Erika Howsare | Longreads | May 2019 | 18 minutes (4,826 words)
I am going to tell you a bunch of stories about killing and death, but the first one is a story about a story. It was short, and my neighbor was the storyteller. He told it to John and me ten years ago, the first time we met him. After hello, his very next words to us were: “I once killed a copperhead on your kitchen table.”
Taken aback, we laughed. In those days, we had no killing stories of our own. Now, things are different.
Hear the self-defense in this one:
One morning last June, the day of the solstice, I had a little time on my hands. We had a vet appointment at 10:30 and it was 10:18, a bit too soon to wheedle the cat into the car. I brought some things down to the basement of our old house to put them away.
In the underground chill I deposited the laundry basket on top of the washer, turned back toward the stairs, and heard a little sound. Like a soft slap, an object slipping onto the floor. I looked. There are often animals in the basement, birds and crickets and mice. This was a snake.
Pages shuffled, then laid flat in my brain, one on top of the other. It wasn’t very long, maybe the length of my arm. It was rather fat in the body. I was checking its markings against the mental files called Copperhead and Not Copperhead. My brain dispassionately placed this one in the Copperhead column. It was holding perfectly still, not coiled, but certainly watching me, wary in its posture.
I didn’t have to move any closer to the snake to reach the stairs. I mounted the steps, quickly but not running, and already my voice was announcing to my two tiny daughters, Ooh, there’s a copperhead down there!
We all stood at the top of the steps and looked at it. It was on the far side of an old screen door which was propped up on its long edge. Through the screen we could see its tail, maybe eight or ten inches of it, still not moving.
My first thought was to close the door and go to the vet. Just save this problem for another hour, another person. I am not the one who handles snakes.
But John would not be home for more than seven hours. I imagined calling him, looking for advice or some kind of permission. I imagined being late to the vet, then being on time to the vet. I imagined getting home from the vet and looking down from the top of the steps and not seeing the snake.
This was the worst scenario of all. There are ten thousand places for a snake to hide down there. If the copperhead disappeared into some secret basement corner, it would be years before I could go downstairs comfortably again.
I was working it out aloud, half to the girls, half to myself. They craned to see the snake. No, you can’t go down there, I answered them. I heard my dad’s voice in my head, last summer after another snake encounter, exhorting me to be ruthless toward dangerous beasts invading my territory. At the time, I’d argued for mercy. I thought of a woman in a memoir I read years ago, who told of confronting snakes in the cabin where she lived alone.
I would not call my snake-killing neighbor; I don’t even have his number. I would not call John.
I went to my bedroom and kept up with answering the girls’ excited patter as I exchanged my shorts for jeans and my sandals for boots. I put on John’s heavy coat. I looked for his work gloves but couldn’t find them. Elsie wanted to write down John’s phone number in case of emergency. I gave it to her one digit at a time. She wrote the 6 backwards.
I found the long-handled shovel right outside the back door — hiding, like the snake, in plain sight. I walked in my boots through the kitchen, shushed Rosa, descended the basement steps and hardened, hardened, rounded the corner and faced the serpent. There was no pause. It never budged. I raised the shovel, blade edge down, and thunked it directly down onto the snake.
I hit it about six more times, its body flopping each time the metal shovel blade sliced into its fatness. A chunk broke off. It was belly-up, black and pale instead of the handsome pinks and browns of its back. It was just flesh without intention, a little blood on the floor, some guts poking through a hole in its side.
Shaky victorious back up the steps. Shovel back in its place. Clothes changed. We were only a few minutes late to the vet.
An unmistakable high, the satisfaction of violence, of having become in my total being a weapon that was perfectly effective. All day I was full of adrenaline.
Kills make great stories. There are always words around killing animals.
There are always questions, too. Was the victim one of us? Wild, habituated, domesticated? Photogenic, charismatic?
Is the killer now regretful?
What about you; have you ever harmed a fly?
A few weeks after the copperhead killing, John found a blacksnake in our chicken coop. It was curled around eggs but hadn’t yet eaten any; he reached inside the loop made by its body and retrieved the eggs and then we brought the girls out to see it by flashlight and touch its skin, chilled from a day of rain and clouds.
I walked into the basement, maybe twelve hours after the last time I’d been there, and a thick spiderweb wrapped my legs.
John was cleaning the shed and found, in an old box of leftover tile, a mother mouse with two newborns hanging onto her teats. The mother scooted away, dragging the babies. A little further down in the box, he found one more baby.
We took our girls to a wildlife hospital for a group tour. I was sitting in the audience, shaking my head in disapproval along with everybody else as a hospital employee told the story of a turtle patient who’d been hit by a car. “Some woman swerved deliberately to hit it,” she said. We all clucked our tongues.
When we moved here, to Virginia’s Blue Ridge, I did not appreciate how different our life would be than my childhood. I grew up in a rural village south of Pittsburgh, thinking I lived in the country. But it wasn’t, really. It might as well have been the suburbs. Our entire lawn was shorn; I never went walking in the woods. I never played in creeks. I read in my room and was driven to piano lessons. We swam in a swimming pool in town; my parents gave up gardening sometime during my middle childhood. The country was, for us, a pretty view out the western windows of the house.
Kills make great stories. There are always words around killing animals.
Somehow, John and I have landed in a much wilder place. Our yard ends where thousands of acres of woods begin. There is a national forest at the end of our dead-end road, and a perennial creek borders our property and fills the air with its sound. There is a vital energy to the place, a sense of living among large forces and forms.
Right after we moved in, a blacksnake appeared in the bathroom early in the morning. Phoebes nested on the porch. Once or twice, blacksnakes climbed the porch column at night to eat the hatchlings; we shooed them away.
We brushed stinkbugs off the lamps into cups of soapy water and flushed ticks down the toilet. We trapped mice. Our garden got bigger and bigger as we kept digging up more beds behind the house. One evening John was weeding and looked up to see a black bear regarding him from the edge of the woods. The bear turned and noiselessly retreated.
After we got home from the vet I found a faded red bucket and took the shovel back downstairs and scooped up, with much less aplomb than I’d shown in the killing, the slippery body of the copperhead. It seemed to shiver a little with every touch of the shovel. Its blood mixed with a little water left in the bucket. Its head was separated and flattened; it insisted on lying upside down. The girls and I examined the corpse; I wanted them to learn to identify this snake, the most dangerous one they’re likely to encounter on our property. I had to tip and jiggle the bucket to turn the snake over and show its hourglass pattern. Rosa wanted to touch it but I couldn’t take the thought, somehow imagining that soup of fluids in the bottom of the bucket was laced with venom. The high had curdled. Thankfully, there was no smell.
A few hours later, I looked again and found two different kinds of beetle feeding on the carcass. Two species, of dazzling colors, I’d never seen before. It was as though the snake had drawn them to its body from another plane of existence. They ran around frantically inside the bucket.
Late that night, John and I sat with gin and tonics on the deck, looking at fireflies and stars. The red bucket and its contents sat not far away. A charged vessel. One website I’d looked at in the afternoon said “The best way to get rid of a copperhead is to leave it alone.” Another said people routinely misidentify copperheads. I sipped my drink. John said absolutely I had done the right thing, that this was definitely a copperhead, and admired the way I’d managed it, and I couldn’t help grinning in the dark. Full of a rite of passage. I’ve been shocked by the electric fence, I’ve eaten the rabbit John hunted, I’ve plucked a chicken, and now I’ve killed a snake with a shovel while my babies watched. I’m a real country lady, just like the woman who wrote that book.
John suggested throwing the body to the chickens. This idea, for some reason, revolted me. Chicken beaks dismantling a pale, smooth, venomous body. The snake and all that fearful, fierce energy becoming transmuted into our most domestic commodity, the eggs we eat for breakfast. I said I’d throw it in the woods instead. An act of, in some measure, shame.
Every time we saw our neighbor after that initial copperhead-on-the-table story, there was a corpse in the conversation. “I got that hawk,” he’d say. “I got that fox.” “Seen any snakes? I got a snake.”
At first, what seemed funny and crazy about this to us was the sheer zest for blood. We were encountering plenty of animals but it never occurred to us to end their lives. Unless they were stinkbugs or mice or ticks. That was a line that we drew without thought.
It was when we began keeping chickens that more and more of our animal experiences seemed to involve carcasses, and the lines started to shift.
Our very first day as chicken owners was touched by death. We’d driven our five new laying hens home in the sack into which our farmer friend had stuffed them, and when we opened the sack — they’d been in there nearly an hour, apparently getting dangerously overheated — two of them looked dead. John managed to revive one, but the other never came around.
Revive, revise. We couldn’t undo our decision to trust that those hens would survive the trip. Our friend’s judgment had been wrong.
After some anxious deliberation, we decided to pluck and clean the body. As we dismantled it, a warm egg slipped out of the chicken into our hands. Then several eggs-in-waiting, jelly and yolks not yet enclosed in shells. The chicken’s body, we now viscerally understood, contained an egg assembly line. John cut off the head and feet. We pulled off feathers and pulled out guts. Working from online instructions, we transformed the limp corpse into a tidy, naked, iconic-looking chicken ready for roasting.
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Our farmer friend, Richard, was apologetic about the death, but highly approved of our decision to turn the bird into food. He himself was a lifelong handler of livestock: pigs, cows, sheep, chickens, all the standard barnyard animals that form the cartoon lineup seen by every American child from earliest childhood, but which are actually real creatures, made of flesh and eyes and packed with slime and shit. Richard had spent his life around these animals: helping them birth, resuscitating babies who came out looking bad, kicking them away from openings in fences, slicing their throats and cutting up their bodies for meat.
It was on his farm where I’d opened the door of a walk-in cooler, a box of kale in my arms, to find the skinned carcass of a hog hung by one ankle (O, the bite of the hook behind the Achilles tendon), its head staring from a plastic bin on the floor beneath. I’d observed the comings and goings of various animals: the injured lamb who lived in fly-riddled misery in a crate for a couple of months in the barn, the enormous-testicled hog who sauntered around in the pig fence.
Richard’s attitude toward his livestock was entirely businesslike. He shouted at his dogs and shot one who killed chickens. He had zero sentimentality, though in a way he had respect for the animals: hard-earned knowledge of their natures.
I’d worked on the farm for three summers in my twenties. An absorbing tapestry of smells permeated the place: red clay mud, compost, blood, manure, and a high note of fresh basil. The tomatoes were thrillingly ripe when they came in from the fields, but within a few days a ripe tomato becomes a puckered sack of mold. Feathers and bones and eggshells and wilted cabbage trimmings were everywhere, mixed with straw and clods of dirt. Sparkly white quartz turned up in the rust-colored soil.
I joyfully immersed myself in all this life, all this fecundity; it made me hungry in a way that I’d never felt before. I embraced the considerable measure of decay intertwined with the growth, but since I was working only with vegetables and not livestock — I didn’t even eat meat at the time — I wasn’t really going all the way. It’s one thing to strip a kale plant of its leaves, bundling them with a rubber band; it’s another thing to end the life of a creature with eyes and a brain.
We had unwittingly embarked on a new relationship with death.
With that first chicken cleaning at our own house, we’d entered a different realm, and Richard knew it; that’s why he was proud of us. Yet he surely knew what we still didn’t realize: that this would hardly be our last dead chicken, and that chickens would more often die at the teeth and claws of predators than through strange accidents like overheating.
The hens, silly and vulnerable even inside their electric fence, seemed to act like magnets, drawing carnivores out of those thousands of acres of woods, each armed with its own clever tricks for killing. Hawks came first, leaving a scatter of feathers in the grass when they swooped to grab a bird. Possums and raccoons penetrated what we thought was a fortress-like coop in the night. Our flock was always changing number: down to two, up to seven, down to six. We stopped naming the chickens. The more accustomed we became to chicken chores — feeding, watering, moving the coop — and the more the birds wove themselves into our sense of home, the less attached we felt to each hen. They became sentient egg factories, temporary storage for energy that our bodies could use.
We were both predators of our hens, and protectors.
One fall, we began to lose a chicken every night. This was something of a mystery until one afternoon, under a heavy grey sky, when I looked outside and saw a coyote wrestling with one of our two remaining hens. She was caught in the fence and the coyote was shaking her back and forth with its teeth to free her. With little thought, I left my baby daughter in her high chair and ran outside, yelling hey! Hey! The coyote dropped the bird and ran off. I inspected the bird. She was fine. But that night, during a violent storm, she disappeared. The last one followed a couple of nights later.
We had unwittingly embarked on a new relationship with death. We were often failing to keep safe these creatures for whom we had taken responsibility, and we had to confront the messes. These experiences smoothed the way for us to become the killers ourselves. One hen contracted Marek’s disease, a disturbing ailment that causes partial paralysis, the hen’s legs splaying out cockeyed on the ground. There is no cure. John cut her head off with an ax and composted her unappetizing body.
Our first rooster was healthy as could be, but we killed him because he was too aggressive, attacking any human except John who entered the fence. I still have a mark on my leg from the point of his beak, and our friends had to fend him off when they were feeding our animals while we traveled. One used a garbage-can lid for a shield. After he chased our daughter, then two years old, we decided to put an end to him.
I should acknowledge that, yes, we could have tried to find him a new home. People did that often on the chicken-keepers’ listserv that we subscribed to. But there was a woman on that list that we knew, a culinary expert who taught canning and other homesteading skills and reminded me of Richard in her old-time, no-nonsense attitude toward animals. Some folks on the list — mostly town-dwellers — would write long concerned-sounding posts about their unwanted roosters, complete with fond nicknames and declarations that they would only release their troublesome boys to “good homes.” This lady would invariably reply with a simple suggestion: Kill him and eat him.
Such practicality, with no thought of apology, has a long history. Check out a nursery rhyme or a time-polished folk song: They speak of this relationship between humans and domestic animals and predators, a potent and paradoxical mix of fondness, admiration, need, and brutality. I can’t resolve this mess here.
But we did resolve it then. John caught the rooster — not an easy task — and we carried him across the yard to the big walnut tree, where he’d nailed a cone made of sheet metal. Held upside-down by the ankles, the rooster was calm. John put him into the cone with his head sticking out the small opening at the bottom.
Unfortunately, our knife should have been sharper. It took a few tries for John to decisively cut the artery, resulting in an ugly thirty seconds or so.
We invited all our friends who’d battled the rooster for us and set up a long table on the deck with flowers in vases. Rooster enchiladas with homemade tortillas: The meal was glorious, but John couldn’t really enjoy it. Can’t revise it.
By now, John and I have collected many stories of animal death. I am telling these stories here in part to try to work out where and why we draw the ethical lines that we do. But in truth we have told these stories orally, over and over, just for entertainment.
And there is another problem: The animals themselves are outside the realm of ethics; they’re unaware of our deliberations; they just die, and become nothing more than a collection of material, already beginning to disperse, one molecule at a time.
This is an analog to the fact that our children do not ask to be born. Because of our choices, they enter the world, and we then carry the heavy responsibility for the ethics of their upbringing. But the grace of nurturance is that it’s a process. You fail, but you can try again. You can revise.
I was a vegetarian for more than a dozen years, not particularly out of ethics, more out of distaste. My decision to stop eating meat was made without much deliberation. I’d never liked meat, and all my friends were vegetarians or vegans, and it was easy just to let it go.
Later, meat crept back in as I allowed myself small tastes of local beef, then chicken, from the farmer’s market. I realized that my lifelong aversion to flesh foods (as I once heard them flatly called) probably had something to do with the low quality of meat I’d been served as a child. Animals that had lived and died badly, factory-farm products, had been an ambivalent kind of nourishment when, one molecule at a time, they entered my blood.
I went back to carnivorism when I was pregnant. My midwife put it like this: You need to eat a lot of protein, because babies are made of protein. One molecule at a time.
Now that our babies are grown enough to ask questions, explaining death is part of our job as parents. The explanations sometimes involve our belief that food worth eating should have a known origin. Being involved with the sources of our nourishment means dealing with, sometimes dealing out, death. Last year we started raising chickens specifically for meat, and the conversation with the girls includes this: “Don’t get too attached to these chicks.”
Sometimes this is fully expected; other times the killing is unplanned, even hasty. When a blacksnake began showing up regularly inside our coop, we at first adopted a liberal policy of leaving it one egg each day. Blacksnakes are helpful in many ways, controlling rodent populations and, it’s said, keeping copperheads away.
Our knife should have been sharper.
But then John found the snake with a young chicken — a pullet — halfway down its throat. Snakes sometimes attempt to eat pullets, which die in their mouths; the snake then lies immobilized on the ground while it tries to swallow this huge, feathered prize. John lost his temper. We were trying to raise up the pullets as future layers, and this had a note of waste about it, since it seemed so unlikely that the snake could ever get the bird down. He fetched an ax and beheaded the snake, then threw both bodies in the compost pile.
Later that night, he was hit with regret to the point of tears.
Explaining such events, to ourselves or anyone else, is kind of futile, but through our stories, we have to try. The stories are part of how we come to know that an act we can’t revise must, at least, prompt a revival of a question.
Still, sentiment and tradition are always meddling in the ethics. Blacksnakes seem innocent, somehow; that was part of John’s grief. Possums, to name a different example, seem vicious, at least in relation to chickens. And John did kill a possum or two in defense of our hens before he decided to move that particular line. This wasn’t out of softhearted affection, but more out of rational conscience. We determined to give a pass to animals who are, after all, just trying to make a living. Our real job, we now believe, is to properly fortify the coop. Apologies to the animals who were harmed in the making of this policy.
Animals themselves do not apologize.
Two winters ago, after a week of snow cover, we found three dead chickens near the coop and a bunch of strange tracks all around, inside and outside the fence, and heading off into the woods, feathers strewn alongside.
John picked up the three dead birds by the legs and stacked them beside the coop; he was putting off burying them because of the frozen ground. Our surviving birds had escaped the fence in their panic and were scattered around the yard. Stupidly, we didn’t round them up after dark, but let them roost in bushes for the night.
So, of course, late that evening we heard a chicken in distress, just outside the kitchen window. We threw on the outside light and opened the deck door. And there it was: a bobcat in profile, pausing to look back at us, with our Speckled Sussex in its mouth. A beat; we all stood still.
And then I said to John, “Do you think we can save her?” In his socks, he ran into the snow. The cat dropped its prey and ran off. The hen died in John’s arms a few minutes later. He put on a big pot of water to boil.
The bobcat encounter felt like a visit from another plane. Though we’d hardly had time to observe it, I can still picture the cat silhouetted in our porch light glare, before the black curtain of night: a being of deep mystery that had descended from the mountains.
We were even more amazed in the morning when we realized that the bobcat had also taken away the original stack of three dead birds. We read that a male bobcat can provide for several families of females and cubs within his territory; perhaps this one was a father, on a mission to keep many offspring alive, delivering food to various dens hidden in the higher elevations. Feeling not a shred of doubt.
There is a strange hierarchy of animals within which we deploy our weapons and our notions.
The bobcat’s tracks seemed to vibrate with meaning and power; I kept going to look at them again and again, reconstructing its path, feeling privileged despite the loss of so many birds.
Though it was the most efficient killing machine ever to have visited our coop, we would no sooner have harmed that cat than I would have messed with the bear that waddled down the driveway one afternoon to visit our neighbor’s apple tree. We categorize bobcats as utterly wild even when they are helping themselves to domesticated chickens.
If our behavior is inexplicable to animals — those we nurture and those we destroy — their behavior also sometimes baffles us. Raccoons and possums kill chickens, take only the heads, and leave the carcasses to the remaining birds, who then eat them greedily.
Most of our dealings with animals seem, if not illogical, at least sort of bewildering. Taking my cat to the vet for human-style medical care immediately after murdering a snake. Eating eggs from a bird who eats her dead sister. Feeling lucky to see a woodpecker but annoyed by deer. That we decide, citing a kind of faux logic riddled with nursery-rhyme precedents , to end the life of a possum or to cherish the presence of wrens.
It seems that experience is the only real teacher; we try things and see how they feel.
Having killed the copperhead feels like a sickly mixture of pride and revulsion. The smell of the basement is now married to the dread of snakes; killing made me more fearful than I was before, seeing them in every stick and hose on the ground. To drive over a dead one in the road gives me a whole-body shiver. Doing violence, it now seems clear, has harmed me.
We’re all just improvising within a welter of situations. And the encounters will not stop anytime soon. There are stories I’ve left out here, and as I’ve been writing this, more stories keep taking place.
A month ago, I was home alone with Rosa and discovered a dead hen, her throat gouged open, tangled in the fence. Ah yes — we’d seen a hawk half an hour earlier; the raptor must have abandoned its prey when she fled into the netting and it couldn’t pull her free.
I touched the hen and she still felt warm under my fingers. She was a dead body, a ruined investment, a lost member of the household, another death for the list, another story for the repertoire. And she was a freshly slaughtered, otherwise healthy carcass. She was food. Saving her from being wasted felt like the imperative of the moment: one small way to atone for all the other decisions I’ve made, and been part of, that haven’t sat right, and can’t be undone.
So I found the sharp knife in John’s dresser and boiled a big pot of water. Then I laid the hen over a rock and decapitated her. In my somewhat flustered state I left the head lying on the ground.
By the time I came back for it, two hours later, the hen was gutted and bagged in the fridge, and some wild scavenging creature — someone looking for food, someone outside ethics, someone who tells no stories — had come and carried off her head.
* * *
Erika Howsare’s new book, How Is Travel a Folded Form?, is recently out from Saddle Road Press. She often posts photos of the ground at erikahowsare.com.
Editor: Dana Snitzky