Nina Milton, author of the Shaman Mystery Series, welcomes book lovers to the Kitchen Table Writers.
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A year later those four chicks are part of our flock. Rhiannon bears a golden shoulder cape and Pwyll has grown into a distinguished cockerel. Littlewings (so called because she was the runt of the brood –when it was mini mealworm time she’d run up and down the edge of the nesting box, trying to scale the great height of 2 inches, to join the feast, and we’d cheer her on as if we’d put money on a hurdling competition), and, finally, there’s Redneck.
Redneck is a Transylvanian Naked-neck cockerel. I swear there’s a bit of turkey somewhere in this breed, because, although much smaller than Pwyll, he’s an odd contorted shape and sometimes he sort-of…gobbles. His neck is bright red, exposed through a ruff of white feathers. He so ugly, only his mother could love him, but his mother doesn’t love any of her brood anymore, so there’s no hope.
We love him, of course, because he affords us so much fun. Despite his diminutive size and challenging appearance, he’s made of stern stuff. “Never give up, Never surrender,” is his motto. Never give up chasing the hens, that is.
You see, Pwyll took over the entire flock with a confidence that comes from knowing you are a hen’s answer to Joshua Jackson – I’m sure he must have looked in a mirror at sometime – it’s clear he knows how handsome he is. His approach to Redneck’s advances is; “if you want these dames, you have to fight for them.”
I came out into the yard to find them scrapping; running at each other, crowing and flapping, flinging themselves into the air, crashing at each other a yard up from the ground, beaks and spurs ripping and tearing. There was blood on the ground and on the breasts of my two cocks.
And it was all Redneck’s.
He sulked to the end of the garden to lick his wounds. Actually, hens (all birds, I think) have tongues, but I doubt he did much licking. I tried several times to catch him to patch him up, but he wasn’t having any of it.
“Don’t worry,” said my poultry-expert friend, Jane. “Cocks are hardy beasts. He’ll survive.”
Redneck wears the scar showing prominently on his comb with pride. His life is lived on the edge, away from Pwyll. But Pwyll has four hens to husband; he can’t be everywhere at once, and, as soon as he takes his eye off a wife, Redneck is there, looking for a bit of lurve. If the hen that’s getting the amorous attention makes a fuss (anything from “I told you. I’ve got headache,” to “Rape! RAPE!”) Pwyll will half run, half fly across our plot to the scene of the trouble, while Redneck makes off in an opposite direction. But he never gives up. He’s always on the lookout for nooky behind Pwyll’s back.
Keeping hens is a clear case of character envy – Sabbie Dare, heroine of my Shaman Mystery Series, had hens long before me.
Sabbie is a 29 year-old shaman with a therapy business in a sleepy town in England. She helps her shamanic clients by walking between worlds...bringing messages for them back from the spirit world. She lives a self-sufficient life, growing vegetables and keeping a small flock of hens.
Book one in the series, In the Moors opens with the death of half her flock after a visit from a fox.
At the henhouse door I dropped my empty basket and cried out in raw distress. Slaughter lay at my feet. Saffron, the biggest of my hens, was gone, and Pettitgrain, my favourite, lay in the run, dead from a clean bite to the neck.
The henhouse smelt of gore. Sickness swelled in my stomach, an expansion of loathing for the fox, no doubt now slumbering, replete. My brave cockerel, Cocky Bastard, who must have defended his harem to the last, lay on his side twitching steadily. I picked him up. His body was bloodied and broken. His eyes stared deep into mine. Quickly I broke his neck. The three remaining birds huddled in a corner making low, tense cluckings, as if they were discussing their traumatic night in hushed whispers.
Sabbie believes in omens and portents, so when a cocky detective called Reynard Buckley walks into her life that same day, it’s bound to mean trouble for Sabbie.
In book two, Unraveled Visions, Sabbie invites Mirela, a young Buglarian Roma, to stay at her house, and in this excerpt they are searching for the girl’s missing sister:
In the chicken coop were five eggs, two as big as a child’s fist. Ginger and Melissa didn’t lay all that often now, but when they did, their eggs were as full as bombs. I thought Mirela deserved an eggie breakfast.
Mirela was a charming combination of femme-fatal, innocent child and hoary old gypsy. She ate both double-yolkers, giggling when I called the bread slices “soldiers”.
“Do you have anything of your sister’s I could use? To help me find her otherworld?”
Mirela reached for her shoulder bag and brought out a zipped, plastic makeup case, stained with lipstick smears. From this she pulled a piece of shiny card. At first I thought it was a large postage stamp, but when she handed it to me I could see that it was a reproduction of an icon – the Virgin Mary in summer blue with a golden halo. I turned it over. On the back was a scribble of biro in Cyrillic script.
I squeezed Mirela’s arm. “Your sister has to be somewhere. To be honest, some real world searching wouldn’t be a bad thing.”
“Where I look?” She paused. “Where you look?”
Yep, there it was, that sinking feeling as my stomach hit my knees. I’d offered her a bed. I’d offered to work shamanically to find her sister. And now it looked like I was offering some practical help…
“Exactly when did Kizzy leave?” I asked. “Can you remember?”
“Yes, Easy. November six. She just start pack case right then and puff! She’s gone. Like that.” Mirela clapped her hands, once, loudly.
Suddenly, I wanted to find Kizzy badly. I was longing to give her a good slapping down.
Having had such fun with raising chicks myself, I was keen to let Sabbie Dare have a go, too. But Unraveled Visions is set in the deep winter, and no self-respecting hen is even laying eggs then let alone sitting on a clutch. But book three, Beneath the Tor, opens on Midsummer Eve on Glastonbury Tor, where beautiful Alys Hollingberry dies suddenly after dancing away the night. Beneath the Tor continues the dark, atmospheric edge of the previous two books in the series. Sabbie witnesses the tragedy, and gets caught up in its dark aftermath. And in the middle of all this, Florence goes missing.
Florence was my secret favourite. She was a curious hen, bright eyed and comical. I’d had her and her siblings for over a year; a farmer had given me one of her recently-hatched clutches of Sussex hens and they’d been productive and so beautiful to look at.
“Florence,” I called, even though she had no idea that was her name, “Flo, where are you? Chuck-chuck?”
Beneath the Tor is not due for release until December this year, so I’m afraid you’ll just have to wait to find out why Alys died on the Tor and what happened to Flo!