I grew up in the country on a little farm with hundreds of chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, quail, pheasant and guinea. It smelled like birds, but that's not what I remember. I remember how green the grass was, rich and clean, and full of summer. I lay in that patch of deep green grass cloud watching and felt the cool on my skin. The tree nearby was a perfect climbing tree, a large grandfather weeping willow that provided a shady area for hiding from the high sun as well as switches for those days we misbehaved.
We had horses, a black cat and, eventually, a 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, made fruit preserves, jams and jellies and even made corn relish at the end of the summer. I say, "we" but really the grown-ups did this part. Us kids did the gathering part.
Each hot August my aunts, cousins and I would put on long sleeves, long pants, boots, hats and pick black berries near the creeks. This area was dense with blackberry brambles, stickers that would grab through your clothes and gouge skin. No one was exempt from being tore-up when picking black berries.
We didn't eat many of these berries since we were only allowed to go home the minute we filled our buckets and not before. Blueberries were another story. They are kind berries and grow in manicured orchards. The orchard owners should have weighed us before and after, charging us the difference. Strawberries were also 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. In spring, we had bowls of strawberries and cream for breakfast.
Keeping a garden was a full time job, or so it seemed. There was always weeding to do or disgustingly fat, aggressive tomato bugs to pick. Those mean green and black bugs would rear up when they sensed danger, seeming to attack us before we got them. My brother would run at me holding a grasping bug at arms length. He'd make a growling noise, like boys do, and 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, we smelled of death.
The bloody tomato shrapnel was evidence of our crimes, for which we'd have a punishment doled out later. Our love and hate of that weeping willow was confusing. The punished was only half a consideration since future punishment weighted far less then the immense power we 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.
The kids at school didn't know who we were. They thought milk came from the grocery store, that baby birds were pets. They were delighted when we brought incubators to school to show the adorable miniature baby quail or cute fluffy baby chicks. Those days we were heroes. No one asked what we did with the grown birds.
The day we butchered was the day the birds grew nervous.
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.
No one talked. We worked quietly, solemnly to fill our freezer.
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 and packaged them for the freezer. We knew we had the better end of the deal.
The winters were hard. We had no need to leave the house when roads were closed. We had a freezer and a stocked pantry. One winter the snow covered our house and we could not get out. The only way out was the garage door, a small foot of sky at the very top, but that meant snow would collapse inside the garage. We waited it out.
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 cooled 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 was discovered weeks later.
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. When I saw him next, he was hurt and angry. It was a necessary evil. I couldn't tell him I was adopted.
I can so relate to this. I was born in Oklahoma, but raised in California. My parents and I lived in a rural town as they worked the crops. We always had fresh fruits and vegetables, and remembering how things tasted compared to store bought. We had chickens so we always had fresh eggs. My father actually would ring the chickens neck when it was time to eat them. I remember watching through the window half amazed and half mortified as the chickens flopped around. It was cruel, but that’s just how it was, and it was the way we lived. We would buy ducks, and rabbits, and we loved watching them grow. Now I’m a grandmother and I try to keep a garden in my small backyard for my grandchildren. I like to watch things grow Willy nilly with no rhyme or reason. One year I grew a 80 pound pumpkin! This is a different time now, but that’s just how it is, and it’s now the way we live.