I grew up in Indiana on a little farm with hundreds of chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, quail, pheasant and guinea. Yes, it smelled like birds, but that’s not what I remember. I remember how green the grass was, how rich it smelled laying in it cloud watching and how the weeping willow was the tallest climb-albe tree in our neighborhood.
We had horses, a black cat and dog. We also had, like most, a large garden with the usual suspects: carrots, tomatoes, peppers and tons of other vegetables along with gladiolas in rows and rows at the front of the garden. The bulbs were taken out every fall and kept under the house until next spring. The flower type was always predictable, just not the colors.
We canned all the vegetables and even made corn relish every fall. Each hot August my aunts, cousins and I would put on long sleeves, long pants, boots and hats and pick black berries near the creeks. This area was dense with blackberry brambles. We didn’t eat many berries since we were only allowed to go home the minute we filled our buckets, and not before. Now blueberries were another story. I always said they should weight us before and after, charging us the difference. Strawberries were different. They grew small and sweet and had to be picked from the garden each morning or the birds and other creatures would eat them. We had bowls of strawberries and cream for breakfast in the spring.
Keeping a garden was a full time job, or so it seemed. There was always weeding to do or tomato bugs to pick which were disgustingly fat and aggressive. Those mean fat green and black bugs would rear up when they sensed danger. My brother would run at me holding a grasping bug at arms length. He’d make a growling noise, like boys do, and then raise his arm as if he were going to throw it at me. At the last minute he’d wing it at the chickens.
We’d take the tomatoes that the bugs chewed or birds poked and throw them high in the air to land in with the chickens or turkeys. When the tomatoes hit the ground they exploded, spewing tomato blood on the white birds. They ran for their lives. Tomato bombing made us feel dangerous and powerful. Those birds should fear us. They should sense death on us.
The bloody tomato shrapnel was evidence of our crimes, for which we’d have a punishment doled out later. The punished was only half a consideration since future punishment weighted far less then the immense power felt in the moment over those birds; those birds that we had to get up early for; those birds who were considered our “chores”; those birds that kept us isolated in our bird killing world.
We were bird killers. The birds that didn’t get eaten by the foxes and dogs that out maneuvered our traps and killed prematurely, were eaten by us.
The day we butchered them was the day the birds grew nervous. They knew.
Out of sight from the flock, we’d lay the doomed head down on a log, stained from the past killing and land a hatchet on their necks, striking hard and steady, quick and clean. We were murders, but not cruel. Blood spurted. Their bodies, void of a head, would flop around until all the energy dispersed and then the chicken lay there and bled.
In the garage, us kids were in charge of dipping the headless bodies in boiling water by their feet until the feathers loosened. When the bulk of the feathers were ripped off we set to digging out the pin feathers. Inside the house the hot air was pushed around by floor fans, there was no air conditioning. Inside was where the grown ups cut the chickens up for the freezer. We knew we had the better end of the deal.
I didn’t know how to buy meat at the store until I was in my late twenties. It all looked wrong and different at the grocery. No white paper packages like in our lift top freezer all neatly laid out with black writing on them, “thighs”, “breast”, “half chicken”. It felt wrong walking up to a shelf of cooling meat. Too intimate. Too exposed.
I’d been warned to tell someone I was heading to the freezer, just in case I over reached toward the bottom and fell in. That happened to an old lady near my grandma’s house. She wasn’t discovered for weeks.
I grew up so country the first boy I kissed was related. When he called for me one day on our only rotary-dial phone, my step-dad told me that Shannon-boy was my cousin. Mortified, I stopped taking his calls.
I was adopted by the way.