We picked up our first four chooks at the Mullum Co-op last week. Eleven-week old Rhode Island Reds. ‘Good with kids,’ said the breeder as he helped Obi pick them out. After a short appraisal she gave each proffered bird the thumbs up or down, based on some innate chicken-selecting criteria. She talked softly to them all the way home and they crooned back nervously from their cardboard box on the back seat.
We had spent the weekend converting the weatherboard cubby in the backyard, complete with pitched roof, skylight and Bangalow palm-shaded verandah. Obi roundly praising our shoddy carpentry: ‘that lovely mama’, and joining in the swearing with gusto as we tried to hang the rhomboid door. (Note to self: find inoffensive expletives for future use).
I spent the first few nights listening for the feral cats and the pythons that live in our roof, hoping the door would hold. By the end of the week I had relaxed and so had the girls. They were no longer sitting on each others’ heads in the corner, but strutting and clucking about and allowing us to pick them up, scraggy necks jutting, to Obi’s great delight. She sat amongst them for hours, putting straw on their heads and talking away in a musical monologue, which had a soporific affect on the chickens, sending eyelids and heads drooping, only to be startled awake by a sudden squeal as her story reached its zenith.
All was well in chicken land and we were counting the days until we could let them out to explore the vast green world beyond their safe-house. At dusk every day they would stand at the door, stretching their necks to peer over the top and lunging for flying insects.
Then one night as I was lying on the couch indulging in the double (toddler-free) delight of book and chocolate, I heard something that set off my mother-alarm. ‘Did you hear that?’ I asked T. No reply. He was plugged into the computer, headphones on, feet tapping. I stuck my head out the door. Not a sound. I put on my boots and grabbed the torch. The battery was dead. I went out to the chicken house and peered through the wire. In the moonlight, I could just make out the shape of a lone chicken against the opposite wall. She was crouched down, head low to the ground, eyes open, making a quiet crooning noise in the back of her throat.
Although nothing seemed radically awry, I went up to the house to look for a working torch, to no avail. T shrugged and went back to his music. Undeterred, I took the BBQ lighter back down and opened the door, poking my head into the lurching, shadowy world within and found myself face to face with a huge python, its swaying head no more than 20 centimetres from my face. Hanging from its tightly coiled body, beak ajar, was one of our feathery friends.
‘Shit. Jesus. Oh God’. I reeled backwards and nearly fell off the low verandah, calling out to T who come running out of the house, as did the dog. What ensued was one of those (in hindsight) comic scenes of inept, panicked flapping (us, not the chooks), in which I, in some misguided attempt to get the python to drop the chicken, turned the hose on it, managing to scoop up the three survivors into a milk crate, as they gathered curiously beneath their fallen friend, the dripping snake swooning in the shadows above my head, still firmly holding its prey and I swearing at T, who kept pulling the lighter back through the door to get away from the snake, leaving me lunging into the feathered and scaled darkness, the dog barking all the while.
We then housed the rattled remaining three in their makeshift abode, on a slew of folded newspapers on my sewing table, with a sarong over the top, much to the interest of the dog; put Obi, awoken by the whole kerfuffle, back to sleep, and left the door of the coop ajar for snake and prey to exit, having no desire to witness firsthand the regurgitated remains effected by snakes who bite off more than they can chew (or escape with, in this case).
In the morning there was no sign of the night’s struggle, apart from a few downy red feathers in the straw. Obi was delighted to breakfast with her friends. We spent the next morning nailing gutter guard over the eaves of the chicken house. And I am once more plagued by dreams of enormous snakes falling through the ceiling to devour my sleeping baby.