The solid thwack of the axe hitting the block signaled the beginning of the blood bath. That Saturday morning instead of watching my favourite cartoons, I watched the beheading of chickens. I was seven years old, and it was my first ever butchering day. I didn’t consider what would be taking place. I was a kid. Thinking ahead only extended into my next meal. Hopefully it included a grilled cheese.
In 1972 my Dad bought the farm. He didn’t die— he really bought the farm. He purchased the old homestead from his parents, my Gramps and Grams. It was springtime. When sunshine sprawled out across the day, like the to-do list on the side of the fridge.
Our first chicken adventure began around Easter time, my Grams and Gramps had gone to the Co-op to shop. I was hoping for a bag of chips and a pop. They returned with two boxes filled with fluffy, peeping, yellow chicks.
Grams brought them in the house to show us. She told us one box was layer chickens, and one box was fryer chickens. Who cares? They were the cutest babies in the world. They became an assigned chore for my older sister, Cheryl and I. Our younger sister was too young to help, lucky little, dust collector. The feeding, and watering was a necessity. The loving was an extra touch. Over the next few months I grew attached to a couple of the chickens. I had a favourite, named Spot. At this point I had no idea about the butchering day. I thought all eating chicken came from Colonel Sanders house in one way or another.
On butchering day, we entered the chicken coop together, a gang of farmers— Grams, Mom, Cheryl and I.
Grams stalks towards the chickens, “Now, watch how I catch them?” She instructs us. The flock of birds scatter before her, like kids running from a giant dodge ball. She snatches up two chickens, one in each hand. They dangle by the feet squawking in protest. She gestures towards the fleeing chickens. “Grab the bigger ones, they’re the fryers. Leave the thinner ones, they’re the layers.” Grams bustles out the door with her chicken prizes.
I look around. What? What is this madness you speak of? The Fryers, and Layers? I’m starting to connect the dots in my head. I always liked connect-the-dots—until now. I study Spot, my most favorite chicken with a black dot on his head. He looks pretty skinny. He must be a layer. He’s safe.
Mom snags up a couple chickens making it look easy. Cheryl and I scramble after flapping wings. Cheryl gets one, she’s lean and quick.
I corner one, it’s chubby like me. I tuck the hefty bird under my arm stroking its head, “It’s okay.” I comfort the frightened fryer, “It’ll be okay.”
It was a smart chicken. It was right to be frightened. Heading outside the pen, the gate swings shut behind me with a bang. I am focused on my scared little chickie, trying to calm it down. I lift my head to see Grams bringing an axe down on a chicken’s neck. Her face is grim, and her biceps pop. I don’t even recognize her. Shouldn’t she be wearing an executioners hood? I don’t know if I can eat her donuts anymore.
“Thwack!” sounds the axe. The chicken’s head bounces when it hits the ground, blood sprays. Grams tosses the body into the grass, as casually as a newspaper to the floor. The headless body dances in acrobatic style, spurting crimson, colouring the green grass red.
Grams fixes her deathly stare on me, “Debby, bring me your chicken,” she orders.
I swallow hard. I’m a farm girl— this is what we do. I gently pass the chicken to Grams.
She snatches it from my loving arms by its feet. It screeches, trying to stab her with its beak. “Bring me two next time.” She demands as she lays its neck across the block. “And hold them by their feet so they don’t peck,” she adds.
I race back inside the pen, covering my ears, not wanting to hear the sound of the axe. I bump into Mom carrying two chickens by the feet. One of them is Spot and he is screeching.
My eyes pop, “No, Mom, no!” I beg, “Spot’s a layer. You can’t take him.”
“But he’s a rooster, he isn’t going to lay eggs.” Explains Mom with impatience in her voice. I can tell she’s not having any fun either.
My eyes fill, “But he’s Spot.” My lip quivers, “Please Mom, he’s my pet. No one told me he was a rooster.”
Being a farming gang meant butchering chickens. In the years following, our young sister, Shannon brushed off the dust, and joined the crew. We all learned to keep an emotional distance between ourselves and the chickens. As children we are as impressionable as fresh clay. As we grow, we are moulded, coloured and fired by the people and events in our lives.
We never did butcher Spot. He died of old age. I used to think Mom showed mercy for the chicken, but it was her hands in the clay of kindness for me.