Last night’s rain, soaked up by the hot earth, is rising again this morning as steam. As the truck rattles down the long gravel drive and we get close to the orchard, the apple trees emerge from the light fog, the treetops magically floating in a cloud.
Then, through the mist, I begin to see the faint outlines of chicken carcasses strewn about haphazardly–some on their sides, missing wings, their pure white feathers stained red; others with their heads folded under their chests; and some with their chests still heaving, breathing their last. It could be a black-and-white photograph of a Civil War battlefield. Except they’re chickens. My chickens.
My throat drops into my stomach. I stop the truck and put it in park. I fling the door open and jump out, telling Lynnie, my youngest, to stay put. I walk briskly out to the killing field. I pick up a couple of the dying birds and do the humane thing, wringing their necks and dropping them in a pile.
At first I think it’s a coyote massacre, but I quickly notice that most of the birds have two fang punctures in their skulls, while a few are gutted, their stomachs ripped wide open. I’ve heard that raccoons will bite the heads of chickens and lick away the blood and fluids, which makes the feathers come loose and leaves the chicken bald. When a chicken runs dry, the raccoons leave the carcass and move on. It isn’t hearsay anymore–I’m witnessing this oddity and carnage first-hand.
The sky is still gray and it’s drizzling again. The splashes of blood are diluting and spreading in the rain. As the truck idles in the driveway, I look around the scene again, then the smell of wet dead chicken on my hands and exhaust fumes makes me gag.
I walk back to the truck. I get in, my shirt wet against the seat, and look down at my lap, confused. I left the chickens in their pen this morning because we left early to run a couple of errands. I figured I would let them out when we got back. It seems the raccoon or raccoons ripped the welded wire right off the side of the pen and killed each chicken one at a time. It’s as if they’d been waiting at the woods’ edge, watching me leave, seeing those chickens penned up so they couldn’t run–just like the raccoons wanted. It’s as if they’ve been waiting and watching for months, hoping I would make this mistake.
It’s not like the chickens could have run, anyway. They were meat birds, one week away from being processed. They were plump–fat, even–and meat birds aren’t meant to run; they aren’t even meant to reproduce. But I had raised them perfectly–maybe the best flock of meat birds I’ve raised. Now 21 of 25 are laying dead in a field being rained on: a total loss; a tragic waste.
Back at the house, all I can think is how glad I am that I don’t depend on these birds for my food. Of course, I wanted them to be my food, but I can afford to buy chicken at the store because there are people who raise thousands, even millions of them, and they do it cheaply and, for a couple of extra bucks, even organically. My family and I won’t go hungry.
As tragedies will, though, this gets me thinking about how and why I raise these birds. Like wanting to have more eggs than I need, because I don’t find the ones with poop on the shell to be quaint, so I feed the ones with shit on them to the dogs and keep the clean eggs for myself. Isn’t that the idea, to have clean, fresh, great-tasting eggs? And Vivian and Lynnie like chasing the chickens around the yard and hatching the eggs in the spring, and it’s a great experience for them to take care of the hens. They love the looks on people’s faces when they ask, “What are your chickens’ names?” and the girls reply, “Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner!” And I like that they know where their food comes from. They’ve seen a chicken butchered, watched me do the crappy job of plucking a bird, and they know that it’s a hell of a lot of work for one meal.
Raising organic birds takes time–lots of time–and money. I eat probably the most expensive eggs in the county, and, after the massacre, the most expensive chicken, too. My wife thought I was crazy to get chickens, until she tried the eggs and we breaded and deep-fried our first meat bird. But now I’m wondering if she wasn’t right. Not just because it’s an expensive venture in a bad economy, but because we’ve had some other bad luck lately. It didn’t start out that way–the honeymoon years seemed perfect–but now, four years into it, things are going wrong.
Like the time I was at the kitchen sink and looked out the window just as the big Black Langshan rooster jumped three feet into the air, put its talons out, and grabbed at Viv’s back. Viv fell down, and I dropped the dish towel and sprinted to the back door. Then I heard her scream. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard her scream, but this time she wasn’t crying wolf. She cried out in such a complete panic that I had no doubt she needed help, desperately.
I’m not a violent person, but that changed in an instant. In a fit of blind rage and adrenaline, I tackled the big rooster, grabbed it by the feet, put my foot on its head, and jerked upward. I broke its neck with such force that I pulled the head clear off, but it was still flopping and spewing dust and blood everywhere. I kicked it away like it was a poisonous snake and immediately checked on Vivian, who was huddled in a corner by the chicken shack, covered in dust and shit.
I was shaking. She was crying.
I was livid. She was scared.
But she was more scared than hurt, and she was going to be okay. The rooster had pecked her once in the face about an inch below her left eye, so she was bleeding a little, but her back, because she had on a jacket, was unharmed.
I couldn’t put all the blame on the rooster. The girls aren’t supposed to go into the pen alone. We’ve had talks about it. I’ve told them that, because they are at eye level with each other, a big rooster like Rusty will come after them because he thinks they’re going to get his hens. He’s being protective of his flock and, because they’re his size, he will attack.
Now, in my kitchen on this wet, bloody morning, I remember pushing the tear-soaked hair away from Vivian’s eyes and tucking it behind her ears, and then, through her tears, between heaving breaths, she giggled a little and asked, “Can we eat him, Dad? Can we eat the rooster?”
I know I’m going to keep raising chickens.
For the Coq au Vin recipe click here