Wednesday, December 22, 2010

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: Slaughter Happens


Renata’s Diary
August 25, 1883


I have the smell of blood and slaughter so thickly steeped in my lungs that I feel myself a beast. And when I close my eyes, my mind is reeling, dancing in blood.

Perhaps by writing I will expunge it. At least I must try.

Mother Yolla forced my hand to the ax today. She insisted I perform the dreaded task early this morning, because dear Teresa, the convent’s chief poultry assassin, has been stricken with the same virus that has beset at least eight others this week.

Each nun who falls ill gets so feverish and dizzy and has such intense head and stomach pain that she is forced to lie on her back, flat as a pancake. I make a point of saying a special prayer daily for all of the ill, and one too, to keep myself healthy.

The summer air hung thick and still over the golden hills when I awoke this morning. I stepped outside the back door and uncovered the tin washbasin. The sun even at 7 a.m. was braising, and the air was quivering. Despite the heat, I found the morning something a blessing, and began humming a bit of the alegria I had been trying to teach Theresa, before she took ill.

I was just scrubbing the rings out of one of Father Ruby’s collars and enjoying the cool splash of water on my arms, when I saw Mother Yolla leave the rectory and cross to the convent courtyard. The intense heat had her breathing with difficulty.

“I must ask you to kill three chickens for me today,” she announced. I squeezed the collar I was scrubbing.

“Oh Holy Mother,” I wailed. “I’m not…oh please reconsider. There must be someone else at the convent who can do this chore. It’s not that I don’t want to help, but I have never killed a chicken before and more than that I…well, I hoped I would never have to, as I do so firmly believe that there is a universal life spirit inhabiting each and every being, all of God’s creatures, even those so humble as the chickens and…”

“Oh Renata please! Stop this babbling at once!” Mother Yolla interrupted, swatting the air with impatience. Beneath her eyes were deep circles, the color of smudged ashes. “I am so weary with nursing the others. Half the convent can’t stand up straight and the rest of us are on the verge of falling over. It will be a miracle if the entire lot of us doesn’t end up ill. I know full well that you hate the idea of killing chickens, but there are, I assure you, much worse things. All of us, ill and healthy, need a good meal and I have no one else to ask. So I beg you not to challenge me or to question my motives in assigning you this task.”

“But…”

“No BUTS.” Her words sliced the air like a sharp blade. “I need the chickens prepared for a special meal tomorrow. We are expecting a gueset of Father Ruby’s, an itinerant priest passing through on his way back to New Mexico. Father is so anxious that we make a good impression. And so we will not disappoint him. Now leave the collars to soak in the sun, and attend to the chickens immediately.”

With that, Mother Yolla retreated into the convent. I followed her with my eyes, eyes that were filling quickly. “I can’t,” I cried, speaking softly. “Oh Mother Yolla, please don’t make me because I just can’t.”

Try as I might, I could not hold back my tears. Nor could I block a vision arising in my mind: that of Teresa, chasing fowl. Slowed as she is by excess weight, Theresa sometimes pursues a chicken from one end of the yard to the other before she pounces on her victim. I marvel then, to see her wrestle the awkward squawking bird to the ground, wings writhing and askew.

Moments later, with the chicken’s neck stretched and pinned to the chopping block, the head flies, courtesy of Teresa’s swift ax. When the chicken’s head is free of its body, the bird goes into what Teresa calls its death dance, a spirited strut around the yard spurting blood from its open neck like a small fountain.

Teresa tells me that she does the job of killing so quickly that the birds “never know the blade.” Ah, but I am not convinced. It is my opinion that as soon as they eye the chopping block, the wood thoroughly caked in the liver-colored evidence of earlier murders, those chickens have some primitive understanding of the fate that awaits them. I said as much to Theresa, but she told me to save my worry. “I applaud your delicate concern for God’s feathered creatures, but we all have to eat.”

Once I appeared just as she was completing a particularly messy kill. She had slaughtered half a dozen fowl, enough to feed several extra guests. The blood dripped down the lower half of her skirt, and her shoes were feathered. “Oh how dreadful,” I said, staring into the slick red pools.

“How will you ever clean all this up?” Teresa’s large hands were bloody and red swaths zigzagged her face. She answered in a thick spray of brogue.

“Ah just be glad Renata that we are blessed enough to have chickens to kill. Had we not the chickens, you see, you and I both might be out chasing wild turkeys from morning to night.”
I abandoned the tin basin and made my way to the chicken house at the slowest pace two feet might go. I had never held a pair of rubbery chicken legs in my hand, but somehow I knew the feeling now, I knew exactly how tough and wiry the fowl’s limbs would be. I stood at the picket fence, staring at the pointed yellow beaks and the wild black eyes of the birds as they took their jolted steps around the yard. A chill shuddered me.

“Ever faithful I am to you Lord, but now, here, I say I cannot do what Mother Yolla commands. I need Your help to complete this awful task. I ask you to guide me through.” I remained there praying in silence.”

My hands wobbling, I stepped through the gate. The chickens scattered to four corners of the yard, pecking the dry ground, frantically poking and thrusting their heads in that jagged motion that seems to lead them scurrying forward. Holding my breath, I hurried after one particularly fat white fowl, its wattle wobbling furiously beneath its beak.

Then, when that one danced off, I turned to chase a thinner but larger bird, brown as a walnut. That bird too evade me. “Oh God please help me to do this,” I whispered, bowing my head.

“Please, I didn’t ask to do this and it is a complete mystery how and why it should be done.”

If God was listening to me, His answer was only another loud chorus of raucous birds. “Bock, bock, bock,” rang out through the busy yard. I was close to tears now, and the sweat poured from my brow and my ears and my armpits. I covered my ears in despair and sank slowly to sit in the bare dirt.

I stayed that way long enough that the birds began to gather around me, and soon I was circled by a cackling thicket of brown and white feathers. I cringed, and opened my palms and before I knew exactly what was happening, a large white chicken with two eyelets of yellow on its wings approached and set its red spiky claws within inches of my hand. My eyes widened and my fingers followed and soon I held the chicken by one leg.

“Ayeeeya!” I cried, jumping to my knees, and dangling the bird in one outstretched arm. The bird was splayed in five directions, wings stretched, legs askew, beating and pulling, wildly determined to get free. I too felt pulled apart, half of me wanted desperately to set the animal down. But now that I had made my catch, something else, something new arose in me too. I tightened my grip around the rubbery twig that was the leg.

A fierce dance ensued, with the chicken leading me. Twisting and whipping this way and that, the flailing fowl shed its down feathers in a desperate effort to break my grasp. “Oh I am so so sorry,” I cried, half to the bird, and half to me. But nothing could be heard about the ear squall pouring from the chicken’s beak, and from all the rest of the birds.

It was time, I knew, to twist the bird’s neck, the way Teresa would, either that, or set the creature free. Toward the chopping block I stuttered, eyeing the ax that would do its duty. An odd pain shot up the back of my neck, and quivered across my hips, as I contemplated the job ahead. It would take a good aim to catch the swinging bird by the neck. I couldn’t see how I would manage to grab the chicken and at the same time, avoid being impaled by the nail-like points of the open beak.

As my mind scrabbled in confusion, I recalled telling Teresa that I believed an animal’s fear in the face of death had to translate into the condition of the meat that graced the platters on the dinner table. I suggested that it might be a good idea to place a burlap bag over the chicken’s head before approaching with the ax. Teresa was chasing a pair of Rhode Island reds as I said this. She didn’t honor me with an answer.

“My dear Renata,” she called out, “I am almost on these two, and so I hope you know to stay clear when the heads fly off. Because these chickens will keep dancing about the yard, headless, and the blood flooding out of the open neck is no pretty sight, certainly not for one with a weak stomach.”

At that, Teresa grabbed one of the prancing reds, and with the swiftest and surest moves I’ve ever seen, she twisted the neck in her two capable hands, as if instead of a flesh and blood chicken she held a soft towel for drying dishes. Instantly, the bird limped into her bosom, and within moments, Theresa had it straddling the wooden block.

“Thwunk,” went the ax under the nun’s powerful arm, and with that, the fowl’s head spun off, and so too did my eyes and stomach. I proceeded quickly into the convent, where I spent most of the day, praying. At dinner, facing the bird on the platter, I complained of stomach pain and had nothing to eat at all.

But now the situation here called me to duty. I cinched the neck, and twisted, but the fowl didn’t go limp. This proved my undoing. I swung the bird to the block, and then struck wildly with the ax but as I did, the bird flipflopped across the stump. I had a firm lock on one of the chicken’s legs, but that was all, and the situation unnerved me totally.

Every feather, every muscle, every ounce of bird was determined to escape my falling blade. Between the frenzy of feathers and the squalling jumping chicken flesh, I had all I could do to get the ax to land close to the bird.

After several tries, and with my right arm tiring, I finally caught the bird with the blade, but it wasn’t the neck that I made contact with. The blade cut across the breast of the chicken, splitting the cavity partially open. Blood spit out and hit my face. A sickening sound came out of the fowl, awful to my ears. It seemed only to turn my horror worse.

The sight of the blood and the horrible noises coming from the bird set off some perverse chain of events. Sickened by what I’d done, by what I was about to do, I became that much more determined to finish the job, to end it as fast as I could. But the harder I tired to put the chicken out of its misery, the more misery I inflicted and the sicker I became. Each thwack, each slice into the chicken’s body, turned my horror and the carnage worse.


There I stood, pummeling and slashing at the bird with the ax, hitting and missing, hitting and missing, something wholly evil come over me. I struck until the bird was a bloody mutilated pulp, one however that was miraculously still making noise and still jumping and hopping around the chopping block.

Through most of this torture, I was numb, surely, to what I was doing. But suddenly, maybe because I was out of breath from wielding the ax, I paused momentarily, and something reached inside me. I saw the sorry state of the fowl, saw what desperate violence I was visiting on such an innocent creature, and I proceed to vomit.

When I was finished, I began howling for Mother Yolla. My screeching arose from a place far deeper than any I knew. It was hardly a human sound at all, and certainly not one the nuns knew. I continued, though, screaming to the heavens, begging her to come. Soon enough, she came as did one or two of the other nuns.

All of them I think feared the worst, that a bobcat or grizzly had made his way into the yard, and was hard in pursuit of me or the chickens.

When they reached me, and saw the condition of the chicken, they simply stared, so stunned were they at what greeted their eyes. I had stopped axing, and now I was bawling and all covered in vomit and blood. The poor axed fowl, meanwhile, had been savagely chewed up by the ax, but was still alive, still twitching and squawking a sickly, dying squawk. I had such a thick taste of blood and feathers in my mouth I started to vomit again, but nothing was coming up.

“Hand me that ax!” Mother Yolla commanded, rushing to relieve me of the weapon. In my state of confusion, I suddenly feared for my life. Stricken by guilt, and utterly unhinged, I honestly thought that the older nun intended to strike me instead of the chicken. I started to back away.

“Give me that ax now!” she yelled, forcing the handle from my grasp. The next moments seemed to go in slow motion: Mother Yolla raising the ax, the blade catching the sly glint of in the midday sun, the ax falling and slicing clean through the chicken’s neck and then stopping dead, coming to rest in the wood of the block.

The mutilated chicken didn’t do the strutting death dance that a headless fowl ordinarily would. True, a small fountain of blood bubbled up from the open neck. But the poor creature couldn’t move because I had hacked away the leg that I hadn’t been holding tight. Minus one limb, and its head, the bird was nothing more than a heap of bloody feathers on the stump.

The wings flapped and the bird pumped its final flood of life onto the ground. And then a hush fell, and all around me got dreamy. My eyes rolled, and started to fall, and all I remember is slumping into Sister Peters, and reaching out to take Mother Yolla’s free hand.

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