Janey scratched her head. There should have been fifteen hens in the coop, but today there were only twelve. She couldn’t see any signs of struggle: no blood and feathers or broken wire, no tell-tale tufts of fox fur on the fences. Just a passel of spooked chickens, heads bobbing like corks on water. Even Earl seemed satisfied with that, sniffing around the base of the henhouse for fox urine, and keeping a watchful eye on Black Annie in the corner.
Annie shifted in her patch and gave Earl a reproachful cluck, as Janey felt around the chickens for eggs. Annie was the newest addition to the coop, and Earl didn’t trust her just yet. He treated the rest of the hens like his own pups, patrolling the perimeter and barking off a warning whenever he sensed a predator. But Earl was getting old, his eyes were misting over, and Black Annie was almost bigger than he was: an unusually large Black Sumatra, with glistening dark-blue plumage and a tail that spilled from her back like tendrils of slithering tar. You weren’t supposed to keep Sumatras in a coop, but Janey figured chickens was chickens, and Annie didn’t seem too fussed.
The nests were bare, which was no surprise, given the hens were all scared and stressed. A few were losing feathers and one had developed an itchy bald patch. Janey was just about to pick up Black Annie, when Earl started to whine, pawing at the hay in the middle of the coop.
“What you got there, Earl?” she asked, and crouched down alongside.
It was an egg, malformed and stuck with feathers, all alone in the middle of the coop. And yet, as Janey peered closer, she could see it wasn’t an egg at all. It was a tiny skeleton of a chick, the kind you see in a jar of formaldehyde, curled up into an ovoid, with its skull tucked into its bony wing, as if it were sleeping.
“Would you look at that,” said Janey, sucking air through her teeth and scratching Earl on the head. She turned the egg-thing over in her fingers. Then, to get a better look, took it out into the sunlight.
She closed the coop behind her and held the egg-thing up to the light. It was delicate and hollow. And warm. If she hadn’t found it in the coop, she’d have sworn that it was a bone carving, rendered in exquisite detail, of an incubating fertilised egg; its shell, feathers and meat peeled away in the same fluid motion.
Behind her the hens were clucking, and Earl was barking and scuffling about. No doubt he was getting Black Annie riled up, and if not brought into line, he would worry those hens half to death. “Earl!” she called, fumbling with the henhouse latch, and again, “Earl! Heel!” But the barking and clucking kept building until, with a whine and a yelp, it suddenly faded into silence.
Janey burst into the coop, falling on all fours. There was no sign of Earl, and the chickens were scattered along the ground and pecking at the straw. No, not pecking, grovelling: their heads bent low in submission, eyes jerking fearfully up and sideways, then kowtowing back to the ground. All except Black Annie, who remained in her perch, her neck craned up and wings thrust out like an albatross in flight.
Janey looked up at Annie. Annie looked down at Janey. Then Annie stretched her beak, wider and wider until, with a low, gurgling cough, she sicked up the tiny, skeletal bolus of a curled-up, elderly dog.