How To Kill A Chicken
The first thing is to catch them unawares. Jana; small, skinny, fifteen, with braids and a plain blue dress entered the coop. The chickens looked at her cautiously, expectantly, sidestepping around each other. They were used to her coming in every afternoon to gather eggs and scatter feed. They circled round her in anticipation of food to come, but when there wasn’t any they scattered and resumed their sleepy pecking at the ground. Jana walked softly, heal to toe. She spotted the medium sized red hen she had picked out that morning. Slowly, she circled behind the chicken, and then in one swift movement pulled it up in the air, grabbing it by its feet. The chicken screeched, flapping its wings wildly against the sky. The other fowl ran clucking and shrieking to the corners of the chicken wire. Jana, holding tightly to the flapping bird, walked out of the coop and around to the side of the house.
The Grand Tetons loomed in the distance, fighting sharply against the blue of the sky before cascading into the endless flatness of the valley. Every time Jana saw the mountains, she caught her breath. The beauty of them would at times hurt her, causing a deep pain in her chest, an ache, a joy that made her want to lift up off the ground and float above their ridges. She closed her eyes, forgetting the chicken for a second, and inhaled deeply the dry, dusty air. She could smell the heat, the thickness of summer, the grass, and the wheat, wildflowers, and cows all melting together into something deep, hot, sweet, dry and musty like the earth when held in your fingers.
She reached the side of the house, sat down on a stump, and pulling the legs in one direction, pulled the neck in the other and bent it until she felt a snap. She released the chicken, watching it run the life out of its body around the yard. Her dad always took their heads off with the axe, but Jana didn’t like that. She sometimes felt kindred to the chickens and felt she’d rather go this way than headless and bloody. “Everything dies alone,” She thought to herself watching the bird start to slow down, “Except a chicken.”
Jana and her dad were out on the ranch. He was branding the cows while Jana held them. Cattle thieves from Laramie had been sneaking onto their property more and more frequently that summer. He’d reported over a dozen head of cattle missing over three months but nobody seemed to care much or to think there was much that could be done about it. One night he came back from town with three guns — one for each of them, and the cattle brander. His face set.
She had left him for just a moment to check on her mom. Mom was sick. It was an illness that came on gradually, slowly, and everyone noticed it but no one talked about it. It was as though if it weren’t acknowledged then it couldn’t be real. Even when the blood started to appear on her mom’s handkerchiefs after coughing fits — even then it wasn’t mentioned. Instead, they went about life as usual, only mom rested more, and Jana watched more.
Jana ran into the house and up the stairs two at a time. The wooden steps creaked and dust flew off of them. She bolted around the corner and stopped short. Her mother was lying there in the white bed, in the whitewashed room, wearing a white, waxen face. Nothing moved. Jana sat down in the doorway and stared. She felt the urge to rub some dirt on the bed, on her mom, on the walls — everything was too clean to be real. The room was breathless and still, except for a slow ticking clock that hung on the wall. Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock. She cocked her head to one side to listen.
Jana hung the lifeless chicken up by its feet above the shed door, and pulling a bucket out, placed it underneath. Going back into the shed, she returned with a knife and made a long slow cut from the mouth down the neck of the bird and watched the blood slowly drip out. She wiped off the knife with her apron, set it back in the shed and walked a bit away, as if to give the chicken a little dignity space. She stooped down, eying the small stones on the ground. Her hand expertly passed over the bigger ones, seeking out the smaller, smoother, rounder stones and putting them in her pocket. Once full, she reached in her pocket and felt around until she had gotten just the right one, then drawing it out, turned it over in her hand several times feeling the warmth and weight of it. With her toe she drew a circle in the dirt, filled it with the stones from her pocket, and squatting down began arranging them as if they were marbles. She tucked the chosen rock between her index finger and thumb and flicked it out into the middle. It hit the first rock out of the circle.
Her dad had found her there, in the doorway to her mom’s room, one, maybe two hours later. He had been shouting out “Janet!” from the barn, but she had ignored his voice, staring numbly instead at a fly on the windowsill. The sound of his heavy boots coming up the stairs had made her jump. He came around the corner and Jana glanced up from the fly and stared into his face. A large band of dirt was wiped across his forehead. Jana scrunched her nose at him looking at his big, red, perspiring face; he smelled of cows and hay and sweat. She remembered thinking that he didn’t belong here, in this clean, white room. “Mom died,” Jana said, still staring at him. She can’t remember if she cried. She rarely did though, crying was too hard here. Sometimes if you started crying you couldn’t stop, so it was better to not even begin in the first place.
Jana glanced at the chicken. It was about done. She took it down and walked over to the steps outside the kitchen door. She walked inside and got another knife that she would use later to cut around the anus and pull out the intestines. After which she would remove the head and feet. Moving back outside, she squatted on the steps and making quick, swift, downward motions, she began pulling feathers off the bird.
Jana jerked awake. Something broke with a crash in the kitchen. She strained her ears against the darkness, and it echoed back hollow. Probably raccoons, she muttered, feeling calmer by the silence. She grabbed her robe and ran downstairs. Her father was sitting in the middle of the floor, his chair broken and in pieces around him. She had never seen him drink before, and it took her a moment to realize that he was drunk. “Dad, are you o.k?” she ventured, tiptoeing over to him. Her father glanced up from the floor. His eyes were misted and red, and seemed to look through her as if she weren’t there. “This is no place for a woman,” he answered, only it didn’t sound like his voice, “You women don’t belong here — in the west. There’s no place for you. This land, all this, “he waved his hand toward the window and around the room, “belongs to men. You should go back to where you came from.”
“I am from here,” she replied coldly, turning and leaving the room. His shoulders slumped, heavy and tired.
The next day she found her father in the barn. She brought him coffee and saw that he was working on the chair, trying to fix it. He glanced up at her when she handed him the mug. Neither of them said a word at first, just looked at each other. “Jana,” he started, then stopped. She looked at him for a moment and then smiled and nodded. He smiled and nodded back, and turned to the chair.
Jana pulled at the feathers on the wing. Those were always the hardest for her to take off, though most people usually pulled them off first because the big feathers were the easiest to remove. But she always saved them for last; maybe it was the idea of not flying anymore that made her sad. But no point being sad—she pulled harder.
Sometimes her father would hire Jim Storward’s boy, Fred, to help out in the mornings. Jana would stare at them mucking out the stalls from the kitchen steps, cooking bowl in hand. Her dad and Fred would come in for lunch before Fred had to head back to help out at his own home. They were mostly silent, occasionally talking about the news from town and the price of seed. Jana sometimes wondered what Fred thought about them, eating in silence. She wanted to tell him that it wasn’t always like this, that dad used to laugh, but you see he couldn’t now because he had loved her, but he was trying. Trying real hard.
The sun was starting go down, deepening into a gold. Her dad would be in soon, and dinner should have been started already. It wouldn’t take long to cook the bird though, should be fine. Her eyes drifted back up to the mountains. Darkened by the sky they looked frightening. Majestic. Jana caught her breath, held it, and then let it out slowly. She loved the duality of the land: wild, and tame, terrifying and beautiful, male and female, old and new. The way that opposites could exist here, side by side without ever noticing the strength of the other, but relying on them completely. Surviving — real and alive—like you could hold it in your hand, as if it was a tangible idea taken form. She felt a shiver of belonging run through the fibers of her bones. Jana bent down and taking a clump of the earth, wiped it across her forehead. “I’m from here,” she said out loud, then taking the bird, she stood up and carried it into the kitchen.
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Portland Fiction Project
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