This is the first poem in a series about a young couple who, inspired by John Seymour's book Self-Sufficiency (1976), learnt the hard way how to run a smallholding. It is especially hard for some of the animals involved.
For the first killing we left you there alone
my aunt and I. Took the children to a rural fair
that celebrated farming’s age of steam.
Thrashing machines, steam tractors. That sort of thing.
The billy kid you stunned, or tried to stun
with the six-pound mallet, was very hard to kill.
I didn’t really know what I was doing
but once I’d started, knew I couldn’t stop.
I think he was conscious when I cut his throat.
It was ‘culling’ with the laying hens.
After the first try, when you wrung a neck
so well the head unscrewed, you thought you’d use
the six-pound mallet for the hens as well.
I held their heads down on the chopping block
by the back shed door. You tried to aim
the hammer smartly. Sometimes you half-missed.
But for the cock who terrorised the children
we read up first on how to kill a goose:
broom handle over the neck, one’s feet astride,
and then a neat jerk upwards with its body.
It took the two of us, and didn’t work
the first time. Fourth, I think. Mallet again.
My love, how did we get this far stepped in?
You never had a hammer in your hand
until you married me. Manual tools
the mark of manual work, your father said,
and hid all his in a roll of blackened oilcloth
down with the coal. You his white-collar boy.
Now you are out all hours, stretching barbed wire
between fencing posts, hammering stobs in
with the twelve-pound fencing mallet. The six-pounder
you keep for work that’s close to home, jobs
that I can witness, be the helpmeet to.
from The Fat-Hen Field Hospital: Poems 1885-1992 (Loxwood Stoneleigh, 1993), © Catherine Byron 1993, used by permission of the author