The Pig Slaughter
It was late evening in autumn, before the darkness fell. The corn had been harvested and dead stalks stood skewed and broken in the fields. I saw my grandfather in silhouette against the pastel sky, deepening blue and rose. He carried a rifle.
The tractor wheels had dug into the rain-sodden ground earlier that summer, matting the grass in ruts which were knee-deep for me. Grandma clutched my small hand, tugging me along behind her on the overgrown path. Aunt Bernie walked ahead of us with the men, clinging like a shadow to Uncle Silas. We heard voices as we approached the barn, and I saw the men waiting by the shed where the pigs were penned. As my grandfather joined them, I saw his black eyes glitter in the dark.
I visited the pigs every chance I had since they’d been unloaded off the livestock truck last spring. As the summer passed, they quickly fattened up from lively little piglets with tiny hooves to become plump young pigs, nearly bigger than me, with hooves that still seemed impossibly small to support their heavy, round bodies. I’d stand on the fence rung and laugh as they cavorted around their pen, gobbling at every scrap of food in their trough and rooting around in the mud and straw with their clever little snouts. Covered with coarse hair, their soft, pink skin glowed through the bristles. My favorite was one of the white ones, it had blue eyes like mine. But I hadn’t seen them in months, now they were fully-grown and it was coming on winter.
Approaching the pen, I flinched as they threw their enormous weight against the walls of the pen, expecting to be fed. I took a quick step back and felt Grandma move up behind me. She gripped my shoulders with her strong, broad hands, pulling me tightly to her. I couldn’t move. Staring at the tall weeds around the pen, I remembered the last time I’d visited the pigs, after the first cold snap. Hidden in the grass next to a post, I found the body of the old farm tabby cat, stiff and shriveled in her fur coat. At first I didn’t what I was seeing, and then I ran, crying, to tell my grandmother of my first encounter with death. I was afraid to visit the pigs after that.
The men worked together skillfully. One by one, the pigs were snared and led out. One by one, my grandfather pressed them to the ground, using all his weight to hold them still, while Uncle Silas carefully placed the rifle barrel to the head. The pig’s eyes darted around suspiciously, snout snuffling the air. A shot rang out, and with a piteous squeal, the pig quivered and sank onto the straw.
Binding the hind legs with wire clothesline, they hoisted the pigs over a beam, the men straining together to heft the dead weight. It was over so fast, I realized I’d been holding my breath. Chest aching, I sucked air into my lungs hungrily, I felt dizzy. Grandma set me down on a mound of grass while she walked back to the trailer to fetch her big aluminum washtub.
The rope dug into their ankles as they spun and rocked, their tender bellies exposed. Handles clanking, Grandma toted her big tub, just as she did for my baths in the evening. She set it beneath the swaying pig, and my grandfather and uncles set to work, cutting the pig from crotch to gullet, letting the soft organs pour into the tub. The smell of blood was overwhelming, sweet and cloying. Cleaned out, they let the carcass hang, steam coming up from the warm insides as the dragged the tub under the next to give it the same treatment.
I wanted to get away from the smell, but as I stepped in the dim light from the lamp hanging from the barn doorway, it seemed there were tattered remains of pig everywhere. While the adults worked, talking about filling the freezer for winter, my cousins whooped and hollered in the field, running around barefoot like wild savages in the moonlight, terrorizing each other with scraps of innards and collapsing in quivering piles of laughter. Hurling the bladders like water balloons, they dodged each other, and I all at once, I was caught in the middle as a bladder missed its intended target, landing at my feet and burst, the fumes rising and stinging my eyes and nose with ammonia.
I must have cried. The last thing I remember is being led quickly away by the hand, washed and dressed in my long flannel nightgown and tucked firmly between stiff, clean sheets, the weight of crazy-quilt comforters weighing me down. The clock in the kitchen ticked but I couldn’t hear anything else. I tried to stay awake, staring out at the moon shining through my window for a long time, worrying about how much longer I’d be in the dark house alone, but fell asleep long before my grandparents finished their labors and came to bed.
I don’t remember any dreams. The last connected memory I have of that time is of my grandmother preparing dinner one evening. She needed some lard for the frying pan, so she went to the freezer and took out the pig’s head she kept wrapped tightly in a plastic bag. Setting it on the table, she pulled the wrappings off, took her butcher knife and began to slice down, peeling the skin away from the fat, exposing a blue eye that stared at me lidlessly.