At first light, we walk out the back door armed with a freshly sharpened fixed blade hunting knife, a ½ inch diameter rope, a pot of boiling water, and two 5 gallon buckets to stash the various body parts. It is customary for this occasional ritual to have a little tobacco, and some smudge. Mornings like this feel still and almost removed from the rest of the waking world. The sounds and smells of waking life are peeping and peaking out of the passing night, and breathing in the very earliest signs of a new day.
For well over a decade, all three of our boys have grown up with a garden, a couple of beehives and flock of chickens and ducks in a large run in the back yard of their home. These are the essential food sources that any urban gardener will have to grow and nurture some organic edibles for the growing family. Though it is quaint and seemingly simple in proportion to what a life-sustaining farm would possess, many of life’s realities tell their stories in this small space. Farming is the raising of life, and the witnessing of death in all of its forms throughout the changing seasons.
Our boys have all shared relationships with these feathered friends over the years. Some are sweet memories of hunkering down in the compost collecting treasures together, or just snuggling briefly with a submissive hen willing to be held and petted. The hens fill our yard with their sounds and coos, and the occasional cock blasts the neighborhood with his boisterous crow throughout the day. All three boys have been confronted by the terrifying attack of a defensive rooster leaping into the air with red eyes and treacherous talons. These memories are not pleasant, and thus our tolerance for roosters has all but been extinguished. Nonetheless, our love for our hens and ducks is a part of our daily life, and supplies us with a fluctuating supply of dark orange yolked organic eggs for the last 14 years. Our boys have grown up with delicious poop stained, multicolored eggs filling a basket next to the range for their whole lives. Back yard eggs are our primary breakfast staple nearly everyday. This streaming supply of eggs is cheap rent that the flock needs to deliver in order to keep their secure digs in the fancy insulated coop that houses them away from the many predators that will happily nab a stray chicken if they are given the opportunity.
After many years of chickens and ducks, we were presented with the opportunity to add a small family of Royal Palm turkeys to the flock. A family moving away offered to give us a set of parents and their firstborn son. Tempted by their beautiful plumage and odd personalities, we conspired with our 10 year old son to make it a business venture. Our ten year old, Jy, would help care take the flock, and in turn be able to breed the turkeys, hatch the clutch, raise the chicks, and sell the poults for his first source of savings. He was motivated and committed. We brought the family home in a couple of large Tupperware containers and added them to the menagerie.
About a month after moving the turkey family in, they were named Earl and Pearl, and their son Fred. Pearl started laying a large clutch of eggs in March, and went into the hypnotic state of brooding for about 5 weeks. One day, seemingly out of nowhere, despite the fact that we knew the likely outcome of a broody hen sitting on fertilized eggs, we were still surprised, and a bit panicked, when nature began to unravel in our back yard as 8 tiny fragile turkey chicks began cracking open their eggs and flopping out under Pearl’s caring wings. Pearl went automatically into maternal instinct, and set up a nest in the most distant nook behind the barn. She wouldn’t let anyone near the babies. Baby chicks are about the easiest and most tasty treats for just about any meat eating animal around. Long story short, we lost 5 chicks in one night, and were able to raise three turkey poults to full feathers. The chaos that ensued as we tried to save the chicks, shield off a defensive mother, and raise the babies to turkey poults, made the turkey adventure overwhelming compared to the mellow hen-land lord relationship we had with the chickens who paid their rent daily in a bounty of eggs. When Earl and his son Fred began to fight daily, we decided that the turkey flock was too much. Jy sold the 3 Turkey poults for $120, and we decided to send Fred away. As landlord, it is almost policy on the farm that all animals pay their rent in order to be worth while. This is where the flock lives in purgatory between farm animals and domestic pets. Fred, though named like a pet, was negotiated to become dinner- to pay his rent.
The night before we set up a small beam about five feet off the ground to hang the rope. I created the noose, and tied the rope up tight to the propped beam. We set up a small fold out table next to us to place the tools and boiling water. We lit a smudge stick, and headed over to the large box that we let sit out the night before.
My ritual consists of putting the bird to be processed in a Tupperware with straw the night before, and letting him have a dark, secure night. First thing at dawn, with just a little bit of light, I crack the top of the Tupperware open, and Fred sticks his head out. Swiftly, I take his head between my fingers gently pull it up, and slit his throat. I let go, and he pulls his head back into the Tupperware. The lid is closed and his final moments are spent bouncing around inside the Tupperware.
As we were wrapping up plucking the bird, I turned around to see my 10-year-old standing, gazing in amazement at what was going on with the morning’s ritual. He was fascinated, asked a few questions, and showed genuine interest. I marched past him with a headless, featherless corpse of what used to be Fred. At the end of the yard is the rest of our families sitting and soaking up the morning sun waiting for the two dads to finish whatever they were doing behind the barn. Our youngest, six years old, looked directly at my face and asked me, “What is that?” I instantly, and honestly, answered his direct question with a direct response, “Fred.” His eyes began to well up with tears, he didn’t know what to think or say. He turned to his mom, crawled up on her chest, stuck his face in her shoulder and began to wail. Has loud cry filled all of our ears, filled the yard, and seemed to fill the sky. We all looked up, shook our heads, and wondered if culling our named animals was crossing a red line? Fred is dead.