The girl led me to a hacked up wooden block lying in the dirt, handed me a dull machete, looked me in the eyes, and made a karate chop gesture towards her throat. I didn’t really need more instruction than that, but I was deeply afraid that I’d butcher the butchering process and only chop half the chicken’s head off on the first go, forcing both the chicken and my conscience to suffer unnecessarily. She had handed me the chicken by the legs, but once I placed its neck on the chopping block I realized that it had waaaay more freedom to wiggle and flap around than I was comfortable with. Nonetheless, I aimed the machete, silently begged the chicken for forgiveness, and prepared to chop, desperately hoping that death for the chicken would be quick and painless.
As the blade came down I put my weight behind it and plunged it through the chicken’s neck and into the block with a solid thwack, but somewhere along the way something went a bit wrong and I felt a warm spray of blood coat my arms up to the elbows as the chicken started flapping and writhing around with an inch-deep chunk out of its neck. The girl let out a curt “oooooh” of disapproval while one of the girls I was with choked out a little “oh no!,” covered her eyes, and ran back around the house. Having now done precisely what I hoped I wouldn’t do, I resisted the urge run away myself and wound back for another chop. Due to the chicken’s frantic struggle to escape though, the second cut didn’t intersect with the first, again leaving it’s head still half-on. I quickly went for a third chop, this time finishing the task, but not before traumatizing the chicken, my friends, the girl, and (again) myself. I picked up the chicken’s limp body, handed it to the girl without meeting her eyes, and silently walked over to the sink to wash the blood off my hands in the most literal sense. It took me a minute or two to come to terms with what I’d done before I could rejoin the girl who by now had put the chicken into a bowl of hot water and begun plucking it, pointing out each individual wound as she did so as if to say, “look at what you’ve done… you monster….”
She hadn’t said much out loud up until this point so I wasn’t sure where her English proficiency lay, but I asked, half-hoping she wouldn’t answer, whether or not most people chopped the head off on the first try. She said yes without hesitation so I looked back at her and followed up by asking, “so that was really bad, huh?” She looked at me and gave another solemn “yes” in a much more straightforward answer than I’d hoped for.
Since she clearly no longer trusted me to do anything correctly, she then plucked and gutted the chicken herself and tossed it onto the open barbecue pit back towards the front of the house. I shuffled back to the table with my head down to join my friends, who politely asked if I was okay behind a thinly veiled sense of disappointment and horror. We sat there quietly wishing we didn’t have to eat anything, let alone the chicken I’d just massacred, but knowing we had to out of a weird sense of responsibility. The vegan girl walked back over, pointed to a spot of blood on my shoulder that I’d missed, and (successfully) attempted to shame me with alarming intensity.
Finally, after a very long few minutes, the girl brought the chicken out on a platter with rice and some spinach-like vegetable. The three of us diligently but unhappily ate each piece, still under the judgy eyes of the vegan, and spoke only to point out about how uncomfortable we were that the creature we were eating was alive and well less than fifteen minutes ago. I’d love to tell you that the chicken—fresh as it was—tasted great, but the whirlwind of conflicting emotions spiraling through my head (and stomach) has long since taken precedence over any memory of taste. Once we were done we paid the bill and unceremoniously left, and I decided that butchering an animal isn’t something I’d like to do ever again.
If the mussel I killed in kindergarten is really up there in mussel heaven (which I now suspect isn’t real… thanks, Dad) then I’d like to assume that the chicken I killed has now joined his family in the chicken afterlife as well. The tangible reality, however, is that the chicken’s life culminated in a bungled three-stroke decapitation, followed by embalmment through spice rub and an open-pit cremation. The justification for my actions through “broadening my understanding of the meat industry” seems to hardly have worked given that, a) I irredeemably botched the procedure, which I imagine has warped my understanding rather than broadened it, and b) I’m still going to eat chicken, I’m just not going to kill them myself anymore.
The ability to walk into a Market Basket and buy a plucked and prepared chicken breast is a luxury; the limp pink slab of meat seems so far removed from a slaughtered animal that eating it is easy to digest (pun slightly intended). The fact of the matter, however, is that behind every chicken dinner is a discarded chicken head with gaping eyes that last saw a dull machete plummeting down towards its neck. I’ve found myself hoping that chickens really are as dumb as they seem, and I’ve even found myself vaguely hoping that, against all odds, chicken heaven is real, and that the one I killed is up there eating infinite kernels of corn and clucking happily with his friends. But then my stomach groans and twists as it digests my lunch and I remember what really came of both the mussel and the chicken.