Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Last Chicken



In the beginning, my chickens were to be free range, but they pooped everywhere which was incompatible with my barefoot prone family. And they ate every little shoot, every seedling, every seed. Nothing good could grow with chickens on the loose. So we clipped their wings and fenced them in.

Huck and I clipped their wings at night. Without light, chickens sleep, a stupor-y, paralyzed sleep. This is why they need latched coops. They are defenseless in the night. Plus, in the dark, I could half-heartedly lunge at them and no one, not even I, could see my chicken-shit farmeress-ness. I hated handling chickens.

Coyote was our go-to chicken-rustler. His preferred, if unconventional, method was a leaf blower we’ve never needed as we have no leaves out here. But Coyote found a use for it. He’d bluster the chickens back to their barn. At first it seemed cruel. But it was so darn effective that the chickens would run to the barn as soon as they saw Coyote with his uzi of air.

Sometimes they ran towards me, goddess of kitchen scraps that I am. They’d squat down, a submissive posture which means “fuck me, oh great rooster!” But I’d just scratch their backs instead. They never did that when it was time for clipping wings. Their empty little heads were full of instinct.

In six years we’d never had a predator. Early on, we found a mink winding around their coop. And once, after one died, an owl ate its head. We moved the coop in to the barn, out of the weather and further removed from claws, beaks and teeth. We secured the entrances to the barn. I don’t know when we stopped shutting the coop altogether.  

Six years in, their rickety little coop was falling to pieces. If you jostled the chicken-filled coop like a maraca for long enough, you could get the door closed but the locks wouldn’t line up. And what good would locks do when the chicken wire was coming off? Staple and nail. Staple and nail and still, corners popped up here and there, now and again. So we’d just shut the barn door instead of the coop. Only a few still slept in the coop anyway.

Ninja (or Dragon, we had two indistinguishable black chickens) sleeps on a high high shelf. No one knows how she gets up there, but the dismount is a bitch. Every morning, she throws herself off the ledge, bounces on her chest across the barn floor, rests for a disturbing moment, and then resumes her day. 

Meanwhile her twin was constantly brooding in the hay. After four years she was still convinced that an egg would hatch, some day. As she grew older, she grew broodier and broodier and I gave up trying to convince her to leave her faux clutch for the coop.

At six and four years old, their best egg laying days were behind them. There were only a few eggs a week, and that was during prime laying times. Yet we continued to feed them, not quite sure when to call it quits, or how. 

When we bought this place, I was thrilled to live out my farmish fantasies. Cows and chickens and a 5000 square foot garden!! My dreams were big and I had the energy and enthusiasm to match. After over two years of head injury, it doesn’t fit any more. Even if we had somehow known all that wasn’t coming back, all that I had to let go of, that this whole enterprise was actually over two years ago, who had the energy, the wherewithal to close up shop? We just kept doing what we could to keep what we had going. 

Slowly now, we are bringing the property to a state the matches what our lives look like now. Fences are being pulled out, large swaths of overly needy plants are in hospice care, their final days a looming certainty.  I don’t have the energy and desire for doing this dismantling work either, but it’s too depressing to look out the windows at Falling Apart Farm, Not Quite Able to Keep Up Enterprises, and The Garden of Dead Dreams. So each day, a little bit of farm gets folded up and put away. No one knew how to dis-assemble the chicken-husbandry.

That morning, I slid the broad, white, barn door aside and there, at my flip-flops, lay Sri Racha, a black and white speckled beauty, headless, her neck bleeding into the water jug, feathers everywhere. 

That was all I wanted to see. I did not want to step around her, deal with her, with this.  I didn’t like touching the chickens when they were alive, certainly dead would be no better. I dashed back to the house and asked Huck to bury the beautiful bird before he left for work.  By the time I realized he’d forgotten, the day was on its way to record-breaking heat.

And then, it slowly occurred to me that I hadn’t seen the other chickens emerge from the barn yet either. In retrospect, I seem like a dimwitted ninny, but it’s the slowness of the unsuspecting, I hope.
I sent my chicken rustler, my gross-chore go-to guy out to the barn for a reconnaissance mission. He returned with wild tales of blood and feathers and severed heads. If it wasn’t the work of Ozzie Osbourne, it was a mink or a new-to-the-hood raccoon. Coyote reported that the white one still had her head. Half of it. And she needed to be killed. 

Photos courtesy Blue Palmer: this was her favorite
I traded my flipflops for my barn shoes and went to witness the grizzly scene myself. I stepped over the corpse of Sri Racha and found the brooder’s body still on the nest, a testament to motherly instinct. The walls around it were covered in blood and her head lay nearby. Priscilla cowered just behind the door, her lower beak missing along with half her neck. I hoped she was dead, but she waddled a few steps. Ninja wandered through, dazed and silent, yet whole. The floor seemed to move and breathe with a layer of feathers. 

Priscilla was the original chicken. I picked her specifically to help me with my fear of chickens. She was the white one, the look alike to the headless chicken that attacked me in my youth. I did not want to kill a chicken; I did not want to kill Priscilla. I didn't want it to be final; could she pull through? Alternately, she seemed so close to death anyway, why bother with the final severance? But Coyote insisted. 

Despite my discomfort in asking for help, in the implication that I was in over my head farming-wise, I called the Russian neighbor, Sergei, the one who botched the killing of Beignet. They’d just lost nine chickens under similar circumstances. He quickly entered the barn, assessed the damage, and took Priscilla into his arms. He told me that I should run back to the house and prepare a large vat of just boiled water. I would dip the chicken (although his English is not great so he called it a dog) in to the vat, the feathers would fall off easily and then this incision and that and soon I’d be on my way to a wonderful cauldron of chicken soup, presumably to sooth my no-kill farmer-ette soul. 

I returned to the house and began filling a large pot with water, but then remembered his wife telling me to never ever eat laying hens because they are gross. A six year old laying hen would be even grosser. Chickens, like cows, were genetically separated long ago for their specific uses. A milk cow will give no meat and a meat cow will give little milk. A laying hen in her prime will lay daily but her muscles are jute twine and taste like chicken shit. A meat chicken will live 6 months and never lay an egg.

I wasn’t going to eat this ancient hen. I abandoned my cauldron and returned to the barn, realizing it’d just been a ruse anyway. While I’d remembered the shot between Beignet’s eyes not being immediately successful, Sergei likely remembered me passing out in his field and probably hoped to avoid an encore performance. Sergei’s “look over there!” ploy got me out of the barn long enough for him to slit Priscilla’s throat the rest of the way. When I returned, she was flopping and hopping about the barn, blood silently squirting from her neck. It was the same scene from when I was 7. The white bird. The red pulsing arc of life. She flung her large body against the hay, the walls, the coop. Meanwhile, Sergei tried to make small talk. I responded to his questions, one eye on the old bird, the one white bird, the memory, the dream, not gently dying, but raging, raging. It seemed she could go on forever that way. Here we are old girl. It’s over now. 

Priscilla was a great chicken, really, as chickens go. I’m not just saying that because she’s dead. If I loved any chicken, it was her. She never let me touch her. She was the first to try any new food, any dinner scraps I tossed over the fence. The others would wave their beaks over it and wait until she tried it first. I thought that would be the death of her, that she’d adventuresomely try a poisonous plant someday. But her instincts were right, always, and the others were smart (if that’s even a word that belongs to a chicken) to trust her lead.  She was the explorer, the adventurer. She was never the bottom of the pecking order, but seemed outside of it: sometimes not worth pecking, and other times their non-pecking leader. She seemed bothered by none of it, oblivious to the ever shifting chicken politics.

I didn’t really love my chickens, not in the emotional way, not the way I loved my cows. They were an experiment, a challenge, a desire to know where my food comes from and a way to face a childhood fear. If I never quite loved them, I did learn to care for their well-being, to not wish them ill, to not be terrified of them as I was when I was a child, or rather not as much. Priscilla was the closest I came to an emotional bond with these little dinosaurs. She was my childhood fear. And I made friends with her and in that way she was transformed from fear to friend. The poppy-red blood on white wings, once a macabre emblem of childhood drama, now felt like just another turn on our wheel of fortune, the end of another era.

Sergei piled the chickens like wood and I thanked him with a deep gratitude. I stood over Priscilla, my emotions held at bay for now with the practical issues of a hot day and a barn full of dead bodies.
At first, I tried digging a plot in the dry ground, hard as granite this time of year. I tried commandeering a gopher hole, but realized 25 pounds of chicken would not go easily or deeply into it. 

I donned my yellow kitchen gloves and haltingly reached towards Priscilla. My gloves matched her yellow claws. She was heavier than I imagined, her old body resting deeply into the dirt of the barn floor. I plopped her body into the black plastic bag. I plopped her head in to it. I plopped the brooder’s body in, her head too, and Sri Racha’s body, head still unaccounted for. The yard waste bag sagged and threatened to split open. I could barely lift it up into the garbage can. Luckily, pick-up was the next day and my girls would soon be cremated at the Waste-to-Energy plant. I placed my yellow kitchen gloves, like a rose, atop of the black bag inside the garbage can turned coffin. 

It turns out that Ninja was our sole layer as the trickle of eggs has not slowed since that Monday. She is truly free-range now as one chicken’s shits are easily avoided. She hasn’t quite figure out what to eat, except the grasshoppers. She dodges wildly back and forth, aiming for one specific victim in a sea of what seems like thousands around here this year. One can’t walk in flipflops across the lawn without making a little grasshopper pesto in one’s flipflops. (Even as I type, a grasshopper just flung itself at my computer screen...I think I left a window open)

Crunch all ya want! We'll make more!
Ninja, a dark shadow of my farmy dreams, is utterly alone now. Chickens are nothing if not social, despite their vicious pecking order. They are like middle school girls that way. One lonely chicken is so horrible that even the factory chick farms won’t sell them as singles. They need to know where they stand in order to survive. Even if it’s at the bottom. Even if they’re hen-pecked to death. They would prefer a death by peers to no peers at all. Ninja Dragon faces such a fate, poor dear. It might be more merciful to bring Sergei in, to finish off this farm once and for all.

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