I have a soft spot for baby chickens.
For you two who have been reading this blog for awhile, you'll remember that last year while working at the Big Farm I brought home two injured chickens - Teeter and Raven.
They not only survived but are still thriving, happy members of my own laying flock.
Then this spring, out of a hatch of 50 eggs at the Big Farm, only two survived. I named them Vim & Vigor, and we were happy to acquire them as new additions to our own laying flock.
Adopting hard-luck peeps seems to be "my thing."
Soon there was another big batch of eggs incubating at the Big Farm. This time the hatch rate was nearly 50%, and 60+ new peeps were calling the Big Farm "home."
Several small and weak chicks died in the first 24 hours. Not so surprising.
And then there was Gimpy.
His left wing was terribly stunted and his left leg didn't move. His right leg was bent at a right angle. He could only move in circles by kicking his right leg and right wing.
We all expected him to die the first day. We even tried taking him out of the brooder (the other chicks were picking on him) but he peeped so loudly it seemed he was more distressed by loneliness than by being picked on.
We tried putting him back in the brooder. Other chicks sat on his head and pecked at his deformed leg.
Another batch of eggs was in the incubator, toasty-warm. So back he went into the incubator, set closely to a water container and several small milk-jug caps full of chick food.
We expected him to die the first night. He didn't.
He seemed to accept his fate of being alone, quietly peeping from the incubator, perhaps telling all of his unhatched cousins in the trays above him about all of the wonderful new things they would soon be experiencing in the big, wide world they were about to be hatched into.
Every so often Papa Bear or I would open the incubator and retrieve him from a back corner where he appeared to be stuck.
Eventually he learned to stay up front near the door, so that whenever we opened it, he would literally fall out onto the towel we had placed below it.
We would take him out and hold him up next to his food and water, which he ate and drank eagerly.
He chattered to us non-stop. He peeped while he ate. He peeped while he rested in our hand. The only time he stopped chattering was when he drank.
We started calling him Cricket, for the chirruping noise he'd make whenever he heard something strange, like the timer alarm on Papa Bear's iPhone.
I don't know what he was trying to tell us with all of that chatter - probably about how lonely and hard his little life was, how unfair it was that he had no use of half of his twisted little body.
But he didn't seem bitter. He seemed... grateful, dare I say, happy? Grateful to have a warm hand holding him, a kind spirit offering him water and food.
We still expected him to die any time. We weren't sure he was getting much nutrition when we weren't hand-feeding him. He was still weak and his limbs were still deformed and useless.
But he didn't die.
Three weeks after Cricket hatched, we started making plans to move him to our new farm after the closing. We could set him up in the same plastic tote that held Teeter during her recovery last summer.
We found a frisbee that we lined with a washcloth. When we laid Cricket on it, he could move around the frisbee in a circle, the only movement he could make. We put his two milk-jug caps of chick food in the frisbee, too. And put all of that into the plastic tote.
On Friday, June 1st, after signing the closing papers on our new little farm,we checked on Cricket in his new tote and made sure his food and water were full. He peeped at us like he always did. We told him we'd be home in a few hours after the market, and that tomorrow was a big day, when we'd all move to our own little farm. Then Papa Bear and I headed into La Crosse for the Friday farmer's market at Cameron Park.
When we got home late Friday night after the market, Cricket wasn't peeping. He had already moved on to his own Big Farm in the sky.
We had been expecting him to die for so long, why was it still such a terribly sad surprise?
Saturday morning we took our first load of items over to our new farm. Several boxes of clothes and garage tools. And a plastic tote holding one tiny lifeless chicken.
We should have felt ecstatic, this brand new beginning in a place longed for for so long.
When we pulled into our new driveway, we didn't rush into our new house. Instead, we took out a shovel and the plastic tote and headed over to our one ancient apple tree in the pasture.
We dug a little hole beside the apple tree and put Cricket in it, then we each said a few words and wished that wherever he was now, he was not in any pain and could jump and hop and fly with strong legs and wings.
A small shovel full of dirt and a few tears later, the tiny hole was once again just a part of the pasture.
One small life, gone. Who would miss it?
Saturday morning we made several trips back and forth from the Big Farm to our Little Farm, moving more of our things. There was peeping in the incubator again - the new batch of chickens had started hatching.
Chickens take 21 days to hatch. Cricket lived 21 days. In my overly-imaginative mind I can only assume he lived that long in order to talk to his cousins while they were growing, to tell them not to be too scared, that the big wide world was bright and loud and sometimes scary, but it was also full of things to explore and good things to eat, and that there were good people waiting for them, people who would take care of them and make sure they lived a good, happy life.
No matter how many or few days that happened to be.