Thursday, 31 March 2011

You may remember me writing about Dennis the Cockerel - former Enfant Terrible of the Farm Yard; a pugnacious tyrant, and rampant defiler of his female companions, who escaped the axe by a whisker, by dashing through the executioners legs on the day of judgement.
After his fellow partners in crime had been despatched, his attitude changed dramatically for the better. Not only did he find himself lacking the security afforded by the menacing presence of his mob, he was suddenly the target of naked hostility amongst the hens he had previously violated whenever he chose.
The tables were turned. For several weeks after the cull, he was an outcast. The hens refused to converse with him, 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 roomy perches, forcing him to spend all night squatting in a nesting box, which he must have found very emasculating.
He was outnumbered by 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, accepting their derision as the price he had to pay for his former treachery. He was cowed and humbled. 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 the hens and the prowling stable cat.
Gradually, the hens softened towards him. After all, he was the only cockerel, and they could feel the Spring Sun on their backs. They begun to allow him to feed with them, and shortly after that, were making space for him on their perch. The final coup, was the day he was permitted to lead them round the farm yard, as proud as a King. He was a reformed character; gentle and kind, he treated each hen like a Princess, visibly thrilled to have assumed a role as leader and protector.

He is an extremely loveable character, and i have grown 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 hens stayed close to him, clucking uncertainly, unwilling to wander off without him.
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 phoned up to the dairy, and asked Jasper if he could ask the vet to call in on his way home.
It was midday when he knocked on the door.
"Morning. I've come to look at a cockerel." he smiled, stepping inside.
I showed him the cardboard box full of straw, and gestured to the little white silky huddled inside with his head tucked under his wing, the picture of misery and discomfort.
I picked him up as gently as i could. He barely had the strength to protest. He briefly tried to flap his wings, and then quietly allowed me to hold him up for the vet's inspection.
I stroked the bony ridge of his back through the soft feathers. Through the silky white mop that fell over his licorice black face, i could see his once button bright eyes, now dull and half closed in pain.
The vet scrutinized the growth on his foot frowning. I watched his face, waiting for it to break into a reassuring smile. Instead he shook his head and sighed.
I realised i was holding my breath as i waited for him to speak.
"The infection is too far gone to save him." he said, touching the foot gently.
Dennis shuddered and gave a muffled squawk of protest.
"Can't you give him antibiotics? Or amputate the growth?" i asked.
The Vet straightened up and shook his head.
"Not possible i'm afraid. There's nothing we can do."
I nodded matter of factly, but i could feel my throat tightening. Before i could stop them, hot tears ran down my cheeks and disappeared into Dennis' brilliant white plumage.
I tried to remind myself that he was only a cockerel, yet holding his fragile, almost weightless body in my arms, my mind was filled with memories of his glory days, when he ruled the farm with regal pride, lovingly guarding his hens.
I thought about his fondness for gardening, sidling up along side me and standing tall as he watched the trowel turn over the rich soil with jewel bright eyes. How, during a storm, he would come in to the kitchen and sit quietly by the radiator waiting for the rain to stop.
I glanced up and attempted an apologetic smile at the Vet, whose kind expression of genuine sympathy almost prompted a fresh bout of tears.
"So, 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. " he replied gently.
I nodded, staring at a muddy smudge on the floor and listening to the receding crunch of shoes on gravel as the vet went to his car.
He returned with a large syringe. There seemed a lot of fluid in it. Dennis was only little.
I looked outside. The hens were gathered outside the back door , clucking anxiously, waiting.
"I'll inject into his chest, it won't hurt him at all," he said, parting the feathers on the breast bone. Dennis didn't struggle; a second later he was gone. His body went limp, and his head fell over my arm, the feathers splaying out sideways like a clowns ruff.
I turned and laid him in the box of straw.
"Thankyou." i said to the Vet and gritting my teeth. A tear escaped.
"Crying over a cockerel. Pretty poor show for a farmers wife..." i mumbled.
"Shows you're human." he smiled, patting me gently on the shoulder and turning to leave.

I stood still for a few moments, feeling slightly dislocated from reality.
A horse whinnied in a distant field, a tractor engine turned over and sputtered on the other side of the farm, a pair of magpies chattered crossly in a nearby tree.
Then, another sound. A sound that drowned out the other noises, with its sheer, almost palpable sense of joy at being alive.
I opened the door and stepped out into the dusk.
In front of me, perched regally atop the grassy ridge, resplendent in the setting sun, and crowing majestically to the heavens, stood a magnificent white Silky cockerel.
Dennis' Son.

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