Natalie King


I feel my mouth swallow saliva. If my food has ever had eyes, I want to look into them before I use its life to sustain me. I begin to profess this new conviction before I’ve even looked into it. The grass is slippery under my newly purchased rubber boots. I see the red farmhouse sitting on a hill of boulders, the valley sweeping behind it all the way to the sea. I have been driving past this farmhouse every day since birth forty-two years ago. It is for me a community emblem of consistency, heritage, and the agrarian lifestyle. There is a circular turnaround at the heart of the farm where freshly harvested, plump orange pumpkins are displayed for Halloween along with a 1954 GMC. My nose is stinging from the sharp cold making the smells of manure and compost inescapable. I hear a litany of wild birds and adolescent turkeys on the other side of the circular drive gobbling to each other about something. As I show myself around the inner mecca, I catch a glimpse of her red three-quarter-length parka. She is in one of the greenhouses directing a helper to harvest red bell peppers. I walk between rows of basil, tiptoeing so that I don’t compromise the value. She catches my eye. “Hi there,” she says. “Some unexpected orders came in last night. I’m a little behind.”

“Do you want me to help you with the orders?” I ask, eager to be of help in any way.

“No, no, we are just finishing it.”

At the coffee shop this morning, I couldn’t wait to mention that I would be “dispatching” and “processing” chickens (farm vocabulary) today. I love to impress people. I want to see their reaction. Are they shocked? What does it mean about me? Am I more interesting now?

Always conscious of my need to evoke desire, I consider my appearance first. I’m going to dress in farm-sexy clothing that communicates, “I’m naturally, carelessly gorgeous, the kind of woman who is low maintenance, high production, nectar of the land, a woman who is sexy by accident.” Tall, waterproof boots, a leather cowboy hat, the real deal, something found on eBay, not contrived. A tool belt that fits like the perfect couture accessory, except mine will hold knives. My hair will be the same color as the leather of the hat, all tobacco shades. I’ll need to find some eyeglasses that look utilitarian, strictly for the purpose of seeing, pragmatic. No one will know that it is my utmost focus and engineering of apparel to fill in the colors and angles of my vision; this beautiful, scary, enigma of a woman.

I’ve gone from actor to writer to farmer, trying on the personas that I think I can tolerate. I now have the goal of being able to feed my family all year round from our property. I’m not sure if this is a goal of passion or just another one of my tactics to get recognition. I’m addicted to doing things outside my comfort zone every time I feel life flatlining. I look for something that will shock me like a polar plunge to ease the constant pain of consciousness. Now I’m going to learn how to slaughter fowl.

She walks briskly . . . . I follow behind. I want to be helpful. I want her to think, Natalie could really help me here. She hoists forty-pound turkeys and hay bales around daily; she is tall and slim, with a square jaw and evenly spaced emerald eyes. She’s already taken a swim in her pond, and the air temperature is fifty-three degrees. I just want to be around her. Actually, I want to be Lorie Ann.

“All right, I’m set up for the most part,” she says as we walk past the pigs. “Good morning,” she calls out, clearly tickled by their mud bath and rooting antics. Later I’ll learn that pigs are her favorite. She loves their intelligence and the way that they are natural rototillers of the soil.

As we walk past the outdoor kitchen, my eyes are drawn to the split rail fence that has four stainless steel vases screwed into the rails, slender part facing down, like a sugar cone that has had the apex nibbled off. That must be where she arranges all of the fresh flowers, I think, perfect for gently cleaning off dirt.

“All we have to do is get the birds in the crate,” she says. She slides open the barn doors to reveal fluffy golden hay scattered on the ground, with the flock of sturdy-looking meat birds. They are white with a red topknot just like my daughter’s chicken, Snowflake. I think I see around forty birds. It looks like they are talking to each other about the intrusion.

Lorie picks a chicken up by the feet and places one hand on the shoulders, keeping the wings held snug against its sides. “See how I have my hand around the neck but also supporting the shoulders? That keeps them calm. We don’t want them to freak out.” She does this fast too. It comes out of its cozy barn. I open the crate, she puts it in, I shut the door. It’s a small thing shutting the crate, but I want to do it right. The bird is squawking, a different sound than what I’m used to. This is not how we handle our chickens, I think. And that is when I stop thinking. Because thinking at this point would get me into trouble. I turn a switch. I am focused on doing, taking direction, learning how to do something like fix a broken leg. Yes, I am a surgeon, I tell myself, and I am about to do surgery. “How many do we have?”

“Five,” I say.

“Okay, we’ll take eight.”

We drive forty feet back to where I saw the stainless steel flower vases.

“Ah hah,” Lorie says as she sticks a thermometer into a vat of steaming water. “One hundred forty-five degrees. All right, we’re ready.

“Are you ready?”

“Yes,” I say. I think to myself…We are really going to do this, aren’t we?

She grabs a bird by the feet and neck again and effortlessly slips the chicken into one of the flower vases. She makes sure that the head is coming out the bottom, and my eyes are drawn to the cute little feet doing calisthenics at the top of the vase. Those are not flowers; those are Snowflake’s cute little feet. No . . . it’s surgery. I must focus, I tell myself.

“Okay, come over here and watch as I slit the main artery in one movement.” She slightly turns the hen’s head, makes a fast slit, and blood pours forth. She says something soothing to the chicken.

I see a flock of birds overhead forming their perfectly choreographed murmuration. The puffy white clouds are illuminated by the sun behind, creating a golden edging around the contours. I’ve never been here, I think, this place of stillness, punctuated with my own presence and capable, vast Lorie Ann. The feet continue to do yoga, and time is undulating like the tide.

Lorie takes the head off with another movement of the knife.

“This bucket is for the heads,” she says as she tosses the bird’s head into the container.

“Do you want to do the next one?” she asks.

“Yes,” I hear myself say. I open the cage and put my hand around the bird’s neck and feet. I’m holding the bird to my chest. Lorie’s bird’s wings were relaxed at its sides, a bird in yogic meditation; mine is doing one of those horaltic poses with its wings outstretched, a proud vulture. She smooths the wings down for me, calming the chicken, and we slip the chicken into the cone. I hold the head mechanically, turn it, and make the slit . . . . The blood doesn’t come, and the chicken kicks.

“That’s okay, do it again. You have to feel it out,” she says. I stick the point of the sharp knife into the main artery. I pierce the life force and watch it drain, gushing, then dripping. The eye closes and the bird stops moving. I killed it.

“Now you can take the head off.” Again it takes me two cuts to her one. I toss the head into the bucket. I think, There is a bucket with chicken heads in it. The thought is a stone wall that my mind can’t make sense of; there are no connecting theories, no network of associations.

That singular observation becomes a gong reverberating through my body. A bucket of heads.

“Okay, you can grab those gloves I left out for you.” Lorie is pointing to the table next to the steaming water. I see the yellow gloves lined up next to two sharp knives, a pair of scissors, and a deep stainless steel pan.

After butchering sixteen chickens I thank Lorie and give her a hug goodbye. I lean into the steering wheel of my old-style Discovery, the kind with a rack on top and backcountry lighting. I feel light, like a piece of sand, inconsequential, vulnerable, like none of my organs are connected and my feet aren’t hitting the ground. I keep thinking about the way we handled the birds’ bodies post-decapitation. This is going to happen to me, not like this, but the lights will go out, and my body will be handled as though it’s a thing, a thing to be cut up, dissected, used, tossed away. One minute it was a creature, a spirit I held as its life force directed it. Then I drained its blood, and that same body was now handled like a watermelon.

Where are the feelings of pride and self-admiration I was seeking? I curl up on the floor of my shower in an attempt to soothe the piercing pain in my stomach. Like the geyser of blood that spills forth when a main artery is slit, tears from my stinging eyes fill the drain.

I wrap my arms around my heart, realizing that two ribs in my back have popped out. Instead of feeling pride and self-admiration, I’m experiencing a hollowness in my gut. The cycle of life appears before me . . . in its breathtaking truth. All parts of the farm, working in the process of birth, life, death. The eyes of a little bird just closed to the light for the last time, for me. The sobering awareness of my lack of gratitude makes me want to know in what other ways I’ve been numb to the impact of my existence, my sustenance. How have I been so disconnected?

What else in life do I consume without acknowledgment, respect, without thanks or recognition?