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Killing of the Hens

The dry, frayed ends of autumn, the garden charred by successive waves of night frosts, the heavy scent of wild grapes in the air. Outside the kitchen’s back door, a small metal barrel stood over a fire waiting on a slow boil, set up by my grandfather early on. Nearby a makeshift table – old planks topped over two carpenter horses – covered with old yellowed newspapers; large bluish canning jars waiting at one end of the table, each sterilized in a bath of scalding water and later each snuggly fitted with a hen’s cleaned out carcasse to be cooked, then placed on shelves in the dirt floor cellar, making their first appearance on the Sunday dinner table during winter months. My grandmother, rotund and lacking any sentimentality for most animals, least of all pigs and chickens waited in a heavy rough cloth apron with years of use, a small sharp knife in hand, her swift entry into a hen’s cavity easily passed for a butcher at the local market. The chopping block, a weathered piece of an old black oak tree trunk, its surface marked with grooves where many an ax head fell and left its mark. With a wave of her hand she signaled grandfather to begin the killing. A few feet away, within a temporary wired enclosure, unknowing hens milled about pecking the grassy area for what would be their last meal. Grabbing each hen by its feet, he laid her body on one side, her head almost on the edge of the block and with the speed of a sudden lightening bolt, brought down the axe, the hen’s head dropping to the ground, it’s headless neck squirting blood like a garden hose, then tossed the the first of many hens that would grow into a pile of her dead sisters. Yet there was always a hen that sensed her fate and managed to get back on her feet and dash off headless, as if defying death itself and determined to keep living, while her severed head lay at the base of the chopping block could give not so much as a cheering cackle for so heroic a try.

Copyright © | Year Posted 2022




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Date: 12/8/2022 2:16:00 PM
I'm with Ms. Ilene..very graphic and well described but I personally would have been traumatized regardless of their efficient skill set. I can't stand to see blood outside of the body.
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Date: 12/2/2022 11:07:00 AM
A wonderful description of this event, Maurice! I saw a hen’s head get chopped off once and will never forget it, finally understanding the whole “chicken without a head” metaphor. It was upsetting to me, though…
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Date: 12/2/2022 8:40:00 AM
I remember this so well, Maurice. In fact, I've chopped off a few heads in my time. I was always amazed when a chicken who couldn't possibly be alive would behave very much alive. It was always startling. Then, I recall Grandma plunging them into scalding water before the plucking began. Good one!
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Date: 12/1/2022 7:11:00 PM
The tradition continues - we have participated in “processing day” at my daughter’s. They use a cone and let them bleed out, and the plucking machine is something to behold. And the grandkids look down from the screen porch with a mix of fascination and horror…
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Rigoler Avatar
Maurice Rigoler
Date: 12/1/2022 9:57:00 PM
As I did at first watching y grandfather knock off hen heads lik it was nothing, while my grandmother looked on, knife in hand, waiting to clean them out. Sometimes a whole soft shell egg came out and I would mould the egg in a nonround glass until it hardened. Thanks for stopping by Jeff. / Maurice