At long last, our stay in Bali reached its end. Three months sped by through a process of one hot sunny day, bleeding into the next, until we arrived at week’s end and wondered where the time went. Into laptops and lazy evenings spent stargazing while drinking hot peppermint tea, wondering why I’m drinking hot tea in the tropics. Sometimes tea is just about comfort.
But I’ll ditch the small talk and get to the story.
We had a chicken incident back in October that I’d intended to write about but never got around to amid all that bleeding time. Well, it was an incident turned event, which we might have sold tickets for with popcorn offered to intrigued spectators. Alas, a written story is just as entertaining (said very few of us).
So, it happened that…
We were out zipping around on the scooter one day, destined for home, when a chicken landed in the middle of the road, right in front of us. Now it didn’t just drop from the sky, and it wasn’t a case of Henny Penny (aka Chicken Little), though it might have felt that way for the poor fella. It dropped out of a truck carrying roughly hundreds of its brothers, sisters, and extended family, destined for slaughter. They were stuffed into a large, sectioned cage in the back of a pick up truck.
The truck barrelled up the steep, winding road, and every time it jerk-turned around a bend, those chickens would shift back and forth rather aggressively, much like a commuter standing on a rush-hour bus, grasping the pole to brace for sudden moves. Unfortunately, chickens don’t have such mental wherewithal, but they held each other in place well enough. Every so often however, one on the edge would take a knock to the head, stunned into silence. Poor things. When you think of all the possible existences in the history of living things, accounting for epoch, location, and species, I imagine it’s a heartbreaking reality to be a chicken in Bali. It’s not the worst of outcomes, but it’s far from the karmic deliverance most people hope for.
The driver of the truck obviously didn’t feel his load lighten by a couple hundred grams because he continued rumbling along, choking out clouds of charcoal exhaust, while that lone chicken stood, frozen in the middle of the road. But really, it was still only for a mere second, until it realized that its life was in danger in a whole new way than it had been seconds before. No longer was someone guiding it to slaughter, but slaughter was coming to it in the form of these giant, speeding things on wheels that wouldn’t give a second thought to seeing a chicken in the middle of the road. (It’s totally normal to see a chicken in the road here, as normal as livestock sauntering India’s busy streets, or the presence of assholes in BMWs in wealthier countries).
Chickens are already nervous creatures. Their entire lives appear to be one big panic attack. Heads jerking back and forth, feet flicking up bits of grass and dirt, feathers twitching, beady little eyes reflecting nothing but alarm like the flashing lights of an ambulance. This chicken was as agitated as those farmyard ones, except it was also in a very precarious situation. It was a long way from the cozy calm of a farmyard. It attempted to gauge its immediate situation (as well as chickens can gauge anything, of course), and I can’t imagine a simple human being would have reacted much differently. It jerked right, then left, then right again, dodging cars and scooters as they whipped up the road, unconcerned.
This chicken could sense it had to cross the road or die but it didn’t know how. We had to help this poor chicken from a horrible demise. Reid’s an animal rescuer by heart. Together, we stumble upon situations that require emergency animal rescue. If you have a heart, there’s no other option than to be up for such a task. Half-dead flailing ants are easy to walk away from, sorry to say, but chickens falling out of trucks are not (I’ll save that inquiry for another time).
Back to the current event––eventually, the chicken found the road’s edge and contemplated throwing itself into the drainage ditch. I say contemplated because that’s the conclusion anyone would arrive at with even the laziest observation of chicken behaviour. Its pointed claws tottered precariously on the edge of the ditch, feathered wings flapping in a fit of hyperbolic panic. It didn’t say much, because frankly, chickens don’t. And they don’t need to. Like I said, even the most passive observer can read a chicken like an open book with blank pages.
This is all happening at about 100 times the speed at which I’m relaying it, by the way. By this time, we’d pulled over and I was on my way to rescue the poor chicken. I hesitated. Could I just pick the thing up or would it peck me in defense? If it did peck me, would it hurt? Like, could it actually draw blood? If I did manage to grasp it without issue, what then? Should we bring it home?
I decided such hesitancy wasn’t very compassionate of me and took the risk. I grabbed a cloth shopping back from our scooter and snatched the thing up like I was robbing a hen house in the middle of the night. It made no attempt to defend itself. In fact, it went stone still in surrender. I finagled my way, hands-free, onto the scooter, maintaining a firm grasp on the chicken. Reid drove all three of us (plus three big bags of groceries) all the way up the winding road home. Phew.
We released the chicken into the yard of the house we were staying at. It maintained its stoic stance, though its eyes reflected veritable alarm. We were concerned it was traumatized. Perhaps giving it a name would break the ice. Very unceremoniously, we decided on Coco, pronounced Cho-cho in keeping with Indonesian phonetics.
Coco stood in that same position for hours. I scooped out a handful of nastiness from our organic waste bin and slopped it into a bowl and mixed in some leftover brown rice. A fine feast for a chicken. What a change in events the day had bestowed upon Coco. Instead of going to slaughter (God only knows how awful and inhumane that is), Coco was now in an island palace with full access to the abundant shade of tropical flora, good eats, and compassionate human company. Yet there it stood, unaware, uncertain, unmoving.
Reid babbled out a few soft aphorisms of comfort, but alas, Coco remained still. We left it alone for a while. It, by the way, is a deliberately chosen referent because, at the time, we didn’t know Coco’s sex. Days would go by before we’d discover it in a most disturbing way.
Coco eventually found itself a spot around the side of the house, tucked away in a corner, deep in the brush of a plant, with thick, dense, waxy leaves. We moved its food and water into the sanctuary but it remained untouched. Our landlord accepted our concern, somewhat amused, and fetched us some proper chicken feed. I couldn’t imagine why Coco would choose smelly petrified pellets over a robust porridge of leftover organics, but even chickens are culturally conditioned to their coop I suppose. French chickens may not accept such culinary disgrace, I don’t know.
Coco binged. If chickens had the physical coordination and cognitive prowess of intent, Coco might have picked up a spoon and shovelled the stuff into her beak. She bobbed for water, over and over and over. I was curious––how much water does a chicken need each day to meet health requirements? I looked it up. One litre is the average for warm-weather chickens, which Coco certainly was. Imagine how many bobs a chicken must perform in a day to consume an entire litre of water. They can’t get much more than a mere drop from each dip in. It’s no wonder they walk around jerking their heads all day; learned behaviour becomes unconscious, instinctive, we might say neurotic movement.
We celebrated Coco’s return to expected, unconcerning chicken behaviour with photos and videos. We watched it flounce around the yard, surveying the land. We still needed to find this chicken a home that wasn’t going to kill it but would instead graciously offer it tender loving care. But there was no rush. It was kind of nice having a pet and some different energy around the house.
Later that evening as I stood in the kitchen cooking dinner, I looked up to see that Coco had entered the kitchen. Hmmm. It was finally indulging its chosen freedom, but I didn’t want it in the kitchen! We ushered Coco outside and saw small deposits of shit on the grass. I had a flashback to the farm I’d lived at for a few months, several years ago. Allow me the indulgence to digress for a moment…
Chickens are filthy, some might say vile creatures. On that farm, which was in Normandy, France and owned by a lovely British family, were something like 8 or 9 chickens. One of my tasks while staying there was to deliver them the contents of the “slop bucket” – a collection of all the leftover food from the day. It even included leftover chicken meat. Those chickens would see me coming with the big white bucket, and in a flurry of activity and clucking, they’d all gather round their trough, and I’d literally trip my way through them. Just as I’d start to pour the foul stew into their trough, they’d start bobbing for it, some of them directly under the chunky stream so that it drenched their heads and momentarily blinded them. Those ones shook their heads, stunned and confused. But nonetheless they carried on, mere seconds later, bobbing for slop, oblivious to the fact that their heads were coated in it.
So yes, filthy is a good way to describe chickens, so is dim. Maybe a pet chicken wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had.
We sat down outside to eat dinner and Coco appeared at our feet. Evidently, it wanted to be near us. That was fine so we let it be. Although we’d established a rule that it could not be in the house, the front terrace was skirting the boundaries, but okay.
At one point during the meal though, Coco found its way up to Reid’s lap, which was sweet but not really okay with him. He gently placed it back on the ground, washed his hands, and returned to the table. And then it happened again, so this time he returned it to the grass just a few feet away from us. But Coco found its way back to the table.
We abandoned our dinner momentarily to establish some new ground rules for Coco, and that’s when we noticed blood. Spots of blood on the shiny white tiles, bloodied prints of a chicken’s foot. Blood on Coco. Where was the blood coming from? Was it hurt? It wasn’t acting hurt, other than seeking Reid’s affection. And that’s when I realized that one can interpret affectionate behaviour as something a tad more animalistic. The blood was coming from underneath Coco, from that private space all female beings have. Coco was having her period. That blood all over the terrace was chicken menstrual blood. Bothered in a strangely unfamiliar way, I passed on eating the rest of my dinner.
I scooped Coco up and put her (correct pronouns now in effect) back on the grass, cleaned up the blood, and asked Google about the chicken menstrual cycle. Now, I don’t know if this is accurate or not, but according to a couple of sources, female chickens menstruate every day at certain times of the year, poor things (I wonder if they also get cramps, bloating, food cravings, and the desire to injure lemons, laptops, or members of their family?). It was high time to find Coco a home. As many times as we placed Coco back on the grass, the redirection didn’t stick. Neither my child behaviour management nor my dog training strategies worked. According to her lusty hormones, Reid’s lap was the place to be.
Finally, we turned off all the outdoor lights and closed up the doors––a blatant exclusion. The next morning, Coco was back in her garden refuge, where she stayed for the day. But at sundown, Coco’s eager side appeared again, and she was back up on the terrace, clucking around Reid’s ankles, attempting to find his lap again. It’s fair and some might say reasonable to feel bothered that my boyfriend was being regularly propositioned by a member of the poultry family. I’m sure if there was a billy goat around with a giant erection, Reid would feel equally disturbed. We engaged the lights-door trick again and Coco returned to her place.
The next day, we found Coco a home. A sweet local woman down the road who already had a few chickens roaming around her backyard took her in with the promise that she would not kill, cook, eat, or sell Coco. This was decided in spite of a major language barrier, but the few subsequent visits we made showed that they were honouring their promise. I won’t think about any possible change in events since we left the island.
Coco had joined the other chickens in her dusty new home without issue, but she’d lost her whole family, and who really knows what that does to a chicken. I can only imagine that as a sentient being, she must have experienced some form of grief. Perhaps that’s what her multi-day recluse had been when we’d brought her home. Maybe it had nothing to do with being fed the wrong food or dropping from a truck into the middle of the road. Perhaps it was the shock that sometimes follows a sudden, tragic change in life circumstances.
To avoid ending on such a dire note, I’ll share one detail that I left out of the story. That morning, Reid had proposed that we intentionally look for an opportunity to help someone that day. I guess that someone was Coco.
Note: In keeping with our regular writing accountability, my friend Maria posted her funny story on Medium. Check it out here.