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  • Writer's picturesamuel butchart


I stood by the door listening for signs of higher intelligence, but the world was unspeaking, except for the crickets, invisible somewhere in the grass near my feet, and the snickering of a goat from the barn. I shivered and drew my cigarette closer to me — the nights were cold in the foothills of the mountains even at the height of summer.

Lou and I suddenly found ourselves here one chilly October afternoon after we had both wrung our bank accounts dry. To make matters worse, we had both overstayed our visas by who knows how many months and were now what the French government would call sans-papiers.

Lou had the idea to make some money labouring. It was harvest season, he told me, and apparently there was plenty of work in the Provence Alps. Fine, I thought. I could hardly spurn an opportunity to pick grapes all day under the sun and drink wine all evening under the blue Mediterranean sky. But it turned out that Lou, who spoke English about as well as a parakeet, meant something rather different by 'harvest season.'

Finally I could hear the rattle of a diesel engine away in the distance. ‘Here he comes,’ I called to Lou, who was falling asleep on the kitchen table. His long, dirty hair was drooping over the plate of chicken bones that had earlier been our dinner. The rattle grew suddenly louder, as if somewhere in the hills a pack-a-day smoker were noisily clearing his lungs.

‘Come on, mate,’ I said. Lou groaned and peeled himself from the table with exaggerated effort. We stepped out of the caravan into the blue darkness, climbed onto the camion and braced ourselves as the farmer drove us up the hill. Being the impractical urbanite that I am, I had never done something like this before, so was preparing to embarrass myself. But I wanted to do it. In fact, I thought I probably ought to do it. Not that it mattered what I wanted or thought I ought to do. I had to do it.

I looked across at Lou, who was patiently tolerating the rocking and pitching of the camion. The whites of his eyes shone at me through the night like cool distant moons. Lou was from Ontario and often went hunting with his brothers. He was more used to this kind of thing than I was. His quietude just then seemed to increase my own sense of vigilance as we cruised up that bumpy hill in the dark.

The camion approached the barn and stopped alongside an electric fence. Lou jumped out and I began passing the cages down to him. After making a frenzied racket up front for several moments, the farmer climbed down, let the door thump behind him and strode away into the darkness to turn off the electricity. He called out to us — the voice was surprisingly faint, as if it had been subdued by the darkness itself — and we began transporting the cages over the fence. The farmer rematerialized, joined me and Lou and handed us a pair of head torches. I pulled mine down over my forehead and lit it — I was instantly blinded by a brilliant red light; my eyes snapped shut painfully. I quickly adjusted the torch, then raised my eyebrows at the farmer.

‘Le rouge, c’est bien. Comme ça ils restent tranquilles,’ he said, grabbing a cage and tucking it under his arm.

The farmer lit his own head torch, and together we were three, red-eyed cyclopes prowling under the cover of night. He unbolted the barn door and stepped inside. The back of him was silhouetted momentarily against a bottomless well of seething red. I could hear the soft peeping and trilling of the chickens beyond. Then he disappeared into the barn and the door went black. I turned to Lou — his large head was suspended there in the blackness as if without a body. The head grinned at me knowingly,

‘You’ve perked up,’ I said.

He looked completely mad under the light of my head torch, baring his pointy fangs and flashing his one red eye, like ever-watchful Polyphemus. He took a cage and followed the farmer inside. I stood for a minute watching the doorway, my photoreceptors still rehabilitating themselves after the nuclear flash that had crippled my eyes.

As I stepped into the barn, the heady odour of wet straw and chicken shit assaulted my nostrils. The air inside was hot, and somehow both dry and wet at the same time. My eyes struggled to adjust in the granular haze and the peculiar, redscale shades of light and dark. It was as though I had just arrived on some far-flung exoplanet with a red dwarf for a sun. I peered through the unearthly atmosphere and could just make out the farmer swooping, diving, pouncing, sometimes grappling two or three birds at a time, then stuffing them through the hatch of a cage.

Petits imbéciles,’ I heard him growl, as he flew past me with a bird dangling from his fist.

I eventually spotted Lou in the opposite corner of the barn. I noticed that he lacked the naturalness, the versatility, the hard-boiled self-reliance of the farmer. He was stalking a crowd of them huddled and fidgeting against the barn wall. They seemed to me pretty suspicious of Lou, in spite of the alleged tranquilising powers of the red torch. As he edged closer, one at the end sprung to its feet and made a run for it. He snatched up the bird awkwardly and tried to insert it through the hatch of the cage, but it kept snagging at the leg or the wing, and it took three or four attempts before it finally went in. Lou was alright pointing a rifle at a moose, I supposed, but handling these birds was another thing, what with their strange, shapeless bodies, with their slippery feathers, with their sinewy dinosaur legs kicking and thrashing wildly, dangerously.

I scanned the floor of the barn, wondering where to begin, but found that I couldn’t move. I couldn’t help myself from reflecting on the nature of my situation: I was to be judge, juror, and executioner, so to speak, to these dumb unsuspecting creatures. But that didn’t really tell me much. What were my responsibilities? I knew my role now was to issue the death sentence to a few dozen of these jailbirds, who stood lined up before me, twitching and squawking, looking utterly bamboozled the way all chickens do. But how to issue them? How to choose? Did I distribute the sentences randomly? Or was I supposed to know which were the bad birds? Could I be trusted to pick out the bad ones from the line up? No, I didn’t think so. I didn’t think there were really good and bad birds anyway, and frankly I didn’t think such questions were very reasonable under the circumstances. In order to start I would have to stop thinking. I would have to be unmethodical, improvisational, opportunistic, like Lou and the farmer. This was only the round-up, the madness. The method would come tomorrow at the abattoir. It didn’t matter, I told myself. They were all condemned anyway — we’d be back tomorrow night for the rest.

I felt something brush against my leg and glanced down at the floor.

‘You’ll do.’

We filled six cages, lugged them on to the camion, then climbed in and let the farmer drive us down the hill. Lou and I jumped out and said bonne nuit to the farmer, who waved impatiently at us. Lou went directly into the caravan, but I stayed and watched the farmer park the camion a little way down the road and then stride off to the house. Then all was quiet, except for the crickets, who were still holding a clandestine meeting somewhere in the grass, and the snickering goat, who obviously thought there was something very funny about all of this.

I stood out there for some time in the blue darkness, in the unspeaking night, trying to picture the abattoir. I imagined a cold white light, a kind of chilling wetness in the air, slippery floors and dripping surfaces, hooks and blades, and other sinister-looking tools whose agendas I would surely discover tomorrow morning.

(How wrong I would turn out to be about the abattoir — it was only a converted garage in the house of the farmer's grandfather. A very boutique operation. Abattoir. The French really doesn't do it justice, does it? It makes it sound darkly sexy. The English, on the other hand … the English gets it exactly right with slaughterhouse. To utter it aloud sends palpitations down the spine. The word possesses that uncanny quality of precision, of immediacy, of being exactly like the thing that it signifies, that all compound words do in the Germanic languages.)

I followed Lou into the caravan and crawled into bed. The way he was snoring — deeply, recklessly — he was going to hurt himself. I looked through the window above my bed and thought about the birds locked up on the camion. I pictured them there, squashed in beside and on top of each other, talons and beaks jammed between the bars of the cages — little, tantalising slivers of freedom. All through the night I could hear in my dreams their nervous clucking over the sound of Lou’s snoring.

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