Original art by Kathleen Holdaway Swain
Being a farm kid is not for sissies and cowards. The dark side of the chicken-raising experience is slaughtering, plucking, cleaning, and preparing of chickens for the pot. I watched as Mother transformed into a slobbering beast towering over the caged chickens while we shooed them into the corner of the chicken-yard. She seemed particularly calculating as she stooped, giving the poor chickens the impression the threat was over. Running her hooked wire clothes hanger at ground level into the midst of the terrorized multitude, she snatched a startled chicken who’d never expected to be attacked at the foot. Exiting the enclosure with her victim, she held it firmly by the head, giving its neck a quick snap before releasing it to turn its last crazy race. Chickens take a while to get the connection between a broken neck and the end of life. We crowded by, horribly thrilled by what we knew was coming. It was scarier than “The Night of the Living Dead” as the chicken flapped its wings, ran with its head hanging crazily to one side, and chased us in ever larger circles until it finally reached the Pearly Gates. It looked horribly cruel, but done properly, a quick snap of the wrist breaks the chicken’s neck instantly, giving a quick death. Sometimes, Mother killed several chickens for the freezer, treating the waiting chickens to a taste of what they were in for. It didn’t calm them down a bit as the watched the dearly departed flop around the yard.
Roosters are necrophiliacs, turned on by the sight of floppy-necked hens racing by. If one is enticing, just imagine the effect of a yardful! Lustful roosters have no problem resorting to violence toward moralistic humans trying to get between them their fascinating harem. For some reason, Mother was equally determined her chickens not be interfere with her chickens.
Once the chicken was disabled or dead, Mother grabbed it, plunged it into a pot of boiling water, plucked the feathers, slit its pimply white belly and removed its entrails, cut off its feet and head, and prepared it for dinner or the freezer. I was repulsed when Mother found unlaid eggs in the egg cavity and saved them for cooking. That just didn’t seem right. I was happy to eat the chicken, but future eggs…disgusting.
Mother looked out one day and saw one of her laying hens eating corn, oblivious to the fact that her gizzard was hanging out. It bobbed up and down gaily as the chicken pecked corn off the ground. Apparently she had suffered injury from a varmint. Clearly, she wouldn’t survive with this injury, so Mother and I tried to catch her. At least, she could be salvaged for the table. Well, Her running skills were still intact. We chased her all over the yard with no luck. Finally, Mother decided to put her out of her misery by shooting her. She missed. She fired again and shot the hen’s foot off. I knew I could do better. I shot her beak off, then hit her in the tail. By this time, we both felt horrible and had to get her out of her misery. Finally, the combined fatigue and her injuries had slowed the poor beakless, tailless, gizzard-bobbing, one-legged chicken down enough so we could catch her and wring her neck.
All chickens didn’t end life as happily. The LaFay girls, Cheryl, Terry, and Cammie raised chickens for 4-H completion with the of the flock destined to fill their freezer. Late one Thursday evening while their mother was at work, they realized tomorrow was the day for the 4-H barbecue chicken competition. Mama LaFay wouldn’t be in until way too late to help with slaughtering and dressing the chickens. After all the time and effort they had put in on their project, they had no choice but to press forward without Mama’s help. They’d helped Mama with the dirty business of putting up chickens lots of times. They’d just have to manage the grisly business on their own.
Cheryl, the oldest sister, drew the short straw and won the privilege of wringing the chicken’s neck. She’d seen Mama do it lots of times but didn’t understand the theory of breaking the neck with a quick snap. She held the chicken by the neck at arm’s length and swung it around a few times in a wide arc giving it a fine ride, but no real injury. When she released it, it just ran off drunkenly. The girls chased and recaptured the chicken a couple of times, giving it another ride or two before the drunken chicken flew up into a tree, saving its life. Acknowledging her sister’s failure, Terry stepped up to do her duty. She pulled her chicken from the chicken yard, taking it straight to the chopping block, just like she’d seen Mama do so many times. Maybe she should have watched a little closer. Instead of holding the chicken by the head and chopping just below with the hatchet, Terry held it by the feet. The panicked chicken raised its head, flopped around on the block, and lost a few feathers. On the next attempt, Cammie tried to help by holding the chicken’s head, but fearing dismemberment jumped when Terry swung the hatchet. The poor chicken only got a slice on its neck. By now, all three girls were squalling. Cheryl tied a string on the maimed chicken’s neck. As Cammie held its feet they stretched the chicken across the block. By now, Terry was crying so hard so really she couldn’t see. Taking steady aim, she chopped Henny Penny in half, ending her suffering. Guilt-stricken, they buried the chicken.
Defeated, they finally called their Aunt Millie, who came over and helped them kill and dress their chickens for the competition. They triumphed and won second place in a field of two. God only knows what the other team’s chickens may have endured. All’s well that ends well.