When the chicken slaughter began, I wasn’t thinking about mortality or food ethics or my fraught relationship with meat; I was concentrating on not fainting. It happens occasionally—a minor embarrassment in doctor’s offices, hospitals, and, once, a high school English class while I read about the Chinese practice of foot binding.
The summer of the slaughter I worked on a farm. Our flock had stopped laying eggs, and so we scheduled the hens’ deaths to make room for a younger, more productive brood. On the appointed afternoon we met on a ridge overlooking the vegetable fields. The sky had pulled a blanket of clouds up from the ocean. The hens arrived in the back of a truck, where we heard them clucking behind the truck bed panels, discussing their change of scenery with confusion but not alarm.
The farm followed Jewish agricultural practices, and so the slaughter was kosher: shechita. Kosher slaughter minimizes an animal’s pain and preserves the body’s integrity. The goal is to end consciousness as quickly as possible. For chickens, kosher slaughter requires flawless knives, without dent or divot or nick, and a clean, quick cut to the esophagus and trachea. All of this I learned as the man conducting the slaughter demonstrated proper technique. He ran a finger along the blade of each knife and I tested my body’s response, feeling nothing, feeling pleased at the cool appearance I was giving off.
When the first chicken was brought to the knife, the executioner whispered a Hebrew blessing over it. He flipped the chicken on its back, its mottled feathers spilling over his hands. Its head was thrown back, its throat offered up, its eyes closed. The hen became still. We held our collective breath and he opened the neck with one swift slice.
I didn’t faint while watching the slaughter, didn’t even see points of light pricking at the corners of my vision as he cut one neck after another. The deaths were too quick, too clean, the animals acquiescing too completely. It was as humane as any killing could be but I still was sobered watching life transmute so quickly into death. I remembered the grainy footage of an atom bomb I watched in high school, and its reverse: light and noise and energy is sucked back into nothing. An erasure, a narrowing, light contracting until it disappeared into black.
Three of our farmers held metal cones into which each newly-dead chicken was stuffed, upside-down and undignified. Over a dozen hens followed this pattern: slice, flip, drain. The blood trickled over each neck, each sightless eye and open beak, life leaving its face in small rivers. When the blood had drained we hung the chickens by their feet on a nearby tree. I took a bird in my hands; it was warm and heavy. When I buried my hands in the feathers I felt the barbed outer plumes and the downy softness hiding beneath. The bird smelled like a pet, like a kitten: that warm-hay animal scent. And then I grabbed a fistful of feathers and yanked, each barb leaving a small, gaping mouth.
One farmer, ducking under the hanging birds, started to laugh. The sound startled our determined ripping. “I’m sorry,” he said, covering his mouth. “I don’t think any of this is funny.”
We nodded. Another coworker shrugged. “It’s just how your body responds.”
Which is true: our bodies act on their own accord when confronted with death, just as they do before beauty or anything ineffable. But it was also funny, or at least absurd—the chickens swaying from the trees like ornaments, our determination not to be squeamish, the tissue-thin fabric that hangs between life and death.
I have always needed to assign meaning to ordinary events. As I watched the bodies swing from tree branches I was already wrapping a narrative around this odd scene. I tried out a few options in my head: This is a story about our cultural aversion to death. This is a commentary on how removed we’ve become from our food.
That evening, my souvenir chicken tucked away in the freezer, I described the slaughter to my husband, trying out the narrative, explaining why everyone should butcher their own meat and why we’d all eat less of it if we did. His phone rang. It was his mom, calling to tell us that something had happened to a family we knew of—not well, a tragedy-once-removed sort of thing. A child had died a horrible, accidental death. It was the kind of news that renders anything from profanity to prayer insufficient.
He hung up the phone and we sat together in silence on the couch, my legs slung over his as the room grew grainy with dusk and the day erased itself. Neither one of us stood up to turn on the lights. He held his phone and I looked out the window. We said a few dumb things to each other, none of them cutting through the news that pressed thick on the room. Life is brutal, was all I could think.
There’s death at a distance—a chicken that will become your interesting anecdote and later, your dinner—and then there’s death in the acute. An accident that could happen to anyone; the death that will happen to you. Senseless loss that laughs at our absurdity when we try to wrap it in narrative.
A half hour passed; he eventually retreated to his laptop and I drifted to our bedroom. As I passed the bookshelf my hand reached out to swipe a book of poetry, which I watched with the same detachment that I had watched my fingers pulling feathers from hens that afternoon. The decision to pluck the book from the shelf was unconscious, just how my body responded.
image via Pixabay, public domain
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Annelise Jolley
Annelise Jolley is a San Diego-based essayist and journalist who writes about food, place, and faith. She holds an MFA from Seattle Pacific University and her work has appeared in Brevity, The Millions, Hidden Compass, and Civil Eats, among others. Read more at annelisejolley.com.