It was a perfect meal.
Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, fresh-from-the-garden green beans with melted butter, right-off-the-stalk corn on the cob, homemade wheat bread, and apple pie for dessert. Hmmm.
Martha and me have been cooking together for well nigh over forty years now. Married young by today’s standards, we’ve stuck together through thick and thin. Good, home cooked meals have helped us along when precious little else did.
This particular meal made me more grateful than ever for her presence and comfort. I’ve become a stranger in this world. If it weren’t for Martha, I’d have given up.
They were a young couple, thirty-something, wearing tailored clothes and toting along the designated two kids, girls, seven and ten. The whole family exuded bubbly charm while freely sprinkling their opinions over pretty much everything. Martha and I don’t entertain often, but Jeffery labored as a freelance writer for some kind of on-line food forum. He’d heard about our humble, country-style life and was looking for a story. I figured, why not? What harm could be done? Martha tells me I’m clueless. Guess she’s right.
We’re not Amish; we just live close to the land. A fair sized garden, chickens, bees, and a milk cow keep us plenty busy. Since the kids grew up and away, we don’t need much.
Jeffery’s wife, Celeste, steered her husband into the kitchen with little effort. The kids trailed along behind. Celeste “oohed and aahed” over the hanging herbs, while Jeffery, with wide eyes, took in our native scene, mouth hanging open, like a man encountering the back woods for the first time. He glanced at Celeste nearly every time he spoke. Asking permission, I suppose. Celeste seemed inclined to allow him a modicum of freedom, even in the wilds of rural Illinois.
Martha spread the table in grand style. Everyone dug in with relish. Well, almost everyone. The seven year old touched and fingered and squished her way across the landscape of her plate. The ten year old, a plumper version of Celeste, had such no inhibitions about the provender. Soon, a stack of clean bones lay on one side while a second slice of apple pie lay on the other.
Before long, Jeffery pushed back his demolished plate, wiped his lips, and leaned in with a gleaming smile.
“So, how do you do it?” His happy, glazed expression begged more than his words.
I smiled. Martha, gathering a few of the dishes, suppressed a proud smile. I leaned back, glad to have an interested audience. Few people care to listen to an old man’s success stories.
“Well, Martha, she raises ’em. We feed ’em well and put them on fresh grass at the first opportunity. When they’re fattened out, we call in our grandkids, and the whole family gets involved. The eldest boy, he gets the ax, while the—”
A strangled gasp alerted me to trouble. Celeste’s hand darted up protectively near the ten year old. A spiked glare informed Jeffery of some tender concern. The ten year old had nearly consumed her pie. Unaware and completely unconcerned.
Celeste’s voice quivered with the dramatic moment. “I haven’t told them…that you killed your chickens.”
My mind froze. My gaze rolled over to Martha who stood with the potato dish in one arm, waiting, I suppose, for something that made sense.
Jeffery stiffened, his eyes staring straight ahead, like a man about to be shot.
It was up to me. “Yes, we generally kill our chickens before we eat them.”
Celeste’s hand rose higher, anguish marring her features. Her voice lowered in desperation. “But she doesn’t know you kill them.”
I swallowed. Yes, I’d swung the ax on numerous occasions, and I taught my grandsons how to do the job quickly and efficiently. I had never felt accused by that knowledge before.
“It has to be done. Food has to be killed—”
“But they’re living beings…like us.”
I sighed and folded my hands in prayer. There was no delicate way to put this. “Don’t think so. You’re talking with us and digesting them.”
I guess, I’m not surprised that the dinner came to a quick end at that point. Can’t say I was sorry, either.
Am I committing an atrocity when I swing my ax? Is Martha a butcher when she plucks, peels, and chops apples for pie? Strange world we live in now. What will those girls feel when they discover that their bellies are full of murdered food? Hard to live with yourself when you think like that.
After the dishes were washed and put away, Martha and I sat in the living room by the wood stove. I reached for her hand. She is such a comfort. An honest comfort. Even after a murdered meal.