Posted by Jason Sizemore on Mar 16, 2012 in Apex Publications Blog: Matters of SF, Fantasy, and Horror, Free Fridays | 0 comments
Enjoy this free story from J.M. McDermott’s new collection Disintegration Visions from Apex Publications.
Story Preface by the Author
Sometimes I wonder how long it will be until we start eating each other again. The factory farming system will come around to it, eventually, as soon as there’s enough money to be made doing it, and there are people who would sell themselves if they could.
Morality isn’t for everyone. Some people just like a burger.
It’s good for you.
by J.M. McDermott
SHARON HAD GROWN UP IN A Turkey household. Once, her mother had branched out with honeyed ham, but it was uniformly considered a disaster among Sharon’s family, and after that, it was nothing but turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, and also for Christmas. Her mother was not a talented chef. At Thanksgiving, the fact that she was actually cooking instead of ordering out was special enough. The family was just fine without jamcoi. This was fine by Sharon’s mother. Sharon’s mother was intimidated by the jamcoi, and she had no desire to cook one instead of a turkey, even if the new bird was all the rage.
Sharon didn’t mind. She liked turkey, and had no real fondness for the endorphin-rich jamcoi meat that was always a bit too soft. Jamcoi gave her a slight headache if she ate too much of it. She claimed she had a slight allergy to get out of eating it at restaurants, though it was probably just that her body was not accustomed to the rich, buttery meat.
Sharon had hoped to go her entire adult, married life without cooking either a lobster or a jamcoi. She never told this to her husband, David, because it had never come up in conversation. It wasn’t an aversion quite on par with never having a ménage à trois, or even her aversion to nagging her husband for not separating the whites and the colors in the wash, though he knew they never quite came out as clean that way. Still, her aversion to jamcoi was something she knew in a deep place inside of her. The thing was that she didn’t like the idea of shoving something still alive into the terrible fires, to baste in its blood and flood its body with natural chemicals of pleasure. The whole thing seemed quite unpalatable to Sharon.
Her husband, of course, loved jamcoi. His family was strictly jamcoi. Every major holiday, as long as anyone could remember, they picked up the jamcoi that Mr. Crosswell—that’s her husband’s father—received as a gift from his employer, a prestigious banking firm in Manhattan. He brought it home from the grocery store still squawking. Mrs. Crosswell who had always seemed to be trapped in her own mother’s generation, back when women were homemakers and little else, cheerfully donned her apron and put her extensive black hair up and back and out of the way so as to keep the blood and gristle out of it.
Jamcois are generally already plucked of their feathers by most mainstream suppliers, but it is generally considered inferior in taste to the jamcoi that arrive with all their feathers intact. Mrs. Crosswell always preferred the finer jamcoi, with all their purple and gold feathers fluffed out in terror, because she had a taste for the finer things in life. She was a Manhattan socialite, and speaking with her on the phone was exhausting. Mrs. Crosswell used a pair of designer, gourmet jamcoi tongs made by hand in Italy to hold that fat, goofy bird by its stubby neck. She pulled the feathers out like husking a corn that tried to escape. The jamcoi squawked up a storm when it happened. The plucking had to hurt. Pain, of course, was the point of the procedure, and the way to prepare the meat in the ideal manner.
The trick to jamcoi was to get just the right amount of pain to flood its muscles with endorphins. It made the meat which would otherwise be tough as a shoe and gamey, soft as cheese with buttery overtones and a hint of the allspice seeds the birds ate all year long. Plucking the feathers by hand, with the bird’s neck grasped in tongs, was just the right recipe for pain for a discriminating diner. Most chefs preferred to do the beak and legs, too, before they cut the back of the bird’s head open to remove the bulk of the creature’s brain. Mrs. Crosswell, though, did just the beak, but not the legs. She was specific about it, and always made a point of it when talking about how to properly prepare a Crosswell jamcoi holiday bird. After she got the feathers stripped, she cleared out the downy feathers with a spare razor she had taken from her husband. The birds, gripped in tongs, were naked and squawking up a storm from all the pain. They struggled and struggled against the final embarrassment of the shaving, but there was nothing to be done for the creatures. Supper was supper, and some things just had to be done. That’s what Mrs. Crosswell said.
Anyway, it was all over for the bird soon enough, and the pain would no longer be a problem as anything but chemistry, when the upper half of the animal’s brain was thrown away with the feet. The gizzard, neck, and intestines would have to be removed after the jamcoi had completely died. No one wanted the bird to bleed out in a rush. People wanted the bird’s body to linger—to slowly fade off into death. Preferably the bird’s deep organs would finally fail moments before the bird was completely cooked.
The tongue was the trickiest bit. It was utterly inedible, like chewing on a tree root. Jamcoi could dig deep tunnels with their powerful tongues. If the tongue wasn’t cut properly, the shriveling exterior and boiling bodily fluids caused an explosion in the heat. Thick, foul tongue leaked all through the upper half of the bird, ruining everything. Its tongue was the hardest thing to get rid of.
Chopping off the jamcoi beak takes skill, muscle, and a bit of luck. People who are really good at it—who could hit it in one swift strike and get it all clean like a samurai sword—say that one should practice with coconuts.
They said that one should hold the coconut out in a pair of tongs, and shake at the coconut, so one could imagine the bird struggling and squawking in terrible pain. Then, they said one should swipe at the coconut from the bottom up. The top of the bird’s head will be too wild to get a clean strike. One has to go for the bottom, where the worst parts of the tongue have to be cut through clean, lest they spoil the meat. The tongue is a challenge because it curls up like a snail when the beak is shut. One must let the bird squawk in pain to throw tongue out of hiding for the clean, sweeping blow.
Mrs. Crosswell laughs and laughs when she tells the story of her first jamcoi, how she had mistakenly struck the beak from the top, and hacked off only part of it, and its tongue had flailed about like something out of a horror movie. She couldn’t get the tongue out at all, even when she struck from the bottom, like she was supposed to. She didn’t realize it was still in there, polluting the best parts of the bird when it burst. The cooked jamcoi came out with its thick tongue still partially intact. During dinner, what was left of it popped out like a silent squawk when her husband was carving the animal, right into the cranberry sauce. It was gross. Next time, Mrs. Crosswell spent weeks in advance practicing on coconuts. And, because she was Mrs. Crosswell, it was coconut cake, coconut cream pie, and coconut shrimp until finally, the first thing Mr. Crosswell said at the perfectly chopped and cooked jamcoi on Thanksgiving was, Thank God it’s not another damn coconut!
They were jamcoi people. They had no problem cooking something while its heart was still beating, until the lungs ran out of air in the sweltering, sealed oven until the brainless bird body slumps into a hot, hot death, struggling with the stumps that used to be its legs against the lashes that hold it to the meat rack, pumping blood and pumping blood from its little heart until not even the heat could keep the blood from congealing.
The Crosswells had even done it the right way once, as the finest chefs on TV did it, leaving the bird completely alive the whole time, and never cutting out the top of the brain, allowing the animal to suffer as much as possible. Mrs. Crosswell listened to the jamcoi struggling and struggling while she was working in the kitchen on the rest of the holiday meal—yams, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, etc. The bird even managed to work loose from one of the lashes with the stump where it used to have a beak. Mrs. Crosswell wanted to try this because the time before she had accidentally cut out too much brain, and had gotten the lumpy stuff on the bottom—the medulla oblongata—and the bird actually died before it could be cooked. Everyone agreed that was the second-worst Thanksgiving jamcoi, ever, after the one whose tongue had burst.
Sharon heard all the stories about jamcoi from her husband’s family, but couldn’t share in them. Sharon had only had jamcoi from deli counters, and didn’t get it very much. It tasted a little like pickles, to her, and she didn’t like pickles, and it usually had a soft consistency, like cheese, which was not what she liked in her meats.
Sharon had never thought anything of jamcoi since the wedding. David had insisted on giving it as an option, and about half the guests preferred to have the jamcoi to the beef, and it cost about the same and the caterer did everything. Since then, Sharon had managed to live a jamcoi-free lifestyle.
All this changed, of course, when Mrs. Deborah Crosswell, probably drunk, called her son from a hotel lobby somewhere in New York. David then called his wife at work.
—Hey, Sharon. Is it all right if my folks come over here for Thanksgiving? My mom’s sick of snow. I think she was drunk.
—It’s snowing in New York?
—Sounds magical. They get snow. We get freezing rain.
—Is it all right if they come down for Thanksgiving?
—Of course it’s all right. You didn’t tell them you need my permission, did you, because that’s crazy. You don’t need to ask my permission to have your parents over for dinner. I love your parents.
—Okay, babe. I just thought I’d ask first because… Well, you know…
—We’re jamcoi people. I know you hate it.
—Oh. I’ll get some tongs on the way home.
Between hanging up the phone and driving to the store, Sharon thought more about jamcoi than she had in the entire time since her wedding. When she got to the store, all the tongs looked the same.
—Hey, babe, I’m at the store buying tongs.
—So… They all look the same. There’s six different kinds of tongs, and they all look the same.
—’Tis the season for jamcoi tongs.
—’Tis. So… What am I supposed to be looking for here? There’s one that costs thirty dollars more and it looks like it might hold the feet, too. Some of them have rubber handles, but they cost more. Is it worth it?
—Mom has never, ever been scratched. That’s not worth twenty bucks. The rubber handles might be good.
—Great. Now there’s only four, identical-looking tongs…
—Get the mid-range one. What’s the mid-range one?
—14.95, plus tax.
—You know we can just tell them you’re allergic. You do get headaches from it, don’t you?
—Your parents want jamcoi, David. I can cook it. I’ll eat enough to be polite and then I’ll fill up on pie. You’re making pie, by the way.
—I am the king of all pies. I’ll help, though. I’ve seen mom do jamcoi forever.
When Sharon got home from the store, David was still at work. She held the tongs in the air, testing their weight, and imagined what it must be like to be a small child in a home where an animal is mutilated and roasted alive upon every holiday, and grew up to be a nice, normal person, like David. Then her husband came home and together they googled tips on how to cook jamcoi. It was not an easy bird, but it wasn’t as daunting as people thought it was, because it wasn’t a violent bird that struggled much. Most chefs assumed that when the endorphins struck, it didn’t feel much of anything, and the trick was keeping it in pain steadily so it wouldn’t feel anything until it died. One had to be more careful after the notorious cleaning ceremonies, with all the raw bird parts. Also, jamcoi could be fully cooked on the outside, and then undercooked inside. It could have salmonella. Salmonella could kill you. The little scratches it might sneak in with its goofy feet were no worse than running an arm across small rose thorns. Some hydrogen peroxide and you’re fine.
Mrs. Crosswell called and talked with Sharon when news reached New York of the imminent jamcoi.
—Dah-ling, I was hoping to talk to you. You know, I forgot to call you and ask if you wanted me to bring anything.
—Wine would be great. We’ve got all the food covered.
—Do you need tongs? I’ve got these amazing cast iron tongs. Heavy as sin, but no bird’s getting loose on me.
—I’ve got tongs. Don’t worry, Mom.
Sharon hadn’t been married to David for long enough to be completely comfortable calling her that. It came out forced. Mrs. Crosswell was polite enough to start talking into the pause, to ride over the awkward moment as if it hadn’t came out so strange.
—Don’t worry! It’ll be marvelous. You’ll love it. It’s so easy once you get the hang of it. Jamcoi is amazing. Since you’ve got the food covered, I’m going to bring some of our private wines with us. You don’t have a cellar in that little house of yours, do you? We have amazing wines. A nice Riesling will really enhance the bird. We have a Riesling that’s fifteen years old. It tastes like silk. Oh, Mr. Crosswell says hello. He’s doing a crossword puzzle. He’s been at it for hours, the poor dear. Mr. Crosswell, I think it’s high time you did something useful with your day, don’t you? Sometimes the puzzles must be victorious or it would mean nothing to conquer one… I don’t know, dear; go for a walk or something. Get up. Sorry, Sharon, what were we talking about?
—Right, I have this ten year old Riesling. Tastes like butter. We can’t wait to see you. The snow is terrible. It’s all over everything. It’s too early in the year to have this much snow.
—I like snow.
—You don’t have to live with it hanging all over everything, all wet and slushy. It’s a wonderful visitor, but a terrible roommate.
—New York must be magical, with all the Christmas decorations and the snow…
—Of course, but you get used to it. One needs a break from magic. Has David taught you how to pick a jamcoi at the market?
—We’ve downloaded a bunch of stuff from Betty Crocker…
—That pancake peddler knows nothing. Listen, when you’re picking a jamcoi, look for the most yellow. Make sure their beak isn’t at all red or bloody. You don’t want a bleeder. Get an active one, if you can, with lots of strong muscles. They’ll be strugglers, but they’ll taste the best. If you get them a few days in advance, be sure to get a feeding tub. You can just leave it in the garage. It isn’t cold down there, is it? God, I hope not. Maybe a space heater if it’s cold.
The conversation went on for a long time. At the end, Sharon still relied on the jamcoi guide she got from Betty Crocker’s website. The guide told her to buy a voucher weeks in advance, so she wouldn’t have to worry about a jamcoi being there for her at the last minute, and to specify on the voucher if she wanted feathers or not. The vouchers were all bought at the cash register, right at check out, available right after Halloween.
When the time came, the store kept the jamcoi outside, in rows of stacked-up cages. They were in the spot where the Halloween pumpkins were kept a month ago, and Christmas trees would be in a few days. During the regular year, a dozen jamcoi, with feathers and without, were usually shoved next to the meat aisle, in a big plastic cage. They looked plaintively out from their cage. Children ran over to tap the plastic and make the birds squawk and squonk in protest. The caged birds that still had their feathers preened themselves constantly, and the bottoms of their cages were full of purple and gold feathers, all over the newspaper that caught their poop. In the parking lot, with all the seasonal jamcoi piled up like pumpkins by the door, the feathers accumulated in the parking lot like autumnal leaves. The birds were loud enough to drown out the Christmas music that was playing a few days too early through the shopping complex’s loudspeakers.
David said he would be coming to help her pick out the bird, but he called to say he couldn’t get out of work on time. He had to get his budget approved before the holiday break chased management off for the long weekend. Sharon told him that was fine, and that it couldn’t be so hard to get one of these goddamn birds. People did it every year. For goodness’ sake, Mrs. Crosswell did it every year, in high heels and real pearls, in a crowded Manhattan gourmet boutique. If you could do it in high heels and pearls in Manhattan, it couldn’t be that hard in the suburbs.
The birds, seen up close, all had tiny black eyes and purple and gold feathers. Looking at them, Sharon was reminded of how birds had evolved from dinosaurs. Their beaks were shaped somewhat like an oversized macaw’s beak except all in a muddy sort of brownish-black color. They had surprisingly long legs for such heavy birds. They had tiny little flightless wings like deformed growths. Their squawk sounded like something between a goose and a car horn. They were loud. All together, they squawked and squawked like an angry traffic jam. They shook their heads and jumped around their cages to look at everyone. They bit at the cages, bloodying their beaks. They nipped at anything shoved into their cages. Kids with unobservant parents shoved bits of candy and French fry through the bars of the cages. You weren’t supposed to feed them anything like that. It made them sick. Around the cages, some of the birds had been very sick. The whole affair stank like a chicken farm right next to the grocery store. Sharon marveled that anyone would eat those disgusting-smelling creatures.
Sharon wandered from bird to bird. She leaned over to see what their beaks looked like, because Mrs. Crosswell had said to find one without too much blood. The ones that were active were chewing on the bars, and it made their beaks bloody. Streaks of blood ran down their beaks, and down the cage bars. This was a contradiction in the advice that Sharon had gotten. Sharon spent perhaps too long considering the jamcoi. By the time she made her circuit of the cages, the cage walls had shrunk by at least one layer and a whole new set of victims were available for sale.
She picked one. It had mostly yellow feathers with plenty of purple near the tips. It didn’t have a very bloody beak, as it was sort of active, so it was somewhere in between Mrs. Crosswell’s advice and the reality of the scene before Sharon. No one said anything so it must have been an acceptable choice of jamcoi. It squawked a little, nervously, when Sharon picked up the cage. At the cash register next to the cages, a grocery store clerk moved the jamcoi into a sturdy cardboard box and taped it shut. The clerk was very friendly. He had a pair of tongs, and he was an expert at them. He slipped them under the cage’s lid, with one hand holding the cage door open only enough to allow the tongs through. He didn’t open the cage all the way until he had captured the bird by its neck. It seemed a silly precaution, but wise. Some of the birds were more active than others, and maybe this prevented escape.
Sharon placed the jamcoi box on the passenger’s seat. It tapped its beak against the cardboard. It squawked a little. Then, it seemed to fall asleep.
At home, David had already started cooking desserts. He had a pumpkin pie in the oven, and homemade applesauce cooking on the stove. It smelled like Thanksgiving was supposed to smell—like cinnamon apples and pumpkin. Soon, it would smell like jamcoi.
—Oh, you got it? Can I see it?
—Get the tongs.
—Just open the box. He won’t jump out.
—Seriously, I won’t have jamcoi running around my kitchen squawking and pooping on things. These birds are nasty. You should have seen the store. Get the tongs.
—Relax, we do this every year.
—’We’ don’t. Your mom does. Have you ever plucked a jamcoi, David?
—Well… No, but it won’t jump out at us.
—Leave it in the box unless you have tongs. I command it; it shall be so. The applesauce smells good.
—Thanks. When do you want to start the jamcoi?
—Any minute now.
—Tomorrow. We should do it in the morning. Did you get a food packet?
—I think it came with one. It’s already inside with one.
—It doesn’t really matter. It won’t starve if it goes hungry one night. And, it increases the suffering. At this point, anything that increases suffering will make it taste better. We could poke it with a stick through the air holes if we wanted. We could pluck out a feather at a time in slow Chinese water torture. We could make it listen to Enya.
—No. It’s its last night on earth. We will not make it listen to Enya. We should be kind to it. It deserves a final meal. Do you think it’ll eat applesauce?
Sharon got a small spoon out and dipped it into the simmering apple sauce.
—I’m okay with the applesauce, but don’t give it any of my pie. Pie is people food. Pie is special.
Sharon tried a bit of the applesauce, to see if it was worthy of a doomed creature’s last meal.
—It’s too hot. Give it a minute. What time’s your mother coming?
—I think they’ll be here by midnight.
—Traffic’s a bitch. Maybe they’ll stop and get a hotel if they get sick of traffic.
The jamcoi squawked like it had been poked with something hot. Sharon and David looked down at it. They both laughed a little. It wasn’t actually funny, but the squawk had been so out of the blue, and they had to laugh about it. Because they were both nervous about it. Because his mother was coming. Because they had to do terrible things to this bird.
The kitchen timer went off. The pie was done. David pulled it out of the oven, and placed it on top of the fridge to cool, with a cloth over it.
Sharon picked up the box. She took out the tongs.
—Fuck it, babe. Let’s do this. Get me a trash bag, put away everything—pies and applesauce and stuff—in another room, where it’s nice and safe when there might be a goose on the loose.
—Do you want to check the instructions first?
—No. Pie. Sauce. Trash bag. Feathers coming. Be like the wind.
She slid the tongs underneath the lid. She carefully searched out what felt like the head. She rummaged around the head, searching for the puny neck. She carefully closed the tongs around it, gently. She felt the pressure of the bird in the tongs. They fit tight. They were supposed to be tight. The jamcoi squonked louder than it had ever squonked before. It struggled against the tongs, but it wasn’t as strong as Sharon or the tongs.
David clapped his hands.
—You got it!
Sharon opened the top of the box with her free hand, and pulled. She had the tongs around the neck on her first try. The bird felt heavier in the air than it had in the box. Its neck, pulled out, was longer than it had appeared in the cage. At this angle, it resembled an overweight cockatoo more than a turkey, with its parrot-like beak and bright colors. The bird was trembling. Its feathers puffed out in fear. Already, Sharon could see the thin, black down feathers underneath the big yellow and purple outer layers.
—There she is.
—You think it’s a girl?
—Of course it’s a girl. David, don’t be silly. There were prettier ones for sale, with bigger tails. Boys always have more plumage.
—Human women always have more plumage.
—This is a bird, David. Girls are always the plain ones, hiding in the background with the eggs while the men get eaten.
The bird squawked and squonked. It struggled a little against the tongs. It looked all around it as best it could with its beady black eyes.
—Right. First we get the feathers. David, where’s the trash bag?
David rummaged around until he found just the right bag. Sharon looked her victim in the single eye that peered up at her, black and wide and wet, like a tadpole egg.
—I read in a book, once, about a boy who ate a cockroach to prove his love.
—That’s disgusting, Sharon. Don’t make me eat a cockroach.
—Look at what I’m about to do for you, David. I’m about to mutilate this poor animal. To impress your parents. To prove my love.
David didn’t say anything.
Sharon reached up to the creature and pulled a feather. It pulled its feet up close to its body. It tried to reach its toes up to the mouth of the jamcoi tongs, with no success. It couldn’t possibly pull its feet past its fat body to its neck, but it tried. Sharon pulled another feather, and another. She did this over and over again, and was surprised how easy it was to hurt this defenseless, struggling animal.
She put the creature back in the box. She said she needed to rest her arm.
—Give me a minute.
—I can hold it for you.
—You can pluck some feathers, too, you know. Don’t wait for me to personally invite you.
David took his turn at the jamcoi, removing feathers from its wings until the creature’s constant flapping made it hard to get them all.
Then, it was Sharon’s turn again. Everything was going fine. Jamcoi was surprisingly easy. It had such a reputation as a difficult creature to cook, to those uninitiated in its mysteries, but now it was no challenge at all to pluck away the feathers.
The creature peed itself when it finally lost its tail feathers. They came off in one quick yank, and the creature pooped. Sharon laughed and jumped back, holding the defecating animal over the trash bag so it could poop among its lost feathers. It squawked a little, but had long ago stopped struggling. It could do nothing. The couple took turns handing the bird to each other when their arm tired of holding the ten-pound animal in the air like that, but it wasn’t so hard, really. It didn’t take that long. When it was done, it looked like a dead goose from the neck down, and like a kind of over-sized parrot in the face. All the purple and gold plumage was gone, in a pile of trash like raked leaves. They used only a little bit of water to lubricate the hand razor to get the worst of the down feathers.
Now it was time to get the beak, the notoriously difficult part, with the most pain.
—Do you want me to do the beak?
—I’m on it. I’m all over this like your mother on gin. Stand back, or lose a finger.
The creature looked in terror at the blade. It breathed deep, terrible breaths in awful pain. It must have been so cold without all those feathers. They hadn’t bothered to shave all the down. After it was cooked, it had to be skinned, and it was widely considered unnecessary to get the down completely as long as you knew there was a very small fire risk. All the little cuts and scrapes were fine, as long as they weren’t deep enough to slice a vein.
The animal did the avian equivalent of whimpering.
Sharon wanted to comfort the creature. She knew it was a bad idea to give it any sort of humanization or mercy. It was food, nothing more. Treating it like a cute animal—even though it was actually quite cute now that it had been shed of its clothes and looked so gentle and vulnerable—was a dangerous path that led to remorse, and a feeling of guilt that would spoil her dinner. The creature had been bred for this, bought and paid for, and would soon lose the ability to process its own pain once they got the beak removed and cut off the top of its brain. The sooner, the better, to ease its suffering, if one really thought about it.
Sharon held out her hand.
—You want me to do it?
David placed the knife handle in her palm.
—She’s going to struggle a lot. You’ve got to tighten the tongs.
—Oh, right… Can you tighten the tongs? My hands are full.
David reached out to the crank near Sharon’s hands. The makers of the tongs kept the crank far away from the beak. A frightened beak could nab a finger.
Sharon pulled back to swing. She angled the bird in the tightened tongs so she could hit it at just the right angle. From the side, she had a perfect view into the miserable, frightened creatures face. Its beak parted—a symptom of the tightened tongs that choked it a little, made its jaw gape open after more air.
The little legs that had given up long ago started back up again.
It looked up at Sharon with horror—real horror. Sharon imagined the kind of fear she’d feel if a dinosaur stood over her, its jaws open.
—Sorry, little bird…
—I’m so sorry…
—Do it! Do it! Do it!
She closed her eyes. She peeked out of the side of one of her eyes so she could see where she was swinging. She screamed.
She swung. She swung as hard as she could. She felt the stiff beak crack under her strike. She felt the bird moving against the blade jammed inside of its beak. She hadn’t even gotten halfway through the bottom bill.
The bird’s naked, stubby wings flapped and flapped. Blood welled up, oozing into the trash.
Sharon tried to pull the blade out. It was stuck. The bird screamed. Not a squawk, not a squonk, but a real scream like the kind a child would scream if someone had tried to cut the kid’s lips off with a knife. The bird kept screaming.
Sharon screamed, too.
David grabbed at the blade and the bird’s bottom bill, trying to push the blade loose.
Sharon struggled with the butcher knife.
—It wasn’t sharp enough! I should have sharpened it more.
The creature kept screaming. The neighbors were going to call the police if this kept up.
Blood was all over the blade, now. It should have lubricated things, but it didn’t lubricate anything. It just made it harder to get the blade out. The bird screamed. Its thick tongue pushed against the butcher knife. Sharon felt the tongue’s movements in her palm from the blade’s handle.
David got a new knife from the drawer—the one he used to slice brisket when he used the smoker. David swung down hard on the top of the beak. Bits of blood sprayed up from the cut. The blood got all over his face and shirt like red glitter. He got his knife out and swung again, hard.
The bird kept screaming.
—Not the beak! Get the head!
David kept hacking at the beak.
—Don’t worry, babe! It’s going to be fine!
David hacked again, and got the upper bill. It clattered on the floor like a wooden bowl.
The butcher knife slid out in a burst of blood. Sharon pulled it loose and held it in her hand, amazed she hadn’t dropped the bird. She held onto the tongs for dear life. Her arm was so tired. All of a sudden, her arm wanted to give up. She wanted to stop.
She wanted the bird to stop screaming. It sounded human, like how peacocks always sound like they’re crying for help and cockatiels are always trying to shout for joy and parrots are always talking to themselves in mirrors. She just wanted the bird to stop screaming.
She closed her eyes. She went straight up, as hard as she could. The rugged, thick, heavy tongue of the bird that could dig as well as a shovel in its natural conditions gave way like wet bamboo. Blood oozed out, black and thick from the stump. The bottom bill fell into the trash bag like it was supposed to. The screaming stopped.
One last strike would make everything better. Sharon tried to tell David to do it, but she couldn’t speak. She shook her head. She was crying. She dropped the knife. She covered her eyes, and wanted to let go of the tongs, but she forced herself to hold onto the tongs.
David was quick. He grabbed the tongs, where they wrapped around the bird’s neck, and clamped them shut. He jammed the knife right into the eye of the bird, into its brain. It wasn’t as elegant as what Mrs. Crosswell did every year, like most experience jamcoi chefs, chopping off the top of the bird’s head with one clean slice against a cutting board, but it did the job.
David took over.
Sharon was shaking too hard. She sat at the kitchen table, afraid to look. Her husband cleaned up the mess with they had made of the bird with a carving knife. He chopped off the feet, first one then the other, with loud blows that made Sharon jump. David wrapped the still-breathing bird in grape leaves and olive oil to seal its wounds and keep it alive as long as possible in the oven. He positioned it carefully on the wire rack over a deep pan, where all these juices would fall. They were supposed to keep the juices for stuffings and gravies and then frozen in the fridge for a year’s worth of jamcoi stock.
David washed the blood from his head. He took the trash out.
—Don’t worry, babe. They say the endorphins flood its system. They say that the nerve endings go dull. They say it can’t feel anything. It never really felt anything. It screams because the endorphins feel so good.
—Don’t ever say that again, David. Please, don’t ever say that to me again.
—Thanks for doing this for us. It’ll be just like my mother used to make. When we’re eating dinner, we’ll all laugh about this. It’ll be our jamcoi story. We’ll tell it years from now and laugh and laugh and laugh.
—I love you, too, David. I love you, too. Oh, god I love you, too…
But it wasn’t a happy profession of love that she made. She was falling into tears. She fell into her folded arms like she was reminding herself that she loves her man.
David touched her arm. She yanked away from him.
—Okay. I’m sorry. I’m going to clean the bathrooms. They’ll be here soon.
David poured her a glass of wine. Then, he left to clean the bathrooms before his parents could arrive. He had forgotten about the blood in the kitchen, where little flecks of it had splattered.
Sharon was alone in the kitchen. The wine in front of her was red and thick. He shouldn’t have poured red wine when there was jamcoi blood all over the kitchen. Sharon was there, alone with the oven, and the bird that was still alive inside the oven. Its little heart was still beating. It was still feeling pain. The bird had lost the ability to know any sort of feeling, with its brain hacked out—but Sharon knew that the jamcoi was really and truly feeling a terrible, terrible pain that would last for a very long time before a slow, vegetative death.
David came in and checked on the bird from time to time. He opened the oven, and basted the fading bird in her own bloody juices. He kept telling Sharon how wonderful the jamcoi smelled, in the oven. It was struggling against the lashes with its stumpy legs like a reflex, though an hour had passed. If she looked really close, she could even see its heart pumping furiously inside of the skin that had melted into something like wet paper.
The jamcoi’s heart looked like a little tea cup, from one of those toy tea sets, of deep purple and red plastics. If she used her imagination, she could see a little girl holding it up like a teacup, with all her stuffed animals around her and the valentine-colored tea set of jamcoi hearts spread out for them in a feast, and the little girl would pour blood-gravy from David’s heirloom porcelain gravy boat into the little teacup heart for her grandmother, David’s mother, and then for herself. Together, they would lift the teacup hearts to their lips, take a sip and smile. The little imaginary girl was so cute with the gravy smear over her little lip, like a strawberry milk mustache.
They sell little stuffed jamcois at toy stores. Some people like jamcoi so much they eat them year round. Some people have jamcoi decorations for their seasonal gatherings, with jamcoi serving platters and jamcoi painted on porcelain plates.
Sharon knew she’d have to do this again, with another jamcoi. Maybe not next year, but maybe the year after and maybe the year after that.
She was alone with it, in the kitchen, and she pressed her ear against the hot over door to see if she could hear any sound—any sign of life.
J.M. McDermott graduated from the University of Houston in 2002 with a BA in Creative Writing. He resides in Decatur, Georgia with an assortment of empty coffee cups, overflowing bookshelves, and crazy schemes. He is author of the Dogsland Trilogy from Nightshade Press with the first book, Never Knew Another, released in 2011. In 2010, Apex Publications reprinted his genre-bending and Crawford Award-nominated fantasy novel Last Dragon. Visit J.M. on the web at http://jmmcdermott.blogspot.com/.