When my parents decided to buy the property, the plum tree was an overgrown mass, shrouding itself in limbs that drooped under the deadly weight of superfluous branches, their tips pressing into the dirt, competing with the roots for territory.
Before unpacking even the kitchen dishes, and despite the cold December air, my Mom took an entire day to ruthlessly cut away seventy percent of its mass; exposing slanted, inner trunks to the icy breath of winter and the light of short days.
She was always like that. A purger to my Dad’s clutterer tendencies. A minimalist in a world of, “More, more, more!”
Now? A pile of chicken heads lay amongst blades of midsummer grass, as she, my Dad, my brother and I, cull last year’s flock by a similar seventy percent or more.
Before the change, my brother would keep at Mom as soon as she told our Dad to “take the boys out for the morning.” Before-speak for “butchering day.”
“I hate you!” he’d state, eyes alight and feet solidly planted in the dusty path leading to the aptly-named, Chicken Village. “I won’t let you!”
Now? He helps. He understands what she meant when she said, “They’re big birds, honey. We love them. And we give them the best life a chicken could ever have. But, we can’t keep them once they stop laying. It would be wasteful.”
Even he understands that thrift is – once again – the greatest of virtues.
I stare down at shiny, dead, black eyes. Ragged, red gashes where, just yesterday; their flexible necks had twisted and turned, as they lay drugged by the summer sun or vigorously preened their feathers while burrowing into chicken-sized holes full of mite-destroying grit and dust.
Leaning down, I grasp smooth, opal-blue feet and plunge the heavy body into our largest, speckled gray & black canning pot; dipping and pulling so that the near-boiling water will work its magic as it loosens and drenches her soft, peachy-gray feathers. Making her ready for plucking, gutting, and trading.
Our feathered currency.
Before the change, we culled once a year and pulled the girls from the freezer whenever soupy inspiration hit. Now? We cull three times a year. A bloody, necessary ritual followed by an orgy of chicken stew, chicken salad, chicken legs, wings, hearts, gizzards, even feet…until the four we get to keep are gone.
No freezers made it through the change.
And they are not the only things that got left behind. That became myth, story, remembrance, and instant history.
“I found another one!” my brother cries, holding up a perfectly formed egg, its shell soft blue, like the legs of its dead mother. With a clink, he sets it carefully into our grandmother’s ceramic bowl…bright yellow on the outside, pure white on the inside, like the unborn nestled within it.
My mouth waters.
Tonight, I’ll be sent out to the garden for our usual dinner of well-matured vegetables. No longer do we pick them young and soft. One more change.
And since I’m the best, I’ll get the job, and the opportunity to graze unnoticed, as I search for bolted greens (bitter yet filling) and only the largest zucchinis; swollen and elongated, like the pony when he pees. Garlic snapes, onion greens and fully rounded-out peas and beans, will tonight include the glowing bowlful of creamy yolks. “Mama! This hen had seven yolks inside of her!”
My brother’s fingers glisten in the dappled sunlight, cupping loose, orange globes.
“Did you kill a pullet by accident?” Mom asks, her hands expertly disemboweling the second to last hen in under thirty seconds.
“No,” he whispers, pouring soft, never-shelled yolks into grandmother’s bowl. “She was a good layer, that’s all.”
He doesn’t name them anymore. Or, if he does…he keeps it to himself.
Or maybe, I think…he just got hungry enough?
Our trade agreement is clear and strict. We trade away all the eggs and ninety-percent of the meat in exchange for lye, half a pig, four new-to-us pairs of shoes each Fall, hay for winter, six bottles of potato vodka, and a tub of lotion infused with marijuana extract. Nature’s cure-all.
It’s a good deal, if a bit light on the protein.
I lean over, under branches thick with swelling, green plums…and gaze hungrily at the soft yolks; descending in size from ping-pong balls to malt-balls, marbles, blueberries, and finally, clusters of creamy orange B.B.s.
A diet of grass, bugs, seeds, and wriggling earthworms gorged upon on manure-turning days all make for yolks more orange than yellow, more thick than thin and secretly plentiful on butchering days.
“Change is the only constant,” our Mom used to say.
Now? The Change is what defines us.