Aug 26, 2005

The last time

My brother and I would truss up the first four birds, in the morning, slipknot-noosed legs hanging from a fence frame in a line of upside down and slightly swinging grass-fat, grub-fat chickens. We’d lay the knives out side-by-side along a table and look at them, debating their merits and classifications according to weight and shape and sharpness.

And then we’d choose. One each.

I’d stop, for a minute, and stand there knife in my hand by my side. I’d check to see we were ready. I’d look at the chickens hung up and the chickens in the pen. I’d smell the dew drying off the eucalyptus leaves lying in the dirt. Alright, I'd say.

My brother would left-handed grab the bird by the head, stretching its neck down and bringing the knife up sharp to its throat through the feathers sliding, slicing flesh through bone joints and off. Blood gushing warm, always a surprise how warm the blood was hot over his hand as he severed the head and held it, palmed it, then dropped it into the garbage can.

The chicken thrashed out against the rope until dead, swung out, back and forth swinging, neck feathers turning red around where the head was missing.

Dad took the bird down from the noose and dunked it in boiling water, pulling handfuls of wet white feathers from the loosened skin.

When I got the bird it was naked. When I got the bird it was as naked as birth, in death. When I got it the bird was dead, the first dead of 80 free-range birds to be beheaded, plucked, cleaned and frozen by mid-afternoon.

I bent back the crackly yellow legs, knife catching the joint and cutting through. I held them in my hand, a pair of chicken legs disattached, now strange and looking strangely like they had a purpose once. I threw the feet in with the heads.

On butchering day the yard smelled like dead chickens, smelled of blood and plucked wet feathers and dead flesh and our sweat. We sold them frozen, in zip locks, dead and plucked and gutted and clean and looking somehow not dead, but like meat.

For lunch I’d fry up the giblets that no one wanted. The pale heart and purple-red liver and the tail we called a nose.

The next year all the birds died from some exotic disease brought in by the song birds and the year after that they were all eaten by a bear that left us only a few feathery legs scattered by the shattered side of the coop and two tail feathers caught in the long grass. We never butchered birds again.