The horses were the prized possession of the Webers – I remember two specifically, one old gray mare named Pepper and the other, younger and feistier, named Dan. They were kept nearer the family community and grazed the brown, itchy pastures.
Then there were the chickens. They were kept near the horses and enjoyed roosting privileges in the stable-like environment. They were also able to graze and search for bugs in the surrounding area. They existed only for a short period of time but unlike most of my memories, I can conjure up their entire lifespan.
They started as fluffy balls, easy to hold and cuddle. They would hover under the heat lamp, a mass of pulsing yellow and white. Their smell was hot and earthy; the air was heavy with grain dust. Then slowly they grew up, becoming less cute and almost impossible to cuddle. As they became full-grown chickens, their use to us children diminished greatly. The only fun was in running through a flock of them and watching them scatter noisily or throwing a handful of grain to see their strange little twig legs run as fast as they could towards the food.
The chickens quickly became another annoying chore – like watering the garden or snapping the ends off the green beans – someone had to go water them and feed them. We fought over who had to take care of them. Between the heat in the coop and the nauseating smell of chicken scat, it was an almost painful task. They became spiteful creatures, perhaps aware of our resentment. They would peck and show cruelty towards each other in a very disconcerting, physical way. Some of them lost feathers in patches due to stress and bullying. I was afraid to approach their domain. I wondered why we kept them.
And then the day came when we were to “butcher” the chickens. I was unfamiliar with this term at seven years old. I was told my job was to help herd and catch them one at a time so that we could bring them to the block to be butchered. It was either a weekday or the men were elsewhere because I only remember the women being there along with the children. We tried valiantly to catch chickens but they were crafty and mean. They pecked us and squawked, clawing and fighting, burning our precious calories in an attempt to buy themselves a few extra minutes.
I was exhausted with the effort to catch them and went to find my mother who was standing by a cinder block, looking flushed and nervous. She was wearing a red bandana around her head, our version of Rosie the Riveter. As I stood there, she was handed a chicken. I was awe-struck momentarily as she held it in mid-air, it’s feathers flying, neck bending, eyes beading out. Then she held it against the block, clenching her jaw. Though she was a farmer’s daughter from Nebraska, it was clear that she was relatively clueless about how to go about doing this. She must have felt so exposed standing there with everyone watching, depending on her to know what to do next.
Initially, like a compassionate executioner, she tried to knock the chicken out. Time and again, she hammered at its tiny head trying to make it unconscious. Each time she’d strike, the chicken would shake its head and stare at her with its one beady eye, the other one pressed against the cinder block. Feathers fell off the bird out of sheer exertion and surrounded the area. Finally my mother realized it was actually more merciful just to quickly make the cut and she picked up the ax, lifted it high and dropped it down powerfully. The blade made a clean cut through the chicken’s neck and blood poured out, staining the cinder block. It was shocking and powerful. The chicken ran around with no head, arteries cauterized by the sharp blade of the ax. We watched and the boys laughed. I felt sick.
Later it became my job to pull the feathers off the boiled chickens. I was disgusted by their wet, headless bodies and their strangely sharp tail-feathers. The dense smell of dead flesh hung in the air and stuck in our clothes. We robotically continued our tasks until the job was done, the meat was packaged and safely placed in the giant community freezer.
We never raised chickens again and it took us a long, long time before we could eat from the fruits of our labor that day.