Life and death (and soup) in the city

Originally published by New American Homesteader in 2015.

Under a bright December sky we gathered to kill the St. Elizabeth House chickens. My friends who built the coop and tended the chickens had moved to Georgia for a new job, and the chickens had mostly quit laying. Now the aging hens strutted and preened one last time in the weak solstice sun, oblivious to their fate.

“Why can’t they just keep feeding the chickens?” my daughter wanted to know.

Because, baby, nobody here can afford pet chickens. It is a house by and for those living on the margins, where the doors are open for community dinners and a room is reserved for someone with nowhere else to sleep. For two years the chickens fed our friends with their eggs, and in return received clean grain and warm grass and a well-built coop. But the humans come first, so now they’ll have to be soup. Better that than to be a racoon’s lunch. My daughter nodded: Her chickens met that fate last fall. She saw the carnage.

So our farmer friend Jamie offered to help slaughter and dress the birds, and I volunteered because—why? I was happy to help. I’d done this before and I have good knives. It was a beautiful day and I enjoyed the company. And something more. Years ago, I needed to prove to myself that I could kill an animal, feeling that if I were going to eat them, I ought to accept my responsibility in the matter. I made my peace with meat. But it’s good to be reminded the cost.

Chris, who aspires to the priesthood, prayed with us over the hens. He fumbled, feeling his words fall short of the moment, yet in that recognition said something heartfelt and lovely. And then we began. Donald, who a year ago had less shelter than these birds but who since tended them daily, caught them one by one and carried them to the railroad tie we used as a chopping block. Jamie held them down and I wielded the great cleaver. When an animal dies that way the light leaves its eyes in an instant, even while the life echoes violently in its body. There was a great deal of blood. And then it was over—for the chickens, at least. Their guts and feathers still awaited us.

Halfway through, Chris took a chicken and watched me carefully. Then I handed him the cleaver. There are some mysteries we comprehend, if we comprehend them at all, only by participating in them. We may know in an easy sort of way that we’re all dependent on the lives and work of others, but this day made the knowledge tangible. Those chickens depended on us humans for their existence, and now their bodies will become part of ours. The knowledge falls heavy as the cleaver, and somber. Yet it brings a kind of joy, too, in the fellowship of shared work none of us would want to face alone.

When I left Chris offered me a dressed chicken, and though I needed it less than they did, I couldn’t refuse the gift. My presence here was community, not charity. A week later I saw a dark shard of flesh in a spoonful of broth and paused, remembering the bright eyes, the shining feathers, the proud walk.

Once I harbored aspirations of farming. Now I live on the edge of the city. Still, I keep a little container garden, and my back yard verges onto thousands of acres of forest. Birds and deer visit daily, foxes bark and cry at night, and possums drink from my dog’s water bowl. In winter the setting sun glows golden through a mile of bare trees. I might stand with my back to the city and imagine myself safe and self-reliant in the bosom of nature. Turn and face east and the illusion shatters. Walking to the Elizabeth House I pass an upscale grocery store, the campus of an expensive private university, and a half-dozen people without enough money for lunch. Luxury lofts rise like wheat in a field where last January a woman froze to death in a makeshift tent. My garden is a hobby. This coop was survival. And we are all, whether we know it or not, bound up together in the life and death of the world.

I’ll tell you one more mystery. The Elizabeth House had eight chickens, but we found only seven that afternoon. The missing hen was the one Chris had taken to a Blessing of the Animals last fall, and christened Frances. I won’t pretend she found another home; more likely she was taken by a hawk. But we, at least, were spared the killing of an animal for which we’d asked a blessing. It made us think. And that, too, is a blessing.