I am in a mid-sized village in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, studying abroad to learn Spanish. In the middle of my three-week stay, I want to make dinner for my host family. My host mother Doña Margo gives me two options for transforming the gallina into pollo —a sharp twist or a swift and deep slice through the neck. She looks at my hands, reads their inexperience, and tells me to use a knife. The bird is tied by its feet to a branch of the lemon tree, dazed by the rush of blood to its head. The dog knows, waits, eyes fixed on the packed earth beneath the bird.
When I grip the hot neck between fingers and thumb as Doña Margo shows me, the chicken wakes, blinking and fluttering its wings. I am supposed to cut through in one motion and then back away because the bird might flap and spray blood even once technically dead. This is why the women break the necks instead of cutting them. But I am güera and my hands have no memories of chicken necks, so I position the knife to cut, and Doña Margo and the chicken look at me, and the dog looks at the earth under the lemon tree where blood will drip.
I squeeze the neck with my right hand and the knife with my left. Use the knife in your right hand, Doña Margo tells me, because this is cultural etiquette that all of the children know. But it is too late for me. My right hand is weak, a child’s hand that doesn’t know how to do anything. She says, With your left this time then. Why did I expect this creature to feel cold before it was even dead? I did not expect to feel our pulses mimic quickness; in response, my hands object even as they press the blade to break the skin. The cut is a little mouth, dripping lipstick red, and I have to make it deeper to kill the bird, but instead my hands drop the knife and my feet back away. The dog inches forward. Doña Margo walks to the flapping chicken; it is not death-flapping but life-fighting. She snatches the neck and slices it nearly off so the eyes go out and the toes curl up. Her hands know. The dog knows, too, and gleefully laps the drippings.
Pick two lemons while I wash my hands, says Doña Margo. Hundreds of yellow fruit and one bloody, feather-fruit. I wedge my feet left-on-top-of-right where the trunk splits y-shaped though there are plenty of ripe lemons within my reach from the ground. I pull two, three, six, fill my shirt. Suck the blood from a thorn prick and wonder why my hands betrayed me. I did want to kill the chicken on my own; I had been feeling so much like a child. Doña Margo comes back for the chicken. I pull another lemon, quick, hard, downward twist. I climb down from the tree, walk into the house behind her, and put all of the lemons on the table.
Doña Margo puts two aside. They are sweet, we can make juice from the rest of them. She pulls the chicken by the feet out of the pot of boiling water and lays it breast up on the table in front of me. Pull out the feathers and skin the feet. Not one by one, but handfuls of feathers, yanked in the direction of the shaft. The scaly grey foot-skin peels easily from the pink flesh. Cut off the feet and the head. Make a slice around the tail. Pull out everything. I curl my fingers into the viscera and pull, hard because I’m trying to make up for my weakness with the knife. Heart, guts, deflated lungs, esophagus, liver. All thrown to the eager dog, except the curious delicacy of egg-yolks still without shells. Empty body cathedral, rib beams. Rub the body with salt, then lemons to clean the meat. Lemon-juice-blood-rivulets sting the thorn prick on my finger and drip from the edge of the table. All that is left is clean white meat to be boiled into soup. While I am placing bowls and tortillas on the table, Doña Margo tells my host father how I killed and cleaned and cooked our lunch. This is the version of the story where my hands knew what they needed to do. Don Emilio smiles. You’re an expert, you can help us slaughter the pig tomorrow for the bautismo, he says. I finish more quickly than everyone else because I want to sit outside under the moon. Lady Macbeth parody, I scrub and scrub my fingernails, but they remain blood-moon crescents. The white moon rising is scornful. I sit with the dog and scratch behind his ears even though I can see the little fleas jumping in his fur. He opens his mouth, happy panting, full of blood and chicken guts–like my fingernails and the earth beneath the lemon tree. Above my head the lemons are waxy, blanched by moonlight. As I stare at them, they grow feathers and drip blood from their open beaks. I have never felt so hungry, but my arm will not reach, and my güera fingers will not grasp without a memory to guide the motion.
Photo Credit: Aadityakrishna Sathish