Life

Feast of the Sacrifice

For the first time this holiday season, I killed dinner.

By Kai Nagata 25 Dec 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Kai Nagata is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous articles in The Tyee here.

Slaughtering turkeys, it turns out, can make you feel like a bit of a psychopath. That's because to do it well requires that the animal cooperate. So here I am, humming a reassuring ditty, cradling a shivering 35-pound feathered dinosaur like a baby. Walking past the plucking machine, I shield his eyes with my free hand. Then I roll the bird upside down and lower him head-first into a steel cone strapped to a pine tree.

I coax his head through the opening at the bottom and tell him to relax his neck. After a moment, he does. Then I open my knife and slash his throat. A fan of hot blood sprays up both my arms to the elbow as he kicks and thrashes against the cone. It pours out of him, bright red and bubbly, gurgles into a puddle at the base of the tree as I drop the knife and take hold of his scaly, shit-stained legs, saying aloud, "it's okay. It's okay, buddy. Let go. It's okay."

A month later, I'm walking quietly up a forest service road above Pemberton. The sun has just dipped behind the mountains, so I decide I'll go as far as the next switchback and then turn around for dinner. I'm not thinking about anything in particular when my feet stop on the gravel. Eyes scanning the bushes ahead, I recognize the silhouette of two ears, then the line of a deer's back. She's looking down the hill toward me, swivelling her ears.

Slowly, I reach across my body with my left hand and unshoulder my rifle. Sliding the safety catch forward with my thumb, I lift the scope to my eye. The doe steps forward. I squeeze the trigger. The shot is very, very loud. The deer crouches, then leaps forward, diving off the road and out of sight, crashing through the bushes. I hold that pose for 15 minutes, ears ringing, then load another bullet, pee on the ground, and dig out my headlamp.

Back on our friends' farm in the Okanagan, black storm clouds are swirling above the lake. The wind begins to lift the tarp we've stretched over the butchering station. Looking over at the fenced-in vegetable garden, I see beady eyes peering through holes the birds have pecked in the plastic sheet. Our hosts had put up a curtain, to spare the turkeys the sight of their siblings' naked bodies being gutted and tied in bags. Now it's too late. The ones left in the garden are agitated.

I rinse the blood off my hands with cold water from a garden hose, then sharpen my knife and go get another bird. My sister and I kill five, six, seven in a row, laying them on the grass, until the whole flock is dead. Each one dies differently. None of them want to go. One I cut too deeply and her head pops clean off, eyes blinking at me in panic as the body goes into convulsions. I kneel and hold my hands over her eyes, for her benefit or mine I'm not sure.

Red snow

On the road where I shot the deer, I walk up to the spot where she was standing. I look back. I realize it's only 30 yards to where I pulled the trigger. Sure enough, there's blood and hair on the bushes and snow. I kneel and pick up a spongy pink chunk of flesh. It's lung tissue, blown clear out of the body. I feel a wash of relief, knowing the shot landed where it should have.

Down the hill, I find a depression where she laid or fell. The snow is soaked with blood. A few yards further I find a streak of red, then slide marks, then suddenly the deer. Head back, eyes glowing, legs out, very warm. When I roll her over I hear a wet sucking sound, like an accordion full of blood. I slit open her belly, pull out the hot, greasy intestines, put the heart and liver in my pack, then drag the carcass back to camp on a rope. That night when I peel the skin off, the forensics confirm a clean shot through both lungs, the bullet punching baseball-sized holes through both sets of ribs and out the other side.

As we get ready for our family dinner this Christmas, I wonder which is better: to kill a domestic animal or a wild one for food? I don't know what that deer's life was like, but she got to roam the woods and I know her death was quick. Since then she's fed dozens of people, been worked into candles, hide, even a friend's regalia. The turkeys had a good life too: kept warm with heat lamps, protected from predators, fed every day from human hands. And when it came time to die, the same hands held the knife.

Either way, if you choose to eat meat, an animal's life must be sacrificed. This year I got to find out what it's like not to outsource the process. It's an experience I recommend. Merry Christmas.  [Tyee]

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