Killing geese is not awesome

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You know what? I’m not a huge fan of Sundays. They’re the province of hangovers and the looming dread of an impending Monday. It’s the day I’m on my own with the kiddos. Not that I mind, but it does mean having to pretend to be Mr. Domestic for eight or so hours, which usually involves being asked why the hell didn’t you [sweep|mop|fold|cook|feed the kids|buy groceries|clean the counter|pick up that damn coffee cup] today? This Sunday isn’t going to be different, but it’s less awesome than usual.

Instead of crawling out of bed at 9:30, just in time to see my wife off to work and nod blearily at the list of the day’s chores that I will not get to, I was blasted out of bed to the tune of: “Dad get up, Alfie has a problem and mom needs your help.” When mom needs dad’s help with an animal it means major injury. For those not acquainted with the life of a farmer, major injury translates into the urgent need to butcher an animal. I’m not going to get into the details of what was wrong with the goose, except that there was blood and no remedy. In these cases, it becomes a matter of allowing the animal to slowly bleed to death and possibly be killed by his flock or making it quick and clean. The second option allows the possibility of salvaging meat – some ailments preclude consumption, but not this one.

So, at 8:27 on this Sunday morning, I was standing outside in a gentle breeze, the sort of gentle breeze only Alaska can deliver, an eye-watering breath of frigid air from the 9th circle of hell, looking at a doomed goose. I’m not a fan of this goose. He hisses at me and goads the flock into action like a hoard of angry vikings in my presence. To everyone else in the house, he was the favorite, and there were tears. When the decision to butcher him was made, you might imagine that I was pleased to be rid of the bastard, but no, not so much.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did not actually kill the goose. Those honors went to my wife. She picked him up, brought him to the killing cone and made the final cut. I just served as tactical and moral support. It was a subdued affair. The goose didn’t struggle, and he went quick. That said, I still feel bad. Not because I’ve still got to actually do the work of butchering, which I do, but because killing is a hard thing to do.

I wrote a blog post about this some months ago, perhaps even last year at this time, but it’s on my mind again, so here I am. Some folks, avid hunters, non-backyard farmers, and sociopaths, may shrug and say it’s not that hard. Perhaps there’s truth in that, but not for very many of us. The majority of those of us who are lucky enough to be able to roll into a grocery store and pick up food that no longer resembles the animal it came from, have never killed anything larger than a spider. So when we do, we feel it. It’s an adrenaline rush that leaves you feeling a little shaky and sick – add to that sadness if this is an animal you raised. It’s something to keep in mind when your newly minted fantasy hero makes his first kill. As he watches his victim fall to the ground where there will be blood and jerking and the sound of gurgling or screaming, your hero will be feeling it.

photo credit: crime-scene-murder-weapon.jpg via photopin (license)

Thinking about the act of killing

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Before I start this blog, I want you to know it may be disturbing, and might even be slightly offensive. So, if you’re not familiar with hunting or the farming life, you might skip this one.

I had to kill a duck last week. Perhaps you might be asking why? Well, there is a point when enough of an animal’s insides are on the outside that death is inevitable, and though not incapacitated, or in a state of irreparable pain, the end is in sight -and will likely be a drawn-out and painful ordeal. Furthermore, I’m a pragmatic person. We had originally gotten the duck to eat, and even though we had changed our mind, once it became apparent the duck was facing a deadly affliction, we concluded the best thing to do was end the situation soon, and salvage some of the meat.

Have you ever had to kill anything? Even for something you intend to eat, unless you do it professionally, it’s not an easy thing to do. I’m not even talking about killing a human, I’ve never been in such a position and I hope that this is never a topic I even become remotely knowledgeable about. There is no nice way of ending an animal’s life. With skill and a sure hand, you can do it reasonably easily -make it as quick and complete as possible, but the act is necessarily violent and final. I find that when I’m hunting, the identification and trigger pulling is compressed into just a handful of seconds. It turns to instinct. There is no thinking about it, just doing. If your shot placement is good, and hopefully it is, the animal succumbs quickly. A dead rabbit or fish or grouse is easy to deal with. At that point you’re handling something more recognizable as food than as an animal.

The story gets more complicated when it’s an animal you know. Say a duck or chicken you have raised from a chick for example. You’re not simply catching sight of an animal and shooting it. No, you are picking it up, and deliberately ending it’s life with your own two hands. It is a very stressful thing to do. For me, it’s stressful because I want the end to be quick and humane. Butchering our chickens and ducks is something I do not look forward to. The act of killing them makes me feel vaguely ill. Sure it passes in the span of a few moments before it’s time to get down to business, but I still feel it. Every time. It’s not at all like the movies where you see single gunshot ending it before the person/animal hits the ground. No, it’s not like that. If you can sever just the right part of the spine, of any creature, everything seizes and it’s over. That said, most of us don’t have have such a sure hand. Most other methods result in thrashing and a struggle for survival, even though it’s over.

Now, with that in mind. Imagine being put into a position of killing another human being. I’m going to assume you’re not a psychopath who enjoys such things. Let’s, instead, assume you are in a fight, any kind of fight, where it is your life or an enemy’s life at stake. How would you feel? More precisely, how should your character feel? Unless s/he is a psychopath, s/he is going to be feeling the flight/fight response rather keenly, likely in the form of an intense adrenaline rush. Once the threat has been lifted, they are going to feel slightly shaky and vaguely ill. This is partly the after-effects of the adrenaline, but it’s still a physical response. In a long drawn-out battle, your character probably won’t have time to stop and think about each kill. It’s the sort of thing that happens after the fact -once the air has cleared and the danger has lifted.

I think the point I’m trying to make is that very often you read about epic battles and mighty blows dealt to ugly foes, and yet you rarely see what it actually feels like when you kill something. Even for something as inconsequential as a chicken, it can be a very singular adrenaline rush. Your protagonist might be a farmer and butchering chickens isn’t much of a problem, but being so intimate with the death of another human being at close range is going to have an effect on that person. Considering that your protagonist, if following a typical fantasy arc, is probably not a well seasoned warrior, this is going to have a dramatic effect on him/her – even when they didn’t cause the death directly, and even when the death was necessary for their own survival.

So. When you have your character, perhaps a fighting noob, off a bad-guy, think about that adrenaline rush, the shaking of hands, the vaguely ill feeling. It’s not much to add to a story, but it’s authentic, and adds something to your character.


 

photo credit: crime-scene-murder-weapon.jpg via photopin (license)