Every Christmas, for the holiday, I bring our flock of hens a brimming bowl of hot popped corn for breakfast. It is greeted with great enthusiasm. But one Christmas morning, it was different. I opened the door to their coop and found one hen lying dead on the wood shavings carpeting the floor. Everyone was subdued.
Some of our hens were elderly at the time. It was possible, I thought, that she had just keeled over from her perch due to old age. I reached down to pick her up by the legs to examine her. Her head was wedged into a small hole in the corner. But I couldn't lift her. Something — or someone — had a hold of her head.
I pulled and pulled, and finally yanked my chicken free. The next second, out from the hole popped a white face less than an inch wide with a bright pink nose and coal-black eyes burning with intensity. It stared directly into my eyes. It was an ermine. I had never seen one. Instantly, my sorrow was replaced with wonder.
The tiny animal before me was gorgeous. Its fur was the purest white I had ever seen, whiter than snow or cloud or sea foam — so white it seemed to glow, like the raiment of an angel. No wonder kings (and St. Nicholas) trimmed their robes in ermine fur. Even more impressive was its gaze, a look so bold and fearless that it took my breath away. Here was a creature the length of my hand, who weighed little more than a handful of coins, but who had come out of its hole expressly to challenge a monster who was a thousand times its size. What are you doing with my chicken? those coal eyes said to me. Give it back!
Of course, I had been thinking this was my chicken. I had raised her from an egg-shaped chick from the time she was 2 days old. Our chicks grow up in my home office. They snuggle in my sweater and perch on my shoulders as I write; when they grow older, they follow me around outside. They come running to me when I call. I love each one, and I loved the hen who lay dead in my arms. Her body was still warm. But I could feel no animosity as I faced the one who had killed her. I was gobsmacked.
"There is something enormously satisfactory about a weasel," New Zealand researcher Carolyn King writes in her book "The Natural History of Weasels and Stoats." "It has the perfection, grace and efficacy of a well-designed tool in the hands of an expert." New England has several species of weasel, all just a few inches long, the smallest of which (the least weasel) is only as long as a man's finger. All are brown with light bellies in summer, and when they turn white in the winter, they are known as ermine.
These are the world's smallest carnivores. It is as if all the ferocity of the world's wild hunters — lions, tigers, wolverines — has been concentrated and compacted into a creature smaller than a vole. Quick as lightning, an ermine can leap to kill a bird as it takes flight, or follow a lemming down a tunnel. It can swim, climb trees, and bring down an animal many times its size with a single bite to the neck — and then carry it off with a bounding run. An ermine consumes five to 10 meals a day. It needs to eat at least a quarter to a third of its own weight just to survive in captivity, and much more in the wild, especially during the cold winter. These little animals' hearts beat nearly 400 times a minute. No wonder they kill everything they can at every opportunity.
The ermine held my gaze for perhaps 30 seconds. Then it popped back into the hole. I desperately wanted my husband, Howard, to see it. What were the chances the tiny animal would still be there, much less show itself again, when I came back? Still, I put down the hen where I had found her, ran the 500 yards back to the house, alerted Howard, and together we returned to the coop. Again, I picked up the hen. And again, the ermine shot its head from the hole, its black eyes blazing fearlessly from that luminous white face.
Even in the wake of tragedy, we could not have felt more amazed had we been visited by an angel that Christmas morning. In our barn, we had, in fact, beheld a great wonder — as the magi had in the barn that they had visited so long ago. Our Christmas blessing came down not from heaven, but up from earth. With its dazzlingly white fur, hammering pulse, and bottomless appetite, the ermine was ablaze with life: so pure and so perfect that in its presence, there was room in our hearts for neither sorrow nor anger, just awe.