One pig's passing

By Mary Bok | Mar 08, 2010
Courtesy of: Mary Bok

I should have known ... my dad wrote it right on the calendar that hung on the wall beside the telephone in the kitchen: "Sam comes to slaughter hog -- early." But for some reason, I either didn't notice it, or I forgot. I don't know how.

Mom cooked up a huge pot of oatmeal and stirred in a mess of cut-up apples and chunks of bread. She poured the whole pot of it into a bucket and told me to go out and feed the pig. I never thought a thing about it. I mean, about her fixing a breakfast like that for an old pig like Godfrey. She wouldn't have done any better for my own dad. Well, I took that bucket out to the pig pen and dumped it into Godfrey's trough, and he about dove into that warm, sweet smelling slop, making kind of grunting sighs as he chowed down each happy mouthful. One delighted pig, if you ask me.

Before he was done, I reached up for the scratching stick we kept hung high on the wall beside the pig sty, and I began giving Godfrey a good scratch. I started at the rosy flesh right behind his big, floppy ears, and then worked my way down the heavy, hairy skin on either side of his long backbone. He stopped eating for a few moments and rolled his head up and back until he seemed to be watching me out of the very corner of his eye; his pink tongue quivered at the corner of his mouth, and he groaned in a way I could only assume was exquisite pleasure. His gratitude moved me to even more energetic massage, until I nearly lost my balance there on the sty gate. I scratched old Godfrey's back harder and harder, until his legs began to tremble and then buckled under his enormous weight, and he sort of rolled over in his bliss, onto the mud and straw bedding that made a dry place for him to sleep there on the barn floor.

In a few seconds, he closed his eyes and began to grunt contentedly with every breath. If I hadn't known better, I might have sworn he was snoring, but whatever he meant, I felt my services were no longer needed to maintain his comfort and happiness. I picked up my mom's pail, hung the stick back up on its hook and headed on across the yard to the house.

Mom had the table all set for our breakfast, and Dad came in with the morning's milk and a basket of eggs from the hen house. He sat down beside me and poured himself a cup of hot coffee from the pot Mom had set on a trivet near the jug of cream. He poured me a half cup, too, and filled it up with milk and cream and a generous spoonful of sugar. We drank our brew in contented silence, as we waited for Mom to join us with the bacon and eggs she was cooking up on the wood stove in the center of the room. A pleasant, steady smoke scented the air, and this made me remember that I was one lucky kid ... and made the waiting all the warmer.

In a while, the eggs were done and our breakfasts sat there on the table before us -- hot, fresh and steaming. I poured a little maple syrup on the top of my muffins and dove into the meal, wondering if maybe my breakfast would bring me as much pleasure as Godfrey felt when I served him his steaming bucket of oatmeal.

Just about the time Dad scraped up the last of his eggs and wiped his plate with a crust of toast, which he then pelicaned down with a long slurp of lukewarm coffee, I heard a large truck pull up the driveway and come to a halt in the yard.

"Gotta go, Darlin' ... see you at lunch time," he said over his shoulder to Mom as he rose up and grabbed his jacket from off the coat hook by the door.

"Good luck, dear," she replied. "Please do give Sam my regards, and ask him to say hello to Marlene for me, will you?"

"Sure, I will," he said, as he went out the door.

Through the window beside the kitchen table, I could see Sam unloading his gear from the back of his truck. He put an armload of heavy chains in the bucket of my dad's tractor, which was parked close by. Then a large tank that seemed to have a double length of hose coiled inside, and then a shotgun and an assortment of hammers, long knives, a rake or two and maybe a dozen sticks of firewood. It all looked to me like a pretty interesting morning. I decided to hang around and maybe be of some help to whatever it was they were going to be doing.

By then, Mom was washing up the breakfast dishes and acting pretty busy about it. I
guessed she had something on her mind, because she wasn't talking much and didn't seem to be one bit interested in all the activity going on outside the window.

Finally, she turned to me and said, "I'm going into town in a while to do the marketing,
and I plan to stop at the Whittakers' place on the way home to deliver some eggs and milk your dad promised them last week. Wanna come with me? You could play with Joel while I visit with Mrs. Whittaker, if you'd like."

"No, Mom," I replied. "I'm going to stay here today, and see if I can help Dad and Sam."

"Very well, then. But you be sure to put on your extra sweater and cap. It's pretty cold
out there this morning, and I don't want you catching your death." And before I knew it, she was drying her hands on her apron, combing her hair, and putting on her coat and gloves and was out the door and on her way.

I was suddenly alone in the kitchen then, with the sound of the old clock ticking against the wall and the snap and crackle of the last of the morning's fire in the wood stove. I could hear my dad talking to Sam out in the yard, above the drone of the tractor engine, but it all sounded very far away, and I felt like the only boy left in an isolated corner of a very old world.

I swept up the breakfast crumbs from under the table and put them in the can of scraps we collected to feed the chickens. I knew Mom would appreciate my doing this, and I reminded myself that the hens would as well. Then I pulled on my sweater and cap and made my way out through the woodshed toward the barn and the yard beyond. It was just about then that I heard the first of Godfrey's awful screams -- squealing, shrieking -- as if the dogs were after him in the dead of night. I started to run as fast as I could, to do what I might to save him from the hell that was surely descending on his world. When I got to the barn door, I stood, leaning on the frame, breathless and sweaty, despite the morning's chill. Down below me, I could see my dad and Sam, standing beside the gate of the pig's sty. Dad held a length of chain in both hands, and Sam carried the heavy, wooden hammer he brought over from his place. Sam was a large man, with big, muscled arms, and he swung that hammer at full arm's length, as he aimed at the soft spot between Godfrey's floppy ears. One swift, sure swing brought the hammer down, over the sty gate and made a muffled thudding sound when it met with Godfrey's head. The dreadful shrieks and squealing stopped immediately, and I heard Sam swear.

"There. He'll be feeling some better now, won't he?" And my dad nodded. "Sure thing, Sam."

I watched, in horror, then, as Sam jogged over to his truck, loaded his hunting gun and walked calmly back to the sty gate and the enormous, but limp bulk of pink that still looked like the pig I had known so well.

He aimed the gun at the same spot he had just aimed his hammer, and pulled the trigger, releasing a deafening blast. The pig seemed to jump in surprise, but then returned to the heavy stupor that so resembled his sleeping. Sam busied himself with an iron bar that he pushed through the soft skin and muscles just behind Godfrey's hocks. Once the bar was in place, he attached it to one end of the chain my father passed to him. Dad hooked the other end of the chain to the bucket of the tractor, so that when he hoisted the bucket way up above the ground, the old pig went with it, and in the shade of the barn wall, cut a dark silhouette against the gray sky. It was truly an amazing thing to see, even though it was awful, right down to the pit of my stomach. As I watched, I realized I could hardly breathe. It all felt like a bizarre dream, in a language that was completely foreign to me. And then, as if on cue, I heard a woman's voice calling out to my dad.

"Oh, Tony! Am I too late? I am so sorry. I came as soon as your good wife told me today was the day you and Sam would be slaughtering. I wanted to make for you the same Cherman sausage my own mother made for me when I was a girl. It was so delicious. I know you will luff it. Tell me, haff you collected the fresh blood yet?"

"No, Marlene, not yet. We're just about ready. You've come at precisely the right time."

"Ohh! Thank Gott!" she said, and then she turned to me with a gasp and a fierce authority in her eye. "Go!. Go get for me your father's finest, clean milking pail. Hurry! Run. Don't stand there! Go get it ... now!"

I looked to my dad to see what I should do. He nodded to me with his head gesturing toward the barn, and I spun around and ran as fast as I could go, returning a few minutes later with the shiny steel pail he used only for milking. Surely this must be a special thing she wants to do for him, for him to let her use this pail, I thought to myself.

Just as I came back through the barn door, I saw Sam standing beside the tractor and the suspended pig, with a long, gleaming knife at the ready. As soon as he saw me coming with the pail, he reached out and sliced the flesh just under Godfrey's fat jowls. Blood came pouring out in a brilliant red torrent. Marlene leaped toward me, grabbed the milk pail and held it against the flow, so that it filled quickly with the precious flood. When she decided it was filled, she fastened the lid in place, lifted the pail and staggered off across the yard toward her car. "Thank you, Tony," she called as she went. "I'll see you soon and will bring you my sausage. You'll just love it! I know you will."

I stared at the back of her car as she drove down the driveway toward the main road and her house about a mile away. The thought of eating her sausage was more than I could imagine at that moment, and I hoped then that I would never even have to look at it. The sound of her voice and the awesome, lumpy shape of her words in my ear were already more than I wanted to remember, and I hoped then never again to hear it. Onto the character of this woman, who wanted to recreate a moment and an event in her history, I attached all the shock and horror of this dreadful morning. Perhaps it was just because I could see that she valued something I wished had never happened, and remembered with joy such things I wanted never to be. Without a breath of apology, I quietly hated this person who called herself our neighbor, but who lay a sort of claim on this day and siphoned off the spirit that held it intact.

Now, all these many years later, I have to admit that I never did taste that blood sausage Marlene brought to us a few days later, in a neatly wrapped package, tied up with black string.

And I don't remember hearing my dad say a word about it, either. I guess I never will know about that.

But I also have to admit that I have never refused a second helping of the delicious bacon that came out of our smokehouse a week or so after that day. Dad said it was a gift from Uncle Arthur, an uncle I surely don't remember, but to whom I am most grateful.

Mary Bok lives in Camden.

 

 

 

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