From the dark of early morning, the chickens murmur in their cages. A single downy feather rises in the cool air of the room. The scalding tank carries water at a heat to loosen feathers. The cleaning table gleams wet in the fluorescent light. The tools are clean and neatly set down. The music washes over it all.
I celebrate my chickens with music. I do not say butcher.
I celebrate with the best music ever composed. There is Mozart, Dmitri Shostakovich and Johannes Brahms. There is Vivaldi, Franz Liszt, Prokofiev, Shubert, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, and more, on and on, all the masters.
Blood is the truth of this work. It is the wholesome sacrifice. The quartets and concertos and rolling symphonies help lift the knife from the stilling pulse of necessity.
A benefit of long tedious manual labor is freedom for the mind to reflect in distracted serenity. I should use this mental space to plan new gardens, or tabulate my cash flow on the fuzzy spreadsheets in my head, or some other useful thought.
But as the celebration finds a tempo, my mind goes back to the butchers who showed me this art. They remind me why I do this work.
I dunk and scald and pick and cut in the glow of beautiful music and let myself go–
To the family farm in East Texas, a Pentecostal family, where I first studied the butchering art. All the children, ages seven through twenty-four, even the girls with their long straight hair and identical dresses, each a little taller than the next, stood in line to celebrate the chickens. They whispered a blessing as they took each bird through the difficult step, and not a single child took a break the whole day. The trees shone bright green through the small window as the sun made a hot arc in the sky. The littlest ones told Bible stories as they worked the birds and the older ones told Plato’s allegory of the cave. I told how to catch alligators with your bare hands and how it is to ride in an airplane, and to jump out of one under the stars. Those were Gershwin chickens, filled with their reverence and my rollicking joy, and I took two home for my pay.
Or the tiny village in the Himalayas at the end of the apple harvest. They ate apples whole as they walked along dirt paths carrying their heavy loads, and threw the cores down the side of the mountain, and everyone smiled and greeted one another because it had been an excellent harvest. Women chatted as they stood in line in colorful saris to offer orange-tinted marijuana flowers at the temple of Ganesh. My host did not want to take a chicken, but I offered him neatly folded rupees in rubber band so he bought a chicken from his neighbor. The chicken had feathers of iron and I worked it hard on the stones by the river but I celebrated badly and tore the bird apart and still the feathers remained. That was an Alexander Scriabin chicken, overwrought with off notes, and my host pointed and laughed and told everyone that I am a terrible farmer.
Or the vineyard in Slovenia with blooming rose bushes at the end of every row of grapes up the gentle slope. We took the chickens out in the dark of a foggy morning and celebrated them in the barn with straw on the wooden floor and let the birds rest all day in tubs of ice water. They roasted the chickens that night in a brick oven and the customers ate them on stone tables on the patio while the farm matron and I sat on stools in the back of the kitchen and ate our chicken with zinfandel. We talked into the night of manure, beneficial insects, the loss of a precious child to leukemia, and the importance of fog on grapes in the morning that burns off in the evening sun. Finally the woman’s husband showed his head around the kitchen door and she stood up and patted my face with a leathery hand and went off to bed. Those were Franz Joseph Haydn chickens, layers of tenderness and warmth and droplets of dew that evaporate into the deep blue.
Or the run-down farm on a craggy slope in the Transylvania Alps, where the spent laying hens scratched among rotted-out tires and bare patches in the snow. The old man with his mean clean-shaven face and wool cap walked wordlessly past me and caught a skinny chicken against a rock and wrung its neck as he walked back to the house. I went in the same door and by the time I got in the bird was dressed on the table in a kitchen that reeked of cigarettes. I waited a long time and no one came and the raw chicken laid stiffening on a platter. The house was cold and did not at all resemble the brochure and there was nothing to read in the kitchen and all my things were locked in the upstairs room. That was an Edvard Grieg chicken, tense and discordant and excellent for an exit.
Or the sagging wooden house that was also a store on the side of a narrow winding road high in the Sierra Madre. They roasted a goat every morning on a sheet of roofing tin, and one day they roasted a pig but I missed it because we were hiking, and finally the old woman agreed to offer me chicken. She pulled off the live heads and threw the birds into the courtyard where they ran in frenetic headless panic and one jumped onto a broken-down old car and stood there while the children laughed. Instead of a cock-a-doodle-doo he sprayed his red blood on the rusty hood and fell over. I said that now they would be tough and I didn’t want them anymore but she said por favor she would boil them all night, “Voy a hervir toda la noche”. Those were Sergei Rachmaninoff chickens, a symphonic dance in a dirty courtyard, and we ate them in tacos the last morning in Mexico, and rinsed out our mouths with cold green Jarritos.
Or at Edelen Farm, where my dear friends Greg and Lauren rise in the dark to their daily chores. They celebrate their birds on Thursday, every other week, twelve hours of feathers and sweat. Greg moves them through the stages, back and forth, walking and bending and twisting and stooping in big rubber gloves up to his elbows. Lauren sits for hours in a metal chair with her tweezers and unstitches every last feather and pinfeather with loving aching hands. When she takes a break she sits under the big oak tree and stretches her back and looks over the crops toward the dusty road. They are salt of the earth and they celebrate the best chickens of all, Johann Sebastian Bach chickens, precise, prolific, perfect.
I probably never will make perfect chickens. There is a lack of talent or possibly patience. But I do not despair; Beethoven is my favorite and Beethoven is not perfect.
Beethoven is lightning on the mountain that bursts into golden raindrops. Beethoven is the sun breaking through stormy black clouds.
Yes, I will be happy with a Beethoven chicken. It will go out of the farm and carry with it its music flowing on the wind. It will come to rest in the center of a bountiful table, and the music will mix with the voices and the laughter of the room, and each one around the table will take a bite. It will nourish the body. It will become part of a new story.
The music cradles the sleepy chickens and I take out another bird and say a blessing through the soft feathers and celebrate, celebrate, celebrate the live-long day.
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Bravo! Bravo! Bra-vo!!
Bravo to YOU!