by Tyler Bonson
Lung cancer has made Earl slower at chopping wood. The rib-shaking cough takes his hand from the maul. Earl places the maul, head-down, against the overflow to the side of the firewood shed. The maul is a recent purchase. It’s 2lb lighter than the previous one. No noticeable marks of labour, just spots of red dried on the handle.
The firewood shed reaches a tenth of the way up the Western Larch trees that stand away from the east side of the house. Needles are turning golden from green. The branches will soon be bare.
The shed is no more than corrugated metal held up by four wooden supports. Earl needs another shed to keep the overflow dry and tidy. A friend, Teddy, from the hardware store, has offered to supply the metal and Earl already has the supports. Teddy also insisted on helping construct the shed. Earl couldn’t refuse, almost happy to accept, as he won’t have the strength nor time to finish and fill it. They talked money. ‘I can’t take the money,’ Teddy said. ‘The cancer.’ Earl wondered how much people would get done if they had cancer for longer.
Earl walks over to the pile of Douglas Fir logs and bends down to pick up a piece. The dungarees’ strap falls off his shoulder as he bends. The log takes its place on the stump. Earl’s eyes trace along the cracks looking for the weakest point and he splutters, losing his place. Regaining focus, he draws the toe of the maul from the earth to above his head, then drives it into the fault-line of the log. Splitting logs takes extra hits now. There’s no remedy for that. His previous maul was harder to lift and the loss of muscle doesn’t help.
‘Earl, wanna get the chicken?’ Maggie shouts from the window of the kitchen.
‘Sure, give me two minutes.’ He places the chopped logs onto the overflow pile and hangs the maul up on two adjacent nails on the shed support.
Earl goes to the front of the house where the coop is. It’s a wire-mesh box standing just over six feet tall and wide. The grass in the vicinity has browned. There’s a stump no more than a few paces from the chicken’s box, with a small axe resting on its head.
After banging on the door to scatter the chickens, Earl steps into the box. His feet scrape the log-shaving floor leaving dry earth behind. The chicken has yellower legs than the rest. It hasn’t laid any eggs for a week and now has no use. Earl pulls her out of a group of three who were flitting around together. Manoeuvring the door open without dropping the chicken, he re-pins its wings with his hands.
‘Thanks for not kicking about,’ Earl says.
The chickens are handled regularly. They’ve become accepting to Maggie and Earl’s hands: running away and squirming less and less now. Maggie often sits stroking one at night. The only difference between a caress picking and a death picking: the caress is during the black, when the others can’t see; the death during the light, when they can.
‘You seem calm.’ Earl binds the chicken’s legs with one hand. ‘I’m sorry age caught up with you,’ he says. ‘I’ll try to make this as quick as I can.’ Earl places the chicken’s top half on the stump. He stretches the neck out to get a clean strike. ‘Life goes at a slow pace, we’re thankful for that. But death, death makes it slower.’
Earl picks up the axe from beside the chicken’s head. He lines the blade up with the base of the skull, pauses and exhales. Earl brings the axe down on the chicken. Blood shoots up his arm and he starts to cough. The chicken is released and he brings his hand to his mouth.
The free chicken bounces around with its head snapping from side to side, spraying the ground with its blood. Earl’s body cowers and contorts with each of his barks. He drops the axe to the floor and sits on the bloodied stump. Maggie comes as fast as she can from the house, her stocky legs shuffling across the grass. Earl continues to cough. The chicken’s death dance is slowing. Blood and mucus slide off Earl’s fingers as Maggie puts her hand on his shoulder.
Western Larch trees make up the skyline in the grounds of the house. But as Earl walks toward the backdoor, he shields his eyes from the sun peering over the canopy. In the kitchen, Earl runs his hands under the tap. He grabs a sponge from the edge of the sink and scrubs his nails.
Maggie is retrieving the chicken, now bled-out. She scrunches up her dress, grass stained at the hem, as she bends down and picks the corpse up by its legs. The chicken is placed again on the stump. Maggie examines where the head is still attached with its body. The connecting skin is frayed and weak. With all the head-snapping, the chicken almost finished the decapitation itself. Maggie grips the skull in one hand and body in the other and pulls them apart.
‘Sorry about that,’ she says, putting both parts on the stump. Maggie wipes the chicken’s blood from her hands onto her dress. Then, she walks to the kitchen. ‘Oh,’ she says. ‘You already have it.’
Earl says, carrying a bucket of boiling water, ‘you might want to let the water cool a little bit more before you dunk it.’
Maggie takes the bucket and places it beside the stump. After, she goes to get a folding chair from beside the chicken coop. Maggie picks up the bird from the stump and carries it to the bucket.
Earl plugs a hosepipe into the outside-tap. He runs the hose to the stump and walks back to the tap. It shakes in the wall as he turns it on. Earl pushes the tap back into the wall, finding some sort of security.
‘How’re you doing now?’ Maggie asks.
Earl picks up the hose and douses the stump in water. ‘Fine, love. You ok?’
‘I’m not the one dying.’ She dunks the chicken neck-first into the water and swirls it around.
‘Are you gonna’ gut it here or in the house?’
Maggie takes the chicken out of the water and looks up at the coming clouds. ‘Out here,’ she says, pulling at a wing feather. It doesn’t come out easily, so she dunks it again and swirls.
‘It’s gonna rain soon, hun,’ Earl says.
‘It’ll be a few hours.’
‘You won’t be done by then.’
‘I won’t be if you keep going on.’ Maggie stops swirling the chicken and pulls it from the water.
‘Can I get you anything?’ Earl asks. ‘Water or a coffee?’
‘No, I had a drink earlier thanks.’ She pulls at a wing feather. Still it needs too much force, so it’s dunked again. Maggie takes the chicken out again and pulls at its wing feather. It comes out easy enough. Then, she pours the water onto the ground near the stump and puts the plucked feathers in the bucket. Maggie has always done this part of the job. Earl prefers to do the killing
Earl already brought out a small table from the house for the gutting and set it up in front of Maggie. The wind catches the feathers in the bucket and takes them across the yard. Earl goes about the yard picking up the feathers. A few have ended up around the chicken coop. He pokes some of them back through the wire-wall and picks up the rest. The live-chickens wander around, paying little attention to Earl and the feathers.
Maggie places the bare chicken on the table and reaches from her seat to the stump for the knife. Its pink flesh is slashed at the base of the neck bone. Maggie creates a gap to get at the organs. She leads the gullet out, cuts it loose and places on the edge of the table.
Earl wanders back from the vegetable patch beside the house and holds a dead rabbit out in front of him.
‘Did you see this rabbit?’
‘Oh sorry, I forgot to tell you,’ she replied.
‘How’d it get stuck?’
‘His buddy got through and he got stuck in the falling door.’
Maggie turns the chicken onto its wing-side and takes grip of the neck bone. She takes the knife to the inside of the body and takes the neck out to join the gullet.
‘Was it dead when you found it?’ he asks.
‘No,’ Maggie says.
Earl takes the head and tail in two hands and looks at it. He puts his index finger and thumb to the neck and feels around. ‘You broke its neck?’
‘Yeah. The other one I let go,’ Maggie says. ‘I don’t think we should eat that one though.’
Earl spreads the wound in the rabbit’s hinder quarters. Dirt and grass are amongst the blood and fur.
‘Just bin it.’
Maggie turns the bird’s rear to face her. She pinches its skin and makes a slit, making sure not to cut its intestines. Then, she slides her hand up inside the chicken and drags the organs out. The heart and liver are set aside to be cooked. Once the tail bone is removed, everything goes on the waste pile. The chicken’s lungs are tight against the ribs. Maggie scrapes them out with her fingers. One comes out first and then the other. They honk as she gets them. Trapped air making them sound alive.
‘I’m gonna go chop some more,’ Earl says.
‘Really?’ Maggie replies.
Earl wipes the sweat from his chin. ‘It’ll be dark soon, and I’ll struggle to catch up,’ he says.
‘Then I’ll do it when you can’t.’
Earl pulls at his dungarees and readjusts them.
‘Please, just sit with me?’ Maggie asks.
Earl looks at the chicken. ‘I’ll go get a chair.’
Tyler Bonson is currently a third year student at the University of Gloucestershire studying Creative Writing. There’s not much else to it at the moment. He may be found on Twitter @arethesedroids