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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 © Maurice Rigoler | Year Posted 2022


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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…
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!
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…