By ALAN NASLUND
Normally and up to then, Steve had stayed inside the old house with Myrna during the actual slaughtering, but today, his father had come to the house asking for washed butcher knives, and they had not been ready, so Myrna hurried up with her end of the task, walking swiftly back and forth across the creaking linoleum floor, bruised here and there and worn to a buffed black from the scuffs of farm boots, finding the long, brown-bladed knives asked for and sending them back, still wet with dishwater, in Steve’s boyish hands. “Walk!” she yelled at him as he prepared to catapult out the door. “Don’t you run with those knives, Sweetie!”
Cyrus and Hob had cornered the yellow-backed Yorkshire sow to be butchered and had her tethered to the strong corner post of the hogpen, where the hog was now chomping cracked barley from a pan heaped with it. Steve could hear her jostling and chewing the barley in wet-sounding crunches within her mouth and see the rich froth of her saliva dripping down around her jaws from this unexpected but not so innocuous feast, her head down and her back humping huge and regular as a half circle of mighty hog flesh. Oh, how hard and unyielding was the body of a pig; that hump was to touch like a bow of solid wood with bristles.
“Bring that tractor around now before she runs out of grain,” Hob said to Mark, the neighbor standing by on the outside of the corral in the seat of the John Deer equipped with a hydraulic hay lift. It was then that Steve saw that the lift was up, and an old single tree of the kind used to hook the traces of a wagon to a harness horse was dangling down from the lift by a log chain about eight feet up. At either end of the single tree were brown iron hooks, designed to fit into the traces the horse would haul, but here, plainly intended to pierce and hold the butcher hog’s hind legs when she should be dead and raised up to eviscerate, at least that was Steve’s immediate surmise. There was an obvious logic to these things.
Steve was aware of the use of the rust-darkened, iron caldron seething now with boiling water just outside the pen. Chickens had to be doused in boiling water to loosen and pluck their feathers after they were killed; hogs had to be dunked in such a boiling bath so that their bristles might be easily scraped off with knives and the final product of ham or bacon, presented in a more sanitary and sightly way devoid of hair and smooth to the touch.
But now came a part for which Steve’s experiences in the past had not prepared him. Mark brought the tractor near, and the single tree dangled above Hob, Cyrus, and the hog. Then Hob lifted a long-handled sledge hammer Steve had not noticed before and delivered a powerful blow to the middle of the sow’s forehead, causing her to drop immediately, her snout into her food, her legs buckling and quivering in a silent, dumbfounded second very swiftly. Hob and Cyrus scrambled to grab her hind legs, pull her around onto her side, and, as Hob yelled, “Lower away” to Mark, he and Cyrus each stabbed a hole in a back leg between achilles tendon and shank of the sow.
Acting on great urgency, the men on the ground pushed the hooks of the single tree into the slots in the hog’s legs they had made, and just as Hob was yelling for Mark to haul up on the hay lift, the sow came awake and let out a loud, long, and piercing squeal.
“Get her up there. Get her up there, for Christ’s sake,” Hob said, and Mark pulled further back on the lift lever as though that would increase the speed of the lift. The hog was heavier than any hayload and screaming. The light tractor rocked on its wheels, but up she went, impaled hocks first, her head aimed now at the ground and her whole length stretched out and revealing a body more massive than a boy would have thought, looking at her always on the ground with her feet under her and her head down, while Hob, now approaching her with his sharpened knives, seemed a small, but powerful master. When the sow’s head was as high as Hob’s chest, he delivered the first blow, steadying her body, which tended to spin, by seizing and holding a hoof of the short front leg. He seemed oblivious to the ear-piercing screams while slamming the knife into her thick throat and cutting swiftly across the bulging white jowel. Blood like a river gushed out, drenching the man’s forearm, and the hog squealed on, more loudly, and with a desperate and very aware plaint now, it seemed to Steve.
Then, as in a dream, the terribly high-pitched squealing went on, some of it gurgling and desperate, as Hob took the larger knife and cut more deeply into his animal, stabbing, slashing, and sawing methodically into the blood-gushing flesh of her neck. And at last with greater urgency, as though to cut off not just the life of the pig, but also the unsettling screams, which, in fact, it seemed to Steve, Hob did finally shut off, for the dying animal’s cries stopped suddenly before the river of blood sent out by its dying heart abated and ceased to rush in red torrents onto his father’s arms. The boy did not realize until the crazing squealing ceased that he had clapped his hands to his ears, and that he had heard what he had heard in moderated form after all, and certainly not at the ear-splitting level that his father, Hob, must have heard it in the near company of the sow while he was working on her as he wrought away her life as quickly and as efficiently as he could.
Out of Breugel perhaps you may have seen its like—that huge, cast iron cauldron Hob had scavenged somewhere, the collected neighbors, their bodies thick in the March cold with stout, winter coats and caps with earflaps, the plenitude of sharpened knives, indeed, the busy activity of sharpening them in the back room of the farmhouse before the event, the bonfire burning so cheerily beneath that huge cauldron, right outside of the pig lot with the huge porkers snuffing and sleeping alongside the fence of gray planks that stood between them and their fate.
Alan J. Naslund, Ph.D. has taught English in the U.S., Japan, and Korea at the university level. The writer is semi-retired and works at Day Spring, a facility for assuring independence, freedom, and interaction with mainstream society for adults who are mentally challenged. Naslund also writes poetry and dabbles in ceramic sculpture.