It was a bad idea to name the roosters. I told her so. But she didn’t listen. There was Chandler; he had the shiny green feathers that waved to you when he strutted off, like a pageant winner on a parade float. There was Joey; he wasn’t any bigger than Chandler, but he looked it. Maybe it was his crown: the fleshy red hand that poked out from above and between those beady little eyes. He was the first to crow. Natalie, in a moment of bravery said, “The first one to crow is the first one to go.” Ironic that she would be the one so stuck on naming them.
We had never done anything like it. Sure, a bug here, a mouse in a trap there. A squirrel that wasn’t quite agile enough to evade the tires of my Prius. One time I clipped a deer in that same car– but I was more upset about the windshield. Odd how that works. This calculation, this planned execution, it seemed… sinister. But we knew of this inevitability. It was the purpose of the chicken feed, the roost, and the bamboo coop that we made with our own hands, a month before buying the four tiny chicks. They were yellow then, yellow and weightless, their feathers softer than Natalie’s pale green eyes. In my hands, scarred and dirty, they felt– perfect.
“It’s a beautiful day,” Natalie said, “I don’t know if we should be happy or sad.” The truth is either would have likely been an improvement. Historically, we had been volatile. Cycling through a manic series of emotional highs and lows; lately we were stale. The monotonous silence between us was certainly worse than the rotation between bliss and anger that we were accustomed to.
She was making coffee with the French press. Her hair was tied back; her dark curls bounced as she pressed the coffee through the filter. She had her gardening clothes on. When we first met she wore sequins, and we kissed at the stroke of midnight with confetti in our hair. I didn’t know her then and I loved her. I know her now and I love her more. She buttered the toast and poached the eggs. “I really wish those hens would lay eggs,” she said, “then we could stop buying these. They kick the chickens you know.”
“I know honey,” I said, “I know.”
She said that every time we mentioned the roosters or the hens, or ate eggs, or had a nice chicken parmesan. That’s why we made the bamboo coop. It just wasn’t right– letting those savages torture our food. It wasn’t right benefiting from their kill. We would raise our own happy chickens. But the six months that passed between the little yellow chicks and the large pageant winners went by more quickly than we thought. Now they were Chandler and Joey. And even though they made the hens nervous and pecked at the dog when he got too close, interacting with them had become part of our routine. I was scared for them.
“So,” Natalie said as she sat across from me, “Today.”
“Today.” I nodded and sipped from my cup. Natalie scowled at her eggs. She fumbled with her fork and poked at her food.
“Is there any more coffee?” I asked.
“You’ll have to make some more. I only made enough for two cups.”
“Okay.” I paused and pressed my fork through the white of my egg. The yolk seeped its way through the crack and was stopped by my toast, which served as a whole wheat levee for my sausage. “Have you made up your mind how we’re gonna do it?”
“I guess the same way we always do it,” Natalie made that condescending gesture that she always made when she didn’t understand someone. Her head was tilted forward and her eyebrow was raised, “with the French press.”
“No, I mean Joey.”
“Oh,” She began to find a rhythm with her fork and her eggs. “I think knocking him out will be best.”
“You mean you want to hit him?”
“Like with your fist?”
“Don’t be stupid.” Natalie picked up her plate and slid the chair out from underneath her. I took a few more bites of my breakfast as she placed her plate on the floor beside the dog’s bowl. It was a welcome treat for Caesar the dachshund, who didn’t care how the eggs had come to be. He was just happy that he could eat them.
“Well,” I said, “it just sounds a bit barbaric.”
Natalie washed her hands. “Well what do you suggest? Chopping his head off?”
Caesar gobbled up the eggs and licked the plate clean of the yolk.
“And that doesn’t seem barbaric to you?”
“Well, it certainly doesn’t seem as clumsy.”
Natalie picked the plate from off the floor and took mine from the table. I wasn’t finished. The plates rattled as she put them in the sink and turned on the water.
“How can you be so sure that you can knock him out?”
She scrubbed mechanically at the plates. Steam began to rise from the water that still flowed.
“He’s a chicken, not a professional boxer. I’m going to lay him down on the big stump and whack him over the head with a bat, and then he’ll be unconscious.”
“You’re going to bash his brains in.”
She forcefully cut the water off and turned to face me.
“Honey, I’m not tr–“
“I’ve seen what happens when you cut their heads off. They flap around with blood in their feathers and their head is lying there on the ground watching the whole thing. I don’t want him to die like that. I don’t want him to see it coming. We’re gonna hit him with the bat.” She slammed her hand down on the kitchen counter. The dishes rattled and Caesar cowered. “And then it’ll be over.”
I stood and embraced her. I could feel her heart beating as she inhaled deeply. I thought I heard a whimper.
“I can do it you know. You don’t have to.” I said.
She shoved me away and turned a deep red– but it wasn’t sadness. “Uuughh!” She steamed, as she stormed off.
I prepared another cup of coffee. It was best to give her space. From the kitchen window I could see Chandler and Joey pecking around in their coop. The hens were likely perched up in the roost. I think that’s the only place they felt safe. The roosters made them nervous. Maybe that’s why they hadn’t laid any eggs yet. It was a beautiful day. And I wanted to stall the sacrifice. I didn’t want a murder to cloudy up this sunny morning. But what kind of day is a good day to kill or to be killed? At least no one kicked him. No one malnourished him or stuffed him in a cage too small for his body. At least his life was easy. But I guess that’s relative.
When Natalie came back around, she had cleaned herself up. She looked calm. Ready. She pulled the tie loose that bound her hair. Her locks fell gracefully to her shoulders, and even in her gardening clothes, without sequins on her body or confetti in her hair, she exuded beauty. Natural, unyielding beauty, the kind that humbled politicians and billionaires, paparazzi stalked movie stars and TV personalities.
“Come on, Caesar,” she said with the tie clinched between her teeth, “Let’s go outside.”
She reassembled her hair in a tight ponytail as she walked outside without paying me any mind. Caesar trotted closely behind her, and so did I.
We needed to separate Joey from Chandler and the two hens. Of course, it was a bad idea to have Caesar in the yard. The chickens hated him. It’s not that he meant to torture them, he just wanted to play. But that was the essence of the misunderstanding that defined chickens and dogs and dogs and humans and humans and chickens. Joey crowed a panicked crow. It was the wrong way to start the process. Caesar startled Joey; Joey startled Chandler; Chandler startled the hens, and very quickly there was frantic pacing, wings flapping, and an incessant orchestra of crowing from the roosters. The whole ordeal stressed out Natalie, who brandished a bat. And that stressed me out.
“Do you have the zip-ties?” Natalie asked as she peered into the coop.
“Well,” she said, with her fingers dangling through the chicken-wire, “why’d you come out here if you’re not going to help.”
“I’ll be right back.” I never got upset with her when she got this way. It was her way of dealing with things. I would hate to be in a real emergency with her: an earthquake, a fire, or just trapped in an elevator. She wasn’t the best with stress. She’s the woman in 5 pm traffic leaning on her horn for no reason other than frustration. The fact that she was upset now, however, was a virtue. I would question someone who could do this for the first time without emotion. People that have no capacity for empathy are either small children or sociopaths.
The night before I placed an assortment of items in the garage: zip-ties, for Joey’s feet; a hatchet, for bleeding him out; a bucket for blood and a bucket for defeathering. We spent a great deal of time researching humane ways to do it: a blade to the throat, a hatchet to the neck. My mother told me once that when she was a little girl in Arkansas her father would pick them up and swing them around until their necks snapped. On YouTube, a man made a chicken gas chamber. If you hold them upside-down long enough, one video explained, they pass out. I even heard you can hypnotize them using your finger. But Natalie believed that a whack to the head was the best. POW! He won’t know what hit him. And then when he’s out, it’s a blade to the neck. Then he’ll hang by the feet and drain before being dipped and defeatherd. If you divide it into simple tasks, we thought, it would seem less personal. Like assembling furniture, or running errands.
I heard crowing and barking when I walked back around to the yard. Caesar hopped from side to side like a cheerleader in a pep-rally. Natalie was in the coop chasing Joey in circles around the roost. It’s how you would imagine Tom and Jerry or Sylvester and Tweedy. Chandler flapped his wings and kicked up dirt. He occasionally hovered above the water bowl and up the sides of the bamboo and chicken-wire. The hens’ heads ticked side to side from the safety of their roost each time Natalie and Joey passed in their frantic, sloppy chase. It was chaos. Nothing like assembling furniture, or running errands.
I was right outside of the coop when she finally caught him. With her hands on either side of his thick body, pressing his wings to his torso, she backed out of the coop using her butt to push open the door. She looked like a debutante holding a diaper.
“Tie his feet! Tie his feet!” She said as she ran towards me with Caesar galloping behind.
I had the buckets stacked; the zip-ties and the hatchet were inside them. In a quick panic I dropped the buckets and fumbled with the zip-ties. Joey let out a crow and I could see his beady little eyes dilate and fix on me. My panicked mug would be one of his last memories. I tied his yellow feet together and Natalie grabbed his legs and hung him upside-down with an outstretched arm. His wings free, he began to flap. Caesar sat like he does when we’re going to give him a treat. Natalie didn’t move.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I’m trying to see if he’ll pass out, like the man said in the video.”
We stood for a moment awkwardly, and Joey stopped flapping. Natalie positioned her arm so that she could see his face. He had not passed out. Instead he had his head tilted up and was staring at her.
“Should I get the bat?” I asked.
“No, you can’t expect him to pass out that quickly.”
“Well, he’s not even really upside-down. His head’s up.”
“Here,” Natalie said in frustration, “hold him then.” She dismissively handed me Joey and walked away. I wasn’t expecting it. I bobbled him and his wings began to flap again. Natalie kept walking towards the bat. For a few moments Joey floated in freedom. When he hit the ground, however, his tied feet kept him from composing his balance. He fell to his side and bounced around like a fish fighting for air. I didn’t charge after him right away; first I scrambled to control Caesar, who had jumped to his feet.
Natalie ran back to us, bat in hand.
“What are you doing?!”
“Holding this dog. Why did you throw the rooster at me?”
“I said hold him.” She reached down and scooped Joey up by his bound feet. I let go of Caesar and he hopped up and down from the excitement. Joey again, stopped flapping.
“Okay,” Natalie said serious, “I’m gonna hand you the rooster. Please hold him.”
I did as I was told. “Are we ready?”
“I think so.” She said.
Natalie carried the bat. I carried the buckets and Joey. Caesar trotted along by my side.
“I think we should put the dog inside.”
“Yeah,” she said, “I probably shouldn’t have brought him out in the first place.” With her free hand, Natalie tugged at Caesar’s collar. “Come on Caesar, let’s go inside.”
She left Joey and me alone. I looked back to the coop; the hens had come down from the roost and Chandler pecked around quietly. Joey hung without crowing and without flapping. Once the door to the house closed shut, I could hear Caesar whining. Natalie approached and took a deep breath. “Ready.” She said.
I laid Joey down on the stump. There were a few fast twitches, and then he was calm. Natalie’s hands were choked way up on the bat. She spoke quietly to Joey. “It’s a beautiful day today.” She said, “You’re not going to like what I do to you, and I know that you don’t understand, but it’s a beautiful day. And I’m glad you got to see it.” Joey, now relaxed, stared up at Natalie. She shut her eyes and came down with the bat.
Out of the two of us, Natalie was the brave one. I was concerned for the roosters, but not for their lives. I worried that when it was time, it might not be painless, but that’s all. I didn’t want them to hurt. Natalie didn’t want them to die. But somewhere inside of her she knew that the way we got our food was wrong on some level. She needed to experience this, so she faced that fear head on, and that’s more than I would have been able to do. I think she had developed a respect for life that I could have never understood; she had once felt one grow inside of her and had experienced real loss when it was taken.
She did hit Joey. The bat hit him right smack on the head. But he was not unconscious. He began to flap his wings and he let out a sound that was less like a crow and more like a scream. It was terrifying. Not the way that you feel terror when you know that the bad guy in the movie is behind the door and for some reason the young woman who just got out of the shower runs into the closet and not out of the front door. It was the terror you feel when you’ve made a terrible mistake. There was a moment of suffocating shame, as if we had done something wrong. Then there was panic.
“Oh my god,” Natalie gushed, as she dropped the bat, “oh my god.”
Joey flapped and struggled as I continued to hold him tight. “Natalie, you have to hit him again.”
“Oh my god, oh my god.”
“Natalie, please. You have to hit him again.”
“I can’t do it again. I just can’t.”
She held her hand over her mouth in shock. Joey suffered. Painful and clumsy, he flapped, and crowed and screamed. I held him down the best I could with one hand and fumbled around in the bucket for the hatchet. In a fast and focused swoop I brought the blade down on his neck, severing his head clean. Just as Natalie said, he flapped around headless. There was blood and feathers. Chandler crowed from within the coop. Caesar whined from within the house. Natalie and I stood, shocked and speechless.
And everything was silent. Caesar stopped whining, Chandler stopped crowing. Joey rested. There was no more flapping, just the mess that we had made of him. We looked at the body. Time passed. I still held the hatchet, confused. It didn’t seem right. Not the suffering. Not the botched murder. It just didn’t seem right that Joey didn’t really have to die. We could have bought a chicken: wrapped up in plastic, or frozen in the next isle down from the ice cream. It felt like we murdered a pet. I doubt that if we killed Caesar the dachshund we would have felt any different. And all those packaged carcasses still sat wrapped up in plastic in the grocery store; the decapitated body of Joey didn’t make one less of them. We’d like to think though that somehow one less purchase now could mean two less murders later. But who knows. We were tired and it was a beautiful day. Natalie grabbed my hand. She clinched it tight, like she hadn’t done in a long time– and I put my arm around her.
The next morning we went to check on Chandler and the hens. There was no crowing and the hens had come down from the roost. The chickens ignored Caesar. While changing their water and spreading their feed, I saw it up there in the roost: two freshly laid eggs.
Chad Benjamin Smith studied Language, Writing & Rhetoric at North Carolina State University. He knows how to juggle, but not very well. So if you meet him at a party and he’s been drinking, don’t let him juggle anything breakable. He lives in a small house in Raleigh, North Carolina with his girlfriend, one good dog, and one bad dog that eats slippers; and plants; and chess pieces.
–Art by Marina Ćorić