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                                 Alison Morse - Adult Education

          The night before my mother died, she opened her eyes for a few minutes to vomit up her hospice dinner and talk to me one last time. I was wiping her chin and holding a bucket for her with very shaky hands when she whispered, “Honey, I should have taught you how to kill a chicken. Maybe you wouldn’t be so afraid.”     

          I tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t start an argument. She fell back asleep.       

          “Mom, I don’t want to lose you,” I said. She did not wake up. My mother stopped breathing at five A.M. Three hours later, the mortuary attendants zipped her body, emaciated from breast cancer, into a rubber bag. I forced myself to watch—determined to prove to her how courageous I was.

          I also turned forty that day.

          For the funeral, my husband Josh made a poster out of my favorite photo of her, taken when she was thirteen on her parents’ farm in North Dakota. In it, she’s smiling, wearing jeans and resting one hand on the back of her horse, the other on her hip. A cowboy hat tilts over one eye. Hens peck the ground by her feet, oblivious to the Jewish farm girl who took great pride in cutting their throats with one clean thwack.

          The rabbi from the funeral home, who’d never met my mother, conducted the service. I fed him her story: the promise of freedom that led my Polish Jewish grandparents—who’d never tilled a field—to cheap land in North Dakota; the move to Minneapolis when the farm inevitably failed; her nursing career; me; my father’s early death. When the rabbi mentioned my mother’s prowess as a kosher chicken butcher, I turned to her picture.

          “Wimp,” my mother’s smile seemed to say. My face grew hot; tears welled. I turned away and locked my arm around Josh’s. We were both city kids, raised and living in Minneapolis, web designers whose closest ties to farming were our trips to the Farmers Market.

          When we got home, I burst out crying, told him about my mother’s last words, the feeling that I’d failed her.

          “You can always learn to kill a chicken,” he said.

          He googled “chicken kill Mpls” and found Fresh Feather Organic Poultry Farm. They offered a class in “Total Chicken Preparation,” where you could learn to slaughter, pluck and clean in one session. The idea was unfathomable. I could barely stand to touch raw supermarket poultry.

          The next week I had nightmares. In each one, my mother asked me to kill a chicken. I always failed: the chicken ran away; the knife was too dull; the chicken pecked my hands. My mother would cluck her tongue and say, “such a disappointment.” I was well aware how closely these dreams resembled her real-life reactions to many of my life choices. I kept waking up with a headache. By the week’s end, I was exhausted.

          I returned to Fresh Feather Farm’s website. Under the class description was a quote from a New York Times food writer: “The best way to be completely responsible for what you put in your mouth is to process your own meat.” I needed to take responsibility—for quieting my mother’s voice.

          The next Saturday, Josh and I took the half hour drive to Fresh Feather Farm.

          The farm was a compound of shiny aluminum Quonset huts and white cement block buildings. A few hens wandered around in the newly mown grass. Behind a wire fence, turkeys gulped raspberries.

          Our teachers, Mark and Mary Fleischman, whose unsmiling, sun-puckered, pink faces looked nearly identical, stood in the driveway while we parked, then led us inside a windowless building.

          We donned rubber boots, gloves, and aprons and entered the “Preparation Area,” a room with a drain on the floor and a steel wheel-like structure that held eight upside-down traffic cones. In one corner, in a crate, sat four fluffy hens that our teachers called “The Broilers.” Mark Fleishman took one of the broilers out of the crate, grabbed her by the feet and held her, head first, in a traffic cone. The bird squawked shrilly and beat the air in protest. Feathers flew; one slapped me on the cheek. When Mary Fleishman handed her husband the knife, my throat constricted. The room began to blacken; I stumbled to a wall and leaned against it, trying to breathe. Josh put his arm around me. His weight against my shoulders was suffocating. I ran out of the building, gasping for breath. The sun was too bright, the grass too green, the buildings too clean for such a horrible death camp. I cried for the chickens, my mother, my failure.

          Around the farm I walked, breathing in the pungent smell of live fowl. Then I remembered something my mother told me. One Yom Kippur on the farm, an aunt asked her to participate in Kaparot, a ritual where you wave a chicken over your head and recite a prayer that transfers your sins to the chicken. Then you kill the bird and give it away. My mother refused. “I’m responsible for my sins—the chicken isn’t,” she said.

          When Josh finally came out of the extermination building, he was carrying a pink chicken in a plastic bag—and smiling. “I did it.”

          His large brown eyes, usually so kind, looked too pleased. I hated him at that moment.

          “We never celebrated your birthday,” he said. “I can grill this chicken.”

          “I’m not in the mood for chicken.”

          “Oh, come on.”

          “I think you should give it away.”

          “After all that? No way.”

          Josh did this awful deed for me. Whatever bad choices I’d made, marrying him was not one of them. “How about another night?”

          When we got home, Josh put the chicken in the freezer. The next day I threw it in the neighbor’s trashcan and said it went to the food shelf. There would be many sleepless nights to come.

Alison Morse’s poetry and prose have been published in various publications, including Natural Bridge, Water~Stone, Rhino, Opium Magazine, The Potomac,, and flashquake. She is currently spit-polishing a novel, The Beethoven Frieze, about animators during Yugoslavia’s collapse. For twenty years she animated everything from cigarettes and glass shards to Barbie doing aerobics on the beach in Cancun. Now she teaches English and runs TalkingImageConnection, a reading series that brings together writers, contemporary visual artists, and new audiences.

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