Today, I drove through the Smokies. My wife wanted a live chicken for our Thanksgiving vacation. She’s hellbent on it. She found a farm on Craigslist, located an hour’s drive from our cabin.
And since I have nothing better to do than fish, she sent me across state lines.
After a scenic drive on Highway 74, I found myself in a small community where locals pronounce the word tire as “tar,” and have brown spit.
My wife arranged for me to meet a chicken farmer at the Chevron station.
Her name was Wanda, and she is pure mountain. I couldn’t tell how old she was. Her skin is rawhide, her hair is snow.
I followed her Jeep through ten miles of dirt. Her homestead consisted of two shacks and a barn, which sat on a sprawling automobile graveyard. This is a place where Chevys, Fords, and pickups go to die.
“What’s with the cars?” I asked.
“My paw used to be in the scrapyard business.”
Then, Wanda led me to a series of coops where I selected a plump-looking red bird. She told me the hen’s name was Barbara. She charged me thirty bucks for Barbara—which is highway robbery—then handed me an axe.
“You wanna do it?” she said. “Or you want me?”
I’m no stranger to poultry sacrifice. As a boy, we raised chickens. Once, a catering company called us for fifty-four birds. It took me two hours to kill them all, four hours to prep them, a day to clean the aftermath.
Wanda did the honors. She introduced Barbara to Our Savior, then cleaned the carcass on a plastic table.
“You like music?” Wanda asked.
“Well, you oughta come eat at my church, Thanksgiving. It’s free, we got music.”
Wanda explained that her church opens its doors for all God’s children to sample the best covered dishes in the county. She plays string bass in the band.
“‘Lotta poor folks up here,” she says, plucking feathers. “We try to feed folks that need help. Good food, board games, singin’, it’s fun.”
She wraps Barbara’s remains in brown paper.
“First time I went, my daughter took me for Christmas supper. Back then, I was a worthless drunk, everyone knew it. Lost my kids, my husband… That church, they treated me like I’s family.”
It’s been a long time since Wanda’s touched a bottle. And she’s been telling people about how she saw the light ever since. In fact, she gave me a rundown on how I, too, might find salvation—in case I was looking for it.
She said, “I just try to spread the Good News to anyone who might not know. I mean, ’cause I’d be nothing without the grace from…”
She points up.
Before I leave, I hug Wanda’s neck. Not for the chicken.
But because I know where she’s pointing.