Killing Chickens in America

Some good people picked me up on the road out of Canada. They were going to Saint Paul Minnesota. I was eager to see the Mississippi River. My grand father had told me stories of his travel when he was a child. He was taken to New Orleans by boat on the Mississippi in the nineteenth century, (note). When we penetrated the city, we stopped to have a beautiful American breakfast together. Then I begged the driver to take me farther away from that big city where I might find if hard to survive. We drove to the countryside, where they released me.

 

With my burlap bag swinging on my shoulder, I walked up to an isolated farmhouse in a field, knocked on the door and waited for a good while. An old man appeared. He was very scrawny. His long face was evoking a kitchen brush. He had not shaved in more then a few days. His deep-set eyes were separated by a nose resembling of a knife’s the blade. He said nothing. I greeted him politely and asked if I could spend a few days in exchange for my labor. He was the only person in that farmhouse. He looked at me. Puzzled, he scratched his head while looking at the ground for a long time. Finally he offered me a simple deal. In exchange for room and board I was to kill all his chickens. During the whole time I spent there it was the only words I heard out of his mouth.

 

He wore blue bib overalls with a leather belt around his waste and a brown shirt. From the looks of it, his clothes had not seen soap and water for a long time. He took me to a large inside enclosure with windows high off the floor. There a crowd of white chicken ran freely on the straw covered floor. Without waiting for my acceptance of the proposed bargain, he put a knife in my hand and left closing the door behind him. There was a stool, some baskets, a light bulb hanging from the ceiling and a big bucket of water. I felt uncomfortable standing there with this knife in my hand and the chicken staring at me with their red beady eyes. This wasn’t for me. I tried the door. It was locked.

 

Seeing that knife in my hand, the chickens instinctively knew that their destiny was in danger. I stood petrified. My father had killed a chicken in the fruit cellar. He held it with his left hand on the chopping block. Down came the axe. Horrified at what he had done, he let go of everything. The headless chicken flew in circle all over the fruit cellar. Here and now it was my turn to kill.

 

My victims, in a panic, started running in all direction. There was no chopping block here. It was I, the hired killer, against them, the innocent. I tried to be rational, to be stoic. I called on my mentor the Roman, Seneca. “Be pragmatic” was my motto. I devised a plan, a method. Number one, choose a victim. Number two, isolate my victim, don’t be distracted by the others, corner the designated victim. Numbers three catch her by the feet. Finally holding her upside down with the index finger between the yellow feet and at arms length in a swift move of the knife, decapitate her. Holding her by the feet, there was no chance that, as it had happened to my father, the headless chicken would fly all over the place. When the flapping of the wings stop, put her down and start all over again with another victim. I put the plan into action.

 

The first execution was the hardest. The method was correct. The action went perfectly as planed, but it produced such a stir in my body that I ran straight ahead to find a place to vomit. With both hands, I pushed the cold block wall, as if it was coming down on me. Out of my throat erupted the half digested breakfast. Like a geyser, it hit the cement wall and ran down between my prayed out feet. This foul matter inundated the floor. I stepped away and sat on the stool, holding my head between my hands. When I looked up some chickens were pecking at my vomit. I remembered that good breakfast that I had had with those goodhearted Americans. Who might have known that chickens were now the beneficiaries of that breakfast? It was to be their last meal too.

 

In order to avoid being splattered with blood I held the chickens at arm’s length. It was no use. When I had a pile of murdered chickens, I sat on the stool. I plucked and gutted them while I listen to the live chickens holding obscure conversation among them selves. There were more then a hundred chickens to be decapitated, or so it seemed. I had never killed a chicken in my life. At first it made me sick as described above. Outside night had fallen. It was dark. At the end of that first day I caught my reflection in the windowpanes. The face, that I saw reflected in the glass, was red. The blood gushing out of the necks had painted me red from head to toe. Periodically I had rinsed my glasses in that bucket of water. It is strange how a person can get used to anything. I quickly became a cold-blooded serial killer. The only thing that bothered me was their pecking on my hands. Gloves would have been a useful protection. The second day I was able to protect the back of my hands with a piece of cloth.

 

Day after day I killed, killed and killed without mercy. It became a routine. I had turned executioner. The chickens were all white hens. Somehow that reminded me of home. There was a framed engraving on the wall of the main hall of my house in France. It depicted the death by beheading of innocent Lady Jane Grey in 1554. She was blindfolded, kneeling with her hands stretched forward. The text underneath explained that she was trying to locate the chopping block to lay her head on it and be decapitated. This image come back to me now that I was surrounded by innocent white hens? Mentally I started baptizing each hen Jane Grey, before they lost their head.

Five stages were observed during this episode of my life:

1 Disgust.

2 Improvement of the method.

3 Enjoyment of the task.

4 Development of a passion.

5 Automatic routine, boredom set in.

Three times a day I ate at a blue plastic table, sitting across from the skinny old man. The light from the dirty window hit his face from the side. He looked like he only had half a face. Every time he let me out of the killing room, he took the knife from my hand. The food was insipid and the man was perpetually silent. He stared at me with shrinking eyes while chewing his soft peanut butter sandwich. He kept that knife on the table next to him during the silent chewing. I washed my body and my cloths in the back of the building. I slept on a cot on the screened porch. At night I heard a humming. The old man was sharpening the knife for the next day’s killing. I’d fall asleep to this soft lullaby sound of the sharpening and honing of the knife’s blade. When there were no more chickens to kill I left. It goes without saying that the chickens had greater market value dead then alive. My contract with the old man as an executioner was completed. He said nothing, not even thank you and good-bye. But he slipped a few dollars in my hand.

 

Walking on the path leading to the highway images of my home life came to mind. My father had a fear of death. When the occasion presented itself, he’d announce that, from a scientific point of view, death by hanging was the sweetest of all deaths. For some reason my father wanted to raise chickens in the garden. He could not stand the sight of blood. We remember the epic fiasco in the fruit cellar. Wanting to show his manly capacity at killing chickens, he had devised a scientific method. He’d prepare a noose and attach it to the pipe running along the ceiling at the bottom of the cellar stairs. Then he’d attach a child’s bicycle to the chicken’s feet. Finally with great care, he’d thread the neck of the chicken into the noose and let go of the whole apparatus. He’d run to the top of the stairs, turn the light off and slam the door. I didn’t know he was doing this until one day when I went down the cellars stairs. I was in a hurry. I knew my way in the dark. Being of a thrifty nature, I never turned on the light. I was running down the stairs. My face collided with a dead chicken in the dark. This is how I found out how courageous my father was.

 

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Old Aristocrats

The Aristocrats

 

The Baroness, thin, blond, pale skinned, was sitting with us outside a country restaurant on the Swiss border. She had not changed since the last time I saw her, years ago. As always, she was dressed in classical fashion. We were waiting for the waitress. The Baroness was our guest. Her husband, Maurice de Reinach Hirtzbach, had died a year earlier. A few lazy puffs of clouds hung in the sky above our heads. It was late spring. It was lunchtime. Madame la Baroness de Reinach’s first name was Marie-Thérèse. Our two families had been friends for more then fifty years. It was only after the death of the Baron Maurice de Reinach that my mother allowed herself to call the Baroness by her first name. Or maybe the Baroness encouraged my mother to do so. To my father and I, she remained “Madame de Reinach.” For us, calling her by her first name was inconceivable.

At one point, over the appetizers, she remembered her late husband. I was surprised when she described the Baron shamelessly as follows: ‘His elbow on the edge of the armchair, supporting his chin slowly slipping off the heel off his hand, he kept reassuring those present, repeating at intervals: “I am not drunk….” ‘ There was sadness in her voice. She made it clear that he had passed away from this unspoken disease due to alcohol. I was shocked. I realized that aristocrats also have ordinary problems.

My father and Maurice de Reinach had become very close fiends during the military service. They were both born in 1911. By 1929 at age 18, they were in the army together, for compulsory military service. The government does not separate recruits according to their social rank. It was years later that I understood how this friendship had started. My father had made life-long friends in the army. I realize now that those ties started ten years before the onset of World War II. Maurice de Reinach was one of those old friends. He was tall, standing straight, shoulders back and he was proud. He had a pale matte complexion. Like all French men of that period, his thick silver hair was combed back. His aristocratic mustache was well groomed and his suits were impeccable. He spoke clearly and with assurance, plunging his blue eyes directly into mine. His daughter, Beatrice, was my age. We both attended Saint Ursula School. He was from our area of the country, whereas his wife was from the west. She did not speak the dialect.

They lived in Hégenheim, a village in France, on the border, close to Basel, Switzerland. We visited them frequently. The children were our age, four boys and Beatrice. One day, as we arrived for a visit, my mother pointed to the roof, telling me that there were three attics under that roof. I detected some envy in that information. The great stone mansion stood in the middle of a park, surrounded by huge dark hundred year-old-trees. Farther out were the farms and fields belonging the baron.

The Baron often visited my father in his library. One evening, alerted by the tune in my father’s voice, I overheard him telling my mother that the Baron de Reinach, as we all called him, had confided in him. The Baron had found a way to trick the authorities and at the same time appease at this conscience. It was about poaching. The Baron was poaching game on his own land. Poaching was illegal. Doing something illegal was a sin. Poaching was a sin. The Baron was Catholic. Being Catholic he was obligated to confess his sins to the priest. In Hégenheim of course the priest knew him. Maurice de Reinach, the Baron, above all wanted to avoid the shame of poaching his own pheasants and rabbits. In Basel the priest spoke only German. The Baron de Reinach confessed in French to the German-speaking priest. He came back with a clear conscience.