I had hoped I would be writing about Ethel's miraculous recovery. Instead, I am writing her obituary.
Ethel was a chicken who lived in our back garden for five years, one of the original seven chicks I received from my husband as a gift for our 25th wedding anniversary.
I found her lying on her side motionless one morning as I unlatched the hens' roost. I'd seen that unnatural position before, and I ran back into the house, crying, to summon my husband.
Whether laying an egg or scratching for bugs, Ethel went about her daily chores in high spirits.
She was a white Silkie, an exotic poultry breed that, I swear, was the inspiration for Sesame Street's Big Bird character. Although Big Bird is huge, Ethel was tiny: A puff of white feathers with a silly-looking topknot and smoky blue skin around her amber eyes.
She weighed no more than a puff, either. But she had a raucous cackle that belied her diminutive frame. When she had the notion, she could carry on as loudly as the biggest chicken in the flock.
I never did figure out what set her off. She might start if she laid an egg, proclaiming her accomplishment. She might join in a coop mate's cackle, only more loudly and unremittingly. Maybe she spied an interloper lurking around her stockade. I think a lot of times she was bored and decided to energize the flock – and the rest of the drowsy neighborhood – with the chicken version of a belly laugh.
Ethel didn't have to do anything but stand there to bring a smile to your face. Her wings were foreshortened, she had no tail feathers. She was a white, downy powder puff with a headdress.
Sometimes she would burst out of the foliage, where she had been quietly scratching for bugs, cackling dementedly and bobbing from side to side as she ran on her stubby legs. She had not been startled by a cat; merely expressing a burst of exuberance.
When I returned to the roost with a worn, pink-flowered pillowcase to use as a shroud, I noticed a breeze ruffling Ethel's delicate feathers. She lay as I first found her, on her side, with one leg stretched stiffly. But then I saw a tremor in that leg, and I poked my head into the roost, calling her name. An eyelid quivered. Ethel was alive, but barely.
I reached into the coop to pick her up, striping my arms with tears on the sharp wire. Wrapping her in the soft cloth, I ran to the car and sped to a veterinarian who treats exotic birds. I have turned to him with previous avian emergencies, and all the way down Garland Road, I urged Ethel, swaddled against my chest, pus draining from her beak, to hang on.
Ethel had an infection in her crop, he said. She was very, very sick, he warned me, as he put her in an incubator and started antibiotics and fluids. She survived the day but was too weak to take food. She survived the night and, by morning, was trying to stand up. The vet said he hoped by noon she would be strong enough to take a bit of liquid nourishment.
An hour later, he called to say Ethel was dead.
Burying Ethel in a back corner of the garden fell to my husband, who always draws the tough, unpleasant or sad jobs. Her tiny grave joins too many others in that corner, behind spring- blooming shrubs and a weeping cedar.
It's a garden of stones, with engraved squares of granite for the dogs and cats, a cast-stone hedgehog, a rock from the ocean for a fish and a vintage clay chicken, its garish paint washed away to white, like a ghost.
Like silly, sweet Ethel.
I have received many, many emails of condolence from this column.
I see a flash of white feathers in my garden and think it is Ethel.