Was it hard? I asked, the first time you killed a chicken? She held a just-dead bird in her hands, pulling feathers from its back.
Sí, sí, por supuesto, she said, It was hard. I was seventeen, still living in Mexico and working for a man who could be cruel. We stood at a deep sink outside an Alabama farmhouse. I sealed a freezer bag of gizzards and kidneys, wrote the date in marker across the slick plastic. She was the sole employee on the farm where I was volunteering. We had known each other for three weeks. A few more and I’d be back on the wind-whipped hill in Minnesota where there was a college with statues of Swedish kings. She had daughters my age.
Cleaving one leg from the body, then the other, she passed me the limbs. With a knife I scraped the rough scales from the smooth skin.
Were you scared, that first time? I asked, thinking how this bird had struggled into death, how its body hung upside down and twitched, how I had turned away and then back again.
Terrified, she said. My mother was sick, my father dead, my brothers and sisters hungry. If I got it wrong, the man wouldn’t pay.
Claro, I said, removing the claws from the feet. As if I understood. As if we shared the same history with hunger. Feathers clung to blood on her gloved hands. She sliced off the ears.
So he won’t have to listen, she joked. We laughed. She severed the neck from the body, passed it to me, explained how to clean it.
Que? I said, struggling to translate. Más lento, por favor. She slowed down. She tried again and I listened.
What did you whisper in his ear, before he died? I asked.
What? she said, Say it once more. I looked back on my sentence, conjugating susurrar, considering the difference between to whisper and a whisper. I rephrased the question. She smiled and shook her head, unsure of what I was trying to say.
Oh, it’s nothing, I said, Never mind. We turned back to heads and feet, silent.
That was how we shared the stories of our lives: in broken pieces, fits and starts. She spoke of crossed borders and I recalled stamped passports. She described the village of her past and I thought of the hometown in my present. She calmed the chickens with a knife in one hand, and I imagined a barnyard story, where roosters were little men with beards and red cravats.
Ahh, she said, turning to face me. You were asking what I said, just before?
Sí, I said. In the bird’s ear.
Discúlpame, she replied.
Discúlpame, I repeated.
Was that the way to ask forgiveness for a grave offense or a slight one? She handed me new feet, and I waited to remember as the scales slid away from the skin.