The Fowl Executioner
By Margaret Foley
You know the chicken needs to be decapitated. There is no other way out. It’s already dead, but as you and your sister stare at the limp-necked and limp-limbed plucked chicken lying on the meat counter, you know you can’t take it home that way. It needs to look more like the packaged chickens in the grocery stores at home. The woman behind the counter stares at you and pushes back a curl too short for her hairnet.
You raise a finger as if you want her to wait a minute, and then you and your sister turn and look at the items on the shelf behind you.
It is July 1977. You, your parents, and two younger sisters have just arrived in Vienna, Austria, where you will spend the next year while your father works at the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The first few days are disorienting. You and your sisters have never lived anywhere except Los Alamos, NM, a town of approximately 15,000. Now, you are in a city of more than one million people. You walk down the street unable to understand what you hear, read on store signs, or glance at in a news kiosk. It is the first time you have ever ridden public transportation.
Initially, you and your sisters are perplexed when elderly women approach you, say something incomprehensible, and then pat you on the cheeks. Finally, you realize that they are intrigued by your masses of freckles, which the hot, dry New Mexico sun produces in quantities that the grayer, more temperate Viennese climate cannot.
While your family looks for a place to live you are temporarily staying in an apartment owned by someone who runs a Junior Year Abroad program and spends every July in the States. The apartment is so small that instead of sleeping in the bedroom with your sisters, you sleep on a couch in the living room. In the morning, your father’s footsteps wake you when he heads to the bakery to buy rolls for breakfast.
You are twelve. Your next youngest sister is ten. After a few days in Vienna, the two of you feel that you should be allowed to do something on your own. You have seen lots of children on the street, many of them younger than you, playing and running errands by themselves. You convince your mother to let you walk to a store on your own and buy something for dinner.
You enter the first grocery store you see and are surprised by the interior. It is not nearly as large as you anticipated. There are no carts, only small wire baskets. The shelves are low and small and do not hold a large variety of goods. Much of the food is behind counters staffed by woman in flowered smocks and brown hairnets.
You find yourself in front of a counter where you see sausages, various pieces of meat, and an array of dead birds hanging from hooks.
“We could have chicken,” your sister says. “Ask for one.” You sigh, purse your lips, and point to a chicken. The woman pulls it down and places it on a stone slab. She looks at you. You look down at the ground. This is definitely not what the chicken you eat for dinner is supposed to look like.
“Let’s look around the store a little,” you whisper to your sister. “That’ll give us time to figure out what to do about the chicken.”
“We can’t take it home like that,” she agrees. “Remember those stories?"
Do you ever. Both your parents grew up in rural settings—your father on a farm in southern Oregon and your mother in small towns in Northern New Mexico. The killing of animals for food is not unknown to you. You have heard tales of, for example, butchering chickens gone horribly wrong; tripping over a shovel while trying to catch a chicken; heads not properly cut off; blood spurting; the slick, slimy feel of pulling out the innards.
“Hey, look at this,” your sister lifts a bottle, whose label reads apfelessig. “It’s apple juice. Let’s get it. We haven’t had any juice since we got here.”
“O.K,” you sigh, and turn back to the task at hand—the chicken on the slab in front of you. You step closer to the meat counter. The woman smiles at you. You can tell that she wants to help, but she can’t figure out what you need.
You realize that you have to say something, but you don’t want to. As a rule, you are incredibly shy. While you like to be around people, you don’t like to talk to them, preferring to stay in a corner. Whenever you have to ask someone a question, you stand quietly until they notice you. At the store, you rarely speak to the cashier.
None of these approaches will work in this Viennese grocery store. Your sister doesn’t know what to do, either. You are the oldest. You have to come up with something.
You rack your brains for a few words of German. Why couldn’t you have gone to Spain? You know lots of Spanish words. All the streets in your neighborhood have Spanish names as do many places in New Mexico.
You even know the Spanish word for chicken. It’s gallina, which is also the name of a town near where your grandmother lives.
Suddenly, you are inspired. You move even closer to the counter. Bright-eyed, you look at the woman.
“Bitte?” you ask, and then, as you draw your index finger across your neck, you make a cutting, slicing sound.
“Ja,” the woman bursts out laughing. You grin, relieved. She understands what you want. She wields a meat cleaver and hacks off the legs and head and wraps it in paper. You pay, and she hands you the chicken.
You and your sister walk back to the apartment, excited about your purchases. What you don’t realize until you show them to your mother is that the juice is really apple vinegar and that the chicken’s innards are still intact.
Margaret Foley lives in Portland, Oregon. Her writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Slavic and East European Journal, Mothersmovement.org, Gator Springs Gazette, and NOO Journal. She is currently working on a novel set on the Oregon Trail.
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