Never mind what you think.
The old man did not rush
Recklessly into the coop the last minute.
The chickens hardly stirred
For the easy way he sang to them.
Red sun is burning out
Past slag heaps of the mill. The old man
Touches the blade of his killing knife
With his fat thumb.
I’ m in the backyard on a quilt
Spread out under the heavy dark plums
He cooks for his whiskey.
He walks among the hens singing
His chicken song way down in his throat
Until he finds the one who’ s ready
And he holds her to his barrel chest.
What did you think?
Did you think you just jerk the bird
From her roost and hack her head off?
Beyond the coop
I see the fleeting white dress of my grandmother
As she crosses and recrosses the porch
To fill the bucket with scalding water.
How easy the feathers will come
When she drowns them for plucking
And clouds the air with a stench
I can’ t stand not to breathe.
I’ m not even a boy yet but I watch
The old man sing out into the yard,
His knife already at the chicken’ s throat
When everything begins to spin in my world —
He slices off the head without a squawk,
And swirls the bird in circles, a fine
Blood spray fanning out far enough
To reach me where I wait
Obediently, where I can’ t stop watching
The head the old man picks up,
His free hand becomes a puppet chicken
Clucking at me, pecking my head with the cold beak
Until I cry for him to stop,
Until he pins me down, clucking, laughing, blood
All over his hands.
He did it so I would remember him
I tell myself all these years later.
He did it because it was his last summer
Among us. In August he didn’ t feel the fly
Come into his cancerous ear and lay its eggs.
He didn’ t feel the maggots hatch
As he sat dazed with pills in the sun.
He pecked my head and laughed out of love,
Out of love he snatched me roughly to his chest
And sang his foreign songs way,
Way down in his throat.