My rattly old Toyota pickup did its stuttering cough when I switched off the ignition. I took a deep breath. Okay, let’s do this thing! I hopped out with more spring in the movement than I really felt. Looking up into a flawless blue sky, I marveled again what a perfect day it was. A perfect day for murder? sniggered that sardonic corner of my mind that refused to be censored. Buzz off! I told it fiercely. This fits. This works. This has got to be done!
Mr. Fairfield approached, shook my hand gravely. He was a man well past his middle years, though I couldn’t guess how old. I suspected he was rather older than he looked, the mixed grey and white of his hair set off against the spring in his step and the perfect posture. He was bald on top with a frizz of hair coming out every which way around the side. His face was serious and reserved, though every once in a while he would beam you one that showed why there were smile wrinkles around his eyes.
“Hello, Linda,” he said warmly. “All ready?”
I took a breath, tried to stay matter-of-fact. “Oh yes, all set!”
Jeremy and I had moved onto ten acres near the little village of Huddlestone the year previously. I had been the driving force behind the move. Jeremy’s work address was cyberspace, basically, so it really didn’t matter if his body was plunked down in Manhattan or Timbuktu. And, always eager to please me, sweet thing—or you could say, to humor my wild-hair notions—he had agreed to the move with a good grace. And I was on a wild-hair tear for sure; though this time I believed it was “for really and for real,” as Kate was always saying.
Eric had developed asthma early on. We had seen three doctors; he’d taken medications that made him either sleepy and dopey-eyed, or unbearably cranky—but the condition just got worse. God, it was so terrifying when he couldn’t get his breath! Finally, I just took a deep breath myself, and cut loose from the conventional wisdom, and blazed out on my own. I had Jeremy take care of the kids for about four days, and basically locked myself in my study with a stack of books about as high as my head, coming out just to pee or a desultory bite while continuing to pore over whatever text I was chewing on. I tracked tirelessly through the Web, sometimes until the sun peaked over the city’s skyline. And yeah, I’m the Lady of the Wild Hair, all right—but by God I have a relentless nose for bullshit!
I emerged from the study dazed and red-eyed but with a completely new view on—well, on just about everything. It had started with Eric’s asthma; but I had concluded that not only the asthma but all the other little tell-tale complaints of Kate and Jeremy and me—they all had to do with what I was feeding us from the industrial feed trough: The extruded, modified, fortified, vitamin-enriched pablum spewed out of industrial tanks from farm products grown in mined-out soil—oh God, don’t get me started! you really don’t want to hear my rant! But the upshot of it was, we were moving to the country, onto a piece of land where we could grow a lot of our own food, get away from the bad air and stress of the city. Because my Jeremy is a sweet man always ready to humor his billiard-ball lady; and because he seems to find plenty of money doodling away through cyberspace—we were able to find our place and make our new beginning in record time. And I started in on our new life like a dervish.
I laugh out loud when I think back on those first enthusiastic but clumsy and often incredibly dumb efforts—seeds planted too deep or too shallow or at the wrong time—roasting an old hen someone gave me, assuming I’d make stock, and the fork and carving knife just bouncing off!—thinking I’d killed Kate when she lapped up some milk from Ella’s goat which had accidentally clabbered. But in a year’s time, most of the vegetable produce on my table was grown in my own dirt; I got real milk from Ella, and bought all our meats from local farmers I had gotten to know personally. Oh yeah, and—quite coincidentally!—Eric’s asthma had cleared up in less than a month, and he hadn’t had an attack since.
The hens came early on. Mr. Fairfield, who helped me with so many of my kaleidoscopic perplexities, passed on half a dozen young hens and a sassy, self-important cock. I couldn’t believe that—just by letting that lot roam around and throwing them some grain each day—we were eating eggs so different from any we’d ever had we couldn’t believe it. But this spring had been the big leap: I had gotten two dozen excess cockerel chicks from Mr. Fairfield—it was time to start raising some of my own meat. Kate and Eric were thrilled with the chicks, took over almost all their care themselves. And we all knew that we were raising them to be dinner; though I know for myself I had never looked that fact straight in the eye. At thirteen weeks they were sticking out their chests and putting up their hackles at each other, like swaggering little boys on a grammar school playground. Mr. Fairfield said it was time to turn them into “spring chicken.”
I had gotten them into the two transport coops the night before. That morning I had said to Jeremy after breakfast, “I can’t believe how nervous I am about this! Somehow it was easy to forget about this moment when they were cute little balls of fluff!”
“Well,” he said jocularly, “I guess we’re talking about pretty small injuries against the vast sweep of time—” making an expanding motion with his hands.
“It’s not funny, Jer!” I snapped. “It’s not going to be easy seeing a bird killed I’ve given tender loving care all its life!”
“Hey, sorry,” he hurriedly replied, holding hands up palm out, placating. “I know it’ll be tough—”
“No, I’m sorry,” I interrupted, contrite. “Make your bed, got to lie in it!” I gave him a quick, to-be-continued kiss and ran out to load the pickup.
Mr. Fairfield helped me carry the coops into the shade of a big white oak where he had set up the operation. A big enamel canner with a lid sat over a burner fueled by a small propane tank. A garden hose ran to a homemade work table with a stainless steel sink top recycled from somebody’s kitchen renovation. A couple of knives and a hefty pair of shears lay on the drain area. Several five-gallon buckets were scattered around. It all looked very basic. Very physical.
Mr. Fairfield said, “Water’s hot, we can get started,” and opened a coop. He handed one of the cockerels to me, feet first. Suddenly my breath caught in my throat and my face went numb. Up to this moment, without giving it much thought, I had assumed that Mr. Fairfield, as the old hand at this, would be the one to kill the bird.
“I, uh, I’m not sure—” I stammered, shrinking back.
He looked at me steadily, his eyes not unfriendly or challenging, but unwavering.
“Linda,” he said quietly, matter of factly, “it’s not any fun for anybody, killing a beautiful animal to put on the table. Why should you expect anybody else to do that for you?” He said it gently, but I sensed a resolve as unwavering as his gaze, suspected that if I shrank from this task it would mean the end of the lesson. I grasped the feet of the bird he patiently held out.
Mr. Fairfield took another cockerel from the coop. Holding its feet in one hand and its head in the other, he stretched the bird out and then gave a twist to the head. Suddenly the cockerel was flapping its wings violently. Mr. Fairfield held it out away from him and waited patiently until the bird subsided into a few final spasms, then was still. He held out the neck for me to feel with my free hand. The skin of the neck was intact, so there was no blood; but there was a space about the width of three fingers between the neck and the head, feeling like an empty balloon.
“If you don’t have that space, you haven’t done the job. You’re not going to choke the bird to death,” he emphasized. He motioned for me to break my bird’s neck.
“Now, stretch it out, put some real tension on it, then make a wrenching twist down and out with the wrist—the head will pop completely off. Believe me, it is not a matter of strength, but getting the right feel for the tension and the action in the wrist. You can do this.”
I pushed-pulled the bird until I felt I would tear it in half, but the head didn’t budge. My chest was tight with rising panic. It wasn’t working! Mr. Fairfield looked on impassively as I panted and twisted at the head with no success. My mind was wailing in frustrated hysteria when suddenly, with an almost liquid giving-way, the head snapped off the neck. I held the chicken out as it flapped convulsively, turning my face away so Mr. Fairfield wouldn’t see the hot tears brimming at my eyelids.
After scalding and plucking the birds, we laid them out on the stainless steel table top and cut them open. This blood and guts part I had feared would make me queasy, but actually, I had no problem with it at all. For a mother of two children not all that long out of diapers, dealing with “the icky” was old hat.
I had my hand inside my bird after opening it up, when suddenly Mr. Fairfield’s hand was inside with mine. I couldn’t help an electrified, astonished gasp—the contact was unexpected and powerfully sensual. Like—well, like sex, I guess—skin sliding over skin lubricated with body fluids! But truly, the feeling wasn’t sexy at all, though it was overpoweringly intimate. It made me think not of a tumble in the sack with Jeremy; but of teaching the children something with my guiding hands on theirs—Eric with his shoelaces, Kate cutting something with a sharp blade—the most intimate teaching of all.
I stole a glance at Mr. Fairfield. There seemed nothing racy about this strange contact of our hands for him: He had his eyes closed, as if better to “see” what it was we were exploring, a look of intense concentration on his face.
“Okay,” he said, guiding my fingers, “—that’s what you’re looking for, that little seam where all that internal-tract stuff meets the rib cage and backbone—no, no, think of leading with your fingernails—that’s right, follow your nails into the seam—right, now your fingers are completely around the tract—just squeeze down on that big ball, that’s the gizzard—hold on tight, now just give it a good pull—” I gave it a good pull; and the purplish ball of the gizzard, the glistening dark red mass of the liver, and a long ropy set of grey entrails came free in a rush, still attached at the base of the body cavity.
Mr. Fairfield helped me remove the liver and the gizzard, and finish detaching the gastrointestinal tract by cutting around the vent, so that it all fell away whole and unruptured. Using the hose, I washed the bird inside and out, then held it up for Mr. Fairfield’s inspection. “Voila!” he said, a note of warmth and implicit praise in his voice.
I stared from the coop with the waiting cockerels to the marvelous gift of life and health for my family in my hands. I am not an especially religious person, but at that moment I was in the presence of God. Surely God is the very heart of this great round of giving—one creature giving to and sustaining another—all of them fitting into an interlocking whole of marvelous perfection and unimaginable intricacy. When the kind old man at my side had handed me the bird, I had expected to feel devastated at this point. Instead, I felt exhilarated—and swept by a profound sense of gratitude—to this sweet bird, to all things—that was almost too sharp in its intensity.
At the end of the day, as we loaded my coolers in the pickup and tiredly cleaned up—I should say, Mr. Fairfield seemed a bit tired; I was knocked-out exhausted—it occurred to me to ask him about a problem I was facing.
“Oh, Mr. Fairfield,” I said as I opened the dented door of the pickup. “Ella tells me her old doe is not likely to be able to breed again, and she’s not sure she can keep on with the milking anyway. It looks like before too long I’m going to have to find another milk supply. Know anybody that can help me out?”
Without missing a beat, he replied, “I think it’s time for you to get yourself a cow!” His eyes were smiling, though I didn’t doubt he was absolutely serious.
“A cow!?” I asked, incredulously, a here-we-go-again feeling punching at the pit of my stomach.
“A Dexter,” he continued matter of factly, as if we were talking about making up a batch of bread. “A miniature breed, easy for you to handle, give about a gallon and a half a day—about right, I’d think, for your family. Good rich milk, too. Unlike with the goat milk, you could take off the cream, make butter. I can put you in touch with someone over in the Valley, I’m pretty sure she’s got a young heifer she can sell. By the time Ella has to quit on you, you could have a cow of your own about ready to calve. If she brings a heifer, why, that’s one to raise for more milk or a cow to sell. If it’s a bull, you can raise him out for meat.”
“Oh good Lord, Mr. Fairfield! I just can’t imagine looking into the soft-eyed face of a calf and saying ‘Come here, dinner’!”
Giving my shoulder an encouraging squeeze, he assured me, “Don’t worry, it’ll be just like with the chickens—one step at a time.”