Steel and Stone

by Scott Smith

Yesterday, my day began with knives. I sharpened my chef’s knife and paring knife on the stone and finished each with the steel. I owed it to the three chickens.

Beheading a chicken is not the proper way to kill a bird. E.B. White wrote about murders on his farm, including chickens being axed. From my Storey’s chicken book, the author wrote that using an ax made picking feathers more difficult.
I was to use the chef’s knife on the bird’s jugular, making a small cut below the jaw on both sides. The paring knife was then to be inserted into its mouth, blade side up, making a quarter turn to the right to de-brain it. De-braining was to make picking easier.

Robinson had isolated three birds — a barred rock (one of the hens that turned out to be a rooster) and two meat birds — in a wood and chicken wire playpen I had made a month or so ago to protect the meat birds from the older hens. Before killing a bird, you give it only water for about 24 hours.

I read the chicken book section on killing several more times. I finished watching an episode of Deadwood. I filled the gas can and the Jetta’s tank. I drove to the horse barn Robinson works at to make sure the right barred rock got killed.

In an area of the barn where goats were once milked, I nailed a 2×4 across two posts. I cut a length of rope and slip-knotted it around the 2×4. I set the knives, including a dull paring knife, on a ledge nearby.

After cutting the jugular and de-braining, the author wrote the bird would flap and squawk. One of her suggestions was using a killing cone, which, in the book, looked similar to a collar you fit on your dog to prevent him from licking a freshly sutured wound. A well fitted cone held the bird snugly, exposing the neck and head.

I finished preparing my work area with two storage containers: one for feathers and heads, the other for the picked chicken. Below the rope I placed an empty black bean can to collect blood. I smoked more cigarettes.

I pulled the barred rock out first, held it close to me. I wanted a calm chicken. Approaching the rope in the barn, I realized I didn’t have a good plan for tying the bird at its shanks without upsetting him (a stressed bird could ruin the meat). I held him by his feet and predictably, he squawked and flapped. I reassumed my grip on him, fixing his head in the crook of my arm and I tied the rope around his shanks. His breathing was raspy and small bubbles formed around his beak.

My first cut was tentative. I worried to much about the wings flapping that I had forgotten to pull down on his head. The next two cuts severed the jugular. I changed to the sharp paring knife and de-brained him. I held the bird still above the bean can.

I looked around for my smokes. Blood splatter. I remember reading Russell Bank’s The Darling, and the narrator, then living on a community farm, dressed in a protective outfit (rubber apron?) when she slaughtered chickens.

The chicken book author warned me about the mess.

The writer preferred to remove the head before plucking even though this wasn’t right — she didn’t explain why. She liked to start plucking with the wings.

I washed my hands and finished another smoke, and I thought: For my sins, I must pluck. A badly paraphrased line from Apocalypse Now.

Almost twenty years of office work and most of those mousing with my right hand, has made my hands weak and my right tends to cramp. The bird, still on the rope, I held with my right hand as I plucked with the left. I started grabbing at the feathers with no plan in place. When dry plucking, the bird has to be warm. It was. I used pliers; I used the dull paring knife; I wished I had tweezers.

The writer wrote that the record for plucking a chicken is five seconds. She took 15 minutes. Me, I think a half-hour had passed when I finished the bird off by severing its head.

I washed up again and fed and watered the pigs before grabbing the next bird.