CW: animal slaughter
It is a gruesome alchemy that turns a life into a meal, and I have performed it; I have killed. Big Red was my first. She was a backyard chicken, a standard Isa Brown, newly relocated to my ramshackle homemade coop. A colleague brought Big Red around in her own cardboard box, separated from the three Rhode Island Whites he’d promised us. When my partner and I released the birds and they flapped their disoriented way across the yard, we saw why they’d been kept apart. Big Red was a bully. She’d plucked at the other three chickens mercilessly, so their necks were bare and their behinds were nothing but raw pink pillows of skin, their tail feathers rough scraps of faded white.
‘You can have this one as an extra,’ the colleague told us. ‘She’s not laying anymore. If you want to despatch her that’s okay with me.’
So Big Red became our experiment in wielding death.
Of course, it didn’t go smoothly. It wasn’t clean, or as quick as I’d hoped. I knew I wanted to kill a bird, and eat it, but I really had no idea how.
I called my dad, and he told me how he and his brother used to kill their chickens. I pictured them, two lanky Dutch boys of eight and nine years old, sat in the dirt facing each other, their feet touching and a bird in their arms. One held the head, the other the legs, and on a count they both leaned back until they felt a crack.
‘It flaps, of course,’ dad told me. ‘It flaps when you break its neck, but it’s already dead.’
He told me how they’d hang the bird from a tripod and catch its blood in a pit.
‘Or a bucket,’ I suggested.
‘Or a bucket,’ he agreed. ‘But in this case it was a pit.’
I thought about myself at that age, nose in a book. There are a lot of skills I have to catch up on.
My partner Ryan thought it’d be a better to chop the chicken’s head off.
‘You’ve never done it before,’ he counselled me, ‘and this way you know it’ll be a clean kill.’ He also thought it might be psychologically easier to be separated from the killing by a tool – to spare my bare hands the existential weight of it.
But we didn’t have a chopping block, and we didn’t have an axe. The day had come and we were yet to figure out the details.
My sister suggested I watch some YouTube videos first. I typed in “home chicken killing” and held my breath. A blurry American woman stood next to an iron shed and whirled a chook around her in a rapid sweeping windmill, holding it just by its head. With a squawk, the body flew off behind her and landed in the dirt a few metres away. I clicked onto the next video.
A lady in an apron and braids talked gently to her chicken for about five minutes, stroking its neck and cooing, before grasping it hard between her knees, slicing its throat with a small knife and yanking its head back to break its neck afterwards, blood flowing across her delicate hands. I clicked away.
The next video featured a disembodied pair of dusty boots with the voice of a British man. He laid his chook’s chest down on the deck and rested a little spanner across the back of its neck. Swiftly, one of the boots trod on the spanner and a hand simultaneously yanked back on the legs. The body of the bird flapped and flailed, seemingly going berserk, and the head dangled limply from a stretched neck.
This I could do, I thought. I watched it again.
I’d only had Big Red for a couple of weeks, and I knew the whole time that we’d end up killing her. I hadn’t grown attached. But when I picked her up for the first and last time, I was taken aback by how gentle and easy we were with each other. I cradled her under my arm, stroking her breastbone. She was quiet and still.
‘Hey there, beautiful,’ I told her. ‘It’s okay.’ I grasped hold of her feet and lay her chest across the deck, like I’d seen Boots-voice do in the video. Remarkably, she stayed calm. Ryan laid the broom handle across the back of her neck.
‘On the count of three,’ I said. ‘One…… Two……’ My count was slower than I intended it. I was working up the nerve. But then came ‘Three!’, and my foot went down on one side, Ryan’s foot on the other, and up I pulled on Big Red’s cool scaly legs.
I can’t remember the precise moment of the pulling. But I know I can’t have been concentrating enough on that one critical motion, because immediately afterwards there was a question between us. Was that it?
‘I think I heard the neck snap,’ Ryan said, and I pulled the bird up from the ground. She was still, and her head was sort of dangling, swaying from side to side.
Then, very slowly, but unmistakeably, I saw her blink.
I panicked. ‘Quick Ry, get the thing, quick!’ He grabbed the broom. I handed over the chicken. This time it was swift, and definite. Big Red started flapping and jerking, wings and legs aflutter, and didn’t stop for half a minute. Her neck was long and limp.
I was shocked, and relieved. I started to quietly cry, not because we had killed the bird, but because I’d failed to kill it on the first go, to give it the quick clean death all animals deserve. I didn’t linger with the feeling, though. We still had work to do.
A good death might be quick and clean, but a good evisceration is anything but. It’s confusing, prolonged and very sticky – at least, it was for me. Our knives weren’t nearly sharp enough, and when Ryan severed Big Red’s head he pierced the gullet, too. Soaked flecks of wheat mingled with the clotting blood at the base of the neck.
Late afternoon settled as we plucked and dunked and rinsed, the big pot of hot water next to us becoming dirty and tepid, feathers sticking to the wet newspaper laid out around the table in the middle of the yard.
When the bird was bare, Ry took our dull knife and cut a circle around its vent. He pierced the membranes holding it in place, and passed the body over to me. I stuck my tiny hand inside, as deep as I could. There was so much slipperiness. I’d read an instruction sheet on a backyard poultry forum that said, Just loosen it and all the insides will shoot out. It’s easier than it sounds, the author assured me. But there I was, wrist-deep in a bird, feeling around trying to pull organs off the frame. It was all so… slippery. I started taking handfuls indiscriminately and tugging downwards. Things flopped out. I went in for more.
There were several orange spheres in the mess, shiny orbs of decreasing size. Unformed eggs, a line of yolks. We marvelled at them, and put them in the growing pile of things for the dogs to eat.
I pulled and squelched, pulled and squelched. We identified the lungs, heart, kidneys, and the gizzard, ovoid and hard as a rock. Soon there wasn’t much left inside. I unstuck one last bit – the crop – and it was done.
What we held in our hands was dirty and torn, but it was the size and the shape of a supermarket chicken, even a little bigger. Bright gold fat oozed from under the skin. The life was gone, and the meat remained. We had peeled away the layers in between, and they now were scattered around us, on the table, in the bucket, in the dirt. Big Red’s severed head lay nearby, eyes closed, both peaceful and macabre. The three remaining chooks pecked happily in their pen.
Phoebe Paterson de Heer is a writer and organic farmer in South Australia.