The standard procedure is, you touch their foreheads with an electric stunner, then hang them up with chains, inverted, and slash their necks. The way they kill cattle. It's hard to imagine it working very well—their heads bob around so much I can't see how you'd get a clean shot. Although if you did manage to stun them, it would be easy to cut the jugular, those things must be as long as jump ropes.
Anyway, it was beside the point on Kathy's farm, as she couldn't afford a stunner—two thousand for a used one, while Kath barely had enough to renew the subscription for the magazine they were advertised in. So "you'll find a way, honey bear, you'll find a way," is what she said to me on the drive out west, and at that point I'd already cashed in some of my retirement and lied about the fictional death of a fictional brother in order to get a hardship leave from the high school where I taught Spanish and health. Slaughtering a few birds didn't seem like much on top of that.
Surly, surly beasts they are. No surprise there. In the animal kingdom, it's always the half-cute, half-ugly ones that have difficult personalities—camels, mules, pugs. It's surprising they're still a species at all. You'd think over the years the murderous rage they engender would have caught up with them. I wonder if their main Darwinian advantage is that they're such big awkward things—no matter how bad you want to kill them, by the time you've figured out how to do it, you've settled down a little.
Kathy first told me about them in a Red Roof Inn off a Kansas City interstate. She showed me pamphlets and pie charts and something called a flow graph. It might have been impressive in an office building or someplace, but almost everything loses its authority in a Kansas City motel room, plus she wasn't wearing any pants.
Afterwards, I said, "Whoa, are you asking for money?"
"Not money, help."
"I don't know what kind of help I can give, sweet stuff. I don't believe I've ever even met an ostrich. I sure didn't know you could eat them."
"Well you can. I just showed you."
Mostly she'd shown me that a few thousand people in California ate them, and that some speculators thought the trend would spread eastward. She'd told me there were three times as many ostrich farms in Kansas as there had been just a year ago. I told her I had three times as many boobies as I had this morning, and she gave me a look that was all annoyance, like I was a kindergarten class laughing at a fart.
"Where'd you get the money?" I said.
"Oh, you don't want to know."
"You're probably right," I said, kind of ironically, but she nodded as if I'd made a wise decision. Kathy was the kind of girl who just stumbled into bizarre fortunes, nothing that set her up very well, just things that changed her life oddly and temporarily. She was the kind of girl who won pink Cadillacs in poker games, who got flown to Rio by dirty old men. And apparently she was the kind of girl who came into possession of an ostrich ranch outside of Goodland, Kansas, a six hour drive from where we were sitting on I-70.
I say all this like I knew her well, but I didn't. At that point, I'd known her for twenty-eight days. You can cram a lot of knowing into that span, but we hadn't done that. We'd been mostly on our own, working our jobs, living our lives. She might have been seeing other men. In those days, there had probably been fifty to sixty hours of actually me-and-Kathy contact. Enough to have some sex, to hear some stories, to tell some lies you'll have to straighten out later, to come to an unarticulated decision about the lengths you'll go to in order to keep this woman in your life.
Along with the ranch and the two dozen birds, Kath had inherited a young hippie named Deke who would work with me in the pens while she tended to the books and applied for Department of Agriculture grants. When I say he was a hippie I don't mean he wore tie-dyes and played bongos, I just mean he smelled bad and kept his eyes half-closed and wore a smile that said he was a little too pleased with how mellow he was. Also, he had long, unwashed hair that he continually tried to nurture into dread locks, but it never quite took. He didn't have the genes for it, he told me once. I got the sense this was one of the great disappointments of his life.
On the first day Deke showed me how to muck the stalls—the birds crap like horses—which turned out to be my main job, since feeding them was a complicated process. Deke mixed corn and seed and flax, tailoring the proportions for each bird, and often he had to coax them into eating, as if they were toddlers; he'd pretend to gobble a handful of meal himself or he'd spray the stuff with sugar water. It was sad to see, the way they took advantage of Deke. But that's the way with ostriches, you give them an inch and soon you're wiping their asses for them.
On my third day Deke asked if I wanted to see something and I said yes please. I wanted out of there in a bad way. The barn was dark and noisy and smelly, like the monkey house in a poorly funded zoo. I'd started wearing a wet bandana over my face and the night before I'd woken up four times to blow the dust and stink out of my nostrils. I kept thinking about how I was supposed to be in a basement classroom at Raymore High School, 320 miles to the west, talking about the pluperfect or
chlamydia. That didn't strike me as a very desirable place to be either, but if you were going to not be there, surely you could come up with a better alternative than this.
Deke told me to wait outside, and soon he came out with two birds, a female named Hettie and a male named Jake. He had them on string leashes. The birds weren't resisting, just jutting along like they do, like their bones have been taken out and put together in the wrong order.
"You're not going to believe this, mijo." Ever since I told him I taught Spanish, he'd called me mijo. It didn't make any sense, but I like having nicknames.
He wrestled the birds into position—he wasn't afraid to handle them, I'll give that to Deke—and soon had them both facing west. There was a short rise in the distance, and then nothing beyond that until you hit the Rocky Mountains. Each bird was tethered at the neck to a spool of kite string. Deke pulled a red firecracker out of his back pocket, the fat kind the janitors are occasionally finding in toilets at the high school. He lit it, dropped it to the ground, and when it exploded the birds shot off toward Colorado.
"Holy shit," I said.
"I know," said Deke, in the near-falsetto of the stoned. "Fucking incredible, yeah?"
"I had no idea."
"Fastest birds in the world. Almost as fast as quarter horses. They race them in the Middle East."
They'd gone over a hundred yards in the time it took us to have this conversation. Deke was fidgeting with the kite string now, trying to gauge the slack, so that it wouldn't snap when they reached the end. It worked with Hettie; she felt the tension and slowed. But the maneuver took too long, and by the time Deke turned to Jake's spool the extra string was almost gone. Then the line went slack. Jake kept on going, over the rise, with a few dozen feet of kite string hanging off his neck.
"Whoops," said Deke.
"Think she'll notice?" I said.
He didn't say anything, just stared off at Jake's ever-shrinking behind.
"Deke," I said a few times, until he looked at me. I raised my eyebrows in a way that shed responsibility, as if to say I was the sane one here, the one who couldn't possibly have released an ostrich onto the prairie. "Someone will find him, right?"
"Yeah, maybe," he said finally, with a self-conscious quality of awe in his voice. "There are farms that direction. Someone fixing an irrigator maybe."
"Or he might cross Route Nine. Someone could drive along and see him."
"Yeah, that too. Some dude just driving along, just happens to see Jake tearing at him out of nowhere."
"Yeah, yeah, that could happen."
"I'll tell you this," Deke said. "I'd give anything to be that dude."
She'd brought up the killing on the drive out west. That was when she told me about the stunners, and how she couldn't afford one, and how she was sure I'd figure something out. But she didn't bring it up again until after the first week. There were lots of intimate moments in that week, us getting to know each other just as much as we were getting to know all the other new stuff: the new bed, the new house, the new weather and accents you encounter in that part of the state. In Kansas City, we'd mostly made love in cars and motels, due to our complex roommate situations. And all of a sudden we're playing house in a western Kansas farmstead. It was mostly strange at night: brush your teeth, set the alarm, lay there wondering how to signify your desire, not being too upset if it's not reciprocated. Not that I lost interest—we had probably eight or nine good screws in that first week—I'm just saying it's different to sleep with a woman when you know that afterwards you'll lay beside her all night, that she'll smell your midnight farts.
On Tuesday during the second week, Kath visited the pens. We were hauling feed sacks, and she gave a cough to call attention to herself, like she'd caught us in the middle of doing something awkward.
"There's my hard-working boys."
"Yep," I said. "There's us."
"Feeding the birds?"
Deke said "Yup" very quickly, to stake the claim on the chore. Sometimes he was less easy-going than you'd expect a hippie to be, and he took every chance to point out that feeding was his job, and not even Kath had the right to offer advice about it.
"We need to talk about harvesting," Kath said. She dropped the "g" on "harvesting." Her accent got a little more country every day, as did her outfits—right now she had on jeans and a denim shirt with the sleeves cut off. In Kansas City, she wouldn't have worn it to get the mail.
"That's the word the books use. Call it what you want. But we got to get ten carcasses to Colby by Saturday. That's the deal. Louise and Ron-Ron we'll keep as breeders, they're the only ones who are up to it, according to the records."
Kath had an arrangement with a concern in Colby that would take delivery of the corpses, dress them, and store them in freezers until we found a distributor. She'd ordered another dozen live birds to be shipped out from Hays next Thursday. These ones were getting old, or hadn't been the reproducing type to begin with. Or maybe ostrich meat is only good when it's harvested at a certain age. I didn't know much.
"I've been thinking about those Colby people," I said. "They're going to be gutting them and filleting them and what-not, why don't they just do the killing too? It doesn't seem like much more to ask."
"Permits," she said. "You need a different kind of permit to kill animals on your property." It sounded true enough, but I could tell she didn't know it for sure.
"All right then," I said. "I guess Deke and I need to figure something out. You don't seem too keen on offering suggestions."
"Deke's taking the rest of the week off. He's a Buddhist."
"Oh. Is it some kind of Buddhist holiday?"
Deke laughed. He was squatting by the side of the barn, weeding out his little herb garden. He was always doing something like that, finding busy work when others were chatting or loafing. He didn't have an ounce of lazy in him, another reason it was hard to buy the hippie act.
"Something funny Deke?"
"We don't have holidays, Lester. I can't be in a place where animals are killed. I need to come back after purifying spirits have entered. It'll take three days, minimum."
"I've never heard that before, Deke. What kind of Buddhism is that?"
"The only kind, man," he said, under his breath, like he was talking to the basil.
"You agreed to do it, Lester," said Kath.
It was true, but I couldn't tell how that mattered. Back then, back when she said I'd find a way, everything was sunny and open-spaced, and only two hours earlier we'd performed reciprocal oral sex in a Salina motel. In the past week I'd spent more time with the ostriches than I had with her. I didn't like them much, but still, time spent together is hard to argue with. That favor of hers had put on weight.
"So how do I do it, Kath? You want me to do this, okay. But you got to tell me what you have in mind. You want me to drown the poor fuckers?"
"No Lester, that won't work. Everyone knows that."
"Shit, Lester. How complicated is it?"
Deke stood up, feeling either offended or morally compromised. He stomped off toward the farmhouse, where he had a room in the basement, with the stride and the expression of a teenager who's just been grounded.
"It's two thousand dollars down the tubes if they come out here and they don't have birds to collect. We have a contract."
She was looking off to the west, squinting, not selling it very hard, not bothering to look pretty or loving, not using any endearments. She said it for form's sake; it would have been embarrassing for me if she didn't at least pretend she had to argue me into it. But how did she know? Where does the arrogance come from, the kind it takes to ask a favor like that and know it'll be granted? Did she just assume she was pretty enough, or good enough in the sack, to haul me out to western Kansas and hand me this bizarre task and know I'd do it in the end? Or was it something particular she saw in me—a neediness, a possessiveness that practically begged her to give me such a challenge? A need to prove the lengths to which I would go for a gorgeous woman, for love, for something new in my life.
Last fall the school's drama kids performed Much Ado About Nothing. I don't remember the characters' names but I remember the kids who played them. In one scene Andrew Wynn, a popular black kid, declared his love for Lottie Jackson, a stunning little sophomore who had the gumption to try a British accent, even though it made her sound like something from the Muppets. Andrew told Lottie to send him on a mission to prove his love—anything, he said, absolutely anything. Right away she told him to kill his best friend. Right away Andrew said no. In fact he said, "not for the wide world." Those are the words I remember. But because Andrew Wynn is a pretty astute young thespian, and because Lottie looks the way she does, you could tell that no matter how good and true the refusal felt coming off his character's tongue—not for the wide world!—you also knew that he didn't have much choice in the end.
Glynnis would be first to go, no question about it. All ostriches are frustrating to look at, because of the way both halves of their bills naturally come together to create a constant little smirk; the expression is uncannily similar to the way certain of my students look when they're handed tardy slips. But Glynnis put a real attitude behind it, and you could never entirely convince yourself it was just the way evolution had decided to assemble her. If she could talk, I decided early on, she would sound exactly like the women from the school cafeteria, the ones who smoke cigarettes in the back hallway and dare you with their eyes to report them, the ones who, I'm convinced, have more than once spit into the taco meat out of pure spite. With people like the lunch ladies, and with animals like Glynnis, you can't help but blame them for their ugliness, to see a causal connection between their meanness and their hairy moles, their globby necks.
To be sure, all the birds were ornery. They all spit and kicked at me when I got near, and the racket in the barn was so constant and grating it was like they'd organized some sort of hissing schedule. Glynnis was the worst, though. Just full of hate. Often when I came around she couldn't decide whether to hiss or kick or spit or squawk, and she'd wind up doing all of it at once, which was such a dramatic display it scared or awed the others into silence. Glynnis was the kind of ostrich that other ostriches would admire, if they had the capacity.
None of this is to say I was eager to kill her. I thought about it rationally most of the time, in my moments away from the barn, as I watched the meager offerings from the Colby TV station with Kath leaned up against me, or during my long runs on the rural route, when I always aimed toward Colorado and returned a little disappointed that I hadn't seen Jake, the bird who'd broken from his string. In those moments I understood Glynnis was no more capable of considering my feelings than I was of laying a three-pound egg or digesting sand. It wasn't her fault. But one of them had to go first, and it wasn't a hard decision to make.
I woke up early on the first morning of Deke's vacation and began to gather the kind of things you might want to have handy if you planned to kill a person. In the farmhouse I collected a butcher knife, rat poison, and a Costco bottle of Tylenol with codeine. In the garage I found some rope and a baseball bat.
When I stomped into the barn, laden with weapons, the birds raised a chorus of screeching and hissing more intense than ever before. Animals know, of course, when you've got murder in the eye.
Glynnis shared a pen with Louise, the one who was going to be kept for breeding. When I opened the hatch door Louise turned to the corner and began pissing, while Glynnis bolted out of the opening and broke to the left. The barn had doors on both ends, and I'd made them secure, but for a while I wondered if she planned to crash on through. She pulled up just short of it, braking with a suddenness almost as surprising as her speed, and turned to me, cornered. I had the baseball bat cocked, the knife tucked into a belt loop, the bottle of codeine in my pocket, a snarl on my face. Out of instinct and fear I swung the bat and she dodged her shivering head—they tremble all the time, those birds, the way Katherine Hepburn did toward the end—but she dodged unluckily, and the bat connected.
Now there was blood on her face, rich and dark, just like ours, and she'd stopped moving, but she hadn't fallen. She stared straight ahead into nothing. It was unsettling, seeing her like that, placid and vacant, where before she'd always raised such a stink about her lot in life. I pushed the round bulk of her body to see what would happen. Nothing. She didn't resist, didn't fall. I pushed harder. She toppled onto her side, with her long puckered legs sticking straight out, but she wasn't dead.
I could have cut her throat. She was stunned exactly the way she was supposed to be, exactly the way the two thousand dollar stunners did it. I could even string her up with a chain, so that the blood could drain out and not soak the meat. The way they kill cattle. Then I could take a trip up and down the aisle, battering their brainless heads with ease and swagger. If I could kill Glynnis I could kill them all. How pleased Kathy would be, and how pleasingly unsettled, to find that I could do this for her, to learn that she had such a dangerous, efficient slayer of birds at her disposal.
But instead of cutting Glynnis, I grabbed her by the thighs and dragged her over to the drinking trough, which was wide and deep because it had to accommodate all of them. I lifted her round body—she made the noise that a sleeping child makes when it's picked up by its father, resisting with an endearing weakness—and I splashed her into the water. Then I tipped in the stereo that was on the tack ledge, a portable thing, the kind that used to be called a ghetto blaster. It hit the surface with a sinister sizzle. Yellow smoke belched out from the trough, as if I'd lit firecrackers there, and the wet black body of Glynnis shuddered with a new urgency, then was still.
The other birds began to squawk and hiss. They didn't like the smell, and neither did I. I unplugged the stereo and pulled it from the water by its cord. There was no shame in this, I thought. It was true I had been too squeamish, too cowardly, too childish to kill her the right way, but I had killed her nevertheless, and that was something. That was what I was supposed to do.
Only then did I realize the bird was probably ruined. Electrocution was not a proper way to slaughter animals. The flesh would be charred, the organs poisoned, or else there was just something unwholesome, unpalatable, about the way she had died. I wouldn't have wanted to eat her, I knew that. We would have to bury Glynnis now, I supposed, and of course it would be my job. I could picture the three of us standing over a burial mound in the back pasture, Deke chanting Zen funeral mantras, me standing solemn and sweaty, grave dirt sweat-stuck to my face. And Kath eyeing me the way she would from here on out, a look of exasperation and curiosity, a what-the-hell-was-he-thinking look but also a shade of pity in there, an acknowledgement of her responsibility for me. Her wish was my command. It was a big weight to carry, for both of us.
I hauled Glynnis out of the trough and laid her on the dusty ground. Wet and limp like that, she looked like an exaggerated version of a newly hatched bird—a sparrow, a robin—that had fallen out of its nest. The kind of thing your dog lays at your feet, thinking it's a present.
Did I have a future here? Would she kick me out after this, out of her bed, out of her barn? Perhaps. I had other options, ways to salvage some pride. I could drive back home in the Volvo, she wouldn't miss it much. First I could make a sign and tape it to Glynnis' carcass—Here's Your Dead Bird Kath or Zen This Deke! or Fried Chicken, Help Yourself!—to show I was my own man. What I wanted, though, was to stay and raise the birds with Kath and Deke and to never kill them or watch them be killed, to live in the farmhouse like a weird hippie threesome and oversee an exponentially expanding community of ostriches. We would have to build other barns, hire new workers, put up fences to prevent escape. We could have races, like they did in the Middle East. It was a pleasing scenario to me, although of course the birds aren't worth much if you don't kill them, so the dream was too unlikely, even for a dream, to sustain.
The reality was I had been on the ranch for ten days, and I hadn't done too well. From Kath's standpoint, maybe I wasn't a total mess. There had been some good tumbles in the bedroom, and I'd pulled off a very tricky tostada casserole recipe the night before. I'd made her laugh at least one time every day, although there was a kind of failure in the fact that I kept track. But if you considered things from the ostriches' perspective, if you thought about how they might regard me, then there wasn't much to show for my tenure. One bird dead at my feet, another sprinting toward Denver on the open prairie, ten more staring befuddled from their pens, waiting for my rough hands.