ULYSSES S. GRANT
by Amelia Gray
A man should know how to butcher his own bird. Preparing the Sunday supper is a habit in which I take singular pleasure and one which the women give me gladly. I sit through the last half hour of service tapping the hatters’ plush of my topper in anticipation of scraping pin feathers. And then home, where sweet Julia has laid out my chambray and apron, where the women have scrubbed and prepared the bucket and stool behind the kitchen and placed a cigar and a short bottle of rye by the fresh-killed bird. The weather is crisp and warming. The women grumble that it does not befit my station, but they learn that with power comes the ability to choose one’s own path.
The idea for my Sunday ritual was Julia’s. She woke from a pleasurable dream in which I was severing the feet from a fat hen. She spoke of how the yellow claws pinched a scroll upon which the words were written Ulysses Grant, The Finest President. She woke, rushed to my chamber and sat shivering at the foot of the bed while she told the tale. Her right eye crossed handsomely whenever she was excited and at that moment was so askew it appeared as if she were watching the antechamber for an intruder as, the other eye fixed upon me. I was reminded of the day I first met her, after service, her arms laden with stemmed dandelion flowers she had pulled from a patch beside the road. I said How do you do, and an errant bee stung her sweet armflesh and she dropped the weeds, screeching, wild eyes skewed, a devil woman before me, and I knew I would make her mine.
What measures can a man take to ensure control over his own experience? It was a question I often pondered on behalf of the soldiers under my watch. On behalf of them, because they themselves were so filthy in the fields of Vicksburg and Appomattox that it was as if the blood and sludge of battle had entered through their ears. I would allow them to choose a fried oyster for their breakfast and how to take their coffee. We were all easily pleased in those days, and though there was no liquor I count that time among the happiest of my life.
The cigar is cut with my beak knife. I prefer to remove the bird’s head cleanly with the knife, though it’s a simple enough task to twist it. The crop follows, stuffed with feed, and the gizzard, which I baptize with a splash of rye. The neck is reserved for broth. The oil gland slides free with a flick of the blade. I whistle old battle songs while I work; one of a vacant chair by the fireside, another of the glory of emancipation. A long slit is cut, the viscera removed. My empty bottle is replaced. The bird’s heart, the size of my thumb, is reserved for the cats.
Satisfied with the process, I alert the women to the butchered bird and take my leave to dress for supper. The window from my chamber affords a view of the new trees propped up with gardener’s stakes on the lawn. I pull up a chair and enjoy a fresh glass as the sun shines over my property, my territory, my nation. By the time the meal arrives, the bird and I do not recognize one another.
Amelia Gray is the author of AM/PM (Featherproof Books) and Museum of the Weird (FC2), for which she won the 2008 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize. Her first novel, THREATS, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Her writing has appeared in Tin House, American Short Fiction, McSweeney’s, and DIAGRAM, among others. Find more at ameliagray.com or on Twitter @grayamelia. Read the next story, RUTHERFORD B. HAYES, here.
* thanks to Amber Sparks and Brian Carr for their editorial work on this project.