Words by Velourdebeast; illustrations by Waylon Bacon
A bowl of oatmeal slithered through Sarah’s guts, slippery like a water weenie, as she cleared out her bookshelves. Her stomach grumbled as she threw On the Road into a big brown box. Most of the books she was giving away she had loved as a teenager and they were books Sarah’s parents had loved in their youth. When she was sixteen, Sarah’s dad gave her The Dharma Bums and she cut classes to go to the library and read it. She cut class once to go the park, sit under a tree, drink hard cider she’d made in her closet and read Richard Brautigan’s The Pill vs. the Springhill Mine Disaster. The cider was very hard and she passed out in the shade, awakened by a cop who was worried she had died.
None of Sarah’s friends were as passionate and interesting as the Beats. Sarah often imagined modeling her life after the guys in their stories. She gave drunken rants. She wanted to imitate Jack Kerouac and hitchhike across the country or climb mountains and live life with the purity and purpose she felt while reading Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island. She tried to be as dreamy and sweet as the hero of Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar when he said:
‘I know a river that is half-an-inch wide. I know because I measured it and sat beside it for a whole day. It started raining in the middle of the afternoon. We call everything a river here. We’re that kind of people.’
But these books often made Sarah feel defensive. When she reached her late teens she realized that she was annoyed with the way these authors wrote about women, she stopped making excuses for them. She was tired of the beautiful ladies Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder stuck in between their pages like baseball cards in the spokes of a bike. She thought Richard Brautigan wrote about women like a cat would write about a toy mouse.
When she graduated from high school, Sarah moved out of her mom’s house to live in a university town seven miles away. It was her first semester at college. She was nineteen. She lived in a house with three other college students but she had her own room which she arranged and rearranged constantly. She loved getting rid of old things. She wedged The Pill vs. the Springhill Mine Disaster into the big box destined for a thrift store and she looked over at her bookshelves, which now held field guides and science and math textbooks. With her stomach growling like a hot refrigerator, Sarah turned on her computer and went to Craigslist for some comfort.
Sarah got money for school from the government. It was more than enough to live on when augmented with some part-time work and thrift. Sarah loved being thrifty, and she frequented the free section of Craigslist. That Saturday night, Northern California’s rural Humboldt County had an excess of the usual things – baby clothes, exercise equipment, pianos, and male animals: mostly ducks, roosters, goats, and rabbits. Their owners were giving them up because they were loud, aggressive, or just plain useless. Some of the postings specified that the animals not be eaten but many encouraged slaughter. One author said she didn’t care what happened to their aggressive horny rabbit as long as it was no longer around to hump her ten-year-old daughter’s arm every time she reached into his cage to feed him. According to the advertisement the bunny was probably tough but he’d taste good in a stew. The thought of rabbit stew made Sarah’s mouth release a pulse of saliva. She loved eating meat but the free range organic meat she liked was expensive. She realized that Craigslist could provide her with an abundant source of food from local, free range animals that were raised without growth hormones and antibiotics. She looked through her cookbooks until she decided which kind of meat she wanted, then called a soft-voiced woman who wanted to rid herself of a drake.
The next morning, Sarah rested her hand on the chilly steering wheel of her station wagon and drove east towards the hills, turning her back to the Pacific Ocean. She passed a marshy field full of cow pies, egrets, thistles and little brown birds, who called out as they flung themselves from brown branch to brown stalk. Growing along the side of the road were willows with soft grey catkins and long tassels of yellow pollen on their branches. Coltsfoot was just starting to open up; it looked like flowering vanilla ice cream cones a foot in diameter and smelled like buckwheat pancakes with honey. The sun was still very low during the day. For the past week a sheet of grey clouds had covered the sky, pouring rain steadily and patiently. Rain washed oil drippings and trash from roads and neighborhoods and into muddy streams that slipped off to die in the greatest ocean in the world.
Sarah drove through a neighborhood of single family homes built in one big spurt after the redwood trees were cleared in the late 1950s. College students and hippie families were tearing up driveways to make room for vegetable gardens and letting their lawns grow wild. As she headed further toward the hills the streets were no longer on a grid but followed the deep valley folds. It was a clear day but the hills blocked the sun. Second or third growth redwood trees grew close to the houses, brushing roofs with their boughs like tall humans reaching down to pet little dogs.
The address Sarah was looking for was near the end of the cul-de-sac and just past the road unmarked footpaths began and quickly disappeared in the dense redwood forest beyond. She parked her station wagon in front of a big, blue house, next to which was another lot full of long grass, an apple orchard, a brown pond and a duck coop. There was a solarium on the sunniest side of the house and, inside, it was paneled with wood and full of easels, books, yarn, tapestries and house plants. Sarah thought it would be nice to sit in the warm solarium and listen to the raindrops splat on the glass. The house was tidy except for a pane of glass on the solarium that was cracked and traced with duct tape. There was a fence around the yard and outside the fence a mosaic was being built on the pavement.
One of the panels of the mosaic showed two hands opening a curtain to reveal a flaming heart, while another was made from broken white porcelain bowls with tiny blue flowers painted on them. The mailbox was also covered in a mosaic and Sarah imagined that with time the people who lived there would decorate everything that didn’t move, encrusting objects with pretty glass in the same way that moss or mushrooms covers fallen debris in the forest. Blue and purple flowers grew in between red bricks in the front yard and a camellia dropped big, pink cake-frosting flowers on the other plants in the flowerbed. A hen-and-chicks succulent climbed like a scaly lizard out of an oversized teacup. Herbs grew from an old toilet.
Sarah walked up three low broad brick stairs and knocked on a blue door. A thirteen-year-old girl opened the door, introduced herself as “Violet” and told Sarah to wait while she found her mom. Violet was very articulate and Sarah assumed she must read a lot. She wore makeup, a tie, and a blue shirt with tight blue jeans. She disappeared up the stairs and reappeared with her mom, Victoria, who also wore blue. Victoria’s eyes were watery, and her voice sounded weak, as though she was talking for the first time after a long bout of crying but Sarah soon realized that this was a result of gentleness – not weakness or sadness. Victoria invited her into the house and Sarah was glad to step inside. The house was clean but not fastidious, full but not cluttered. She knew without asking that no men lived in the house.
In the backyard was a duck coop painted blue and shingled like the house, with glass-paned windows and a peaked roof. There with a high fence around it and on either side of the fence were mallard ducks. “We keep the drakes inside the coop,” Victoria said. The ducks inside the fence paced, looking out through the chicken wire, while the ones on the outside seemed more relaxed. Some of them lay down with their beaks tucked under their feathers, while others shuffled through grass and leaf litter, their bodies gyrating like clay on a potter’s wheel as they walked.
Violet leaned against her mother and Victoria casually put her arms around her. “We bought the chicks from a feed store and we were promised that they were all hens but it turned out that four were drakes,” Victoria said. “After that we started ordering from a farm in Idaho because they guaranteed hens.”
“You can tell the sex by holding the egg up to a candle and looking through,” Violet said. Then, all of a sudden, she seemed skeptical. “At least, that’s what they said, but I don’t know how that would work. Before they were sent, we got a message saying that we’d have to wait a week later, because our order hadn’t hatched,” she said, laughing.
Sarah remembered being shy and awkward when she was Violet’s age and she envied Violet, who seemed completely comfortable with herself.
“So, we got all these drakes by accident,” Victoria said. “We wanted to keep them, because we raised them from chicks, but they’re harassing all the other ducks. Especially Strider, the one we’re giving to you.” Victoria said the drakes were separated because they relentlessly chased the hens around the yard, trying to mount them. One day Strider startled a hen into flight and she collided with the glass solarium and broke her neck. Violet saw it happen, as well as the drake trying to copulate with her dead body. Violet chased Strider away and called her mom at her work at the County Social Services. “I came home from work and we buried her,” she gestured towards a little mound with some lettuce planted on it.
“We planted lettuce because that was her favorite,” Violet said, still leaning against her mom.
Sarah followed them to the coop. It was fragrant with fresh hay. The drakes didn’t try to get away from them. “They trust us because we fed them all by hand when they were chicks,” Victoria reminded Sarah. Victoria easily grabbed one of the ducks, pinning his wings against his sides and holding him tightly. He moved his head back and forth, tilting it to look at all three of them. He pointed his bill forward. His long neck curved into an “S” and settled down into his shoulders.
“So now you know why we want to give him away. Do you have any ducks?” Victoria asked Sarah.
“No. I think I’m going to eat him.”
Victoria glanced at Violet, who frowned and looked down at her feet. “Okay, we’d hoped to find someone who didn’t want him for meat, but then again I’d hate to let him loose on someone else’s hens and have the same thing happen. He’s too aggressive. And he’d be too lonely by himself – he lives to mate with those hens. Best to just put him out of his misery.”
Sarah never held a bird before. He flapped wildly when Victoria handed him to her. She held him at arm’s length until Victoria showed her how to trap his wings against his sides and hold him close and he quieted down again. His feathers engulfed Sarah’s fingers. It was cold outside and her fingers were half numb but the warmth from the drake’s belly revived them. She could feel her pulse returning to her fingertips, splashing in her hands like a wake from a boat breaking against the shore. He turned his head and looked at her with brown, oval eyes – first one, then the other. He had tiny eyelashes and his beak curled up into a very slight smile. The feathers on his head looked like green satin… material from a prom dress. He started murmuring as if he was trying to talk a baby into falling asleep. He pushed his head underneath her sleeve and nibbled at her wrist.
“He won’t hurt you. That bill is pretty useless for biting,” Violet said. They walked with Sarah and the duck out to her car and helped her put him in a box, solemnly closing the flaps over his head. Sarah wanted to ask if she could come over and hang out again but, instead, she thanked them too many times and drove off. She was embarrassed about her car, which had coffee stains on the seats and Styrofoam cups and candy wrappers forming a deep litter underneath. She looked out her rearview window, sad that they had already turned around, that they didn’t watch her leave.
Sarah drove back out of the hills, down the gentle slope to the bottoms where she lived, in a little, curlicue cul-de-sac of 1960s suburbia surrounded by cow pastures. She made a pen for the drake out of spare chicken wire and put it under some apple trees in her backyard. Apple blossoms fluttered down as she lifted him out of the box. Some of the pink petals landed on his head. She gave him water, lettuce and slugs. He jumped into the water bowl and squatted to get his belly wet and soon knocked most of the water out. Sarah filled up a big clear tub and he floated and dunked joyfully in it, flapping his wings when he surfaced, bobbing on the little waves he created. Sarah watched his feet paddle through the clear plastic. She saw him dive and open up his wings under water, flinging water over his back as he surfaced, then, nibbling at his feathers, straightening them in spastic bouts of preening.
Sarah had no idea how to slaughter a duck so she searched the internet, looking for the most humane way she could find. She decided that she would try to bleed the duck while hanging him upside down, restraining him in a modified traffic cone. Her knives were dull, so she went to the store to buy a whetstone. While she was out she stole a traffic cone from a construction site. When she got back home, she cut off the tip of the traffic cone so that it was the right size for the duck’s body, then sharpened a knife for the first time in her life. She held up the cone by fastening it to an apple tree with some wire, so the cone’s tip was level with her chest and she could use both hands to cut the drake’s neck.
Sarah lifted the duck out of the pen and held him against her belly. He nibbled on her arm, pulling softly at little hairs. His touch made her mind hum the same way it did when her boyfriend played with her hair. He cocked his head and looked at her with one oval eye. She tucked him under her arm and he felt warm against her side. She worried about how empty the moments after his death would feel. They both looked ahead as she walked towards the tree with the cone. It was foggy. The fog made the world seem small and immediate, as though choices made now were different from choices that had ever been made before. “Sorry, hun, but you did this to yourself,” she spoke softly to him.
She tied his legs together with a shoelace and stuck him in the cone so that he dangled head down from the apple tree. He relaxed. She picked up her sharp knife and doubted herself. She wondered what would happen if she wounded him but was too weak to end his suffering. She felt alone, knowing that none of her friends would want to help.
Sarah put her hand on his bill, and then she sliced into the neck just under his jaw, successfully missing the windpipe. Blood ran out slowly but he didn’t seem bothered by the cut. Sarah watched for minutes as his heart slowly pumped blood out of his body and onto the grass and apple blossoms below. She was worried that it wasn’t working, so she opened up the cut and the blood flowed a little more quickly. He squirmed slightly, as if he was waiting in line or wearing tight pants. Several more minutes passed. He pooped. His muscles clenched. A few seconds later he went limp. Sarah jiggled his body and his head swung back and forth freely. She was disgusted with herself for a moment but the feeling passed and she realized she had done well.
She heated up some water on her stove and dunked the carcass in it several times, making the feathers easier to pull out. She plucked the body, saving the down. She took the carcass outside again and upended a round log. She put on some latex gloves and set the plucked body on the log, cutting a slit just below the breast bone. It unnerved her to reach inside the body cavity because she didn’t know what it would feel like inside. She pulled out the guts, after first breaking a taut spider web of tendons.
She cut carefully around the duck’s cloaca so that she could get rid of any feces that remained. She wondered what would happen if she did this wrong and poop squirted out. If it got on the meat, would she have to get rid of it or could she just wash it off? What if she didn’t butcher in the right sequence? She cut the oil glands from the tail, again worrying that they would explode in her hands and send mysterious foul juice over the carcass. She pulled out the heart and lungs, saving the liver in a little plastic bag. She twisted off the neck.
Sarah’s roommate Amy ambled out the back door with a beer in her hand, shivering in a dress she had bought in LA. “What the fuck are you doing? It looks like hell out here,” Amy said, repulsed by the bucketful of guts, the bloody knife and feathers rolling across the yard like tumbleweeds.
“I’m going to cook this duck tonight. You should invite some people over,” Sarah said.
“I don’t think I can eat that. I’m thinking about being a vegetarian and Jim and Todd and me are leaving for Jessa’s party soon anyway,” Amy wrapped her arm around her belly and went back inside.
Sarah chopped up the drake and simmered him in a spicy curry sauce. She was very hungry and tired. The meat seemed completely different to Sarah than any meat she had eaten before; it was dangerous and potent. She didn’t like eating by herself. Part of her was afraid to eat the meat. What if it had been contaminated somehow, what if the duck had eaten something it shouldn’t have?
The simmering fowl steamed up the windows. Sarah poured herself a glass of wine, which made her cheeks turn red. She sat alone at her kitchen table. She dished herself up some chapathis, rice, curried vegetables and the breast of the duck. She took a bite and imagined the muscle clenching in her mouth. She peeled thin strings of tender meat back with her canines, then she held them in between her molars and bit down a little, letting the juices from the meat mix with saliva so the taste would reach every bud. When she was done, Sarah called a number she found on Craigslist.
The next day she came home with a cock.