“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
~ Emily Dickinson
Dawn drifted across the lower field with tufts of mist. Cool air made the ninety-degree forecast seem impossible, even though it was true. Our Cornish cross chickens had fasted overnight, as in preparation for a sacred ritual. We ate our five a.m. breakfast, but did not eat again until all was finished, late in the afternoon.
I hoisted the picnic table to an ideal spot, where the cedar limbs draped over it, and propped it level with scrap boards. Our largest enamel canner full of water heated on the stove. Andrew carted the new-to-us chicken plucker—a stainless steel drum lined with black rubber fingers—into position not far from the table. This contraption would pluck three chickens in less than ten seconds, vast improvement from plucking one chicken in over ten minutes.
We scooted the chicken tractor, a moveable shelter with an open bottom, onto fresh grass for the birds’ last morning. All day I found crisp green blades poking from an esophagus or a gizzard, evidence of how these chickens spent their final minutes.
Two metal cones, pointing downward, hung from our black locust clothesline post, with buckets below them. Each chicken squawked once or twice as Andrew snagged them from the grassy pen, making their typical “hey, you grabbed me” sound, not a panicked chicken yell. They traveled down the yard quietly, tucked under his arm. He slid them, headfirst, into the cone, swiftly, without fuss. They rested there, swaddled upside-down, strangely calm in this position.
Throughout the day I took a few photos, I told our friend that evening, who seemed surprised. “Will you be making a horror show?” he asked, half joking. I paused. It was true that the work had been messy, with blood and guts. There was killing. There were dead bodies. There was no horror.
At one point, mid-morning, Stella sat near me on our tree swing, swaying gently. She watched Andrew approaching the killing cones with a chicken and started crying, “Get me down, Mom!” I rushed over to release her, to allow her to run away. As soon as her kicking feet hit the ground, she made a beeline for Andrew.
I watched her stand firm beside him, the chicken’s head at her eye level. She had been sad earlier, wanting to keep the chickens “the way they are.” Now she faced the moment head-on, teaching me again about courage and wonder. Then she turned, dance-running back towards me, chanting, “It’s gonna be yum yum yum yum yummy!”
Does it feel strange, our friend wondered, that your job is to help animals? Absolutely. As a veterinarian, I pour my energies into piecing animals back together, keeping them alive. But this work, too—raising birds from chicks to meat without small cages or long highway rides—fulfills my veterinary oath: the protection of animal health, the relief of animal suffering. In this work, too, I find hope.
All day, a breeze blew through the cedar canopy where I stood, taking apart chickens. Their now-bald skin, soft and cool under my fingers, yielded to my knife. I reached into their still-warm interiors to tease out the tubes and pieces of life, understanding each tender tissue and its job. I saved their hearts, like grapes, and their noble livers, smooth and dense, the color of passion. Sometimes in our work we get the chance to indulge in reverence.