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Death Most Fowl

Photos by Mr. Lee

My mother is what one might call an impulse buyer, which would explain why my two sisters and I woke one spring morning to find live, artificially colored chicks in our Easter baskets. As she knew we would, we adored them. The three became two when Gigi, our baby-sweater-wearing French Poodle, killed one. It wasn’t long before the two outgrew their shoebox. I have no doubt my mother thought the green and pink dye was permanent. Instead, their pastel feathers were replaced by boring white ones, and the chirping chicks turned into gangly adolescents. My father, the chief radiologist in our small Arizona town, who knew nothing of farm animals or carpentry, dutifully fashioned an indoor Quonset hut out of chicken wire. As far as I knew, he was never a big fan of raising poultry in the house. So I’m not exactly sure how the coop ended up in his study, but somehow it made perfect sense to my mother.

One day I returned home from school to find the entire operation gone. We were out of the poultry business and it was never discussed. Although the colored chicks were a novelty, their disappearance was a relief. No ten year old wants her classmates to think that she thinks it’s normal for chickens to live in the room across the hall from her bedroom—much less that she has a baby-sweater-wearing French Poodle.

When my interest in chickens was rekindled fifteen years later, I was raising two boys of my own less than a mile from my childhood home and believed in all things natural: natural childbirth, breastfeeding, and taking my turn working at the local food co-op. It was the early 80s when a sign at the co-op announcing the arrival of a batch of ‘layer’ chicks caught my attention. Being the opposite of an impulse buyer, I did a considerable amount of research on feeding, housing, and keeping warm my pair of day-old (additive-free) chicks. Just as I suspected they would, the two grew into full-sized hens that, six months later, started laying eggs. The white Leghorns were enthusiastic layers, each delivering one extra-large beauty per day.

When I decided to expand the operation and needed a decent chicken coop, I enlisted the help of the best carpenter I knew. Ed was our next-door neighbor, probably in his sixties. We were the proud owners of three of his finely crafted bird feeders. Through the chain link fence separating our yards, Ed watched our boys grow. One day he showed up with some scrap lumber and built a grand tree house—just in time for the fifth birthday party of our first-born.

Ed looked at my plans for the new coop, took some measurements, and gave me a list of materials. He constructed the finest chicken house in town. It even had a window that opened. Although we did not live in a rural community, I grew vegetables, canned, made my own bread, and now raised chickens. That spring I placed my order at the local feed store for four Barred Rocks and two Rhode Island Reds. The chicks cost sixty cents apiece, about the price of a dozen eggs. My favorites were the black and white striped Barred Rocks. There exist many photographs of me holding a Barred Rock as thought it were a common house pet, which, despite my unusual upbringing, it wasn’t. The Rhode Island Reds, with their auburn feathers, added color to the flock, but they were skittish as compared with the Barred Rocks. Over the next year, my hens proved to be excellent producers.

The geriatric Leghorns, on the other hand, were carrying a few extra pounds and had developed arthritis. They’d long since stopped laying daily eggs, and eventually eggs all together. I continued to feed them but, for all practical purposes, they were retired. It hadn’t occurred to me that hens don’t necessarily die of old age. Rather they become Sunday dinner.

The morning I found one of them floating in the community water bucket, I suspected suicide. The other one passed away soon after. They were given fitting burials in the furthest corner of the backyard. It was about that time that my two-hen friend, Rhody, and I started talking about what we were going to do when our chickens passed their prime. Rhody was a lot like me. We colored our hair with henna and didn’t mind being photographed wearing plastic vegetable bags on our heads while the color set. She lived in a rustic cabin in the woods and did yard maintenance for a living. She was stronger than I in every sense of the word.

Even though my hens were laying almost three dozen eggs a week, I knew it wouldn’t last forever. Over the next year their demise became a topic of serious discussion between Rhody and me. She suggested that we let them go free in the woods. The coyotes would eat them. It seemed a fitting passage: let nature takes it course, back to the earth, and all that. But when I considered my hens hiding out behind pine trees, frightened and confused, wondering what the hell happened to their deluxe chicken condo, I changed my mind. What if they were maimed and suffered a slow death. Nope, not my Barred Rocks.

One of us, I don’t recall which, submitted that a responsible chicken farmer butchers a batch of chickens every year. That sounds like Rhody. Foolish enough to fall for the responsible chicken farmer propaganda, it’s exactly what we decided to do. We agreed it was the awful part of being a chicken farmer and set the date. It’s here that I should point out that I’ve been known to stop traffic going both directions to rescue a dog who’s been the victim of a hit and run. Killing living creatures is just not my thing.

On a chilly autumn morning Rhody drove to my house with two confused Rhode Island Reds in her back seat. They joined my past-their-prime hens in a last meal, while we prepared the guillotine, which was a large stump into which I’d hammered two nails, about an inch apart. We reviewed the plan over a cup of coffee, and then a second. We were stalling. I had three times more killings to perform—a mathematical fact that meant, if we were taking turns, I probably had to go first. The butchering instructions came with a diagram—what magazine I subscribed to at the time that would have these particular instructions, I do not recall. We agreed to the following: Don’t pet or otherwise try to soothe the chicken, or tell her that it’s going to be okay—because it’s not. Pick her up by the feet with one hand, slip her neck between the two nails, which served to hold the bewildered head in place, and tug gently to present more neck with which to work. With a swift, forceful and, hopefully, precise swing, chop off her head. We finished our coffee and I wondered why I never asked my mother how she made our Easter chickens disappear so seamlessly.

I half-heartedly tried to catch my first victim, following her all over the yard, making sure she was always just beyond my reach. Maybe letting them go free in the woods wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Finally I picked her up, not by the feet as instructed, flapping and squawking—and tried to soothe her. When I finally wrestled my Barred Rock hen into a position where I could actually grab both feet in one hand, I lost my nerve and decided I needed a drink. We went back inside, and I rummaged around for a bottle of Kahlua—homemade, of course. We prepared two stiff drinks, topping them off with half and half. “I don’t think I can do this,” I admitted as we sipped our White Russians, making them last as long as we could.

Rhody stood up and announced, “Let’s just get it over with.” Her White Russian gave her courage. She agreed to go first. Mine made me queasy. I let her. She marched out to the pen, grabbed one of her hens, and beheaded it while I looked on—wincing. My mouth was still gaping when she handed me the axe and then folded in half, grabbing her ankles, “Uhhhh.” She expelled every last bit of breath.

Seeing her reaction, I said, “I can’t do it,” although I knew it was too late for that. There was no turning back. I was numb as I grabbed one of my unsuspecting hens—by the feet this time. She went limp. There was no squawking, no flapping.

I, on a day I’ll never forget, decapitated a pet. Horrified that I had the capacity to do such a thing, I dropped the axe—and my hen. I’ll resist the urge to say that she ran around the yard like a chicken with its head cut off, but there was a lot of disturbing flopping. I thought I might lose my White Russian as I danced in circles, clutching my head and yelling, “Shit!” and who knows what else. It was horrible. The thought of doing it five more times was unbearable, unthinkable.

We considered mixing two more White Russians when we heard someone laughing. It was Ed.

He asked what we were doing, although he’d been watching the whole thing through the chain link fence. He made us an offer we couldn’t refuse.

“Yes!” we chimed, without hesitation.

Rhody and I watched silently as Ed chopped (and chopped, his axe not as sharp as I would have liked), holding each hen tight against him until all movement ceased. He’d clearly done this before. Relieved that he came to our rescue, I wished I hadn’t killed even one. In a test of butchering endurance that lasted the rest of the day, Rhody and I plucked, cleaned, and even tried to cook our hens. They were most definitely past their prime.

On the kitchen table we performed a simple post-mortem on the entrails. Opening the oviduct of one hen, we were fascinated to find eggs in various stages of development. I’ve learned that it takes up to twenty-six hours for the egg to make its way through the oviduct, the yolk gaining layers of albumen, which becomes the egg white, and finally a hard shell along the way. I guess I made a better biologist than a farmer. I stayed away from the feed store in the spring when the chicks came in, and my prize coop remained vacant until we moved away a few years later. Knowing more than I care to about how boneless, skinless poultry parts end up in those Styrofoam packages, I prefer to buy my chicken at the grocery store. If someone else does the killing, that’s fine with me.

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