Thursday, April 3, 2014


The pig was before my time, but I remember the chickens. My sister and I sometimes helped my feed them grain and collect eggs. As far as I know, no one in the family developed any emotional connection to them, as owners of such things sometimes do. We watched with interest as Dad beheaded one or more of them, holding the body at arms length until it stopped flapping and spraying blood around. (I once asked a doctor what method of execution would be fastest and least painful, and he said probably the guillotine would have been as humane as anything. On the basis of watching the chickens meet their end I have wondered idly if guillotined French aristocrats flailed around comparably; but there are things one doesn't have to know. I'm glad, anyway, that the chickens and the aristocrats didn't suffer, except in anticipation -- the aristocrats, of course; Barbara Kingsolver says poultry on the threshold of eternity have no idea what's coming.)

We loosened the feathers with boiling water and pulled them out with tweezers. Dad sat at the kitchen table to clean the birds with a pail at his feet to receive intestines and other inedibles, and explained the internal organs to us as they came out. He kept the liver, gizzard, and heart, which he enjoyed in the fricassee that marked the chicken's final appearance on the table.

On one of these occasions I picked up a chicken head from beside the chopping block and examined it closely: reddish feathers, yellow beak, wide-open beady little yellow-ringed black eyes. I thought it was neat. I asked my mother if I could keep it. She said I could not. She maintained that it would become ugly and stinky very soon. I didn't believe her. I often disbelieved things I hadn't experienced personally. At least, I had to be able to visualize it as a direct result of what I had witnessed. I had seen Mother's dire prognostications fail to materialize. When no one was looking, I carried off the chicken head and put it in the mailbox for safekeeping. I knew, of course, that it couldn't stay there. I intended to retrieve it at my leisure and hide it in my room.

As children will, I got sidetracked and forgot about the chicken head in the mailbox. Mother found it when she went to mail a letter. She was not pleased. Of course, there was no possible question as to who was responsible. Even aside from my earlier expression of interest in the object, bizarre occurrences were routinely, and usually correctly, ascribed to me.

Mother read me the riot act. The mailman, she declared, would be within his rights in declining to deliver mail to people who kept chicken heads in their mailbox. I don't remember particularly regretting the chicken head, beyond feeling rather foolish for forgetting about it and incurring a scolding.