Learning the hard lessons about life and death on the farm

by Rebecca Hayter / 27 January, 2019
Dearly departed: Sally the sheep (tolerating a photobomber), and Cinnamon the hen.

Dearly departed: Sally the sheep (tolerating a photobomber), and Cinnamon the hen.

Rebecca Hayter learns the hard lessons about life and death on the farm.

I had a rule: that I am not allowed to get sad about deaths in the animal family. But I forgot to apply it to Cinnamon. She and Honey were bottom of the pecking order. They were dorking hens with breasts that bloomed in lustrous cleavage. Cinnamon’s had an extra brown splotch.

Honey and Cinnamon wouldn’t peck from my hand but they’d come to within a feather’s breadth of my grubber to find the grubs. These girls knew why a grubber exists. They alerted each other to every freshly turned sod; they squawked and fast-hen-walked with joy when I turned a log to expose glossy white-pink slugs.

The light faded in Cinnamon’s eyes. I noticed the lower, white eyelid that flicked up to close a hen’s eye. She was so listless that she let me touch her. I rang Tim.

“She’ll die,” he said.

Cinnamon put herself to bed in a nesting box. The awkward flap up to the roost was a flap too far or perhaps she chose not to fall, literally, from her perch. I said goodbye. The next morning the other hens scrambled over her corpse to get their food.

The gentle grotesqueness of death: her claws curled behind her in apology on the henhouse floor. I wished she had died in the nesting box.

I bawled in the warm sun as my hands smoothed her feathers, as soft as petals. Technically, I knew, I was crying for my stepmother Tigger in England. She was ill and elderly, like Cinnamon. Tigger died that day, too.

I dug a hole in Weka Alley and as weeds gave way to my spade, I got all whimsical in the symbology of burial. Sentences formed in my head in the cadence of Hemingway. Tui sang a requiem. Then Cinnamon flinched beneath my hands and I cried out: “Oh my God!” Had I nearly buried a non-dead chook? Then air escaped from inside her and there came the odour of rotting guts. I wiped snot from my nose.

The bay tree seedling I’d brought from Auckland marked her spot. I liked the melding of cinnamon and bay, but later the bay tree died. Oh, well.

Cinnamon had broken the rule but Sally re-wrote it. She leaned against me, her eyes totally blissed out as I scratched her sheepy-smelling woolly back, beneath her chin, between her graceful ears. I loved the yellow sunflowers of her eyes.

I found Sally cast, held prisoner with pain in her joints. It was the fourth morning in a row, but this time she was in a dip in the paddock. I couldn’t heft her over and up to her feet against the slope, so I found someone on the beach to help.

The vet had given Sally two injections, but there was no change. I didn’t want this awful responsibility on my own, so I asked the vet to tell me what I already knew.

I believe in bearing witness, so when the man came to euthanise Sally, I was there. She nibbled sheep nuts from my hand. I scratched beneath her jaw. I promised her, “Sally, it will be over quickly.” I tried to read the wisdom in her yellow eyes.

It wasn’t quick. It was a brutal lesson to learn. It takes skill to kill a sheep.

I promised Sally I would never let that happen again. I hosed her blood from the back of the ute as tears washed my guilt. At least in Golden Bay you can have a whole beach to yourself while you cry like a wolf at the moon. That’s what I did, because that’s the new rule.

This article was first published in the January 2019 issue of North & South.

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