“Slice of Life,” by Heather Vi Kish

Mar 23rd, 2022 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

It was a crisp, fall day in 1981 and my brother Steve and I were searching our grandparents’ basement for Grandpa’s severed thumb. We were frantic, not because he needed to reattach it but because he promised a fifty-cent piece to whoever brought it back to him.

Little did we know, the digit had long-since decomposed somewhere in the cornfield across the street, having been cut off by Grandpa’s pocket knife twenty-five years earlier during a farming accident. Later, we would blame our mother for saying Grandpa had “lost” his thumb. As if he were about to hitchhike or imitate The Fonz and found himself patting his breast pockets and looking puzzled.

On the landing above us stood our little sister Elena, sucking her thumb and using the other well-attached fingers to hold her blankie. Just as Steve and I started fighting over a garden trowel I had found, Grandma called us for lunch. My perpetually starving brother immediately forfeited the spade and made for the stairs, bumping into Elena on his way to his grilled cheese. I made a few feeble attempts at digging holes in the dirt floor looking for a mini thumb grave. The dirt floor is common to a “Michigan basement.” Some of them have concrete floors, but for the most part, with their low ceilings made up of the floorboards of the story above it, they’re really just one step above a crawl space.

We grew up half a mile from my grandparents. Occasionally we would be there at night while our parents went out, but we rarely spent the entire night. Many times we would be asleep when they came late to pick us up and my dad would carry us out to the car and then from the car to our beds. After once waking up and having to drag my sleepy, whiney body out to the car and up to bed by myself, I got wise and started feigning sleep when they arrived.

In order to conceal the fact that I was awake, I would lie down on the carpet and position my head underneath the coffee table. This way I could watch TV and my grandparents would be none the wiser. There was; however, a downside to my grandparents thinking I was asleep: they didn’t have to censor their television viewing for little eyes and ears. This is how I found myself subjected to a documentary on the guillotine, which had just been abolished as a form of capital punishment in France earlier that year. I was watching it languidly, determined to stay awake in order to pretend I was asleep, when they showed actual footage of a blade teetering high above before freefalling to slice through some poor soul’s soft neck, the head falling into a large basket. The sight brought remnants of grilled cheese to the back of my throat and enlarged my pupils to the size of nickels.

Unwilling to reveal my game of ‘possum, I endured an hour of the show, or, as my grandparents called it, the “program.”

“Daaaaad,” Grandma would call to Grandpa, “are you going to watch your guillotine program?”

“Yes, Grandma,” he’d holler back, “Just making us some popcorn!”

I learned that the guillotine, while it seemed savage to me, was actually invented as a more humane way of executing someone. I wondered what it was a step up from. Stabbing repeatedly with a soft cheese spreader? Slowly lowering into a tankful of starving piranhas? Suffocation by an older brother’s farts underneath a bedspread?

I think what bothered me the most was that no one was fighting it. They just patiently waited their turn, walked over, knelt down and placed their neck in the bottom headlock. Then they would stare down into the basket full of heads their head would soon join. Realizing this, I decided I would probably fight to be the first in line.

More panned-out footage of these executions got me wondering why all those people were standing around watching. And some of them had their children with them! I can’t be sure, but this may be why there’s a book titled, “French Kids Eat Everything.” After having to witness that in person, I can only imagine they were the most well-behaved children on the planet.

“Francois! Why haven’t you finished your ratatouille? You had better clean your plate, monsieur, or I’m going to invite the executioner over for dinner to discuss our options.” (All of this was said, I imagined, with a strong hand on the back of Francois’s neck.)

I learned that a two-foot tall version of the guillotine was a popular children’s toy in France in the 1790s. They used it to cut off the heads of dolls and rodents. This fact piqued my interest and I wondered if perhaps the local hardware store might carry them because as it turned out, my little sister could actually use such a contraption. It might help me, I mean her, overcome a trauma from earlier that summer.

We lived out in the country with our own cornfields surrounding our own cozy house on top of our own Michigan basement. We also had barns and the occasional pigs and cows, which I thought of as pets, even though my Uncle Lou tried to scare me from getting too close. He was a dog catcher in a suburb of Detroit so his days were filled with animals that wanted to bite you, if not eat you.

“There was a little girl,” he started, putting his face close to my face for emphasis, “and she was playing around a pig pen just like this one.” He pointed his chin at my pet pig, Stu. “One day, her parents couldn’t find her. They looked all over and finally, when they looked in the pig pen, all they found was her shoe.”

But I wasn’t scared. I knew where the real danger was, and it was in the chicken coop.

I pretty much hated all my chores but I really hated collecting the eggs. You might think it would be easy enough for an eight-year-old, but chickens are rather protective of those little orbs.

All the way to the barn I would whisper, “Please be in the yard, please be in the yard…” because if the chickens weren’t in the outside enclosure that meant they were most likely sitting on their eggs and I hated having to move them out of the way. If you haven’t had to move a hen off of her eggs before, it’s kinda like getting a toddler off one of those penny horse rides at the grocery store: they dig in their heels and peck at you.

Even though I complained a lot about the chickens, I still couldn’t be happy when butchering day arrived. You knew it was butchering day when you awoke to find a random tree stump in the middle of the backyard, near the hen house. The stump would probably have two nails sticking out of the top of it, near each other. Chances were good that an ax was also nearby, if not stuck in the top of the trunk, near the nails.

The scene may have looked quiet, but walk outside, and it was obvious that the chickens knew something was afoot. They were probably tipped off because the roosters were confined to the barn and they were locked in the outdoor enclosure.

Once my dad unlocked the door made of chicken wire and entered the enclosure, they tried their damnedest to not be the first one caught.

We weren’t required to be there to witness the mayhem, but no one stopped us from being there either. I stood just inside an adjacent barn holding my face and praying no one gave me a job to do.

Nowadays, they have kill cones where the chicken is confined until the blood is done draining, but back in the 1980s, it was the two nails and a tree stump. He’d place the chicken’s neck between the two nails and CHOP (which I only heard and never saw because my fingers were in the way). Then my dad would just throw the body of the chicken into the yard to flop around. I found it horribly grotesque, but Steve and his two little redheaded friends who had come to help process the chickens would run through the bloody yard, trying to dodge the bodies. Of course only the boys would be interested in this fiasco, I thought. That was until Elena, four years old at the time, asked if she could chop one of the heads off.

Good God no.

“Sure, c’mon,” Dad said and waved her over. She took her thumb out of her mouth and dropped her blanket in the gravel driveway.

I looked at the back porch and tried to see through the screen door into the kitchen where my mom was.

Jesus, where’s mom? She has to stop this.  

There was nothing I could do. A meek “no” was stuck in my throat and my feet were glued to the ground. My arms were even frozen to my sides and my eyelids open. It was as if I couldn’t let my little sister experience this trauma alone, even though she didn’t even seem phased by it.

She stood in front of my dad, facing the chopping block. He stood behind her, a chicken in one hand, the ax in the other. She flinched slightly when the chicken flapped, but once the head was between the nails, it was as if a strange calm had come over the animal. My dad instructed Elena where to put her hands on the ax, while he held it towards the end of the handle. It was reminiscent of when he taught us how to hold a softball bat. Unlucky for the chicken, Elena’s swing was pretty typical of most t-ballers. She swung, and she missed.


She had chopped about halfway into the chicken’s neck. My dad was now having to maneuver around my sister standing in front of him, while blood squirted everywhere, so he could get a good grip on the ax and chicken and deliver a clean chop.

He flung the body into the yard for the boys to dodge while Elena walked back to her blankie, thumb-in-mouth, and I tried not to throw up.

Mom suddenly appeared and asked if anyone wanted Kool-Aid. Elena and the boys raced to the house while I just stared ahead and thought, “Who are these people? Was I adopted?”

So it was this design failure of the tree stump and nail combo I had in mind while I watched the guillotine documentary and heard about the little French kids, running around all obedient with mini-guillotines under their arms playing hopscotch and jumping rope. Maybe I could get Steve to help me design one if we couldn’t find one up town at the hardware store. He was able to create a bona fide corncob pipe just like Tom Sawyer, so why not a chicken guillotine?

My blueprint was almost complete in my mind when I heard the crunch of my parents’ car on the gravel driveway and saw the lights sweep across the living room wall.


I tried to breathe heavily, let my mouth go slack.

My dad picked me up and carried me out to the car. It was warm and my breath fogged up the window as I breathed into it.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow I would draw a picture and make a plan and gather supplies to make a prototype. I don’t need those old ice skates anyway…

Before the sway of the car made me fall asleep for real, I reached up and wiped some of the condensation off the window and peered into the pitch-black corn field, where Grandpa’s thumb was standing upright in approval.


Heather Vi Kish has been chasing the high of publication since 3rd grade when she won 2nd place in a poetry contest held by her local library. While she enjoys the absence of snow in Florida, her heart is in Michigan where she grew up and Indianapolis where she lived for a decade. Her true loves are coffee, family, tacos, books, and pineapples, not necessarily in that order. Heather was the Undergraduate Poetry Award recipient at Western Michigan University and is currently working on her MFA from Lindenwood University. Her work has appeared on Brevity’s blog. You can connect with her on Twitter at @HeatherViKish.

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