It was November, a brittle cold day, and we were driving to Grandmother's house. I was nine that November, a skinny little girl with big nearly lashless eyes and mousy hair pulled back into French braids, wearing jodhpurs and a sweater which had been washed so many times it was as thick and pilled as an old stable blanket. I sat huddled in the back seat of my father's car, clutching my books and catching occasional glimpses of my pallid face with its oversized features in the rear-view mirror. The fragrance of the cigar my father sucked on floated back to me, reminding me of the countless other times I had sat in that place, rolling past the same scenery, destined for the same house with its stench of sickness and death. My father would put out the cigar when he pulled the car into the bare carefully swept yard of his mother's house and the smell of the house and the farm would dominate, old sour and unmasked by the sweet scent of tobacco.
The fields on either side of the narrow road were mostly barren, only the forlorn shock or so of cornstalks breaking the flatness of the land. Harvest was long past; here in the South, crops ripen early and are picked and stowed away long before the traditional Thanksgiving. Down here, foods not preserved soon rot in the wet and the heat. It was November, so the sky was grey, not overcast, just the grey we were accustomed to in the dismal month. It was finally cold enough to kill hogs and it was toward that errand we were bound on this day.
When we reached the little house belonging to my grandparents, the house dwarfed by the size of the barn and other out-buildings, I could see the preparations for the long day were well advanced. Over on the far side of the yard, near the lily pond and the out-house, teepees of poles had been erected over great iron pots in which water was already boiling. This was where the hard, heavy, bloody work would be done. Steam floated in the chill air like earthbound clouds, half obscuring the black cauldrons and the big knives laid out on trestle tables alongside platters and metal bowls. I had been to these entertainments before and always felt a strange stirring of combined fascination and revulsion at the sight of the equipment because I knew the use of every one of those implements and shuddered at my knowledge.
I knew this time would be the same. The farm was a cruel place. My grandmother would gather up a chicken and casually wring its neck, snapping off the head and letting the decapitated body run around until it bled out and fell over in the dust of the yard. My uncles would come home from hunting with rabbits tucked in their belts and, tying them to nooses already placed in the tree outside the door, would take their knives and gut and skin the little bodies while laughing and spitting, paying no attention to the blood dripping on their boots. I could smell the copper reek of blood when I thought about the farm. It was, to my mind, an abattoir.
Of course, there were happier memories of the farm; I recalled lying in a hammock eating green apples flavored with coarse salt from a twist of waxed paper and, again, staining my fingers yellowish-brown as I cracked black walnuts between a hammer and a brick and greedily dug out the elusive fruit. But those were warm memories and this was the first truly cold spell of the year. This was November, my birth month, the time to kill hogs.
My father carefully stowed away his cigar and he and mother gathered their supplies and struggled out of the car, arms filled and with an air of resignation. They had come to do what they considered to be their duty but it was not a pleasant one. The uncles called greetings from their places tending the fires under the kettles and grandmother appeared at the door like one of those small weather witches one sees on old Black Forest clocks, her apron drawn up almost to her neck.
I took my time exiting. Knowing that we would be there until the sun went down, I had brought a goodly supply of books to occupy me. Chief among them was Don Quixote ; I was reading through the classics at this time and had reached Cervantes. It was not very thick but I had back-ups in case I read too fast. Over the years, I had learned never to leave my home without at least one book. They were especially essential when visiting family since I was too young for interesting gossip and too old to make mud-pies.
My grandfather, a strong and capable man, had been in the process of dying for more than a year. He had been bitten by some sort of animal - a rat, a rabbit, something - while working in the barn and had developed tularemia which had in turn developed into encephalitis or so the story went. All I really understood was that he spent his days lying in bed in the main room of the little house, neither moving not speaking. He did not even open his eyes and the only sounds he made were moans at irregular intervals. The doctors had given up on him and sent him home to die but he was taking his own sweet time about it. It was left to his almost-widow and the two sons still at home to care for him like a gigantic baby, feeding, cleaning, turning him on the bed and tending the inevitable bed sores.
It was from those sores the odor rose, the smell I connected to my grandmother's house. That sweetly sick odor of age and illness. I tried to avoid the room in which grandfather lay, being a somewhat squeamish child with no penchant for self-sacrifice nor tolerance for the uncomfortable. I would make my ritual appearance at the bedside, peer into the uncomprehending face and then escape to the porch.
However this November day was to be different. Mother - without turning a hair or meeting my eyes - told me now I was old enough to be responsible, I was to sit with grandfather while the others worked in the yard, killing and cleaning the hogs. After all, she noted, all I ever did was sit and read and I could do that just as well in grandfather's room as anywhere else. The only thing I had to do was be there and notice if anything happened. The grown-ups would be right outside and if anything happened I was to call them. Anything happened? I had no idea what that meant. Did it mean if grandfather suddenly flipped off the bed, if he sat bolt upright and started screaming, if blood started pouring out of any orifice? What was I supposed to watch for? How could I watch and read at the same time? What if the minute I took my eyes off, he started to die for real? Before I could clarify what my instructions were, mother was out of the room, tying on a feed-sack apron.
I sat down in the rocking chair in the close room, as near the window as I could get. It did not help much because the window, like all those in the house, was draped with three layers of curtains making it useless as a source of either light or information. I was permitted the use of a floor lamp so I could make out the letters on the pages of my book while not disturbing my grandfather who remained a sinister shadow on the other side of the room, an uncommunicative lump in the iron bed. I surely did not want to disturb him; that was the last thing on earth I wanted to do.
I opened my book and tried to let myself drift into the world of the sweetly insane Knight of La Mancha. After every third word, my head jerked up and my gaze fixed itself on the motionless form of my grandfather. Sentences passed under my unfocusing eyes in this spasmodic fashion and I had not the slightest idea what I had read. I might as well have been trying to work through a book written in Swahili for all the information I was processing.
From outside, through the closed window, I could hear the traditional sounds of hog-killing. First came the frantic squeals of the doomed animals as they were harried into position. Then the crack of an uncle's rifle and a sudden flurry of small hooves scratching at the bare earth. Three times this took place and then there came the shouts of the butchers. "Haul 'em up there!" "You got that 'ar knife? Go on, cut the throat." To those innocent of the finer points of hog-killing, I will explain. Once you have shot the beast between the eyes, you have to drain the blood. This is accomplished by piercing the rear ankles, threading a stout cord through and hauling the hog up on one of the teepees so that it is suspended upside down. Then you cut the throat from ear to ear. Hog-killing is a fine preparation for becoming a famous serial murderer in your later years. While the blood pours into containers to be saved for sausages and puddings, other members of your team take pots and pour boiling water over the skin and, with wide blades, shave the pig. When the bleeding out is done, the carcass is swung to the side and gutted. Naturally, the internal organs, the liver, the heart, the pancreas are saved to be eaten immediately. They cannot be preserved. The bladder is taken out for a thoughtful purpose and the intestines are carefully removed, emptied and cleaned to be kept for use as sausage skins. It is a well known fact that all of a pig is usable.
I had seen this once a year every one of my nine years and I could follow the action by the sounds alone. I had long since abandoned any attempt to read my book and sat there, my hands gripped between my bony knees, listening to the horror outside and staring at the inert form of my grandfather as if it were my concentration alone preventing anything from happening. So long as I looked and did not breathe too loudly, he would stay as he was and not start thrashing around or trying to get up or, god forbid, bleeding. Please, god, don't let him start bleeding.
Hours passed. The killers and butchers broke for lunch and grandmother fried up some liver that only a little while before had been efficiently processing bile, protein and other necessities in a living being. It was delicious. And I did not have to watch over grandfather while I ate it. Somebody else was doing that.
Then it was back to the routine. But the afternoon was easier because the grown-ups were nearer and the hogs were dead. My parents, uncles and grandmother gathered on the covered, screened back porch to cut up the carcasses of the hogs into hams, sides, shoulders and so forth. They rubbed them with saltpeter and coarse salt and pepper and wrapped them in burlap shrouds before trundling them down to the smoke house to hang and cure and provide ample meat for the winter. The soft organs would be shared with neighbors so that nothing was wasted and the next few days would see the scraps run through the grinder and stuffed into the boiled sterile gut-skins as sausage which would take their own turn in the smoke house.
In the meantime, I watched grandfather with a less intense gaze but a steady one nonetheless. He was not going to have anything happen to him on my watch.
As the sun dipped down toward the tree line, I was relieved of my duty and given my reward for my efforts. One of my uncles had inflated a hog's bladder and he gave it to me as a toy. I did not finish reading Don Quixote that cold November day. But I did read it - eventually, on a warm July afternoon in the porch swing at my parents' house - while eating muscadine grapes and tossing the skins over my shoulder to the ground below.
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