My Bloody Valentine
June 6, 2011
(Please note – this post is, in part, about animal slaughter.)
Ellen rolled in after midnight from her Saturday night party. She checked her email before she went to bed.
“Oh, wow,” she called out to me from the office.
“What?” I asked, flipping through House Hunters.
“Google Calendar sent me an alert. It says: Kill Chickens.”
Sunday morning, she had to get up early with the kids to take them to an event with a friend. When she got back, I had set up the driveway with knives and buckets and coolers and stools. I was wearing my oldest jeans, the ones that really should be thrown away because you can see my butt through the threadbare fabric.
“I’m going to get the ice,” I told her. We were going to put the finished birds in ice water in the big cooler to hold as we worked.
“Get me a Coke while you’re at it,” she said.
“You’re hung over,” I said.
She nodded behind her sunglasses. This has been our deal since we became parents. She can go out and party as much as she wants, but she has to bounce out of bed ready to parent the next morning. I never go easier on her with the parenting when she’s hung over and I wasn’t going to go easy on her about the chickens, either.
We are not experts at killing chickens. We only killed three last year. The first one took us nearly an hour to get through the whole process. Sunday we spent five and a half hours on 13 chickens.
The actual killing is the easiest part. It’s harder to catch them, because they are small and fast and they know something is up. It’s harder to pluck them, because it’s detail work with small, downy, wet feathers. It’s harder to gut them, because you have to understand enough about their anatomy to know where to cut the tendons and how to grab the organs and not to nick the intestines.
At one point, I was holding a thrashing, decapitated chicken between my knees, trying to make sure the blood didn’t spatter too much. There was a bin full of warm, dead birds next to me and, in back of the garage, there was pen with agitated, living birds about to be killed. E dropped the bloody head into the bucket and gestured with the bloody knife. “Do you think anyone puts this in their internet dating profile?” she asked me. “Must want to kill chickens 18 years from now.”
Of course they don’t. That’s one of the many wonderful things about marriage. From wherever we were when we met almost 19 years ago, she and I grew into this place together. I don’t know anyone else who would spend a Sunday with me, elbows deep in dead animals. I could not have asked for it all those years ago because I didn’t know I wanted it. Being with her all this time has taught us, gradually, that what we want is to raise and kill a whole bunch of chickens.
Ellen and I did this for us. Last year it might have been about teaching Jacob a lesson about where meat comes from, but this year we raised all these babies, sold some and slaughtered others because we wanted to see if we could do it. We both had doubts that maybe we were too ambitious. We both looked at each other in the middle of the afternoon, exhausted and overwhelmed. “I think we just need to push through and do them all,” she said, just as I was thinking the same thing. I could not have loved her more.
This is the very core of our marriage. We want to do it ourselves. We believe in our ability to figure out any project. We give each other permission to make something that might not pass muster in a store. She says, “I’ll kill it if you dress it,” or I say, “I’ll dress it if you kill it,” and we’re off to the races. We know it’s not going to be perfect, but we want to figure it out.
We had no intention of teaching the kids anything Sunday afternoon. This was about us, seeing if we could see this project through. We had Jacob plucking for a few minutes and then we sent him back inside to do chores and play his PS3. Ruth watched a lot of TV so that E and I could concentrate on our project and each other.
It was so much more intense than I could have imagined. When it was over, the knees of my jeans were soaked in blood. I got so accustomed to eviscerating them that when I used my fingers to break the membranes that held the organs in the body, I could identify each one by touch: heart, gizzard, liver, intestines, lungs. An animal’s body doesn’t naturally want to be disassembled. It takes force and knowledge and bladework to take apart a body. It’s very different from cutting a grapefruit into supremes or dicing a mango. The body wants to hold together. That’s the point of the tendons and membranes and skin.
Ellen talked to each bird as she killed him. (They were all roosters.) Sometimes she was soothing. She swore at the one who bit her when we were catching him. I didn’t think she would do that, address each bird as an individual right up until the moment of his death. When I was setting up the knives and the buckets in the morning I didn’t know that the afternoon was going to be so much about the two of us, together. We killed and gutted 13 chickens. It was romantic.