I was beginning to feel light headed, trying not to inhale too deeply, taking short, quick breaths through my mouth so that I wouldn’t have to smell that awful smell of chicken shit and bodies and feathers and grain long left soggy beneath all those cracked and hopping feet. We were walking behind him, my giant of a father picking up the limping ones, the ones with spotty feathers, the ones who had stopped eating, chirping, moving altogether. He would take it, between his thumb and first two fingers and snap their necks. It was the motion of a finger snap but with life and neck and feather in the space between. It didn’t make any noise - no chirp or crack or blood or finale exhale.
I kept looking down, breathing shallow and short. I picked up one of the limping ones, the ones who would either die there on that floor or die between my father’s fingers. I cradled it, cupped it in my tiny hands and whispered hello. It wasn’t soft. It was wet and felt like the tennis ball my dog loved to sit and chew and chew and chew. It smelled so bad. I looked close, my small fingers searching its chest, searching for a tiny heartbeat in my palm. I could see its tiny, gray-green eyelids slowly lowering and barely rising again over its beady black eyes. I wondered if I could save it. But should it be this one? I looked around and saw another one shivering despite the ninety degree heat during that Alabama summer; then another one who looked like it had a broken wing, dragging it through the dirt as it tried to make it towards the dozen dented metal pie pans serving as water troughs. It kept getting knocked and toppled by the other ones the stronger ones the bigger ones hopping and pushing towards the water. It didn’t stop trying, as it got knocked a few inches back, to the left, closer then further away from quenching its thirst. The more I looked around, the more wounded ones I saw. A shallow sea of piss-colored dust-colored sand-colored feathers bobbing and pulsing around. I became overwhelmed. I whimpered goodbye, put the limping one down, turned, and left. I couldn’t help but kicking them, there was no place to set my dirty white-ked feet. At every opening where I tried to set my feet, in an instant soggy puffs would rush filling the space. I just needed to leave needed to get out needed to breathe fresh air. I couldn’t save them all. My chest ached. My head pounded. I felt so useless. I cried as I opened the metal door.
I didn’t follow my father and sister to the second chicken house, the house where the chicks who were strong enough to survive their adolescence, their molting, and their conditions to make it to an even more crowded house, with less water and more food trampled on the ground, and more pecking and more shed feathers. I didn’t see what my sister later told me about. I didn’t want to have the image of my father grabbing the sick ones by their feet and smashing their heads against the support beam, breaking their stronger necks, even sick, they were too strong for my fathers fingers, stronger than the small ones’ necks he could break with a snap. I didn’t want to see that. I didn’t want to know that. I didn’t want to smell the weaker smell of feed and sick and feathers and death on the wind that I had tried to keep out of my nostrils as it floated over the field and into our yard and house and bedroom and sheets and hair.