Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A family Affair - Remember the chickens?

It was one of those wickedly hot days.  You know the kind that just makes ya feel a little bit crazy?  Four girls flopped in various positions around the homestead, their noses stuck in books.  At the moment they were blissfully unaware of the trauma that awaited them.

The parents of these four girls had left on an errand earlier in day without explanation.  With no adult there to assign new chores, the girls took pleasure in their leisure.  One in front of a fan, another under the tree, another one in the barn curled up with various kittens and another sprawled across her bed.  It was a peaceful moment.

Until the parents arrived home.  Suddenly the hum of serenity was destroyed by a cacophony of sound unfamiliar to these girls.  Each jumped up from their various positions and ran to the back door to be greeted with...chickens.  Loud, cackling, clucking chickens boxed up in various boxes, valiantly poking their heads up through the corners of the boxes.  Just a few minutes more and they might have a chance at escape.

The youngest girl about age 7, jumped and clapped her hands, "Oh goody," she exclaimed, "we're going to have chickens!"  The second sister was a little more suspicious and asked, "Where are we keeping the chickens?"  The first sister looked warily at the hens and answered "In the freezer, I suspect." 

Mom and dad walked into the kitchen and set their two largest pots, old sterilizing pots in fact atop the stove and turned the burners on high.  "Yell out to the barn when that water starts a rapid boil."  And with that he grabbed a few boxes of chickens and made haste to the barn.  The mother came inside, instructed the girls to put their hair up in ponytails, and put on their grubbiest work clothes.  "You are going to get messy," she added.

All four girls shuffled to their bedrooms, with their hearts in their throats.  Despite the fact that neither parent actually SAID what was going to happen to the chickens, they all knew.  This was a chore they had never had to do before.  It was not one they looked forward to.  

As they reentered the now steamy kitchen, they heard their mother call out to the barn, "The water's boiling now."  Mom had laid vinyl tablecloths on the floor as well as various plastic bags.  Looking to the youngest daughter, she pointed to the roll of trash bags "Your job will be to give your sisters an empty trash bag and take the full ones and put them in the fire barrel.  The youngest gulped and nervously asked, "What are they putting in the bags momma?"  

"Feathers," she answered, to which the four girls groaned and the youngest shuddered, "moooom, do we have to do that?  Can't we just keep the feathers on the chickens where they belong?"

Sister three couldn't stand it, and snapped at the youngest, "You dummy, the chickens are gonna be dead.  They won't need the feathers."  

"Dead?" and the youngest began to cry, running to her mother and throwing her arms around her waist, "Not dead, please not dead."  Her mother soothed her hand over the youngest hair and answered.  "I know this is not fun.  In fact it's nasty.  I know it's boiling hot in here and we are all going to be miserable and this might make feel us sick.  But this is the cheapest way to have chicken for meals...to buy them and slaughter them yourself.  Your father will come in soon, with dead chickens.   He's taken all their insides out, and bled them out as much as possible.  We will drop them into the pots for just a few seconds.  I will take the long tongs and pull each chicken out of the water and give one to each of you older three girls.  Start grabbing feathers by the handfuls and dump them in the plastic bags."

The four took their positions, and soon the father walked in with 4 headless chickens in his hands.  Those four girls looked on with horror and disgust as he dumped the first two in the pots and left the others in the sink and headed outside.  Mom stirred the pot and within seconds was plopping soppy wet chickens in front of each of the girls.  Chickens that only 10 minutes ago had been squawking, cackling and creating the ruckus in the back of the truck.

The girls did as they were told, and each reluctantly pulled feathers, dumping the feathers into the bags that the youngest would drag behind her as she grieved the deaths of the hens.  No one was very happy to be doing this.  It was the most wretched farm chore yet that they had been instructed to do.  And the hens kept coming.  They plucked and they picked and when mom declared the hen was plucked clean she took it and gave then a new soppy wet one.

The more they plucked the harder it became to ignore the fact these had been living creatures.  The three young pluckers did their job but with each pull of the feathers, more tears dripped off their faces.

About midway through this nasty process, the door burst open.  But it was not father, it was their favorite aunt.  "Hey, what's everyone doing?"  Sweeping her eyes around the room, seeing the boiling pots, the teary girls, the piles of chicken feathers and the pile of carcasses, she recognized the connections.  She told the girls, " Awww nuts, I always hated doing this job."  Not one to shy away, she wiggled a space between the girls and started sharing plucking stories with them, taking a hen to pluck while she talked.  

The girls perked up a bit but still could not get past the fact that these chickens were warm.  Not just from the pot, but because it had been alive just 10 minutes ago.  It was hard to ignore.  Soon, the girls were entertained by their aunt's stories and methodically pulling feathers.

Until the second sister turned her hen over and it groaned.  Within seconds of that groan, this sister picked the hen up screaming "It’s still alive!" and THREW it against the wall.  Their aunt fell over in a fit off giggles.  The wall was a nasty mess of blood and feather, running down the walls surface.  Between her gales of laughter she told them, "Well if it was alive, its surely dead now" as she pointed to the lifeless body broken on the floor at the bottom of the wall.  In its sudden impact with the solid wall, parts of the hen broke and were sticking out at odd angles.  Their aunt could barely speak through her giggles and soon the aunt, the girls and even the mother were holding their stomachs, laughing and gasping.  The aunt was claiming she was going to wet herself if they didn’t stop laughing.

Their father came in with the last batch of butchered hens but stopped abruptly in the doorway, perplexed by the laughter.  His last visit, he suffered through the sniffles, and teary glances.  He looked around, saw nothing to cause such hilarity, then shook his head and decided you just can’t define a female regardless of their age.  Mother finally caught her breath enough to say, "Girls, it can't be alive...it has no head!"  

"Or legs" added the first sister.  "Or wings" laughed the second sister.  Their mom explained the death moan...a dead creature can have air trapped in a cavity.  When the creature is moved and the air escapes it often sounds like a moan.  Then she told them to clean up the mess on the wall.  She guessed that chicken could be stewed for supper that night....to make chicken and dumplings.

They finished the plucking and once the butchering was over, dad came in to cut the chicken into pieces.  He sent the girls outside; and mother brewed up a pitcher of sweet tea and carried it out to them.  Sweet tea was a treat to these girls on the farm.  Milk and water was their staple, while tea was "for company".  Soda was just not an option.   Not because they had any objection to it.  The parents just felt funds should be spent on those items that nourish.  So the four girls eagerly clutched icy tall glasses of sweet tea and gulped them down as if it were an antidote for the experience they just had, hoping it would wash those images from their minds.  It didn't work.  Neither did the second or even the third glasses.

They would all remember plucking chickens the time one moaned and Becky threw it at the wall.  

And it was the last time the parents thought to butcher and pluck their own chickens.  They paid the farmer down the road for already butchered and plucked hens.  The girls would all agree, it was a bargain.

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