Deer Hunting in Paris Excerpt from Chapter Ten, “Coyote Mobile”
By: Paula Young Lee
“I’m going to kill the chicken,” Don announces without preamble. “You want to help?”
“Uh…sure,” I reply uncertainly. I feel obliged to witness its death since I'm responsible for pointing out its scabrous condition. A little while ago I went out to the henhouse to say hello to the chickens.
“Hello, chickens!” I said.
Right away they lined up, pressing forward to see if I brought food. They all came over to greet me except for one, the one with the weird walk and the bloated stomach. She looked really bad. Chunks of feathers on her back were gone, and her demeanor was sullen. Worse, she was huddled in the corner where the first bird had croaked. She couldn’t smell death, because death smelled like her.
“She’s eating,” Don remarked, when I returned to the human house and tattled on her.
“It’s probably not a disease.” Dourly, he scratched his chin. He was not particularly interested in deciphering the clues.
“The feathers on her back are funny,” I insisted.
“Either she’s picking them out, or the other birds are pecking her.”
After that, Don went out to the hen house to see the sick chicken for himself. And now, thanks to me, her goose is cooked.
What does one wear to a beheading?For lack of better options, I throw on heavy canvas work clothes and run back outside. Two hens are standing around in the pen, but there’s no sign of Don or the sick bird. I go inside the henhouse and poke around, half expecting to find it already lying legs up and cross-eyed in a corner next to the EZ bake light bulb. All I find is a healthy hen sitting in a laying box. Reproachfully, she looks up at me, but otherwise she doesn’t move.
I take a mental count. There are two chickens outside and one in the laying box. That leaves one chicken unaccounted for. “She’s not in there,” Don yells over, prompting me to stick my head out of the henhouse.
“Where did she go?” I yell back.
“Got her in the bag!” He holds up a lumpy bag in his hand and points at it. It looks like a shrubbery ready to be transplanted.
I close the henhouse door and walk over to take a closer look. It turns out that the hen is head down in a chicken net, a tool that looks like a cross between a pool skimmer and a tennis racquet. Upside down and unperturbed, she blinks placidly at me through the mesh, a Wallace & Gromit claymation chicken in 3-D. Her claws waggle comically in the air, but she’s not resisting at all. Don tugs at the net, grabs her by her chicken ankles and pulls her free. Dangling limply from his hands, she’s about as energetic as a pair of wet hiking socks stuffed with shredded cheese.
“We’re going to chop its head off.” He points to an old tree stump a few yards from the henhouse. “That’s the chopping block.”
“But…but...” I sputter, “that’s...I mean...where the other chickens can see?”
“They’re not watching,” he points out matter-of-factly. With that, he lays the chicken’s head on the stump. She just lies there, offering no resistance.
“Where should I stand?” I ask querulously.
“Doesn’t matter. There won’t be much blood.” With that, he draws back the axe ever so slightly and lets it down with a muffled thud.
Just like that, the deed is done.
I feel like I should say a prayer or something, except the dearly departed chicken interrupts my reverie by deciding, now, to start struggling. The body careens out of his hands and the head flops over to one side, still attached to the neck by a thin strip of skin. As I watch, it tumbles across the lawn and starts heading back towards the house.
“Hey!” I yell in annoyance. “Come back here!”
Cheekily, it keeps running around the yard. It refuses to listen to me—not out of obstinacy, of course, but because it can’t hear. The running chicken should be gruesome but it isn’t, because she’s already fled this mortal plane. Like Nearly-Headless-Nick haunting Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, her head is not quite off and all that’s careening around is a body that refuses to cooperate.
Irritated, Don strides across the yard, grabs the chicken again and thok! takes the head all the way off. He lets it go…and the chicken zooms off again, doing backflips and cartwheels through the patient grass. There is no blood. The hens in the audience are not upset at all. I notice that Hen 3 has finished laying her egg and has joined the other two, lined up and watching the festivities through the wall of chicken wire.
“Kinda busy for a headless bird,” I say, staring in awe at its acrobatics.
“Sometimes they get up and start running around,” Don mutters, slightly aggravated by the display. “You have to be prepared for that.”
I look for the stubborn head. Somehow it managed to land next to the hen house, traveling six or seven yards away from the chopping block. That’s a long way for a head to go on its own. The eyes are closed and the lids are red and pimply. My impression is that the beak is drooling, but that’s pure projection. Irrationally, I’d been hoping for a peaceful expression to assuage my lingering guilt, but it looks like the face of a spiteful old biddy who removed her twelve kids from her will and left everything to the poodle. I’m tempted to sketch the decapitated head just to capture its expression, but decide against it. I worry that the neck will sprout little legs and the head will start running away from me, and then I will feel obligated to catch it and preserve it for science. I really don’t want to.
Behind me, a faint rustling.
I turn and look. To my surprise, the headless body is wobbling unsteadily toward me, having accomplished a big circle that returns it home to roost. Old habits die hard. As I watch in amazement, the headless chicken teeters forward, a baby out of the bathwater, every slow step threatening to be its last. C’mon, chicken! You can do it! Finally, with a desolate kick, the chicken’s body topples over next to its head. Top and bottom reunited, now, in death. I think it’s done now. It sure looks that way. But, really, without one of those pop-up thermometer thingies jammed into its butt, who can tell?
Out of an excess of curiosity, I later looked up the thermometer-thingie: turns out that it was invented in 1950 by Eugene Beals and the Dun-Rite Company, otherwise known as the Turkey Advisory Board of California. Here’s the interesting part: this marvelous widget was a very hard sell. No agency funded it, the industry rejected it, and everybody thought it was silly except for housewives sick of being yelled at for ruining Thanksgiving. Today, there’s one in nearly every Thanksgiving turkey sold at the supermarket, and a fair number of chickens too. The company that won the widget wars now does 100 million dollars of business every year. At 10 cents a widget, that’s a heck of a lot of birds in the oven.
I glance at the headless chicken. Every once in a while, a toe, a tip, a something twitches. Clearly, a pop-up thingie for done-to-death would be helpful, but I don’t see one being invented in the near future. There’s no profit in it.
Merely inches away, the other hens can see their fallen comrade through the chicken wire lining the pen, but they take no interest in the fact that she’s just lost her head…BW
Paula Young Lee is the author of numerous books, including Deer Hunting in Paris: A Memoir of God, Guns, and Game Meat; Game: A Global History; and The Birdcage of the Muses: Observing Animals at the 17th century Ménagerie at Versailles, forthcoming.
Follow her on Twitter @paulayounglee; on facebook at “Paula Lee, Author”; or look for her in-progress website and blog,