We have more than twenty chickens in our backyard. Our compound is huge and we allot almost a third of it for the chickens. We have a net fence tied from our east side of the compound to the west, and the covered part was where all the chickens are left to roam, lay eggs, and eat. My father is never into cockfights and the chickens are actually there for the family’s entertainment—or something else to keep us busy.
The hens do not lay eggs regularly, and sometimes they get rotten before they even hatch because the hens are too lazy to even sit on them every day. We cannot sell their eggs, even the good ones, because they are never good enough as the eggs sold in the market place. The eggs are either allowed to hatch to new chicks or, sometimes when we forget to include eggs on the grocery list, our chickens’ eggs end up in the frying pan or in the refrigerator egg compartment.
We never have income generated from having these chickens around but when I notice that my parents goes to the chicken house first thing in the morning to feed them, I feel the importance of having the chickens with us. They are sort of chores my parents look forward to. And even if they do not smile or dance while they feed the chickens, I know it makes them happy to do it twice or thrice a day.
When I am at home, I would be feeding them, too. The best feeling is whenever they hear the kitchen screen door bang shut. Because they know (or I think they know) that they are going to be fed. They all gather quickly by their coop fence noisily waiting for the grace. They all cackle together and follow me whichever direction I go. It is a good thing, once in a while, to feel that someone or something excitedly waits for my arrival, even if it is not my presence they want but what I brought with me.
I scoop a handful of cracked corn from the huge green cellophane bag and fling the corn grains far in their coop. They scamper away to where they thought the grains of the corn land and come pecking on the grains. Sometimes I try to imagine them getting full and satisfied from all the grains I have thrown to them but they are never full. I could fling all the grains inside the cellophane bag to their house but they would still be waiting for more.
My mother comes home from work at five in the afternoon and the first thing she asks us, after she has changed into house clothes, is always, “Napatuka na ang manok, Jen? Kar?”
Most of the time, the answer would be a resounding “Opo, Nay. Tapos na.”
Who would ever forget feeding the chickens when it is always almost the same time as cooking rice for dinner? My mother always reminds us to feed the chickens before the sun sets because by then they would have flown up to the tree branches to sleep.
“Malabo na ‘yang mata nila ‘pag alas sais na. Makakita na lang ‘yan sila ulit ‘pag nakaipot na tapos matulog na din sa taas ng puno. Kaya maaga pa lang, patukain niyo na ha.”
My mother used to live in a farm with her parents and siblings. She has a lot of knowledge about farm animals more than I could ever expect from an office woman like her. She knows the difference between the sound of a hen wanting to lay an egg and the sound of a hen who just laid an egg. She knows when to keep an abandoned egg inside the basket and wait for the hen to sit on it, or when to pick and cook it because the hen would not come back to the basket anymore. Seven eggs inside the basket always meant that the hen had been laying eggs for a week. “Kaisa lang ‘yan sila sa isang araw mangitlog.”
With this entire knowledge my mother has about chickens, I sometimes wonder how much she knows about us, about me. Does my mother know how I feel by just listening to the sound of my tears? I wonder. It was with my mother that I learned to hold back. I mastered the art of holding back my tears as much as I can and as much as the situations require me to.
When I was a little girl, I had a huge eating and appetite problem. I had difficulties of chewing and swallowing. For minutes I would be chewing on a spoonful of my breakfast until it become tasteless. It became a hard pill to swallow. Eating for me then was the worst part of the day. My sisters got pissed off with me in the morning because they were always late for school. My mother always got mad at me because I just could not finish my breakfast almost every morning. There were times when she would shout at me to open my mouth so she could literally push the tasteless food down my throat. It felt tragic having to be forced to swallow something you just could not even chew anymore. “Kahit ang mga uod marunong magkain. Instinct ‘yan sa tao at sa hayop. Bakit ikaw hindi ka marunong?” At an early age then, I realized how much a burden I was especially to my mother.
On special occasions, or when I come home for summer from Davao, she would ask my father or brother for the fattest chicken we have. She prepares a big wok of water to boil, and as she waits for the water to boil, she would grab the poor squawking chicken by the neck.
I would walk inside the house unable to watch as my mother wound the neck of the chicken. When the squawking is done, the only sound I hear is the clanking of knives and plates outside. I feel like going out to watch her perform her craft. By now the chicken, which had been walking our yard a few minutes ago, has its eyes closed, blood gushing out its neck.
“’Nung una kayo nagkatay ng manok ‘nung bata pa kayo, nay, wala kayo natakot o naawa?”
“Naawa eh, siyempre. Pero dapat hindi ka man magpadala sa emosyon mo.”
She dips the lifeless chicken into the boiling water and takes it out again. With her left hand holding the legs together, she removes the feathers of the chicken by her bare right hand. It is the safest time to help her because the chicken looks helpless, motionless, dead. I volunteer to help her, to pluck all the feathers from the chicken.
After all the feathers have been removed, my mother proceeds to cutting the chickens to pieces. She cuts the long neck off the body and throws the head away. She creates a huge opening from where the neck used to be down to the legs. She opens the body of the chicken with her bare hands holding the rib cage as if it were a book. She gently opens it for a bedtime story. But instead of words and pictures, there are different sizes and shapes of internal organs, all in their perfect and proper places.
She hastily removes the intestine then sets it aside. She is extra careful with removing the liver because beside it is the gall bladder which would ruin the whole meal when accidentally pinched or broken.
I notice her taking out the gizzard from the chicken. She knows it is the part of the chicken I love the most. Gizzards look weird. They look like stout pinkish balls that seem like to blow off any minute because they have too much inside. My mother slaps it with the side of a huge kitchen knife before opening it. She cuts the sides and opens the gizzard as if it were a clamshell. But instead of a precious white pearl embedded inside, there is a lot of dark dirt inside. They look to me as “premature” chicken shit.
She sets the thoroughly washed gizzard and liver aside and continues on chopping the chicken into parts. I watch her with amazement because she is so good at this. She does it so fast, she finishes chopping off the whole chicken in parts all in five minutes or less.
I watch her while she washes the chopped breasts and chicken legs. The lines on her face are more evident. The part of her forehead, where the scalp meets the facial skin, is covered in sweat. Her hair disarrayed. I am looking at a woman who had to go to an office eight in the morning to five in the afternoon on weekdays and yet, here she is killing a chicken for the family’s lunch—a chicken which have just been walking in our backyard about minutes ago.
She is now much more different compared to the mother she used to be when I was younger. She used to be less patient and very fearsome. Now, after years and years of being afraid of her, I begin to see how much she had changed but still the strong woman I have known her to be.
My mother was in fourth grade when she first killed a chicken for her family’s meal. I am twenty-one and I have not had the guts to even watch her cut open the throat of a squawking chicken.
“Mamaya na ilagay ang dahon ng sili ‘pag luto na ang manok at hahanguin na.”
She always knows which vegetable should be dipped first and which should come last. When I open the casserole, the green broth is dancing with the chicken meat. Surprisingly, the internal organs do not look as disgusting as before. They all look like chicken to me, another delicious dish of tinolang manok.
“Ay, sus. Huwag sige buksan ang kaldero. Mamaya na ‘pag nagkulo-kulo kaunti.”
On the table, two big plates of rice are prepared and this bowl of tinola serves as the centerpiece.
My father gets one of the legs. One of my sisters gets the liver. The rest of our family waits for our turn. My mother spoons the gizzard from the bowl and puts it on my plate.
“Marami pa diyan o,” she says reassuringly.
But I know a chicken only has one gizzard.
“Nung bata kami, Jen, hindi ginapakain ang mga bata ng batikulon kasi matigas,” my father says. “May sabi-sabi na ang bata sige kain ng batikulon maglaking matigas din ang ulo at pasaway.”
“Masarap man po kasi.” I continue chewing the gizzard.
I can smell the lemon grass in the broth, the tenderness of the chicken meat with every bite, and the soft papaya. I look at my mother sitting in front of me, nibbling on a small piece of a chicken bone and I know I could never equal to how strong she is as a woman and how generous she can be as a mother.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in Dagmay Literary Journal.
Jennie Arado, born and raised in Koronadal City, is a Creative Writing graduate of the University of the Philippines-Mindanao. She was a fellow of the University of Santo Tomas (UST) National Workshop in 2016. She now works as a journalist in Davao City.