Earlier this month, our 16 meat chickens came of size to slaughter. Slaughter—such a violent word, and aptly so. There is little gentle about the process, besides the moment I pause to murmur a grateful prayer, my left hand looping the chicken’s delicate skull as it drops down from the kill cone, my right hand poising the knife with its tapered blade. Thank you, I whisper. Thank you for eating and drinking and growing so big. Thank you for your meat and for your fertilizer and for your brief companionship. Thank you for dying, so that we might live. And then, the knife, which for mercy’s sake must be sharp and deep and fast.
Friends came for the slaughter and taught us better prayers and better practices—how to swing the chickens to sleep, how to find the vein faster through the feathers, how to better hold the head as the blood drains out. They taught us the art of skinning the birds, peeling back their feathered wraps like too-tight coats. They reminded us how to slide our hands up into the birds’ warm bellies and loosen their organs and tear them out.
The next day I butchered each body into eight pieces while my husband Scott rinsed the parts and dried them and wrapped them for the freezer. I kept the ribcages for stock—gallons of it simmered for hours in various steaming pots. I shoveled the birds’ bedding into the compost for next spring’s vegetable beds, and Scott buried the heads, skins and entrails beneath the children’s garden. Then I scattered the stock strainings over the chicken yard to be picked over by the layers and turned again into eggs.
When all was said and done, we froze 30 bags of meat and 10 bags of stock, but these numbers seem beside the point. More importantly, at least to my mind, we knew these chickens from birth, and we cared for them daily. When they grew big enough, we rearranged their space so that they could easily walk out from their barn stall and sit in the sun, which they did often and with what seemed like pleasure. They knew, too, the pleasure of ample food and fresh water, clean bedding and the simple comfort of one another’s bodies. They lived, and they enjoyed their lives, and then we took their lives away.
An interesting sense accompanies me in this work, and the word that best describes that sense is fascination. It is never disgust and not quite desire. Enjoyment comes close but reads too passive and distractible, and the key nature of my sense at slaughter is a pure lack of distraction. The work for me is exactly captivating. There is nothing else I am thinking about, nothing I’d rather be doing, nothing I suddenly remember that I forgot to do. There is only the task at hand—killing in the service of living. It is the curtain at last drawn back, the crux of survival. It is the constant question: What is cruelty, and how can I live with less of it? And the larger question, too, more distant but humming ever under each moment: How can this teach me to look death in its face?
We have lived on this farmlet for three years now. That’s three years of looking closely on as rot turns to soil turns to spinach and peas; as literal shit turns to rich grass turns to lamb forage turns to meat; as discarded food turns to chicken scatter turns to eggs. And at the end of each chain stand the ruling animals—my husband, children and self—working all of these fortuitous deaths over and over to our advantage, only dimly aware that the cycle will swallow us as well, and sooner than we think as we walk the land with our capable legs and gather its gifts in our arms. This is the way, I think to myself as I watch the chicken’s eye grow milky. This is the way of all things, and you are not exempt from it.
The scripture reads, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a grain of wheat. But if it dies, new life shoots up from its finished husk.” I want to face death because I want to face all things that are true. And I also want to face it because I want to witness the whole of it—not just the reflexive horror that comes at the thought of the end but also the comfort that each end, however gruesome, is never truly the end, at least not so far as I have witnessed. Each end bursts forth into something else and goes on and on like that for as long as I can see. And if each of these smaller lives are not destroyed but rather transformed from one form to another, doesn’t it stand to reason that our own lives, too, must also burst forth after their ends, into what we can only imagine and live carefully toward?
I do not know how many people will read these thoughts or the novels I labor over or any of the other words I spend countless hours putting onto paper. Writing, like any other work, kills time in the service of something we hope will support our days. A chicken curry, a story, a basket of strawberries. We can never guarantee what beginnings will come from our ends, but we can take comfort in resurrection—that it is not a wild, ungraspable hope but rather a daily, even mundane, truth.
Michelle Webster-Hein and her family work a small homestead in the south Michigan countryside where she was born and raised. Her first novel, Out of Esau, comes out this month from Counterpoint Press.