There is no nice way to say this. Tonight, after dinner, Hank and I took Maddy on a walk. When we returned home, I went straight away out to the back porch to check on the chicks. For some reason Hank was right there with me. I saw, but he gave voice to it: Cassie, the dog from next door, was in the chicken yard. Without even needing to look, I knew.
Cassie has been Maddy's friend since we brought her home. The people who lived here before us had a dog, Roosevelt. When we looked at the house we overheard them in conversation with Cassie's owners arranging a playdate for Cassie and Roosevelt. Although we were dog-less for the first year or so we lived here, once we adopted Maddy and she grew big enough to play with Cassie, the two of them enjoyed long adventures in our yard. Because our yard was fenced and theirs was not, ours was the natural situs for their romps.
Over the years, things shifted a little. A boyfriend moved in next door and he had the idea that Cassie should be allowed to roam free. I don't like to be uncharitable, but I think it was at least part laziness. Their yard, as I've said, is unfenced and letting her out to relieve herself meant putting her on a leash and going out with her. Not the most pleasant task, but it was their choice--either do it, or fence their yard. They made a third choice, which resulted in Cassie ranging through our front yard, the yard of the next house over and who knows where else. It always bothered us. We often saw her in the street and our neighbors on the other side complained to us about the poo she left in their yard. A couple weeks ago I stepped in what was clearly her poo as I picked peas. My shoes are still on the front stoop. But we were reluctant to say anything to the neighbors. They're not bad people. Their daughter was a reliable babysitter for Max when we first moved in. They have tended our cat when we left town, we've tended theirs.
But tonight. This is not easy to write. Cassie had managed to squeeze in through a gate we thought was secure (and certainly dog-proof) and hopped the low fence into the chicks' yard. When we found her she was still there, wagging at us excitedly. The chicks were...well, gone. I saw Hattie right off. Not sure whether the rest might be all right, I grabbed at Cassie and forcibly moved her out. Hank helped and she bit him in the process. But it was all pointless. She had already managed to catch and kill them all. The flies had already begun their work.
I'm not sure I can describe what happened next. From within me came a noise. The neighbor was on her deck having, ironically, what appeared to be a "hen party"--all women. The noise I made finally caught their attention. It probably helped that in my state of blind rage, grief and shock, I made my way into their yard. One of the guests was a woman who, a few days ago, had been over and brought her little daughter to meet the chicks. "B____, I need you to come over here and see this," I ordered, after imparting the basic news. "I need you to see this." They filed in, B and all her hen-friends. I could hear Hank, who had warned me not to look (to no avail), filling B in on the negative judgment the neighbors had harbored about their irresponsible dog ownership. About the shit we stepped in. About...
I went inside. Max was sitting at the dining room table, doing something on his computer. I will always regret that he learned of this through my uncontrolled wails but, as Hank says, "your mama's a human being, lucky you."
My wonderful husband, hand bleeding from the dog bite, dug them a grave in the part of the yard we call the "way-low" (because (surprise) it is all the way at the back and much lower than the rest of the yard). Hank has a long and venerable history of disposing of corpses, from roaches to possums to family pets. When our other neighbors' cat was killed on the street in front of our house and they were overwhelmed with grief, he helped them dig a grave and gently transported their cat from the street to its resting place for them. This is one of many reasons why I love him beyond all measure. Tonight, he scooped up each of the girls in turn until they were all collected in a peaceful heap on the shovel. Then, as I wailed, doubled over by their graveside, he slid them gently into the ground and covered them with soil.
I am not religious. My relationship with the idea of God is too complicated to explore here. But there are moments when, like the child I once was in the pews of the Methodist church up the street, I hedge my bets and talk to God. This was one of them. As I told Max later, whatever sweet little chicken-souls our girls had are resting peacefully somewhere. I know that to a certainty.
There have been buckets of tears cried in our house tonight by all three of us. I know that I bear some responsibility for what happened because it was my job to keep them safe and I failed to recognize a flaw in our protection system. That is hard to bear and I will think long and hard about the kind of fortress I need to build if I ever muster the courage to do this again. But the hardest to bear is the fact that these irrepressible, idiosyncratic personalities (for example: earlier tonight, as I worked to get good photographs of Rosie, squatting in the dust, elbows out, Gertie hopped right up on to my arm as if to interject herself into the proceedings) are simply gone from our lives. Just like that.
Max is taking it hard. At bedtime, he could not stand to be alone in his room and I don't blame him. The only thing that gives me any comfort right now is the pure, visceral warmth of having him and Hank near. So we all cuddled together for a while and talked about how vulnerable we feel.
We are indeed vulnerable. Last night there was an earthquake that rattled some from their beds, although we slept through it. Floods threaten many along our rivers this spring. Jobs are lost and gained, health is compromised and restored, friends move away and new ones arrive. We work so hard as humans to protect ourselves from pain, from loss, sometimes to the point of never truly investing in those things that could bring us such bliss because those same things could also inflict the deepest agony. It may take us a little while, but I expect we will invest again, a little wiser, a little heavier of heart, but still and ever hopeful.
In memory of Millie, Hattie, Rosie, Sadie and Gertie.
Thank you to all who have offered condolences and comfort. Sharing our adventures with the girls has only heightened them for us and we deeply appreciate your kind thoughts.