The Chicken Lady
I was new to Arizona and filled with amazement with every new experience. The scenery here alone was much different than what I was used to, being born and raised in Upstate New York. Here some of the yards were covered in a dusty brown sand with succulents and tropical trees to add a splash of green to the dry scenery. Dirt devils, like mini tornados made of sand, twirled across the road. A tumble weed as big as a small child bounced down the sidewalk. Visible heat waves rose from the asphalt like a hot frying pan. There were road signs warning of hefty fines for throwing cigarette butts out the windows of your car. We drove by a park in the middle of a rodeo where I saw a sea of cowboy hats and smelt the stench of manure. As we drove, people sped by on motor bikes without helmets, and seatbelts weren't required.
I was a young bride at the time that I was taken to a little house in Yuma, Arizona, to meet my new family. I met my husband's mother and two sisters. They were originally from Mexico, only a short drive away. His mother only spoke Spanish, and his two sisters spoke broken English. They were short with jolly faces. They spoke to each other as if I weren't there. I heard the word "weta" a lot, although at the time I didn't know it meant "white girl." My husband explained to me that they are proud people and at that moment I was the first white girl to enter the family.
Shortly after arriving, I excused myself from a conversation I could not understand and went out to the backyard to have a cigarette. In the enclosed, dusty backyard, there were barbed cactus and burly bushes growing among the patches of grass. A few teracotta pots sat along the broken stone patio, empty and abandoned. There were also two orange trees with plenty of fruit, and an old decaying stump overtaken by ants, sat in the center of the yard. A couple of odd chairs, freshly painted red and blue, sat next to the fence.
I planted my butt in the blue chair and lit up a cigarette. Not long after the first swirl of smoke left my lungs, I heard a rustling nearby. I was thinking giant snake, when out popped a chicken. For a hen she was quite beautiful. She strutted around the yard with her chest puffed out, proudly showing her beautiful sunset colors. She seemed to be very comfortable, and I began to think of her as the family pet. She appeared very well kept. Relieved it wasn't a lethal snake, I took a couple of satisfying puffs off my cigarette and sat back to enjoy watching her forage for food.
Then, from the side door I had just come out, a little old Mexican lady shuffled through the screen door, carrying a hatchet as she carefully handled a steaming pot of water. Her face as tan as the other family members but very weathered. A grey scarf covered up her bundle of grey hair. She was short and round, kind of reminded me of a garden gnome.
I greeted the woman in her native language, "Hola" being the only word I knew at the time. She gave me a wide smile that put a sparkle in her old eyes.
The old lady wobbled across the broken concrete patio and sat the pot next to the stump. Then quickly, with the hatchet still in her hand, she ran on her little legs after the chicken. A few times she came close to catching it, but just as she approached, it would dive in a different direction, and the woman's old body could not shift gears that quickly. However, the chicken had no problem at all, nor did it seem to mind that she was chasing it with a deadly weapon. The puffed-up chicken didn't see the danger that was right in front of her eyes.
I thought maybe the chicken was right and the old lady would never catch her, but just as I smothered my finished cigarette, the old lady caught the hen by the neck, surprisingly quickly. Not knowing what else to do with my cigarette butt, I put it in my pocket and stayed seated, with much curiosity. The confident bird was no longer bold, but very much surprised. She started assaulting the old lady with her wings. I didn't know whether I should go help the lady or laugh. Even though she was being battered by soft feathers, she seemed very pleased with her catch. She gave it a little shake and stuck out her tongue at it.
Then the aged woman strangled the chicken with both of her pudgy hands, wringing its neck all the way to the stump, which was not too far from where I sat. Feathers were stuck in her hair and decorated her dress. I had never seen a chicken killed before, but I had heard stories about how the decapitated chicken will run around after losing its head.
With one mighty swing of the woman's ax, the chicken lost its head. The slayer stepped back from the stump with the head in her hand like a prize. She watched me in amusement as the chicken's body then jumped off the stump and started bouncing around the yard. This made the old lady laugh. ALthough it was a jolly laugh, there was a little sinister chuckle at the end.
As the headless chicken ran by the lady, she quickly dropped the head and swooped the confused body into her arms. Sitting directly on the bloody stump with no regard for her faded dress, she plunged the bird's body into the steaming pot, her weathered hands seeming to tolerate such temperatures.
The woman lifted the bird from the pot and started to pluck out its feathers. She would pull out a feather, and the headless body would cluck. I did not expect to hear a bird with no head to cluck; that was not in the stories I had heard. But, sure enough, as more feathers came out, so did more clucks. The old lady gave me a toothless grin, creasing all the deep lines in her face.
I decided then that the show was over and wanted to leave before the chicken lady asked for help. I gave her an awkward wave and grin. The proper farewell could not be found at the moment I left her, with her tongue hanging out of her bunched lips as she ripped at the feathers of a bird I had once thought of as their pet.
Inside, I asked my husband about the old lady who had been outside committing chicken homicide. He didn't know what I was talking about. He asked his mother in Spanish, and she mumbled something back in Spanish. She must have said something bad, because she spat on the floor after the word left her lips. My husband said that there was no old lady in the backyard and changed the subject to the aroma in the kitchen.
He walked me over to the pot that had been boiling since we got there and said, "We are having caldo de pollo." He lifted the lid and simmering inside was a freshly plucked chicken. I could see the raised bumps on its grey skin where the feathers had been ripped from the flesh. Even though it did smell divine, covered in fresh herbs and spices, the sight of the stripped chicken did not match the tantalizing aroma that filled the house.
For some odd reason, I had lost my appetite. While the family feasted on the chicken carcass, I went back out for another cigarette and found that the yard was littered with feathers.