nylon mesh of the onion bag. We put her in a rabbit cage we had, and we carried her around, and we put her in the dog kennel, which is enclosed with chain-link fencing. That was weird, because she kept trying to escape by plunging through the chain-link diamonds. She’d get in to her shoulders, then she’d have to shrug back out. Then she’d plunge into a different diamond. She could have kept it up all day, it seemed.
By day two, her eyes were oozing and she seemed lethargic. She stopped eating. We looked up chicken illnesses on the computer. I started giving her water by pouring it down her beak using the screw-on cap of two-liter soda bottle. When her eyes crusted over and sealed shut, I broke out some prescription eye drops that were in the medicine closet. I know you’re not supposed to use human medicines on animals, much less share prescriptions, but I didn’t care. An eye is an eye, I figured. And by the next day, her eyes were better. Duff went back to the computer and warned me that if we didn’t get her antibiotics, she could easily die.
Next I had to find a vet who would treat a chicken, which turned out to be more difficult than I imagined. Finally we were able to get her seen. Ninety-eight dollars later, we went home with one emaciated chicken, a bottle of antibiotics, a few ounces of formula, and eye drops. Have you ever tried feeding an adult chicken with a syringe? It’s a challenge. But apparently it worked. Penny is definitely feeling better now. When I gave her some hen scratch yesterday, she attacked it with enthusiasm, and she squawks when we reach for her, as a chicken should.