This evening I was sitting on the mother’s bed with the daughter. We were practicing her spellings for the week, preparing for her test tomorrow. Because the mother’s room is the warmest in the house, we usually set up camp there.
At the table next to the bed, the 16, three day old chicks the grandmother bought yesterday were chirping loudly, flapping their wings, and jumping on top of each other. Sometimes it looks like they are in a mosh pit, getting buried in the rave. The music must be great…
The huddled mass of white and black fluff hangs out in a small Tupperware box underneath the warmth of a lamp. As I’m trying to concentrate on correcting the girl’s spellings and using the words in a sentence, I can’t help but be distracted by their shrill squeaks. I kept asking the girl to check and see if they were okay. She kept saying, “UGH! Calm down! They’re fine!” yet I was worried. I don’t like the noises they were making, the dramatic flap of the wings or the jumping. It takes me back to that awful night…
The night that I (accidently) murdered four chicks.
It happened around three months ago. About two weeks before the incident, the grandmother had bought some chicks. Because we live in the countryside, we have a garden where the family grows vegetables and potatoes, and a chicken coop where several hens lay eggs. We have an endless supply of eggs (except when the hens get finicky) and even sell them to friends.
They are the grandmother’s pride and joy. She won’t let anyone else touch them. With the food she gives them, she claims, they get fatter and lay more eggs (yesterday I saw her feeding the baby ones cut up clams). She has a special touch. A gift, if you will.
So, needless to say, what happened that night did not please her in the least bit.
When raising chicks, I’ve learned one must be constantly monitoring their situation. Are they too hot? Are they too cold? Do they have enough water? Have they eaten all their food? Are they pooping?
The grandmother usually spends all day shifting them from one location to another, changing the position of the box, putting them closer to the chimney or further away, putting them on top of the toaster oven or in the shade. They get cold, they get hot, they chirp, they’re silent. It all means something. Little did I know.
That day the grandmother was staying at her house in the city.
The mother also happened to go to Barcelona that day. Because of the resident discounts and proximity, it is common for people living in Ibiza to go to Barcelona or Valencia for quick trips. It was near the beginning of my stay as an au pair, and it was one of the first times I was given full responsibility of picking up the girl from school, taking her to her activities and making dinner with her.
The day had gone pretty well so far. No major accidents, no meltdowns, no temper tantrums.
Around 8:00pm, we decided to make dinner. The girl is already clever in the kitchen. She knows how to make basic meals, and with the help of a trusted adult, can make her own dinner. That day, we decided on frying eggs to make a more basic version of the tortilla Española. To make the tortillas the quick and easy way, you put the whipped egg, and whatever other ingredients you wish, into a ceramic low bowl, and place in the machine the mother refers to as the tostador de pan. It’s like a bigger version of a toaster oven that you can do more things in (she likes it almost as much as her thermomix, which truly is incredible. Really, what else can make bread AND ice cream?!). It has a pull out tray you can place plates and bowls on.
The chicks were in a plastic tub on top of the toaster, where they had been for the last few days as the weather was turning colder.
The girl and I put our tortillas in the toaster with the timer at about 7 minutes, and walked away. A few minutes later, I came back to check on our tortillas. The chicks were making a lot of noise, but I didn’t really pay attention because, they’re chicks. They always make noise.
Our tortillas were done before the timer was up, so I took them out and sat on the bar stools to start eating on the counter. Next to us, the toaster continued. As we were eating, I was trying to connect with the girl. “How was your day?” “Who did you play with?” Meanwhile, the chirping got louder and louder. The flapping got more frequent. The jumping was higher. Yet, I still didn’t see the importance of their changed attitudes.
It wasn’t until I looked over and saw one chick lying flat on the ground, keeling over in heat, and the other with its long neck struggling to reach for cooler air and its beak open wide, gasping for breath, that I realized something bad was happening.
I screamed “FUCK! THEY AREN’T OKAY. OH MY GOD. I THINK THEY ARE DYING!” Which in hind sight is a terrible thing to say in front of an 8-year-old girl who’s only true love in life at this point are baby animals.
By the time I reached them, their feathers were completely drying out. Some of them were starting to flail and contort. I looked down and the box and started to panic. I was thinking about the girl, I was thinking about the grandmother and how she was planning to use these to have more hens for eggs, and about how I was letting the mother down. It was, after all, the first time she trusted me to do things on my own.
I took them off the toaster and opened up the side door and put them outside. I set them on the ground, hoping that removing them from their heat exhaustion would help them recuperate. No luck. They continued to flail, and I noticed that one was definitely already a goner. Its head was rotated completely around, so that I could see its face but its chest was face down on the bottom of the tub. Somehow it occurred to me to splash water on them. This didn’t help at all, but I did hear a sizzling-type noise. Gross.
The whole time I’m trying to recuperate them, the girl is crying and running around, yelling at me, and calling her mom. Her mom was right about to board her flight to come back to Ibiza. She got me on the phone and said, “Is there any hope? No? Please, please, don’t let the girl see their agony.”
After this quick conversation, I felt worse, one because I had killed the chickens, and again, had let the girl see baby animals suffering.
I picked up the plastic tub and held it in one hand, as far away from the girl as I could. She kept coming closer to the outside door, trying to peek at them. I kept telling her, “I think they’re going to make it, they just need some time to rest.” She said, “Ah, good. I am much calmer now that I know they are going to make it.” Shit.
I kept going with this until I realized the last one was definitely dead. I got the mom back on the phone and she instructed me to cover them up and put them outside, and she would dispose of them tomorrow.
They already started to smell so foul, that it was only a matter of seconds before I removed them from sight.
That night, and for many nights after the incident, I couldn’t bear to turn on the space heater my room. I could only think about the heat that caused their torture and misery.
Luckily, I slowly got over it and was able to stay warm when the cold temperatures finally came.
The grandmother was upset when I had to break the news to her, but now she jokes with me about it. When she brought home the 16 new chicks, she said to me with a smile, “Don’t come near them. And please, don’t put them anywhere near the toaster.”