Friday, July 17, 2009

A Funeral of Birds

My brother Shevy picked me up from Zuni in the midst of ominous clouds, but the rain didn't break as we drove up into Candy Kitchen through the green pines and red sandstone. When we pulled into their acre under the piñons, I noticed a dying baby swallow in the bed of the truck. She had fallen out of a nest, perhaps, in Zuni where they darted around the eaves of the roofs. She was severely stunned and too young to make it without her mother. She opened her black eyes and beak a few times weakly, sometimes sputtering and spasming. I didn't have the courage to kill her and when I tried to set her in a tree, she would seize violently until she started to fall. Knowing the kitten was prowling, I set her at the foot of a tree. The kitten would have a play at hunting.

I felt regret at not having the courage to kill the bird. Max consoled me, "The kitten got hunting practice. Babies killing babies."

I was not consoled. I had never taken an animal's life myself and had wished I had, to spare her the minutes of kitten torture before she died.

The next afternoon, some of our neighbors spontaneously visited all at once and convened in the driveway. The UPS truck pulled in randomly at the same time to deliver Shevy's chainmail supplies. The dogs barked briefly, but without enough urgency to warn us of the coyote passing across the road with a red young chicken in its mouth. We marveled at how close it got at such a leisurely pace, as if flaunting the kill. Shevy and Max don't have guns and the coyote disappeared in the pines to the South. After a check of the chicken houses, we determined it was our neighbor's chicken.

Young Mike, who lives down the road, had a violent, rapist rooster to kill for a neighbor and Shevy and Max had been thinking of taking their rooster Spud as well, as he's been pecking the hens quite rudely. We decided to meet here to harvest the birds the next evening.

Shevy had to work that afternoon so Max and I distracted ourselves with projects. We built a deck in front of the trailer, put a loaf in the bread machine and cleaned up the kitchen.

In addition to the rapist, there was another hen who has been eating eggs, so she was also collected. Mike and I drove them ceremoniously in a banged-up hearse he and Genevieve had just fixed up. As we drove back to Shevy and Max's, he told me it had carried 27 bodies. A good number.

I was the only one who had been a part of chicken harvest, plucking and eviscerating, but none of us had killed our own meat before. We dallied, preparing nachos and listening to metal. The trailer filled with the ring and sheen of sharpening knives. Mike brought a knife his grandfather had made by hand. That was to be the knife we would use to take the birds. We were children who had not yet shed blood, so we had to steel our nerves for the kill. We decided to ritually carry the raping and baby-eating birds out of the hearse. Mike donned an executioner hood made from a Navajo Pride flour bag with eye holes cut. Shevy hooked his chainmail belt on with a cut-off Punisher skull tee. Max wrapped a cloak about his shoulders. With the Darth Vader theme playing out of the trailer, Max and Shevy marched the chickens around back and Mike came up in the hood, carrying a sword. It was unplanned and we laughed nervously. Shevy tried to open the cage and pull the cock out, but he protested in a flurry of squawks and feathers. We suspended the ritual, growing nervous now, and prepared for the actual harvest. The chickens knew their fate and that this was only ritual.

We had waited long enough. Dusk was coming. Shevy and Max decided to save Spud for another day as it was getting late and we already had two to butcher.

We cut a hole out of the corner of the executioner hood to turn it into a kill bag. A table was set with a cutting board and construction plastic. Max covered the bottom of a 5 gallon bucket with earth to catch the blood and feathers. I knew it was up to me to start it, having had the most experience. My voice was beginning to shake but I opened the cage and grasped the rooster firmly from the back. It let out a bloodcurdling scream, which scared Max off to the the pop-up at the back of the land. I whispered to it as we put it into the bag.

I was thankful Mike was courageous enough, without speaking, to take his grandfather's knife first. I held the rooster and, after a few starts and fits from the bird, Mike slit its throat. Dots of dark velvet blood hit his face. We breathed in the evening, Shevy above us, Mike holding his head and I his body. This was opening us all to the doorway in which all flesh eaters of our ancestors passed through. Shevy was in a trance, eyes open, concentrating on calming the bird as he crossed over into the spirit world. Mike and I spoke of meat eating, awareness, a few laughs broke the fear.

The vat of water was still on the flame, so we bled out the cock and went on the the hen. It was my turn to handle the knife. The hen was calm. I looked her in the eye and massaged her throat, then drew the knife through her neck. The cut wasn't very deep but she didn't protest much and ruby blood spilled downward. I drew the blade across again to hasten her death and apologized to her out loud. My nerves nearly gave and sadness welled in my eyes, but my intent grew hard and clear like the knife. Mike and I held her until she bled out and the last shudder of life left her. I went into the trailer to ask Max to bring the water. I dunked the birds and began to show Mike how to clean them, starting with the rooster. (I will leave out the details of evisceration, but for those who haven't done it and are interested, the best site I've seen so far is the blog on How to Butcher a Chicken.)

Dark came upon us and it was Mike's turn to clean the hen. The coyotes began to howl and I looked Mike in the eyes and laughed. Shevy brought out a lantern. Their crops were full of grain, since the neighbors who sent them to us didn't know to fast the chickens before harvest. It was messy and we were inexperienced. The hen had a fully formed egg with a soft proto-shell and yolks at various stages and sizes clinging to the back of her ribcage. We stood mesmerized before her. Since she had been eating her own eggs and the eggs of her friends, her liver was yellow and she was mostly bright yellow fat.

It was well after dark when we finished. Mike and Shevy went to bury the bucket of blood, guts and feathers out West behind the land for the coyotes: an offering of sorts to let our chickens alone. Max and I cleaned up the site. He dumped the vat of fatty, bloody water on the turnips. As wolves howled from the Sanctuary to the East, we washed up at the water tank on the shed deck, the grey water going into the blood bucket to rinse it. Shevy then dumped the bucket away to the North. He came back with a quartz crystal spear he found there and placed it on the table where we slaughtered.

Mike bid us farewell and we sat in the trailer for a while, mostly silent, until almost midnight. Shevy said to me, "You don't look so good."

I hesitated. "I'm processing...that was my first kill."

He nodded. "Oh, I didn't know."

We eventually shuffled off to bed, warning each other we might be kept up by coyotes. Half-asleep, continually I reminded myself we cleaned everything up. Through the night, I heard wolves and coyotes yipping and howling and kept smelling wafts of bird fat and death.

In the morning I awoke with a heavy humility. I had looked a soul in the eyes and took its life. For the first time in this body, I felt a sense of adulthood. I placed the quartz under the piñon pine where we spilled the birds blood. Sunday we will feast on chicken and dumplings, BBQ chicken and greens, and give thanks again.


  1. wow...that was beautiful...i have been on a process myself around this subject in life..being a flesh eater myself...last summer i caught and killed a fish by was my first was hard...but not as hard as it will be when it comes to my chickens...this fall is my birthday and i have asked a friend to take me deer hunting...i feel it is time..thank you for sharing your was very emotional and my eyes welled up for you...and the chicken...

  2. Such is the cycle of life! We often chow down on vegetables without remorse, yet when life forms closely to ours it becomes much harder...maybe, there is a reason for this? Is it not a form of cannibalism in a sense? Flesh eating flesh...As soon as I can sustainably grow and trade all my own food I think I'll walk away from meat forever. Though, not before slaughtering a buffalo or two.