By: Doris Lessing

A Sitting Hen

‘What a scatterbrain, what a feckless girl’—so my mother would say of me to a guest, a visiting policeman, a neighbour coming over about some farm problem. ‘What a harum-scarum!’ Did she believe in the evil eye? No. And the Chinese, who, we are told, may say of their own, ‘This is my worthless wife’, ‘This my useless son’. Are they averting the evil eye? ‘She’s such a flibbertigibbet,’ usually said with a fond little laugh. What could she have meant? But the real question came much later, for if you are thirteen, fourteen, what she says has to be taken as true. This knot of wants, needs, angers, attitudes, a confusion of emotions, amounts to being a scatterbrain, the feckless child? Later you had to ask, how could she have used those words on this over-serious, critical bookworm of a girl? A mystery.

Was it in order to cure my flightiness that she said I must look after the sitting hen ‘from start to finish’? Was she curing me of irresponsibility? But I was already bound to the hen, kneeling in front of her cage, an hour, two, most passionately identifying with this incarcerated one, who was as united with those eggs as if tied to them, peering out from the bars as the long hours, and days, went by on our farm in the old Southern Rhodesia.

Before my mother had made the hen my charge, I was gathering up her eggs. A hen, doing what her nature suggests, lays eggs under a bush, returning to add another, and another, but it is unlikely that an unguarded egg could survive more than a day or so. Wild cats, porcupines, hawks, rats, the watchful little mammals of the bush, would see the egg, and eat it on the spot, leaving a telltale smear of yolk, or roll it away to their own nests. If you wanted a hen to sit on a reasonable number of eggs you had to hunt about in the bush, find where she had hidden them, keep them safe, and then, when there were enough, show them to the hen. She might or might not be broody. A sly trick, that, to feed a spoonful of sweet sherry to the hen, who then nearly always went broody, her cluck changing to the deep maternal clucks and calls appropriate to a matron wondering what had happened to those eggs she had left, she thought, in a good place. And here they were, all together, brown and white and fawn-coloured, some at least hers. This hen was a Rhode Island, the big heavy hen that can brood sixteen, seventeen eggs, really big eggs, not the ‘large’ eggs of the supermarket, which are only half their size. A slender white Leghorn, the other kind of hen pecking about over the hill, could sit on only twelve eggs.

These eggs were bound to hatch. A device a long way from the expertise of laboratory, was a sheet of cardboard, and in it were various sizes of cut-out egg shapes. The deep dish of eggs in their nest of straw stood waiting, and, too, the cardboard, and a candle. Each egg was fitted into the relevant size of hole and the contraption held up to the candle. And there could be seen the tiny knot in the fluid emptiness of the egg that meant fertility; from that little blot of blood there would be a chick. The hen approved our makeshift device, for at first she did not refuse any egg, but clucked, trod into the nest, and settled, her wings curving in and close.

But she was not in the bush under a shrub or a fallen tree trunk, where she would last five minutes. She was behind a front of wire netting, confined, caged, for her own good and for the good of the eggs.

Once a day I lifted off the wire frontage and she carefully trod out over the eggs, drank from a newly filled tin, ate a little, not much, stood tall and flapped her wings, and then—and I waited for this—she took a run, flapping her poor probably stiff and aching wings, and ran a few yards as if about to take off into the air, but no, she was a hen and earthbound. She pecked about a little, drank some more and then, after perhaps half an hour, trod carefully back into her nest. Was she thinking, Oh, please don’t put back that wire? But I did, and in the evening, before the light went, I opened the wire again, but often she did not want to go out. She had sat there unmoving all day, through the heat or the cold, dozing a little, but always on the lookout.

The packing case was set deliberately where people passed all day, going from house to storeroom. Probably she would have preferred some dark hidden place, but there she would be too much of a temptation. We saw rats lurking, saw a hawk’s shadow flicker on the earth, and the bird peering down to see the hen. She would be a match for a rat, but the danger was the snakes. They could slither through the mesh of the wire and there was nothing she could do. In the corner of the packing case was a tin of water. The hen could not be expected to sit thirsty all day and all night, but there was a danger that a snake would come up for the water. When we thought of putting out a lure for the snakes, a dish of water some yards away, we were warned by the servants that this water would bring snakes up from the bush. Better rely on the dogs, which roamed free at night. Lying in our beds we would hear barking, and think, Is that a snake? I might go out to peer through dark or moonlight and fancy I saw a snake sneaking away.

Every day when the hen was out for her half-hour’s exercise, I flicked tepid water on to the eggs ‘to soften the shells and help them hatch’. All the farmers’ wives did this. I remember wondering, If the hen had managed to keep her eggs safe under the bush, would those eggs hatch less easily than ours, which were in blood-hot water every day? The hen did not seem to mind the eggs being a bit wet. But at some point in the sitting she deliberately rolled an egg, and then another, from the mass of eggs under her. I put them back, anguished that they would not have a chance to hatch, but she rolled the same eggs away from her warmth. And now it was my job to lift away those condemned eggs and throw them into the bush. They were addled and the hen knew it. They plopped on to a rock, the earth, a tree trunk, with a hollow sound I did not hear again until a long while later when I stood in the Tottenham Court Road and saw a young man come sailing over the handlebars of his great motorcycle, and his head crashed down on to the pavement yards away. The sound as his helmet hit the pavement was the same implosion as that of the addled eggs, in the bush.

Twenty-one days it takes to hatch eggs, twenty-one nights, and there sits the great fierce hen who had accepted me as protector and jailer for that time. Sometimes she pecked me a little as I slid my hand under to feel if the eggs were there, and marvel at the scorch of that brooding warmth. My wrists and hands had her beak marks, but she seemed to know that I meant her well.

Time must pass so slowly for a sitting hen. Does it run a little faster as the three weeks near their end?

Three or four days before the end, holding an egg that was so heavy and portentous to my ear, I imagined I heard the peck-peck of achievement. The egg seemed to pulse, to announce itself. The hen watched me listen to her eggs and pecked me as I slid them back under her. Only three days now, only two... The hen seemed to know her eggs were due to hatch. With her beak she moved them around her great feet that never trod down on egg or chick. Eggs must be moved about or otherwise the chicks might be born lop-sided. So we thought, but did she?

One more day. And I hardly moved from my position crouched before her nest. And at last, when I held an egg to my ear, I heard the faint peck-peck of the chick inside. On the smooth surface of the egg appeared a minute dusting of shell. That is where would appear first a hole and then the beak of the chick that would have on it the tough integument that enabled the beak to tackle the thick shell, peck-peck. The hen didn’t like me lifting out an egg now. She watched me, her eyes full of warnings.

Everyone seemed to be aware and waiting, watching. The dogs sat at a small distance. The servants made excuses to pass close. Then, I lifted the hen slightly, and from under her came the many sounds of the pecking, hatching chicks. At last, when I lifted her, there were eggs that were still whole, and a mass of broken shells, and the first chick, the little dinosaur, so ugly with its great feet, slimy from the birth. Soon, all around the hen were the tiny heads of the chicks, fluffy and yellow, fit to be on postcards and calendars.

The hen sat on until the last egg hatched, then I lifted off the wire, and she stood up, giving the throaty croodling call of the hen with chicks. She stepped out, the chicks with her. One egg remained. It had not hatched. For some reason that chick had died under her. But now, scratching and drinking and showing the chicks what they had to learn, she trod about among them, drinking from the water tins, trying a little grain and scratching it towards them. We watched, the dogs watched that proud hen and her chicks, and we knew how the predators bided their time in the bush.

The hawks were up there too, watching.

The hen wandered over the hill with her chicks, who every day were fewer. At night the hen retreated to her packing case and seemed not to mind being shut in.

Soon those minute chicks became gawky and leggy and they could run fast as a hawk’s shadow dipped towards them over the earth. And then they were cockerels and pullets, and another hen sat in the packing case behind the barrier of wire.

Some people had incubators, but a really good one was an expensive item.
The Incubator

And so here I was, alone in the house on the kopje, alone on the farm, and Mr Watkin’s Studebaker had just taken my father and mother off down the hill to Salisbury and the big hospital. My father was ill again with a crisis in his diabetes. Doctors were not then as skilled as they are today with diabetes, and the crises that kept occurring would not happen now. All that year I was at home my mother would appear, white and trembling: ‘Your father is very ill again.’ I used to drive them the seventy miles in, an hour or less in the fast, good cars of our neighbours, but in our rattling Overland, and on those roads, it might take four or five hours, with my father half dying on the back seat and my mother’s, ‘Drive more slowly,’ ‘Stop a minute. He must rest.’ Those were nightmare journeys, and how relieved I was not to have to do it.

The reason was an incubator full of eggs three or four days off hatching, and my mother’s, ‘You’ll have to stay. We can’t afford to lose all those eggs.’ That dreadful ‘We can’t afford it’ of the impoverished middle classes, with behind it an indictment of the bitter unfairness of the world, had always fallen on my ears like an accusation. I did not know how it could be my fault unless it was my very existence, but I dreaded the refrain. As I did the next: ‘We can’t expect Isaac to do it. They aren’t responsible enough.’

Isaac was the cookboy (they were all ‘boys’, even when they were old), and even if he wasn’t ‘up to it’, then who could blame him? I was afraid I wasn’t ‘up to it’ myself. The incubator had probably been knocked together by a local carpenter. It was a large box that had some random holes drilled in the sides. In it were tiers of eggs, eight dozen, on egg racks borrowed from the store at the station. Each egg had been laid by our hens, and each had been tested, held against a light so you could see if it was fertile. The contraption was warmed by a small lamp, and it had a tiny shade and above that, at a height of a few inches, a metal cap that directed hot air through a funnel into the box of eggs. The flame was minute. ‘We don’t want roasted eggs,’ jested my mother, nervously enough since my father, always afraid of fire under that shambling thatched roof, said the thing was a fire hazard. The flame had to be no more than a glimmer, or the metal cap would be too hot. The incubator was constantly monitored, and at night my mother would creep from her bedroom through mine, and check the flame, which must never go out.

When this do-it-yourself box would eventually give up its ninety-six chickens, they would be mostly dispatched in boxes across the veld to neighbours who had already booked half a dozen or a dozen day-old chicks.

I would be alone for at least two nights, perhaps three.

It would be easy for me now to make a real drama out of the situation, particularly as the Liberation War and its brutalities, and Mugabe and his excesses, have intervened. ‘A white girl of seventeen all alone and the neighbours miles away, surrounded by blacks...’ First, when I say ‘alone’ this is to ignore the labourers who would be in the compound half a mile away, and who would certainly come rushing over if the thatch did decide to go up in flames. About the lunacies of what was then called the colour bar I feel inadequate to comment, particularly as a kind of moral exhaustion sets in even to think about it. Whole books could be written about the ironies, the contradictions. Recently I read that in the southern states of America, when they were trying to integrate the schools, because the whites did not mind standing up with the blacks, only sitting down with them, the desks were taken out of the classrooms and the children, black and white, had to stand up to study. This tale could be paralleled with a hundred about the colour bar of southern Africa.

In the short hundred years’ history of Southern Rhodesia, from occupation to liberation, there was one rape case, black on white. During the two world wars women stayed alone on the farms while their men went off to fight, perhaps with a farm manager (black) to help them, and there is no record of anything untoward. It did not cross my mind to be afraid ‘alone’ in that house. I used to wander around and through the bush by myself and had for years. My mother began by moaning that I was inviting rape, but that was no more than routine rhetoric, of the kind the colour bar invited. ‘Then, don’t go far from the house,’ she ordered. Once, miles from home with my gun, I was spotted on a bush track when the old car appeared. My mother, seeing me, waved and said, ‘Oh, there you are. Oh, good, you shot us a guinea fowl, I see. Let’s hope it’s not too tough to cook for supper.’

The servant, the cookboy, had been instructed ‘to look after the little missus’. More rhetoric. He would make meals for me, feed the dogs and cats as usual, and, though told to bring up his blankets to our kitchen and sleep there, I knew from his averted eyes and the stubborn set of his shoulders that he would do no such thing. Besides, the scornful logical mind of the adolescent was silently commenting, ‘If in fact I was assaulted, it surely would be Isaac who would be accused?’ He knew I would not expect him to sleep in the kitchen, and I was determined not to ask him as otherwise he would lie, and then that would be my fault.

The real difficulty of the business, watching the tiny flame which was the safeguard of the future of the chicks, was the cold and the wind.

On the high veld it was cold at night. Six thousand feet. It doesn’t sound much, but the rule was, hot and even burning days, with a clear blue sky, and then mild or cold at night under brilliant stars. This was winter. It was cold and the wind was sharp. The house, built to last four years, was now thirteen years old (and would last a good few years yet until a veld fire did in the end destroy it). It was built of pole and dagga, mud slapped on poles, which had dried, and cracked and shrunk off the door and window frames. The thatch was thin in places, particularly where birds had flown off with some of it in their beaks for nests. Wind poured through that house, shook it, tugged at the thatch and rattled the frames. In hot weather it was a house of cool breezes, but at this time of year it could be unbearable. Only in bed under a heap of blankets was I warm. It was freezing—but really. A little film of ice stood on the dogs’ water bowls. I have never been as cold as I was that winter, and particularly during those days I was in that old house waiting for my parents to return.

I could have lit the charcoal stove in the sitting room, but the thing scared me. My father said, ‘A dog could knock it over and the whole house could go up.’ True. The dogs were cold. They went into the kitchen and lay as close to the stove as they could. The cats were there too.

The day my parents left was not too bad. Wrapped in sweaters and blankets, I lay face down on my bed, reading, and occasionally going to check the glimmering flame. There, if you quickly lifted the lid, stood the tremendous battery of eggs, white through fawn to dark brown.

In due course the dazzling white eggs would give forth the White Leghorns, and the big brown ones the Rhode Island Reds and the Australorps, and the creamy and fawn ones, some speckled breed whose name I can’t recall.

When I read remarks to the effect that you cannot hoodwink the populace, ‘truth will out’ and so forth, I remember that some authority in Britain simply abolished white eggs. A survey said that people preferred brown eggs to white, and behold, soon there were no more white eggs, unless you wanted to go to some gourmet shop. That old treat, the stark white egg, coupled with the dark brown egg, side by side on the plate—gone. If you ask some youngster they will say, ‘No, of course eggs are never white. There never were white eggs.’ So easy is it to brush out of memory a fact that someone in power has decided is uneconomic.

As the day went on it was colder, and when I had had my supper and Isaac had gone I did not ask where, I longed to go to bed to get warm. The wind was hissing and buffeting and occasionally even shrieking. My mother rang from Salisbury to ask if I was all right, and say she would bring my father back tomorrow if certain tests had been done. ‘What would she do if I said, No, I am not all right?’ commented that cold observer.

The incubator stood on a table in the end room of the house close to the door to my bedroom and my bed, which was right against the door. Leaning up on my elbow I could peer in at the incubator and the tiny flame. The oil, a small spoonful, lasted twenty hours before it had to be refilled. I woke in the dark and switched on the torch; there was nothing wrong. I listened to the wind and knew that any random gust could blow that flame out. And so we all got through the night. Breakfast. The dogs and cats would not leave the warm kitchen. I could not go off into the bush, with or without a gun. I could not leave those eggs. Very well then, I went on reading.

Oh, it was cold, so cold.

Isaac brought me morning tea as usual. I saw him through the kitchen door, sitting as close to the stove as he could, a tumble of dogs and cats all around his feet. He had his blankets around him. When I called him to replace the paraffin, he came with a blanket around his shoulders. I let my hand move gently among the top tier of eggs, and then I sprinkled them with tepid water, and wished the incubator were the old hen, with her warm feathers.

If I were a hen I would be turning the eggs with my big feet, so that each would have equal access to my warmth. But here the air was supposed to move gently around and about the eggs. I leaned to stare and stare, thinking of what was in those eggs. Three or four days off, the hatching. Nothing very pretty, the coiled-up chick with its great feet and its blind eyes, just there, just inside the shell. If there were any dud eggs in that mass, we would not know until the end.

My mother rang to say no, they would not be back that day, but probably tomorrow. ‘He’s very ill,’ she insisted. I didn’t doubt it. I wandered through the freezing house, and looked at the equipment for my father’s illness, the syringes, the test strips, the burner for the test tubes which though small was much larger than the one that fed warm air into the eggs. This was the apparatus that enabled my father to stay alive. Three or four times a day he stood holding the yellow urine in its test tube over the flame, to check for blood sugar, and another test tube with urine that had added to it a different chemical, checking for something called acetone. The urine bubbled up sea-blue, a very pretty colour, or turned gungy yellow, oh bad, very bad indeed—how familiar I was with these things; so was my mother, who at night as in the day monitored it all.

How I did wish she was there on that second night, in her nightgown with a candle in her hand, creeping past my bed to check on that glimmer of flame.

It is strange that one may be much colder in countries known for their heat than ever in a really cold country, which knows how to make fires and central heating.

What use was a hot-water bottle that was cold and clammy by midnight?

Perhaps a nice friendly cat would come and lie on my bed and keep me warm, but no, they weren’t going to leave the kitchen.

I knew Isaac was in his hut in the compound, lying near one of the big logs that always burned in there. If he stayed in our kitchen the stove would go out by midnight and the whole kitchen would chill. Perhaps then those ungrateful cats would come and...

A howl of wind woke me and I leaped into the next room to see that the light was out. I fumbled for matches, could not get one to light, because of the draughts, but finally relit the flame. How long had I been unconscious there while the eggs cooled? I felt them; they were not cold but were definitely chilling. What was I to do? I lifted off the top of the box and folded over the eggs an old eiderdown, to keep whatever warmth there was in it. I spent the rest of that night wrapped in another eiderdown, sitting near the box, with my eyes on the flame. If they closed, I did not know it, but the flame was there in the morning. I took the eiderdown off the eggs and waited for a call from my mother. It was too much for me, this task. I had let the flame go out. Probably the whole mass of eggs was already dead, dead chicks inside their shells. It was all my fault. And I could hardly keep awake, it was so cold.

I did not tell Isaac what I had done. He was unreliable, was he? What a joke. I had probably ruined the ninety-six eggs and we could not afford it.

The selling of day-old chicks was not a big enterprise, but one of the many my mother tried so as to earn a little cash. A lot of care had gone into gathering those eggs. Meanwhile, out in the pens a hen that showed signs of going broody had been dosed, just a little, with the warmed sherry, and while she clucked and brooded the dummy eggs meant to keep her in the mood, perhaps the eggs that we planned to be her progeny were already dead.

Isaac made me tea, told me I should eat. He fed the dogs and cats and went off to the compound. I saw him go. I would have liked him to stay. I wanted my parents back, even if I was going to have to confess that my mother was right, that yes, I was irresponsible, feckless and unreliable.

How would she tell the neighbours the dramatic news that she had left a seventeen-year-old girl for several nights? She wouldn’t. I was known among the neighbours as the clever Tayler girl who was a bit odd, wandering about through the bush with a gun, like a boy.

My mother would simply forget to mention my being left alone. She rang to say they would come back the next day. She had run into Mr MacFadyen in the hotel and he would bring them back.

I don’t think I slept the third night. I certainly wasn’t in bed. I sat on the floor, wrapped in everything warm I could find, my eyes on the flame. The wind rushed through the house but this time did not extinguish the flame. And next afternoon my parents turned up. I had decided not to tell my mother about letting the flame go out, but in the event I could not help myself. ‘You should never tell lies.’

But she did not seem to take it in. ‘He nearly died,’ she said. ‘He seems all right now, though.’ And off she went to her main charge, my father.

And in three or so days the eggs cracked open everywhere in the tower of eggs, and little chicks flopped about looking hideous, but instantly drying into exquisite chickness. They drank water eagerly before they were sent, in warmly wrapped boxes, across the veld to the neighbours. The broody hen accepted her twenty-four foundlings and behaved as if she had hatched them herself.

Through all this hustle and bustle I waited for my mother to say something about my letting the flame go out. She did not. The line between her eyes was drawn deep and sorrowful, and she kept saying that life was so difficult. She had forgotten my delinquency? I could not. The moment that I had seen the tiny black crater of the lamp, lightless, kept coming back to me.

Then Mr Watkins came around and we were back with, ‘My flighty daughter’, ‘What a pity she’s so scatty’, ‘I sometimes think I’ve given birth to a real frivol.’ But this did not seem to refer to my letting the flame go out.

My father listened to all this and chose his time.

‘Your mother says you were all alone here. How long? I don’t think I was taking in much, wasn’t feeling too good.’

‘Three days and three nights.’

I wasn’t going to get Isaac into trouble. ‘You see, it was so cold. Of course he wanted to be in a nice warm hut, with a fire, instead of our kitchen. That stove is cold long before morning.’

This was an argument I could not conceivably put to my mother, but my father said at once, ‘Makes sense, yes. Yes. Your mother had better not know. And I don’t really see what Isaac could have done to help.’


‘You did pretty well, I think. Well done.’

And now a bit of a pause.

‘You know, your mother does rely on you. She does let things get on top of her, I know that.’


And then, ‘Did I ever tell you about when I was in Norwich that winter and it was so cold? The weather was coming straight down the North Sea. Then it began to snow and...’

Back to normal, then.

Soon I went off to start my life as an adult person, leaving the farm for ever behind. But how often in that year I was on the farm did I sit, head in my hands, staring into the dark that so adequately reflected my incomprehension, my bafflement—that pose surely most characteristic of the adolescent. ‘What on earth does she mean? Why? But they are all mad, barmy, loco, gone. It’s all mad, isn’t it? What else can you call it?’

What a pity that into that dark hadn’t come a thought from the future, years ahead, when all of a sudden I understood it all.

My mother, whose mother died when she was three, leaving her with a cold authoritarian father, didn’t get many cuddles and compliments when she was growing up. She worked hard to please her ambitious father, and came first in everything. Then, defying him, she became a nurse, which he said was not for middle-class girls, and he said, ‘Then you are no longer my daughter,’ and she went through the four years of training with no help from him. The pay for nurses was minuscule, and she was often hungry, she said, could not afford to buy a pocket handkerchief, or good soap. She did brilliantly in the exams, and he longed to forgive, but she could not forgive him. She nursed the wounded of the First World War.

Only late in my life, listening to tones in her voice I had not really ‘heard’ before, I realized how much the war years had cost her. Then she married my wounded father and found herself, delightfully, in Persia (now Iran), living a life she was born for. She was social and gregarious, all picnics and musical evenings and parties, part of ‘the legation set’, enjoying every minute, while my misanthropic father told her she was frivolous. And then, that was over and she was on a farm in the middle of Africa, with a husband with one leg, who had suffered a bad breakdown, ‘shell-shock’, and who soon got diabetes. Hard work all the way, every day, particularly when my father became ill, and more ill, and then very ill. ‘Lucky we don’t know when we are young what’s going to happen to us.’ She often reminisced about ‘the best time of my life’—Persia—and told how, at a fancy-dress party, she was dressed as a cockney flower girl, and a young subaltern said to her, ‘Why, Mrs Tayler, I didn’t recognize you. You look so pretty.’ This was told again and again, and the tears came rolling down her cheeks. As for me, the cold, heartless, scornful teenager, I heard this for the twentieth time and inwardly mocked. ‘She actually cares that some snotty little soldier said she was pretty.’ And late, very late in my life, I understood who the flighty and feckless imaginary girl was. It was herself, projected on to me, in an extension of her fantasies. She had never in her hard life been allowed to be flighty and feckless, was never anything but responsible and sober. (Except for those five years in Persia.) She had certainly not been pretty. Her coldly religious stepmother would not have tolerated that.

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