The thing about dipping a headless chicken in a vat of boiling water is you have to get the temperature just right. Too cold and the feathers won’t come off; too hot and the skin starts to peel. You sort of swish him around, using one foot like a handle, and pull him up every so often to test if the feathers are ready to pop out.
There. They come away in my grip.
I hoist him out, water sloshing to the gravel drive. I hang him by the foot from the L-shaped post, which usually holds a “Vacancy” sign, and only once that I can remember a “No Vacancy” when there was a fishing tournament. This close to my nose, the smell of iron and soggy feathers and life just turning to death is overwhelming.
I begin to pluck. The feathers don’t want to come free.
Behind me, a tongue clucks. “För kallt! You must test at the tail, not the neck.” My mother plops another headless chicken into the pot and bends to turn up the burner. Drying blood spatters her leathery face and clothing. She wears the same thing for killing chickens as for standing behind the motel desk and staring down guests: grey slacks, grey sweater, greying hair twisted up and held there mostly by will.
“Cut me some slack. It’s been a while since I’ve done this.”
“Yes, well,” she says, “now you are back.”
I focus on the feel of feathers parting from flesh. You don’t pull them out so much as roll them beneath your fingers in a rough caress.
My mother sweeps a hand like a real estate agent with a flare for drama, showing off the gravel courtyard surrounded on three sides by our squat motel, the neat flower beds, the Douglas fir forest butting up against the highway. A breeze sweeps a feather from the pool at my feet to catch in her hair. “This is a good place,” she says. “Healthy air. Better than city.”
What she doesn’t have to say is that she came here for me. For my lungs, anyway. What she says in the accusation of her posture is: why did I try to leave her the moment I was old enough?
I yank too hard, and skin tears, seeping blood. There’s a buzz beneath my skin like the gathering of biting insects at dusk. I can feel her watching. “Let’s trade,” I say. “You pluck and clean.”
She hesitates. Then she hands me the axe.
There are two chicken coops: the laying hens out front, so the guests can see where the restaurant eggs come from and take photos, and the meat birds out back where they can’t. The meat birds all look the same: bred to fatten, clumsy on their feet, hearts and lungs weak. They scatter when they see me, starting up a rustle of fear. They know the others left and haven’t come back. They’ve never seen the outside world but still know to mistrust it.
I pounce, scooping one into my arms. He tries to flap. “Come on. Here, buddy. You’re okay.” I pin his wings against my chest, stroke him under the chin.
The next step is to shove him into the old feed bag, one corner cut off so the head can stick out. I carry him, wrapped like a parcel except for the protruding head, to the stump. The wood is tacky with blood, scored with axe marks. I lay his neck flat on its surface. His eyes are wide and staring at nothing. I grip him in place with one hand. I raise the axe with the other.
It hovers there. My hands shake; he’s heavier than I remember them being, or I’m weaker, after a stretch of trying and mostly failing to care for myself. The axe doesn’t want to move.
I think of the look my mother will give if I go back empty-handed. I inhale. I swing.
As steel meets skin, I flinch. It goes wrong.
An animal scream rips through the quiet. A body bucks against the confines of the bag. The rooster gasps for breath, not dead, not quite alive, head still half attached as blood spills across white feathers and my hands.
“Sorry, bud,” I pant, inanely, wrestling to hold him still enough to land a killing blow. “I’m sorry.” My words rasp out with exertion.
A wing rips free of the bag, and then he’s half loose, thrashing. I throw my full weight into holding him down, and he’s screaming again, and this time when I raise the axe I bring it down hard and clean and the head tumbles to the ground and he kicks and then he’s still.
I try to breathe. All I get is a whistling, panicked wheeze. The axe falls from my grip. I sink to one knee on the blood-spattered ground, clutching my throat. The passage has closed up. It’s like trying to force a river through a straw. I never forget to use my inhaler before exercise, but this wasn’t supposed to be a fight.
Darkness bleeds into the edges of my vision. Footsteps come, then rush for the house, then come again.
My mother’s hand supports my back. She holds my inhaler to my lips. “Air out,” she says. Puff. “Air in.” I suck in the medication, greedy as a pup at a teat. I gasp for oxygen.
She strokes my hair, fingers slippery with blood or viscera. “I have you, älskling,” she says.
Katya Kirschmann is a Canadian writer and visual artist. Katya’s writing has been featured in Ryga, The White Wall Review, and the Brave New Play Rites theatre festival.