Granny and Ma, my great-grandmother, were sitting on the front porch breaking the greasy back green beans they had picked from the garden that morning. I was sitting on the edge of the porch petting Ma and Pa’s old yellow cat, Moses. My mouth started watering when I heard Ma tell Granny that we would have chicken ‘n dumplins and dressin’ with the green beans for Sunday dinner tomorrow.
“Go out back, Squirt, and tell Pa to go catch that old red hen that ain’t been laying eggs for weeks now,” Ma said to me.
I frowned and got up slowly. I didn’t like the nickname, Squirt, that Ma sometimes called me. And, I always felt bad about telling Pa, my great grandfather, that Ma wanted him to do some chore. I could tell he didn’t like to be bossed around. Ma thought Pa spent too much time whittling, reading the Bible, and telling me stories about the olden days.
Ma thought Pa sat too much. Sometimes she accused him of sleeping while he was sitting in his rocking chair, but he would deny it and say, “I was just resting my eyes.”
I thought Ma and Pa were really old, and I guess they were since they were in their seventies. They had white hair and wrinkly faces, but I knew Ma worked as hard as any young woman. She cooked, cleaned, canned, churned butter, put out a garden, washed clothes on a washboard and hung them on the line to dry. She kept chickens, and when I visited, she let me help feed them and gather the eggs.
Pa, who was mostly bald with only a ring of white hair around his head, declared he deserved to rest some and enjoy life now that he was getting old. Ma said she enjoyed life by working and being productive. Pa said he enjoyed it by sitting and thinking, except when she was bossing him around to do something.
I think that’s why Ma sometimes sent me to tell him what she wanted him to do. He was more likely to do it if I told him, even if he did sometimes say, “Humph!” as he got up to go do what she had ordered.
I had no idea why Ma wanted Pa to go catch a hen, but it sounded like it might be fun. I wanted to go with him to the chicken lot on the far side of the house and help him catch the hen, but he said I couldn’t go in barefooted as I might step in chicken droppings and get it between my toes. I had experienced that feeling before, and it was not the most pleasant thing, especially having to clean it out over at the spigot.
As I didn’t have time to go back and find my shoes, I just stood by the fence and watched Pa. He chased that old hen up to the corner of the lot by fanning a feed sack at it. When he had it cornered, he threw down a handful of corn for it to eat. At first she was happy about the corn, but as the hen realized she was cornered and Pa was getting closer, she started squawking and flapping her wings trying to escape, but he reached down quickly and grabbed her by her legs. Pa flipped the hen upside down and she got real calm, like she knew her goose was cooked. Pa tied her feet, put her in the sack, and delivered it to Ma on the porch.
“Here’s your Sunday dinner, Ma,” Pa said.
I had realized by now that the corn had been the old red hen’s last dinner and tomorrow she would be our dinner!
I had eaten a lot of chicken dinners when I came to visit Ma and Pa, but I had never thought about where the chicken came from. My mama bought our chicken at the store.
Ma took the sack to the back yard, and I followed. She had a big pot of water she had been boiling sitting on the back stoop, and I thought maybe she was going to boil it alive, feathers and all.
“What you going to do with that chicken, Ma?” I asked.
She studied me a long time as if she were debating if I was old enough to learn the facts of life and death and putting food on the table, and then she said calmly, “I’m going to wring its neck and when I do, its body is going to flop around the yard for awhile without a head. If you think it will scare you or make you sad, go on back to the front porch.”
I was already sad and scared, but I couldn’t admit that to Ma. She was the toughest woman I knew. In fact, I was kind of scared of her. If she could bear to wring the old red hen’s neck, surely I could bear to stand and watch it. I didn’t want her to think I was a sissy.
And so I stayed, and it was horrible. The hen’s body flopped around all over the yard as if it were looking for its head. It broke my heart, but I didn’t cry, not in front of Ma anyway.
When the chicken finally gave up the search for its head, Ma picked it up by its feet and dunked it into the pot of boiling hot water three or four times. After that, she started plucking its feathers out. Granny came out the back door to help. I don’t think Granny had wanted to watch the neck wringing.
Ma asked if I wanted to help pluck the feathers, but I shook my head. I had seen enough.
I went back around to the front porch and picked up Moses. Tears filled my eyes as I hugged him tightly and whispered to him, “Be glad you’re not a chicken, Moses.”
When Sunday dinner came after church the next day, I knew I would not be eating a bite of chicken, but I did love Ma’s dumplins and her dressing made with dried cornbread crumbs and lots of sage, celery, and onions. In place of chicken, I would fill up the rest of my tummy with Ma’s green beans, seasoned with a hunk of fatback, juicy red tomatoes from the garden, buttery mashed potatoes hand-mashed with some good ole lumps still in them, and sweet yellow cornbread slathered with her homemade butter. For dessert, she’d probably make a blackberry cobbler with the berries she and I had picked the day before. Yes, it would be a tasty meal, but it would be a long, long time before I could ever eat chicken again.
Melanie Harless, formerly a school librarian, began writing after her retirement in June 2006.
She has written a monthly travel column for a local news magazine since February 2008 and has also been published in three anthologies and in Muscadine Lines, Sevier County News, Our Senior Times, and has just sold an essay to Looking Back. She is on the Board of the Tennessee Mountain Writers.