Thursday, November 17, 2011

Alice and the Queen Play Croquet

Thanksgiving is looming and that’s gotten me thinking about last Thanksgiving, which reminded me of turkey feet, which reminded me of chicken feet, which reminded me I am a chicken murderer.  Yes, I am a chicken murderer.  I murdered a chicken.  I murdered an unsuspecting, innocent chicken.  I am a cold-blooded chicken murderer.  

I had pretty much forgotten about my chicken murdering past until the nearness of Thanksgiving started me thinking about a phone call we’d received from Abby last year.  For some reason, this year, remembering that phone call has dredged up a memory I’d just as soon forget.  A memory of an event so distressing it’s caused permanent damage to my mental wellbeing.

The call came on Thanksgiving Day.   Abby had decided, even though Ecuador does not celebrate Thanksgiving, she was going to make a traditional dinner for favorite husband, some friends and favorite husband’s mother.  She was cooking her very first Thanksgiving dinner and she had a question.  “Does your turkey have feet?  Because my turkey has feet.”   Once I determined that she meant the cold, severed, in-a-bag with the giblets kind of feet, not the strutting around, head-bobbing, gobbling, live turkey kind of feet and I had stopped laughing I answered, “Why, no.  Our turkey has a neck and a heart and a liver and a gizzard, but we do not have feet.”  

But I’m not laughing now.  Because remembering Abby’s turkey feet has taken me back to a traumatic day in my past.  A day that began full of hope and good intentions but ended in guilt and sorrow and death.  The day I became a chicken murderer. 

I have tried to erase the memory of that day.  I’ve tried not to remember the innocent blinking of those golden chicken eyes as I chased her (or him, I was never sure) down.  I’ve tried to forget the way she tipped her head to one side with that questioning chicken look when I grabbed her.  And up until now I’ve done a pretty good job of forgetting it.  I’ve done such a good job it’s been years since I’ve thought about the day I murdered a chicken.  But for some reason, this year, thinking about Thanksgiving and those turkey feet has brought back that memory and all its gory details. 

The murder occurred at “the ranch.”  We had moved there thanks to an evil landlord and our decision to live with free range mice rather than city-bred cockroaches (which is another whole story.) As long as we were living at “the ranch” we figured we should make the most of our ranching experience.  So early in the spring, Dean mail-ordered some tiny baby chicks and rigged up an ingenious way to incubate them


until they were old enough to brave the outside world of badgers, owls, hawks, 

 and little girls.  

Luckily for us, just before we began our life on “the ranch” we had shot four antelope.  Well, not we.  Dean shot three and I shot one (but that’s another whole story which involves tongues and tears and babies, a field dressing book, and oh, dang it, another bad memory) so we had plenty of meat to eat during the winter and spring.   And we had a nice wood stove to cook it on.    

But there comes a time when a hunk of antelope meat on your plate every night tends to make you look at the fat, fluffy chickens your daughter has named Frank and other chicken-like names in a whole new light.


Living on a ranch where I saw more antelope in one day than I saw people during my twice-monthly trips to town, I began to feel myself drawn to the ways of the pioneers.  I began to feel I not only should but could be self-sufficient.  Over the winter I’d not only chopped wood for the stove without cutting off my toes but I’d figured out how to keep us all warm without burning the kitchen chairs when we ran out of that wood.   


 I’d not only washed our clothes but also our kids in a tin tub in front of the stove.  


Heck, I even knew how to safely get to the outhouse when there was a big bull staring at me and blocking the way.

Early in the summer the day came when I’d had enough antelope meat to last a lifetime (and I mean that literally; not one bite of antelope meat has passed my lips since our sojourn on the ranch).  It was only logical that I decided I not only should, but could, butcher a chicken for dinner.  So one beautiful summer day, I decided that when Dean came home from work that night after his 40-mile drive, I would surprise him with nice chicken dinner completely butchered, gutted and cooked by me.   “If I can’t kill the animal, I shouldn’t be eating it,”  I said to myself.  Really.  I said those exact words.

I must tell you that previously Dean had researched chicken butchering in preparation for the day we would want to eat a chicken.  And he had already butchered one so I knew how it was supposed to be done.  There was no death by head chopping or neck wringing on “the ranch.”  No sir.  Dean’s carefully researched technique involved a broom handle and was not only humane, but had the added advantage of allowing the pin feathers to be plucked more easily and completely from the compassionately executed chicken.

On this beautiful summer day I walked out into the yard with Leslie, who was only 3 ½ years old.  I wish I could tell you where Abby was during the slaughter but I don’t remember.   She was only 15 months old so I hope she was safe in her crib napping, not wandering around during the slaughter, but ... I just don’t remember.   I think the trauma of what was about to happen was already beginning to send me into chicken-murdering shock.  

Leslie and I went outside and I found the broom handle and laid it carefully on the ground where I was planning to execute the chicken for our evening meal.  Next to the instrument of death I laid the hatchet because, of course, at some point the head must go.  Then Leslie and I somehow managed to catch a chicken, but frankly, I don’t remember that part either. 

I held the poor chicken by the legs and laid it on the ground so that it was stretched out in front of both Leslie and I, belly down.  My heart started to beat faster and my hands were shaking.  Leslie was standing quietly, staring intently at the chicken.  I felt a little bit like throwing up but I had that chicken on the ground and the broom handle was in my hand and I was determined to cook a chicken dinner.   I kept repeating my mantra in my head, “if I can’t kill the animal I shouldn’t be eating it.  If I can’t kill the animal I shouldn’t be eating it.”   

With the chicken lying on the ground, eyes blinking, I took a big breath.  I laid the stick firmly across the chicken’s neck and held it down with my foot.  Then before I could talk myself out of it, I grabbed those legs even tighter and bent them up and back as far as I could. 

That was supposed to kill the chicken.  Humanely.  But when I let out my breath, opened my eyes and looked, the chicken was lying limp on the ground ― and the eyes were still blinking.  How could the eyes still be blinking if the chicken was dead?  “Oh,no!  Oh, no!  It’s not dead.  It’s not dead,” I wimpered.  I didn’t know what to do.  The chicken just kept looking at me.  I didn’t know if I’d killed it or paralyzed it.  Maybe it was hurting and in pain but it couldn’t move and get away from me.  All it could do was lie on the ground and blink its eyes.

Then I started crying.  Leslie’s eyes got huge and she looked from me to the chicken.  Me … chicken … me … chicken.    I grabbed the broom handle, laid it on the neck and pulled the legs up again.  But the chicken eyes were still blinking at me.   Why are they still blinking?  By this time I’m almost sobbing and walking back and forth toward the limp lump of feathers, then away toward the limp lump of feathers, then away trying to figure out what to do.   Is it dead?  If it’s dead why are its eyes blinking?  Is that normal?  Will it stop if I wait?  Should I go ahead and pluck and gut?  Or is it gut and pluck?  Leslie, still staring at the chicken, is trying to comfort me.  “It’s okay, Mom.  It’s okay, Mom.  Don’t cry Mom.”  

The chicken eyes just kept blinking and blinking and blinking.  So finally I grabbed the hatchet and picked up the still-not-dead chicken, eyes blinking at me, accusing me, and laid the neck across the chicken-head-whacking stump.  And I whacked it off.  There is blood on the stump and on the ground and the chicken head is lying in the dirt while the rest of the body is dangling from my hand.   Leslie is closely inspecting a headless lump of feathers and a severed chicken head and she is still trying to comfort me.   “It’s okay, Mom, it’s okay, Mom.”   I’m crying even harder … but at least the eyes aren’t blinking anymore. 

I was not only a chicken murderer.   I was a chicken torturer. 

I know I hung the now unquestionably dead chicken up in the special chicken-plucking place and I plucked it.  And I know I gutted it in the special chicken-gutting place.  I know I cut it up.  And I know I fried it.  And I know we ate it for dinner.  But I have never remembered one thing past the whacking off of the head.   In 29 years since that awful day, I have remembered absolutely nothing of what happened after I chopped off the head of that chicken.   Not that I particularly want to remember it.  But it is a little disconcerting to know I can't, even if I try.  Which I don't.  Not anymore anyway.  I used to try.  To remember.  Because I couldn't believe that I could have done something so, well, memorable, but I couldn't remember it.  But I don't try anymore.  It's pointless. I believe I have PCMML – Post Chicken Murdering Memory Loss.

The thing is, you just never know what may bring back a forgotten memory.   You may think you’ve managed to bury the memory of a disturbing experience but it could be it’s just hiding; not surfacing until years later.  And you never know what might reawaken that memory.  It could be something as innocuous as … a phone call … about turkey feet. 



Leslie said...

I don't have any recollection of the chicken killing either, and I do have a few from the ranch, but I guess you either traumatized me or it wasn't very memorable for my 3 1/2 yr old mind. I'm glad I was trying to comfort you at least. What a good daughter I am.

Jerry said...

Your mother just about had a heart attack when she seen the holes in the back of the stove.

Abby said...

You almost made me cry. I can't imagine the chicken looking back at me. Sometimes I think we ought to raise chickens, or ducks, since we have a big yard and pretty much live in the country. But whenever I mention to favorite husband that we should get some new animal, I always put in the stipulation "just until it's not a baby anymore, then we can give it to your Dad's girlfriend to cook. As long as we're not invited to Sunday dinner."

P.S. Glad I wasn't planning on cooking chicken tonight, that might have been hard.

Art Elser said...

I'm sorry you have such a disturbing event in your life, Cathy. I can truly empathize with those feelings.

The picture of the galvanized tub that you bathed the kids in brought back memories of being bathed in a tub just like that. And of watching my mother wash our clothes in it.