Noise from a pedestal erect in signboard's shadow. Scratching, metallic, ending with a squawk. A blond head leans from the van window. I hear a raised voice. "No, no. Two! Not three! Two chicken sandwiches, with large fries."
Consider a chicken, scratching its life out in a barnyard, gobbling seeds, bugs, and other creatures. Chickens possess spare intelligence, but they are wily, vibrant, colorful animals, grounded birds meant to live in the open air, to roost when the sun sets, to nest on a clutch of eggs, and then to shepherd chicks in a forage for insects and seeds.
Consider a chicken, one confined among twenty thousand, genes manipulated, beaks and toes clipped, pecking endlessly at an amalgamation of grain, antibiotics, and growth hormones, a mutant, heart and lungs too weak to sustain it past six weeks, tottering on legs too frail to support its weight.
Hungry enough, I might catch a chicken—a dusty bird, comb bright red, raised on dirt and grass, free to scratch and peck, left to grow upon this earth. And, hungry enough, I would kill it, but it will not be fun, nor easy. Chickens scramble out of reach if chased, winging away on the premonition of death hovering in the stalking shadow.
Crate-packed, crate-trucked, crate-dumped onto conveyor belt, the mutant bird cannot resist being strung up by its feet, and then dipped into an electrified water bath. Stunned . . . into product, into shrink-wrap plasticity, the aberrant creature rides down to the blood-letting knife and the boiling tank.
I prefer not to kill, but if I am hungry enough, evolution's god says I will value the sanctity of my life above that of nearly every other living thing. I can kill to fill my belly, but I hold life sacred, venerable, and once lost, irretrievable.
But I will be angry, frustrated, with the heated chase, the sprint from one side of the pen to another, and again. A chicken is not easily captured. I will pause. I will want to think, to slow down, to reflect on what's to be done.
I will want to release the passion, the hot-tempered annoyance that bubbled up during the chase. I have killed groundhogs that burrowed in alfalfa fields and rabbits that raided gardens. I have killed snapping turtles, mice, and scorpions. Kill—and blood seeps into the ground. Kill—and blood and bones rest silent in accusation. Kill in anger—and corrupt the blood bounty, the sacrifice of life-for-life.
If I am hungry enough, I will be resolute, but not so much that I can grasp the bird by the head and swing it quickly in circles. Bloodless, true. And primal. Hands grasping weight of living creature, embracing breath, heart-beat. Hands whipping, life force shivering, collapsing as neck and head come unhinged.
Instead, I will trust folk memories—mechanical, tolerable, once-removed from death-dealing. Ax and chopping block. I will grasp the bird smartly by both legs and pose its head upon the block. Aim and strike. There will be noise and fluttering before I strike, and blood and more fluttering afterward.
If I cannot find an ax, I will cast about for a cleaver or a butcher knife and pin the bird's neck to the block with its edge. Then, hammer smartly down on blade-back.
This death-dealing—this blood-letting to slake hunger—I understand, remember, cannot be a pleasant thing. It will nag as the hot brassy smell of sacrifice lingers in the nostrils.
Next boiling water—chicken by its feet and dipped rapidly once, twice, three times into the steaming kettle. Moist heat loosens feathers, but plucking feathers from a chicken is still a slow process. Dip the carcass, and then pull feathers handful by handful. Dip again. And once more, and again, finally down to pin feathers, the tiniest and most difficult to remove, each repetition sending up the musty, acidic odor of wet feathers to mix with the hot brassy smell of blood and the rankness of guts and offal.
The ceremony will approach its culmination as I once again turn to the knife. I will open the chicken from breastbone to anus, careful over the depth of the cut to avoid ripping open stomach or gut. I will spread the carcass, remove all that made it live, and wash out the cavity—then once more to the whetstone to sharpen edge to trim feet from body, superfluous skin from neck and belly.
I will then wash the bird, this creature dead and empty, now meant to fill my plate, and put it on ice. Look about. Killing is a messy business, and there is work yet to do. Feathers, feet, head, and guts must be buried or burnt. Knife and hands washed of blood.
But I will eat, remembering what I have seen, smelled, and touched. Life is sacred, holy, irreplaceable, and I will taste its richness on my tongue, suck it in, and chew it down.
Life from life. As it should be.
A gum-chewing teenage girl topped by an oddly-shaped cap leans from the building's bay window. She thrusts a small yellow sack toward the large gray van. The blond woman's arm protrudes to grasp the bright-colored packet holding two Styrofoam and plastic-clad patties blended and shaped from white and dark broiler meat, eight ounces, more or less, of the more than forty billion pounds of chicken manufactured and sold each year.
I move forward. "Garden salad, ice tea, please" I say to the girl. Without ambiguity. Without irony. I eat no meat now. I have learned the only grace to be had in using a living creature to satisfy my appetite is to see it alive, to comprehend its sacrifice, to understand the cost.
I look down at my salad, planted, tended, harvested—consecrated—by a migrant worker or a child in some far-off place, and I meditate on my still unholy Eucharist.
Gary Presley is a vegetarian not a vegan, which means he often enjoys a boiled egg with Tabasco sauce. He gave up meat for Lent fifteen years ago and found fleshly abstinence no problem, which means the non-sacrifice contravened the purpose of Lent. It came to him recently that one year he'll need to eat meat for Lent to even the karmic energy. He is the author of Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio.
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