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Blacktail


ISSUE:  Autumn 1978

Saturday would be a good day for slaughter. Martin was sitting in the torn vinyl recliner next to his cook stove. In his lap, there was a Stroh’s can he was using for an ashtray. For the second time that night he was trying to count the empties lying on the floor between us.

“For one thing,” he said, looking up, “the radio said the front that’s dipped down from Canada is gonna stay past the weekend.” With two fingers, he rudely pulled at the end of his nose.”And for another, it’s the first moon.”

He put his thumbnail between his teeth and bit down hard. Martin was a stone mason and it showed in his leathery hands—always cracked and dry from mortar. His right fore-finger was blackened from the time he’d smashed it with a hand sledge.

“I made a tripod,” I said, “for the winch I borrowed from Troy. You sure you’ll remember the mortar box?” We needed it for a scalding trough,

“Don’t worry I’ll take care of everything,”

“Even when you sober up?”

Martin laughed. “Damn,” he said, “I wish I had a beer. Even a warm one.”

“I’ve got some Mr. Naturals out in the glove compartment.”

He looked at me, his eyes out of focus. “At my age, I wanna get drunk, not silly.”

” Listen, with one of my numbers you wouldn’t give a damn how old you are.”

Martin leaned over and closed down the stove slightly. Yellow beads of light flickered on the ceiling.

“You go by Harvey’s today?”

I shook my head.

“Some guy from Pennsylvania, just like you, checked in a deer.” He started to laugh and rubbed his eye with his black finger.”Only when Harvey looked into the back of the pickup there wasn’t no deer at all. Just this goat shot twice in the side of the neck.”

I grinned and finished off my beer. “Any fool that don’t know the difference,” I said, “ought to be shot himself.”

Around eight I got up to split wood. Beth wanted to sleep longer. She promised breakfast soon, even though the weekends are, with few exceptions, my turn. I put on my down vest over a Bean shirt, got the axe we keep in an oily rag beside the electric stove, and went out back, It was overcast and cold. I was thinking of the place we were eleven months ago. We were living in an attic apartment in Philadelphia. After I lost my job as department manager of a clothing store, we decided to look around a while. On pure inspiration, we pruned our possessions to what could be crammed into a Chevy van and moved to Virginia. All our friends implied we were insane. The country “thing” was playing itself out. But we left anyway, grinning like madmen. The shortcomings of Philadelphia, our educations, were too apparent. We found a house in need of repair but couldn’t convince the owner we should barter our labor for rent. Luckily, Beth landed a part-time job at the county elementary school. Until something suitable came along, I was going to refinish furniture and my notebook of poems,

The house was on two hundred acres in Etlan, and it was more desolate than anywhere we’d been. Our nearest neighbor (a woman I’ve never laid eyes on) was two miles. If you looked out from behind the house, all you could see were gray, overlapping hills, rough like backs of porcupines.

I studied the mountains a moment and went to the wood-pile, stacked fence-high just beyond the house. A wind rattled the barn’s tin roof in the fluttering thunder of a cheap sound effect. I stood several logs on end. My legs were spread apart just enough to keep my center of balance. In splitting wood, Martin had said it was best to use a steel wedge. It was one of those things I remembered only when I needed it. Each time I tried to split the logs I embedded the axe so deeply into the heartwood that it was nearly impossible to pry it loose, I felt somewhat annoyed that I’d never gotten around to buying one.

Time moves much slower in the cold, but I must have worked for half an hour. I carried several good hours worth of burning to the side of the pen. Toward me, Blacktail came grunting in her constant frenzy for more feed. With astonishing agility for an animal her size, she reared up and balanced herself on the fence. The pig (a Hampshire) lowered her head between the fence boards, sniffed at me, and all at once began an excited succession of squeals. Her cries forced a sudden uprising of turkey vultures out of the silo, I half turned and my senses froze. The birds soared in imitation and measured a huge silent arc that returned on top of the barn roof, From my back pocket, I took out a large black silk handkerchief. I unfolded it and laced it through one of the rusted hinges on the gate.

Seeing Blacktail, perhaps I should have shown some affection, even felt sadness. Yet there was relief in knowing this was her last day. Recently, the hog had become a bother. She continued to take up my time not only with two daily feedings but also in making certain she wasn’t burrowing her way out of the pen. Four times last week I went searching for her. I followed the crooked run of the Hazel River and found her pastured with Yowell’s bulls.

By the time I returned to the house, the kitchen was warm with the smell of coffee and bacon. Beth was leaning forward, staring into the opened refrigerator as though she’d forgotten what she was after. She didn’t look over when I propped the axe against the stove.

Breakfast was perfunctory, accompanied by that stillness that usually precedes a stormy crossfire of words. Beth ate little, slowly. The slaughter was decidedly unpleasant. It began nine months before; the day we brought the pigs home, struggling in separate feed sacks. They were no larger than puppies (at least that’s what she called them) and easily squeezed through the loose boards of their pen. Their raising became a kind of children’s game. She went with me at each feeding, delighted at their innocent fear of us, their toylike sounds. For her, the pigs were two characters stolen from the stories she read her first-graders.

We tried to skirt emotional attachment by leaving them anonymous. The absence of names was a reassurance to herself that when the final day did come it wouldn’t be one of heartbreak. She distinguished the two Hampshires by their black and white tails, identifications that eventually yielded to proper names.

I tried to convince Beth all this was self-deceiving, but that didn’t work. When May revived a stupor of flies in the barn, she suddenly insisted on Shell pest strips. To me, it was insensible, if not embarrassing. In June, while the humidity of our first Southern summer overwhelmed us, she took her courage to the pen and petted the hogs, even soothed them by rubbing their pink undersides in circular motions. One day she broke all her inhibitions and fed them corn pellets from her hand. As her confidence swelled so did Blacktail and Whitetail. Every picture she took of them to send her mother in Queens became quickly dated.

For the remainder of the nine months I said little about this childishness and watched her with annoyance and fascination. A few weeks ago I had to throw out all the rat traps when a mouse was overmatched.”The trap doesn’t decide which ones to kill,” I told her.”I don’t care,” she said, “We’ll find another way. The mice will leave with the warm weather. I refuse to use any more traps.” Although irritated, I gave in. I knew such things were difficult to explain.

I figured when the time came Beth would accept the pigs’ fate, level-headedly. But now I couldn’t tell. Since November, she had acted as though the pen behind the barn never existed. She deliberately avoided it. Last week our relationship with Whitetail was efficiently annulled. At the Shen-Valley market, the pig brought one hundred and twenty-five dollars. Through it all, Beth’s face reported neither pain nor relief. Yet I knew intuitively her attitude hadn’t changed. We’d decided to butcher Blacktail for ourselves. I’m certain, though, Beth would have been content keeping her as a pet. Once using the fable, she called them the pig who went to market and the pig who stayed home.

Now she was pouring more coffee, and I couldn’t get her to say a word. When we heard a pick-up come to a stop in front of the house, she turned sharply but said nothing.

I went out to help unload the truck. Despite the cold, Martin didn’t wear a jacket. He was dressed in Pointer over-alls and with the suede hat he’d bought down the country he looked like an immigrant. The first thing he said was that we’d forgotten the lye. Alcohol had once again washed away any short-term memory. Since this was my first hog, I didn’t know about the lye. As we dragged the mortar box from the truck, I said we’d send Beth to Randolph’s for it.

Near the pen, we dug a narrow trench where the scalding trough would go, and Martin, seeing my silk handkerchief, laughed. We stacked the trench with kindling and slab wood. I balled up the classified section of the Sunday Post and started a fire. Soon the air was smoky. The freshly cut oak smelled bittersweet. It popped and crackled dampness out of its system. We placed the orange mortar box over the fire and filled it by carrying water from the pumphouse in five-gallon buckets which had contained mortar anti-freeze. After the last bucketful, Martin tilted back his hat and smiled.

“Gonna be some good eatin’, right soon,” he said.

At the kitchen table, Beth had fixed us each coffee in the mugs she’d made at a pottery class. Martin sat, cradling the mug in both hands, and slurped the coffee to keep it out of his beard. We ate some sour cream cake while he told us the story of his first slaughter. When Martin was young, his uncle raised pigs on a small plot of land that was now stuffed with condominiums. The uncle didn’t raise hogs for a living but because he wanted good, fresh meat. His hogs were always killed on the day after Thanksgiving. Martin said at slaughter a pig was probably the grossest animal on account of all the blood and “gutsy slime.” This was his expression. The first time, he informed us, he got sick right on the spot.

“You ought to be a writer,” I said.

“Damn. I could write a book and make millions.”

Looking over at Beth it wasn’t difficult to sense she was upset with Martin’s story. I asked her if she wouldn’t mind going for the lye.

“What’s the lye for?”

” It makes scraping the hair a whole lot easier,” Martin said.

“I don’t want any part of any lye,”

“Beth, please, we need it.” I slid a five dollar bill across the table, and she picked it up. Inasmuch as she seemed frightened by Martin, I was encouraged by his certainty. He handled the locals with an ease I both admired and envied. Through him, I felt a little more at home. In some ways, he was my steppingstone.

A half hour later, the others arrived: Georgene and Mad Peter, headed by Dora Worley who had the walnut-stock of a Remington Speedmaster .22 buried in the pit of her left arm. Regardless of age, Dora plainly was the most noticeable. A dark, short woman with Brillo hair, her arms were marked with the prominent blue veins of a man. More than any of us, including Martin, she knew about hog killing. It was said that at one time she alone had butchered a four-hundred pounder in less than three hours.

“Dora,” I said, “How y’awl this mornin’?”

“Lord, ain’t seen you since two weeks.”

I genuinely appreciated her coming. Martin had told me all she wanted for the slaughter was the head, and since I lacked the wherewithal and desire to work it up into sousemeat, I’d gladly consented.

“It was right nice of you to come,” I said. “How you been, Dora?”

“Feelin fine an’ you can’t do better’n that, honey.” She tossed the gun a little too carelessly at Georgene.

Beth came from the house, hooded in her White Stag jacket. She greeted everyone so warmly I thought the feeling of regret might have passed. Her smile, her white jacket, gave her an attractiveness too unnatural for hog slaughter. Something in her, though, was holding back. No sooner had we reached the pen than she asked Dora if the pig would feel any pain.

“If the shot’s right,” Dora said, snapping her fingers, “she go out like a matchstick.”

Beth and I returned each other looks, and I could sense the game had not died. Her smile had only momentarily obscured the fact that she wasn’t willing to give in. Perhaps she was still convinced Blacktail was about to make a miraculous matinee escape.

“Well,” Martin said, “who’s gonna do the honors?”

Everyone wanted me to do it, but I said: “It don’t much matter.”

In an enthusiastic voice, Georgene volunteered. I nodded approval and a smile spread across her lips. She opened the Remington Speedmaster with a click. Martin handed her the cartridges and she chambered three short rounds.

We climbed into the pen, and Blacktail eyed each one of us, The sides of her snout pulsated. I walked over toward her and crouched down, using a handful of feed to coax her closer to us. Blacktail could sense something was wrong. Her body tensed, and she refused to budge. I inched up to her. Georgene was at my left with the rifle.

“For God’s sake,” Beth said, “make sure the shot’s right.”

Cautiously, Georgene crouched up until the barrel of the . 22 rested on the hog’s head.

“Aim more lower,” Dora said. “You don’t want the shot gawn off in the shoulder. That’s it.”

Holding her breath, Georgene thumbed back the latch. I crawled away from Blacktail and stood up. I looked at Beth. Her eyes seemed to widen into a prayerlike trance and in that silent, prolonged second it seemed somehow the gun was frozen. But then it came. At the crack of the shot, Blacktail went down on her side. She made no sound.

“All right. Just stand clear,” Dora said. She came forward quickly and straddled the pig. She put the point of a long knife to the neck, studied it a second, and then drove the knife deep into the jugular vein. She worked the knife in and out twice. As if from a spigot, blood came rushing out, staining the ground.

After it enveloped the pig in a dark, rich pool, I turned to Dora.”Should we put her in now?”

“You just stand clear. She’ll be kickin’ that mud hole dry in a minute.”

Blood was running from the pig’s snout, and she was urinating a constant stream. I looked at Beth. Now that she saw Blacktail lying motionless and eyes opened, she glanced off into the mountains. I understood Beth as well as I understood myself. Anytime the soft tip of her nose quivered, it was a code known only to me which meant she would soon cry.

With a sudden heaving that made me jump, Blacktail’s legs jerked violently.

“Dora, are you sure she’s dead?” Beth asked.

“Just nerves. That’s all.”

For all of five minutes, Blacktail’s powerful legs reacted in a sideways running motion. Her body occasionally writhed up. When it did, even to me her death seemed indecisive. But gradually her legs thrust in diminishing intensity. Then, as if rheostatic, they kicked vigorously and again faded. At last they slackened altogether. I was certain she was dead.

To drag the hog to the edge of the scalding trough took four of us. Martin and I managed the legs; Mad Peter the head; and Georgene the tail. I could feel a blood warmth still in the pig’s legs.

“Git a good holt,” Dora said, “an’ set her in easy. You don’t wanna get any lye on you,”

The water in the mortar box bubbled, and steam dispersed into the cold air. It wasn’t easy flopping the hog into the trough, and most of the water broke over the sides. My sneakers were soaked through, and I had to stand near the fire.

There was nothing to do now but wait. Some of us smoked Mad Peter’s cigarettes. It was very cold. Martin shoved more wood into the fire and fanned it with his hat. The sun was a silver spot in the sky, and Martin, seeing the way the fire still crackled, prophesied snow before nightfall. We let the hog soak on one side, then flipped her over. After a few minutes, Dora tested to see if the hair would come off easily enough by scraping away a small patch with the flat side of the knife. The scorched hair gave off a peculiar odor that reminded me of Philadelphia. Dora told us we should wait a while.

I looked at Blacktail and realized I’d never noticed a pig that close before. The scraped section was a clean, pink color, no different than the skin on the back of my hand. There were pin-point holes where the black hair had once been.

Ten minutes later Dora was certain the pig had been in long enough. You couldn’t leave a hog bathing in hot water too long, or the meat would begin to cook. Each of us grabbed a leg and pulled, but it was more difficult wrestling the pig out. Martin told Mad Peter to take hold of both hind legs while I grabbed the end. I clamped my hands around the tail, and on three we tugged.

I drew my breath sharply and pulled but instantly went reeling backwards off my feet. For a second I thought the tail had snapped off in my hands. Except for Beth, the others were laughing. Dora slapped her side and pointed. I opened my hand slowly, and there in the palm was not the tail but a small nest of black hair. I glanced over at Blacktail. Her tail was intact, though comically bald and white like clothesline.

“Great Sakes!” I said, getting up. “Is that thing ever slimy.”

After the hog was out, we began uprooting the hair. At first it came off easily in clumpfuls at a time. With the hair around the jowls and legs, though, it was different. Martin used the knife and was sawing at it back and forth. As I watched him, my feet felt very cold and wet.

Eventually, the Hampshire was stripped clean of her covering. The uncertain morning light washed the pig a stained white. The dirt and weathered fence boards made her more distinct.

I went over and tried out the tripod. Pulling myself up, I swung on the rope. The posts settled a little, but the tripod was good and strong. As my feet hit the ground they felt numb and I decided, like it or not, I would have to change into my Tyroleans. I was annoyed that I’d gotten the sneakers drenched with lye water. As I turned to ask Beth if she would please run back, she was gone.

“Where’d that woman git off to?” I said.

“I think it was too much for her,” Mad Peter said.

Abruptly, I pivoted around only to see Beth hurrying toward the corner of the barn, Everything stood still. I called to her, but she didn’t hear me. I called her again. In a moment she had disappeared.

Beth’s exit was having an effect on nearly everyone. It was like a dull blow. Dora jolted us all to attention and pointed out there was much work to be done.

Martin came over to me and pushed his hat down over his eyes.”Ain’t that the cleanest sow you ever saw,” he said. “Come on, feller, let’s hoist her up,”

I glanced at Mad Peter; then Blacktail.

“Let me go change my sneakers first,” I said.

Then I climbed over the fence. I unknotted the black silk handkerchief and walked toward the house.

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