I met another writer, a much more prolific writer than I, over coffee yesterday morning. She asked whether I would attend the upcoming read-around next Monday. I said I would if I did not have to go back to Houston before then to tend to my brother, who might be released from the hospital in the coming days. She asked whether I had written something that I might read. No, I have not, I said.
The conversation then turned to her conversation with the minister of the Unitarian Universalist church. She liked the man, she said, and were she not such a dedicated lifelong Lutheran, she would join our church. She likes its liberal bent. But, she suggested, she is addicted to the ceremony and traditions and routines of her church; it would be hard for her to leave such a powerful draw. She asked whether I grew up with any such routines and traditions and ceremonies. I said I did. I lied. And then I described my childhood Sunday morning traditions.
We’d wake up early on Sunday mornings and Pappa sent me out to get a chicken from the coop. He’d always tell me, “Get a big’un, boy! We gotta have lots of feathers and plenty of fat!” Well, I’d obey him and get the biggest rooster I could find. When I’d grab it by its feet and yank it off the ground it squawked like crazy, like it knew something awful was about to happen. And it was.
I’d bring that big chicken over to Pappa and he’d tie it with wire by its feet to a long metal pole. He’s set that pole in a metal pipe in the ground and bang on the pole. That chicken was way up high in the air, squawking and making one hell of a racket. Then, Pappa built a big old bonfire out of scrub cedar logs and pieces of pine he’d used to build sheds and such for neighbors. When that fire reached its peak, he’d call out to Mama, ‘Sugar, come on out here, we’re about to do the Sunday service!’ And Mamma would run out the door, all smiles and fancy duds, and stand next to Pappa and me. Pappa would grab that long pole with the chicken tied to the top and start singing.
“Hallelujah, big man in the sky, hallelujah!
We got a chicken here just for you and it’s gonna die, hallelujah,
This birds’ feathers gonna burn and stink, we’ll
throw its guts in the kitchen sink,
oh big man in the sky we’ve got a bird for you, we do!”
After Pappa sang that verse, the rest of us sang it again while Pappa poked that pole in the air so that chicken was right in the hottest part of the bonfire flames. Its feather commenced to burn and that chicken made one hell of a racket as it burned to death up there on that pole. Mamma clapped and stomped her feet as that bird died a fiery death. Looking back, it seems horribly cruel to have done such a thing, but back then it seemed just as natural as can be. We didn’t know any better ’cause that’s what we was taught. I say “we” ’cause there was three of us. I was the oldest by four years, and then there was my little brother, Gomer, and my baby sister, Gladys. As far as we was concerned, setting chicken alight on a Sunday morning was as natural as waking up and going out in the underbrush for a pee. It’s just the way things were.
Once that chicken’s feathers were totally burned off and its skin was crispy and black, Pappa would take that pole and put the chicken down on a big slab of slate off near the barn. When it was cool enough, he’d uncoil the wire that tied its feet to the pole and then he’d tear off its skin, gut the bird, and put its innards in a bowl. Mama took the bowl of innards and threw them in the kitchen sink, which was already filled with water. While the innards soaked, she and Pappa would tear the meat off the chicken’s bones and put it in a stew pot that Mama had already filled with potatoes and carrots and mustard greens and cabbage. In less than an hour, Mama called us to the table. When we were all sitting, Pappa commenced singing again.
“Hallelujah, big man in the sky, hallelujah!
Like I told you that chicken did die, hallelujah,
We gonna eat this bird in your name, and we thank you just the same,
oh big man in the sky this bird’s for you, hallelujah!”
All that singing about a big man in the sky seemed natural back then. It’s just the way things were. It weren’t no different than getting up and putting on your clothes. It was what you’d been taught to do and you never thought no different. You never questioned why you had to wear clothes, you just did it. Same thing with setting the chicken afire and singing to a big man in the sky. It was what you did in my house.
I was eleven years old when I saw my first bible. Baker Street, a boy my age who lived about a mile up the road, showed it to me. He said his folks went to a church and read out of that book. He said they sang in church and danced and made quite a thing of praying to Jesus. Seemed to me that his Jesus was like my big man in the sky. You sang and prayed and made a fuss over him because that’s just what you did. That’s what you were taught by your parents. And that’s what they were taught by theirs.
When I told Baker Street about our tradition with the chicken, he got pale and looked like he was gonna be sick. I asked if they had any traditions like ours. He thought a little bit about it and said, “Well, we take babies and hold them under water and then, when they come up out of the water, we celebrate their baptism, that’s what we call it. It’s like they have just been born and now they’re part of the church.” It sounded to me like they were trying to drown babies. If they survived the drowning, they got to be part of the larger church family. It wasn’t really all that different from our chicken burning. Our chickens got to be part of our Sunday meal celebration. I figured the birds were in pain for a minute, but then they weren’t. Same with the babies. They probably panicked when they shoved them in the water, but it didn’t last and everything was fine.
Well, this unfinished story will remain unfinished for the time being. I spoke to my niece last night and she said it’s possible my brother will be released from the hospital much sooner than I think is appropriate. So, I may be on my way to Houston much sooner than I anticipated.