The end

Spring was framed by death.

At the end of winter we lost Kishi, our kitten, only ten months old. She had never been an especially robust cat, on the scrawny side, retiring and prone to recurring bouts of worms, but we thought her fundamentally healthy until the day in late February when she stopped eating. When she refused even tuna we took her to the vet, who made an educated guess: respiratory infection? She spent the weekend on antibiotics and ate a little, but by Monday she was no better, and we took her back for bloodwork and more tests.

Tuesday morning she collapsed and could not walk, only dragged herself around by clutching her front claws into the carpet. Wednesday night, after two more days of failed forcefeeding and inconclusive tests, we laid her in the bed between us when we went to sleep, knowing she would probably not last the night. By morning she was dead.

The killer was a rare disease called feline infectious peritonitis, for which there is no effective vaccine, no reliable test, and no cure. It is caused by a relatively common virus that can, on occasion, mutate inside the body of a kitten or older cat whose immune system is already weak — as Kishi’s was when we rescued her. Likely she had the virus even then, and fought it for the five months she lived with us, a tough little girl after all.

We learned all we could about FIP during her last two days, trading with the vet the results of our mutual research, but once the symptoms appeared, it was too late. The virus had long since attacked her immune system and caused lesions to form on her internal organs, spreading finally to her brain and paralyzing her. The end came without warning and without hope, from a predator I had not known to fear.

On the morning she died the first crocuses bloomed in the garden.

Four months later I spent the first truly hot day of summer killing chickens. A friend had talked us into helping her with a small-scale broiler operation, thirty-five chickens, of which she was able to preserve nineteen from raccoons and hawks. The last two nights she herded them for safekeeping into the back of an old pickup truck, a scene too ridiculous even for redneck jokes.

I had agreed to help simply to see if I could. I had never deliberately killed anything larger than a hornet; I had lived a typically sheltered existence in which my meat was presented to me butchered, shrink-wrapped, ready for cooking. But I had begun to think that if I could not actually kill an animal and eat it I had no business eating meat at all. There ought to be, perhaps, an eleventh commandment to integrity, or against cowardice: Thou shalt not ask another to do in thy name what thou wilt not do thyself. If you can’t kill it and gut it yourself, give it up and be a vegetarian.

And so on this drippingly humid morning in early June I stood, cleaver in hand, ready to kill my first chicken. Four of us would divide the labor: Kathryn, who had raised and fed them caught them and carried them to the block; I cut off their heads; the others plucked them; and when the carcasses had cooled a bit, I cleaned them and dressed them, a pleasant way of saying that I cut them open and pulled out their guts.

None of us had done any of this before. We based our plan on instructions we had read in books, and it went more smoothly than any of us expected, but nothing quite prepares you for the thing itself. The act is almost shockingly easy: Kathryn holds the bird down on the block, I take hold of its head and stretch out the neck, steady the cleaver, and bring it down.

Kathyrn holds the headless body on the block; the aftermath of death is gruesome enough without the proverbial chicken running round with its head cut off. The body seizes and spurts blood and, incredibly, squawks, its voicebox and lungs still intact. The head falls on the ground, eyes blinking, beak opening and closing, tongue spasming outward, the jugular dripping from the severed neck and pooling on the ground.

In a quarter of a minute it is over. The end came swiftly with the blade of the cleaver; the chicken, though he sensed something was wrong, never had time to realize he was going to die, and when his head was severed he was almost instantly unconscious. The show of spurting blood and headless squawking was only for our benefit, nature’s way of reminding us of the seriousness of what we were doing.
Six hours later we had the clean carcasses of eighteen chickens cooling in the refrigerator. The nineteenth we spared: he had been bitten by a raccoon and survived, a scrawny little thing. Kathryn christened him Lucky — doubly so now — and kept him as a pet.

The next evening I cut one of his brothers’ bodies in half, slipped some fresh rosemary and minced garlic under his skin, brushed him with olive oil, and grilled him. When he was done I spritzed him with fresh lemon juice and called him dinner. He was the best damn chicken I ever ate.

Adopting Kishi had been a gesture of hope, or faith, or even defiance. We had talked about finding another cat to keep Mao company, found Kishi on the website of a local animal rescue group — she looked exactly like Mao; it seemed like fate, but we wavered. Then, the week after September 11, we looked again: she was back, rejected by her new family. We made our decision. On the night the President made his speech to the nation, we drove to her foster home to meet her and sign the papers. We brought her home that night. On the drive home I held her on my lap in the front seat while the President on the radio declared war on terrorism. The timing was a coincidence; only in retrospect did it seem fated or deliberate. But when she died so suddenly it seemed to me that my faith, somehow, had been rejected.

A ten month-old kitten, playful and seemingly healthy only a week ago, now unable or unwilling to eat and dragging herself desperately towards us on paralyzed legs is, perhaps, the most horrible thing I have ever seen. I say this knowing that in all the world the death of one kitten is a small thing, but it is also everything. In one’s own life there is no all the world. The experience of others, however many times we may see it replayed on television, cannot prepare us for our own lives.

Or, perhaps, the more horrible sight was Mao pawing at Kishi’s stiffening body, meowing helplessly as the fleas jumped away in search of warmer blood.

Old age I understand, and disease of the usual kind: these have timetables, warning signs, time to prepare. Car accidents take life swiftly, but these I know can happen. War, violence, terrorism: I expect the worst of human nature, a bad habit perhaps, but the pessimism and insulates me from the worst shocks. Except this time.

Kishi had been a sweet kitten, shy, but on her last morning with us she fought hard, propping herself up on wobbly front legs, looking determined towards the litterbox or the kitchen where our older cat, Mao, was eating his breakfast, then collapsing, exhausted from the effort. She wanted to live, we willed her to live, but there was no warning and no recourse — and no one to blame. When she was gone there was no target for anger or frustration, no one to threaten or shake a fist at. It was only life, only the patient working of nature.

I wonder if the chickens felt the same way when they faced their end, their terror mixed with shock and horror at their betrayal. Or at least with bottomless confusion: they were, after all, chickens. Their end, too, came from an enemy they had not learned to fear. And though their enemy had a name — mine — I was in a sense no more to blame than Kishi’s virus, for I, too, played my role in nature. I have a carnivore’s sharp teeth and a carnivore’s keen eyesight; my species evolved by killing animals for food. I cannot escape this fact of nature, that to live I must kill. By becoming vegetarian or vegan I would only draw the line lower on the scale: these I will kill, those I will not. A stalk of corn lives as truly as does a chicken, and to eat it is no less to kill it.

At present I draw my line somewhere between cats and chickens. I will kill chickens — I will not say gladly, though no less gladly than I would buy them dead and dressed from a store. And I will fight like hell to save a kitten.

While we killed and plucked the chickens we played music to lighten the burden. Early in the afternoon, someone put a Doors album in the CD player, and I knew when I heard the first notes from the guitar what was coming. As Kathryn brought the chicken to me and laid his head on the block, Jim Morrison began to sing, distant and disaffected: This is the end…my only friend, the end. Kathryn and I looked at each other, unsure whether we wanted to laugh or throw up. I dispatched the bird before the scene could grow any more surreal.

This, after all, is life — not television wars, not video game violence, not the musings of a suicidal rock star. This, visceral and real, is life, and death is a part of it, a constant part, as I learned from Kishi and the chickens. Perhaps, for some people, watching thousands die on television is reminder enough; for me it took one kitten and eighteen broilers dead in my own arms.

And yet in death there is also life. My own life is sustained by the deaths of those chickens, but there are other consolations. Lucky is turning into a beautiful rooster, a friendly little fellow who is lucky as well not to know how apt his name really is. A month after Kishi died we adopted a new cat, Eli, an adult male who is sweet and playful and defends Mao ferociously against visiting dogs who pose no real threat. He is a joy to be around, a cat we would never have known had Kishi lived — and who would likely have been killed in the shelter had we not adopted him. Perhaps, in a sense, she died that he could live. Life goes on, and I am grateful.

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