The White One Had Blue Eyes, Like Mine
It was late evening in autumn, before the darkness fell. The dead stalks of harvested corn stood skewed and broken in the fields. Walking ahead of us, my grandfather was silhouetted against the deepening blue and rose of the sunset. He carried a rifle.
My grandmother clutched my small hand in her strong grip, pulling me along on the overgrown path. The tractor wheels had dug into the rain-sodden ground earlier that summer, matting the grass and mud in ruts which were knee-deep for me. Aunt Bernie walked ahead of us with the men, clinging like a shadow to Uncle Silas. As we approached the barn, I heard voices. My grandfather's black Indian eyes were glittering in the lamplight as he joined the men waiting by the shed where the pigs were penned.
I had visited the pigs many times since they had been unloaded from the truck last spring. I loved to watch them eat, gobbling at every scrap stamped into the straw by their tiny hooves which seemed impossibly small to support their fat, round bodies. Covered with coarse hair, their soft, pink skin glowed through the bristles, some black- and white-spotted, some white. The white ones had blue eyes like mine.
Now they were fat with summer. I flinched as they threw their enormous weight against the walls of the pen, expecting to be fed. Stepping back, I felt my grandmother behind me. She gripped my shoulders with her broad hands, pressing me tightly to her so I couldn't move. Staring at the tall weeds around the pen, I remembered the last time I had visited the pigs, after a bitter cold snap. Half hidden in the grass next to a fence post, I had found the body of the old farm tabbycat, stiff and shriveled in her fur coat. At first I didn't recognize what I was seeing, and then I ran, crying, to tell my grandmother of my first encounter with death. I had been afraid to visit the pigs after that.
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, and Uncle Silas carefully placed the rifle barrel to their heads. Each pig's eyes darted around suspiciously, snout snuffling the air. One by one, the shot would ring out, and with a piteous squeal, the pig would quiver and sink onto the straw.
When there were no more to kill, the kinfolk worked together to dress them for butchering. Binding the hind legs with loops of wire-core clothesline, they hoisted the pigs over a beam, the men straining together to heft the dead weight. My grandmother set me down on a mound of grass so she could walk back to the trailer to fetch her tub and butcher knife. I backed away into the circle of dim light cast by the lamp hanging from the doorway of the barn, realizing all at once that I'd been holding my breath. Chest aching, I sucked air into my empty lungs and watched wordlessly as, one by one, the carcases were strung up.
The ropes dug into their ankles as the pigs spun and rocked, their tender bellies exposed. Handles clanking, my grandmother toted the big metal wash tub, the same one she used for my baths in the evening. She set it beneath a swaying pig and used her sharp butcher knife to slit it from crotch to gullet, letting the soft organs spill out into the tub. The smell of blood was overwhelming, sweet and cloying. One by one, each pig was opened up. Once cleaned out, the carcases were left to hang, steam coming up from the warm insides now opened to the night's chill.
There were tattered remains of pig everywhere. While the adults worked and talked about filling the freezers for winter, I heard my cousins whooping and hollering in the field. They were 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 was caught in the middle as one missed the intended target and landed at my feet and burst, stinging my eyes and nose with fumes of ammonia.
I began to cry, and was at last carried away and tucked into bed between crisp white sheets still stiff from hanging on the line. I drifted into dreamless sleep, lulled by the fresh, sweet smell of sun-dried cotton and the full moon shining through my window like a glowing lantern.
The last connected memory I have of that time is of my grandmother preparing dinner one evening. She needed some fat for the frying pan, so she went to the freezer and took out the pig's head she kept in a plastic bag. Setting it on the table, she took her butcher knife and began to slice at its face, peeling skin away from fat, exposing a blue eye that stared at me lidlessly.
~ by Catriona Lovett (c) 1995, 2002, 2003
The author lives with her husband and four children in weird Austin Texas, USA.
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