A New Essay From One of Our Favorite Southern Writers — Daniel Wallace, Author of “Big Fish” — About an Elemental and Universal Dilemma
Well, I killed a chicken. That’s my news.
I cut its head off with a hatchet, the way people do. This chicken was the first thing I’d ever set out to kill, that I’d planned to kill over the course of many months, and the truth is it was weird, exciting, and sad. I didn’t kill it to eat (though it was eventually eaten, in a soup); I didn’t kill it because it was a troublemaking chicken (though it was a troublemaking chicken); and I didn’t kill it because it deserved to die (whatever that means). I killed it because I’d never killed a chicken before and I wanted to have that experience on my list of things I’d done, sort of like going to Venice, to be able to say, as I’m saying now, I killed a chicken. So after talking about it, engaging a few friends in my pursuit (some of whom had a similar desire), hunting for an appropriate venue and, I hoped, a seasoned killer to accompany me, I did it. And though you, you who’s reading this now, you who may be a hunter of some kind, a gun owner, a man or a woman who goes out in the woods early in the morning for the express purpose of finding something to kill — you might find this discourse silly and vain. I killed a chicken! But this news, more than almost anything else I could write, tells you everything you need to know about me. It explains who I am and the kind of life I’ve lived up until right now: the kind of life that not only can go on for almost 50 years without purposefully shedding the blood of another living creature, even a creature whose existence is predicated on being killed, who is born not only to die but born to be killed and eaten — not only that — but a man who felt there was something exotic in killing it, something magical and foreign that requires the assistance of something like a shaman, a guru, an ax-wielding sage.
It also describes my friends, some of whom understood my ambition, some of whom shared it, but none of whom, not a single one, had a chicken I could kill.
My sister had a turkey she said I could kill. But I could tell — even I who had never killed before — that killing her turkey would be an ordeal. That turkey was huge; it would put up a serious fight. I was scared of her turkey. I didn’t tell her I was scared of her turkey. I told her I would kill it if I could find someone who had experience killing turkeys and who could be there with me when I did it and after a week of not trying even a little to find someone to help me kill the turkey I told her I hadn’t found anybody so she would have to kill the turkey herself if she wanted it dead, which, in the end, she didn’t. I think she was just trying to do whatever she could to help, and was willing to sacrifice her turkey for me. That’s love.
Other than her, most of the people I mentioned it to thought I was joking, because no one really figured me for the chicken-killing type. When I told them I was serious they didn’t get it. What? Huh? What do you — ? What? Seriously? Why would you want to kill a chicken? Why would you want to kill anything?
Most often what I said was, I like chicken. I told them I eat it once or twice a week, which means over the course of my adult life I’ve eaten parts of thousands of chickens, chickens that were killed by someone else for me to eat, chickens that were once alive, who then were dead, and then — after all the posthumous stuff a chicken has to go through — found its way to my supermarket, my frying pan, my plate, my mouth.
So what I said was: I need to be able to kill what I eat. If someone else can do it, why not me? I need to be able to know what it’s like to take a life because I’ve been dining on those lives forever. If I couldn’t do it, I shouldn’t eat them, and if I did do it maybe I’d decide it wasn’t worth it anymore, worth the killing, just so I can have a nice meal. I said to these people, I’ve never killed anything before — but in saying that, I realized, that’s not true.
I’ve been killing things all my life.
Killings: The Early Years
To the best of my memory, the first thing I killed on purpose is something we in Alabama called a Chinese Grasshopper. My friend Wade and I found a bunch of them at the edge of shade cast by the sour apple tree in my backyard, where we spent a lot of time in the summer.
Kids killing grasshoppers: no news here. But how we killed them, that was, as I would have said at the time, the cool part. With a length of sewing thread Wade tied a small Black Cat firecracker to the grasshopper’s back. I’d light it. Then Wade would set the poor grasshopper free. One hop, two, three . . . bang! Smithereens. Wade and I probably killed close to a hundred that summer.
At roughly this same time, I discovered the magical properties of a handheld magnifying glass. It wasn’t about killing in the beginning; in the beginning it was all about fire. The sun’s rays could be corralled as they passed through the magnifying glass into a stream of heat, like a laser. Old brown leaves glowed red and orange, smoking as the photons did their work. Then I discovered ants. Ants became ash in a moment. Little black cinders. One moment busily scurrying around, going left, right, back, forward — and then dead, incinerated by the malevolent god who was me. An ant’s life is so fragile and evanescent that death must follow it wherever it goes, which would explain why an ant is always on the move. How easily their future is dismissed by a single swipe, a thoughtless flick or fire. Later I would date a woman who wouldn’t kill the ants that found a way into her kitchen and marched in a wobbly trail across her window sill. She’d wet a paper towel and gently scoop them up in it, then take the paper towel outside into her backyard and set it down in the grass somewhere, where the ants were free to go.
Plus which, on the insect front: Just the other day I poured tiki-torch fuel down a bee hole in the garden. We were about to have a party and I didn’t want the guests being stung.
Killings: A Boy Becomes a Man
There were squirrels. There were birds.
Over the years my cats brought home many birds, ravaged but alive, always alive. Cardinals, wrens, rufous-sided towhees, I discovered them bloody, with broken wings, hanging on with the tenacity living things demonstrate near the end. I’d scoop the dying birds into a pillow case, put the pillow case in a plastic trash can full of water, and drown them. They’d struggle for a moment, but only for a moment.
Then they’d die.
I’m interested, of course, in other people, and things they killed — so I asked a few. These are a few of the living things they killed, but most, almost all of them, by accident: baby chicks, a buck, cats, more squirrels and raccoons while driving; lizards, a rat (after which the carcass was thrown on a fire-ant mound), hamsters, birds with a gun, a ghost crab, possums, a hawk (again with a car), a classroom mouse, butterflies, copperheads (my wife has killed three), cockroaches, flies, granddaddy longlegs, fish (lots of fish), snails, lightning bugs (in order to detach their lights to make some flashy jewelry), dogs, and another cat, run over by a friend of mine on Sept. 15, 2001. This one wasn’t quite dead, though, so she carried it to the first public building she could find. It turned out to be a mosque, with a service going on inside. Women huddled around the edge of the prayer mats, men in the middle. And here was this blond woman, a crying, hysterical blond woman with a bleeding cat. They let her use the phone, and she took the cat to a vet, and had to pay $100 to have it put to sleep.
Now for the chicken. Like love, I found it when I wasn’t even looking. I was in Brattleboro, Vt., with my wife at a writer’s conference. My wife grew up in Brattleboro. I got to see her old haunts, her house, imagine what it might have been like to be her as she climbed trees, broke things, created fictional characters with a friend (hillbillies not unlike the one she would eventually marry). We went to visit some old friends of hers, Annie and Rob. They have a small farm where they grow vegetables, raise a few sheep and pigs — and, of course, chickens, many, many chickens. They order the chickens from a company which does that sort of thing (news to me) but they only ordered hens because roosters were trouble. Somehow a rooster got mixed up with the hens in the last order and they really wanted to — What’s that you say? You have a chicken you’re interested in killing? What a coincidence: I’m a man who’s interested in killing a chicken!
Thus it was arranged.
Laura and I drove over first thing in the morning. She went for a walk with Annie, while my shaman and I prepared for what was to follow. Rob gave me an old shirt of his to wear; he didn’t want the blood to ruin the nice J. Crew I had donned for the occasion. How ridiculous all this seems in retrospect! Didn’t I realize that death is messy, that one doesn’t wear J. Crew to a killing? I was such a baby then.
Even with ants and Chinese grasshoppers under my belt, this chicken was different: I could feel it in my own blood as we walked to its pen. For one thing, it was bigger than anything I had killed before, and more alive, and it wasn’t damaged in any way; it was, in fact, beautiful.
I stepped into its pen and, because it was a rooster, it walked right to me, and I picked it up, one hand on either side of its feathered body: a luminescent, dark copper this chicken was, and entirely agreeable. It didn’t struggle a bit as Rob and I made our way to the chopping block, into which a sharpened ax had been driven. The chopping block was a section from a tree, an oak I think.
It wasn’t a long walk from the pen to the ax, but long enough, I thought, for the chicken to object. Only when I placed him on the chopping block itself — one side of his body flat against it — did he realize something was amiss. It tried to flap its wings but couldn’t because one of them was pressed against the block and the other was beneath my left hand.
In the right hand was the ax.
Rob had shown me where to cut its head off, and it made sense: right in the middle of its neck between the bottom of its skull and the start of its body. But it wasn’t a long neck by any means. It was about the length and width of half a Vienna sausage. I had an opening, briefly: For a moment, its head was still. I held the ax in the air above it but hesitated. What if I missed? I thought. What if I missed a clean shot at the neck and just injured it, nicked it. What would I do? Surely if this happened the chicken would go crazy and I’d freak out and let it go. Then I’d have to chase it down to give it another whack, and then have to live with the hard truth that I’d brought a world of pain to an animal who didn’t expect it or deserve it. That’s one of the big differences between a chicken and a man though: A thought like this can race through a man’s mind in a space of time briefer than a second. Fear, guilt, a notion of responsibility — the sensation of successfully killing what I set out to kill — all these emotions can occur nearly simultaneously in a man. I doubt anything remotely like that occurred to the chicken. I don’t know what the chicken was thinking, or how a chicken thinks, or whether it thinks at all; I’ve read that only humans are capable of this trick. But if I were to go through with this I knew I had to be more like the chicken was and stop thinking, stop feeling, and act.
I came down on it with all the force I could muster, which really wasn’t very much: Just as I let the ax fall the chicken turned its head to look up at me, and I pulled back, so the ax came down softly, and at an angle, and I thought I missed it almost entirely, because the head was still there. My nightmare was real: I’d only wounded it. It flapped, I held onto to its feet, white-knuckled, and it flapped, flapped in terror, flapped for freedom, flapped because it didn’t know what else to do.
But it was, in fact, dead. Its head was hanging on by a mere sliver of chicken skin. I could see how, had I let it, it might have run around for a while, the way they’re supposed to do, but Rob didn’t want blood all over the place so he asked me to hold it by the feet while it "bled out." I did; it stopped flapping, became truly dead, and I had done what I set out to do.
My glasses were lightly spattered with blood, as was my borrowed shirt (how right he was about that). I have pictures of this, pictures from the killing, the plucking, the gutting and cleaning the insides out, until it looked a lot like a chicken you and I might buy at a grocery store. The only thing I didn’t do was eat it, because I had to fly back to Chapel Hill the next day, but Rob and Annie did: They used it as stock for a soup. Turns out it was too scrawny for a main course.
That’s it. And I’m afraid that sums it up, for at the end of a life what else is there to say? That’s it, it’s over, done, finished. It would be the same from the chicken’s perspective, if we allowed it one: I lived and then I died. Killed, actually, by a man who wanted to know what it felt like to kill me. Now he knows.
But I don’t know, really. Even though I did it, I don’t know what it meant to me to kill a chicken. I can’t describe it, and the only way I know to understand something is to put it into words. I did what I set out to do, but I didn’t learn any secrets. Killing a chicken didn’t change me. No one has said to me, You’ve changed since you killed that chicken. Nope. I feel like I know what I’ve known all my life, or ever since I sat on the curb on the sunny cul-de-sac where I spent my childhood and roasted ants with a magnifying glass: There’s a very thin line between life and death. Death can happen in a second. In fact it always happens in a second. Everything else, no matter how long and happy or sad the life is that precedes death, is all just preface. In that second, it will be over, you will be finished, whether I’m there to kill you or not.
Good luck, then, to all the dogs and cats, the snakes and roaches, the butterflies and the wandering buck. Good luck to all you chickens. Watch out for us. Not me — I have no plans to kill again. But there are others out there just like me and they want to know how it feels, and there are others still who don’t want to know but will. It’s a dangerous world. Good luck.