Listen: “Does Your Chicken Have a Pépie” read by the author is also available to download from the Podcast page
I leaned on the fence feeling utterly defeated. The factory hum of bees in the Linden blossoms, the loudest interruption of the peaceful afternoon, went completely unnoticed. I wasn’t taking in any of the pastoral beauty spread out before me, as I watched my little flock of hens in the yard, lying in the shade of the walnut trees, or under the hydrangeas. Occasionally one would stagger to her feet, and peck half-heartedly at the grain on the ground, before sinking unsteadily back onto her breast.
My neighbour, Henri Roy, strolled up the lane, walking-stick in hand. He was a gnarled and stooped old farmer, of few words, who usually barely squeezed out the obligatory ‘Bonjour Madame’ before continuing on his way. This time, however, he stopped, lifted his stick, and aimed it at one of the ailing pullets. She’s not well, “Ça ‘ va pas, avec elle,” he said, rather unnecessarily, I thought. I agreed that no, she was not looking good.
My lovely flock was dying. I had already lost three young pullets. They had died with no outward sign of disease or parasite, just getting thinner and weaker daily. In despair I had visited the local veterinarian’s office more than once, returning with various potions and powders to stir into their drinking water in hopes of a cure, knowing that any eggs that might be laid would have to be thrown out. Two weeks after this last treatment most of the hens were going downhill fast, and I felt powerless to prevent their early deaths.
We were living in a little hamlet deep in the countryside in Southwest France, in a three-hundred-year-old stone farmhouse with three-foot thick walls, and picturesque French blue shutters. Barns and various outbuildings were ranged around a central courtyard. I had been to the market in the nearby mediaeval town a couple of months before, and had purchased a dozen beautiful black and gold point of lay pullets. We were managing to live in an almost self-sufficient manner, and were building up our stock of animals, that by then included the above mentioned hens, ducks, geese, and rabbits.
“She has a pépie,” my neighbour announced, “ and she’ll die if you don’t remove it.” I stared at him puzzled as I had no idea what he meant. “Quoi? What?” I asked. It was a word I had never heard. What impressed me here though, was the certainty with which the walking stick had been aimed, stabbing in the direction of the dying bird to emphasize the point. And the strangeness of the term: ‘pépie’. What was a pépie? And how was I to remove it?
It wasn’t that I had an unshakeable faith in the knowledge or ability of the local veterinarians. Any confidence I had originally felt had been quickly eroded by the realization that they hadn’t the faintest idea of what might be killing my birds. Each consultation cost me more than my whole flock was worth and I was more than prepared to look at alternative solutions to my problem. Neither did I doubt the ancient wisdom of the country people. They had, after all, been successfully raising and breeding animals for centuries, without benefit of modern science.
“Please, monsieur”, I began, “ can you show me what it is, and how to get rid of it?” He gave this matter some thought, leaning on the stick, and moving his dentures up and down and back and forth on his gums. At last he nodded.
“Get me a needle – a sharp one, mind! Some sugar, and un peu de rouge.” Ah yes, of course, the red wine. This I imagined, was to be his reward for the assistance he was about to render. I was back in a few moments with the needle, the sugar bowl and spoon, and a glass of red wine. He looked at the glass, and then at me, but said nothing, only gestured towards the ailing hen. I picked her up and presented her to him. He asked me to hold her so that her head faced him. He then opened her mouth, and pulled out her little pointed tongue. She struggled feebly, momentarily finding enough energy to protest this indignity. He paid no attention, and turned her so I could see under her tongue.
“Tiens, regard! La pépie!” I peered at her tongue, rigidly held out, gripped between his callused thumb and forefinger. I could see nothing unusual at all though I have to say I had never seen a hen’s tongue at such close quarters. He took the needle in his other hand, and with quiet concentration inserted the sharp point under the hen’s tongue toward the back. He moved it deftly forward, bearing upwards, and slid it under what looked like a layer of skin. He did the same to the other side, handed me the needle, and gripping this layer, pulled it away from the tongue. A few drops of blood sprang up where it had been. Triumphantly he handed me the offending article. Now that I could see it better, it looked like a little arrowhead shaped fingernail. In fact it even felt like a fingernail, thin and hard. I had no more time than that to examine it, however, as he was reaching impatiently for the wine. I handed the glass to him, and he took the teaspoon, half filled with sugar, and dipped it into the wine, filling the bowl of the spoon, and dissolving the sugar in it. Then he took the chicken’s beak, opened it once more, and poured the contents of the spoon in. Then gently holding her beak closed, he let her swallow the mixture. He put her down on the ground, and gingerly feeling her way, she moved toward the corn scattered on the ground and started pecking, at first tentatively and then vigorously. It was astonishing to see her show such a normal reaction so quickly after being on the point of collapse.
“Merci beaucoup, M’sieur” I thanked him. He grunted in a dismissive manner, “she’ll live”. He waved his walking stick at the rest of the ailing flocks, and handing me the needle and the wine indicated that the rest was up to me. After exchanging the usual formal country farewells – we shook elbows as his hands were dirty and mine were full, standard practice among the paysans – he made his way on up the lane.
At first nervously, and then with more conviction, I picked up each of the weakened birds, and removed their pépies, afterwards pouring in the sweetened wine to disinfect and revitalize. In the end I had quite a few of the hard little arrowheads on the rough stone bench I was using as an operating table. As my little flock began to revive and eat the corn I scattered for them, I examined one of these pépies. I could see why the pullets had been dying. They were starving to death. They obviously used their little pointed tongues to flick the grain to the back of their mouths. The growth of this layer gradually reduced the tongue’s flexibility, until in the end the bird could not move any corn into its mouth. Over the days that followed it was clear that removing the pépies had cured my hens, and that country folk medicine had triumphed over modern Veterinarian science.
At the Vet’s a couple of weeks later, I casually remarked that I had discovered what had been ailing my chickens. Eyebrows raised, the vet waited for my revelation. “They had pépies. “I said, “It was as simple as that. They’re fine now that I’ve removed them.” The vet stared at me.
“They had what?” My confidence began to ebb. Had I got the name wrong?
“You know, that little hard layer that forms under their tongues?” He looked at me blankly.
“Never heard of it. Sounds like some sort of local old wives’ tale. If the hens are getting better I’m sure it was the medication I gave you to put in their water.” I smiled at him. Did I really expect him to admit that some uneducated old farmer had defeated him? That his highly paid services had, at least in this instance, been redundant, if not actually harmful? I left the vet’s offices and drove home.
In the years that followed, and as our flocks and herds grew in variety and number, I had reason to call on the vet’s professional services more than once and was glad to be able to do so in certain cases. If one of our chickens started to weaken and grow thin, though, I would check under its tongue, and remove any thickened layer of keratinous material. A bit of sweetened wine syringed into its mouth would complete the treatment.
Years later, and partly out of curiosity, I searched for the word pépie and found it in a dictionary of French slang (Dictionnaire Argot Français). It has three definitions: a disease in poultry, a state of thirst, and the normal state of drunkards.
To this day I don’t know what causes pépies, or whether they are found elsewhere, but I have it on good medical authority that they actually don’t exist. I do, however, know how to remove them.