The Hateful Hen by Bill Nye

Story type: Literature

The following inquiries and replies have been awaiting publication and I shall print them here if the reader has no objections. I do not care to keep correspondents waiting too long for fear they will get tired and fail to write me in the future when they want to know anything. Mr. Earnest Pendergast writes from Puyallup as follows:

“Why do you not try to improve your appearance more? I think you could if you would, and we would all be so glad. You either have a very malicious artist, or else your features must pain you a good deal at times. Why don’t you grow a mustache?”

These remarks, of course, are a little bit personal, Earnest, but still they show your goodness of heart. I fear that you are cursed with the fatal gift of beauty yourself and wish to have others go with you on the downward way. You ask why I do not grow a mustache, and I tell you frankly that it is for the public good that I do not. I used to wear a long, drooping and beautiful mustache, which was well received in society, and, under the quiet stars and opportune circumstances, gave good satisfaction; but at last the hour came when I felt that I must decide between this long, silky mustache and soft-boiled eggs, of which I am passionately fond. I hope that you understand my position, Earnest, and that I am studying the public welfare more than my own at all times.

Sassafras Oleson, of South Deadman, writes to know something of the care of fowls in the spring and summer. “Do you know,” he asks, “anything of the best methods for feeding young orphan chickens? Is there any way to prevent hens from stealing their nests and sitting on inanimate objects? Tell us as tersely as possible what your own experience has been with hens.”

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To speak tersely of the hen and her mission in life seems to me almost sacrilege. It is at least in poor taste. The hen and her works lie near to every true heart. She does much toward making us better, and she doesn’t care who knows it, either. Young chicks who have lost their mothers by death, and whose fathers are of a shiftless and improvident nature, may be fed on kumiss, two parts; moxie, eight parts; distilled water, ten parts. Mix and administer till relief is obtained. Sometimes, however, a guinea hen will provide for the young chicken, and many lives have been saved in this way. Whether or not this plan will influence the voice of the rising hen is a question among henologists of the country which I shall not attempt to answer.

Hens who steal their nests are generally of a secretive nature and are more or less social pariahs. A hen who will do this should be watched at all times and won back by kind words from the step she is about to take. Brute force will accomplish little. Logic also does not avail. You should endeavor to influence her by showing her that it is honorable at all times to lay a good egg, and that as soon as she begins to be secretive and to seek to mislead those who know and love her, she takes a course which can not end with honor to herself or her descendants.

I have made the hen a study for many years, and love to watch her even yet as she resumes her toils on a falling market year after year, or seeks to hatch out a summer hotel by setting on a door knob. She interests and pleases me. Careful study of the hen convinces me that her low, retreating forehead is a true index to her limited reasoning faculties and lack of memory, ideality, imagination, calculation and spirituality. She is also deficient in her enjoyment of humor.

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I once owned a large white draught rooster, who stood about seven hands high, and had feet on him that would readily break down a whole corn-field if he walked through it. Yet he lacked the courage of his convictions, and socially was not a success. Leading hens regarded him as a good-hearted rooster, and seemed to wonder that he did not get on better in a social way. He had a rich baritone voice, and was a good provider, digging up large areas of garden, and giving the hens what was left after he got through, and yet they gave their smiles to far more dissolute though perhaps brighter minds. So I took him away awhile, and let him see something of the world by allowing him to visit among the neighbors, and go into society a little. Then I brought him home again, and one night colored him with diamond dyes so that he was a beautiful scarlet. His name was Sumner.

I took Sumner the following morning and turned him loose among his old neighbors. Surprise was written on every face. He realized his advantage, and the first thing he did was to greet the astonished crowd with a gutteral remark, which made them jump. He then stepped over to a hated rival, and ate off about fifteen cents’ worth of his large, red, pompadour comb. He now remarked in a courteous way to a small Poland-China hen, who seemed to be at the head of all works of social improvement, that we were having rather a backward spring. Then he picked out the eye of another rival, much to his surprise, and went on with the conversation. By noon the bright scarlet rooster owned the town. Those who had picked on him before had now gone to the hospital, and practically the social world was his. He got so stuck up that he crowed whenever the conversation lagged, and was too proud to eat a worm that was not right off the ice. I never saw prosperity knock the sense out of a rooster so soon. He lost my sympathy at once, and I resolved to let him carve out his own career as best he might.

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Gradually his tail feathers grew gray and faded, but he wore his head high. He was arrogant and made the hens go worming for his breakfast by daylight. Then he would get mad at the food and be real hateful and step on the little chickens with his great big feet.

But as his new feathers began to come in folks got on to him, as Matthew Arnold has it, and the other roosters began to brighten up and also blow up their biceps muscles.

One day he was especially mean at breakfast. A large fat worm, brought to him by the flower of his harem, had a slight gamey flavor, he seemed to think, and so he got mad and bit several chickens with his great coarse beak and stepped on some more and made a perfect show of himself.

At this moment a small bantam wearing one eye still in mourning danced up and kicked Sumner’s eye out. Then another rival knocked the stuffing for a whole sofa pillow out of Sumner, and retired. By this time the surprised and gratified hens stepped back and gave the boys a chance. The bantam now put on his trim little telegraph climbers and, going up Mr. Sumner’s powerful frame at about four jumps, he put in some repairs on the giant’s features, presented his bill, and returned. By nine o’clock Sumner didn’t have features enough left for a Sunday paper. He looked as if he had been through the elevated station at City Hall and Brooklyn bridge. He looked up sadly at me with his one eye as who should say, “Have you got any more of that there red paint left?” But I shook my head at him and he went away into a little patch of catnip and stayed there four days. After that you could get that rooster to do anything for you–except lay. He was gentle to a fault. He would run errands for those hens and turn an icecream freezer for them all day on lawn festival days while others were gay. He never murmured nor repined. He was kind to the little chickens and often spoke to them about the general advantages of humility.

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After many years of usefulness Sumner one day thoughtlessly ate the remains of a salt mackerel, and pulling the drapery of his couch about him he lay down to pleasant dreams, and life’s fitful fever was over. His remains were given to a poor family in whom I take a great interest, frequently giving them many things for which I have no especial use.

This should teach us that some people can not stand prosperity, but need a little sorrow, ever and anon, to teach them where they belong. And, oh! how the great world smiles when a rooster, who has owned the ranch for a year or so, and made himself odious, gets spread out over the United States by a smaller one with less voice.

The study of the fowl is filled with interest. Of late years I keep fowls instead of a garden. Formerly my neighbors kept fowls and I kept the garden.

It is better as it is.

Mertie Kersykes, Whatcom, Washington, writes as follows: “Dear Mr. Nye, does pugilists ever reform? They are so much brought into Contax with course natures that I do not see how they can ever, ever become good lives or become professors of religion. Do you know if such is the case to the best of your knowledge, and answeer Soon as convenient, and so no more at Present.”

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