The nights have turned cold, with broad mornings that slip directly into afternoon, skipping midday altogether. The sun is warm, but breezes and shadows both chill. Butchering time.
At nine o'clock the butcher and his wife arrive in a rumbling truck, backing the trailer carefully into the barnyard. Inside, he has everything laid out: the line of killing cones, an aluminum trashcan of hot water over a propane burner, the plucking machine, two sinks mounted on the wall with a tub beneath to catch the guts. Feet and necks go into one bucket; hearts and livers in another. Outside, we have a tank of ice water, a roll of plastic bags.
We've dragged the chicken tractor - the coop which we've been moving every other day, all over the side-hill below the barn - as close as we can get it to the barnyard. We bring the chickens, three at a time. They work quickly, methodically. We talk about the season, the rain, the drought, the frost, except when the plucking machine roars to life, which is my cue anyway to get another three. There is surprisingly little mess. They tell us they've slaughtered seventeen thousand birds this year, so far. He's coming up now on seventy, supposes he'll keep working 'till he's eighty but it'd be nice to find an apprentice, someone to follow. Nobody else in the state doing this kind of work; if there's meat to be slaughtered, he says, they've been there.
It's a good living, he says: seventeen thousand chickens at two-fifty a head, just do the math. Not even considering all the beefers, the hogs and in the spring there's lamb.
Each time I go back into the coop, the chickens sit calmly, stupidly, staring at the feed troughs that we left outside. I don't feel badly for them. I catch them fast, and once they're upside-down they quiet. Mostly they don't even flutter when I hand them across to the butcher's wife. Ten seconds later their heads are in a bucket. Chickens aren't especially expressive, and of course there's no way to really know, but I don't see anything I'd call suffering.
The butcher says they've seen a lot of new business this year, a lot of new kinds of folk raising their own meat. Especially chickens, easy to care for, easy to kill: the gateway livestock. Lots of doctors, lawyer-types, state police. Not just farmers and back-to-the-landers, not anymore. Themselves, they grow mostly what they eat, trade slaughtering for vegetables at a farm down the way. The kids don't want that life, though. Maybe one of the grandkids will.
At the end there are four birds left. I'll do two and two, she says. It's cruel to leave one alone.