An earlier version of this story was published in Chelsea 76, Fall 2004, 100-105
Daddy swings the sledgehammer like a baseball bat and you can hear the thunk all the way to the house.
“Jesus Christ, Elwood, don’t kill him with the hammer. That’s what I got the pig sticker for.” The Pig Sticker. That’s what Uncle Ris calls his big ol’ butcherin knife. That’s what I call Uncle Ris, too – but not to his face, not out loud. His whole name is Aristus, but nobody uses his whole name. He’s a banty rooster sorta man, with a wide mouth and thin hair. He’s strong for his size, but then his size ain’t much, so Daddy always swings the hammer.
“I ain’t aiming to kill him – but I ain’t aiming for him to get up again, neither. I don’t fancy wrestling no two hundred and twenty pounds of half-stunned hog.” That’s what Daddy says, but last night I heard him tell Mama he just hates to hear a pig squeal. Said it reminds him of Tommy when he got his foot caught in that bear trap. Folks said Tommy just limped his way to the grave after that. So Daddy hits the hog hard as anything.
We help Ris and Marie with the butchering for a share of the meat. First thing when we got to the farm this morning, I pumped and Mama and Aunt Marie hauled water for the scalding trough. Fifty gallons of water takes a lotta trips and a lotta heating over the pit fire. It’s near ready now. Aunt Marie turns to Mama, her eyes sparking. ”’Make sure you got enough sage,’ he says, ‘Make sure you got enough pepper’ – like I ain’t been making souse and sausage these twelve years and more! Like I don’t know what’s gotta be done on butchering day! When did he ever hafta tell me to lay in saltpeter or molasses for the curing?” Aunt Marie don’t expect no answer and Mama don’t give none.
I put out the long-handled ladles for dipping. The fire’s laid for the sausage pot. It’s a good pot-cast iron that’s seasoned right, smooth as satin inside, up on its own legs, with a good fitting lid and bale. There’s catch-pots for liver, heart, and lights and two washtubs, one for the bleeding, one for the guts. The lard pot’s handy. Maybe we’ll render the lard today, too. I can’t lift the sausage pot or the lard pot, but I lay out the dull knives for scraping off the hair.
Ris says a hog’ll bleed out a whole lot better iffn he’s alive when his throat’s cut. One that’s dead on the ground, the blood just settles into the meat and that ain’t good a tall. This time when Daddy hit the hog, he just dropped right down and stayed put, his sides heaving. Daddy and Uncle Ris don’t talk much, they just tie up the hog’s hind feet and throw the ropes over the pulleys so’s they can haul him up on the scaffold. Uncle Ris grabs the Pig Sticker and cuts his throat, a big half-moon smile on the left side, about three inches back from the jawbone. Daddy pushes the washtub over to catch the blood that spurts out. Some folks just let it run out on the ground, but Mama and Aunt Marie always make blood pudding. We never take none of that, but Ris likes it.
Ris shoves a tin cup over toward the hog while the blood is still pumping out strong. Red streaks the silvery sides of the cup and splashes his brown callused hand. He holds out the cup but Daddy shakes his head. Ris drinks, licking his lips and smiling, his teeth swimming red. It looks like fresh-made tomato juice, the steam curling up like smoke in the November cold. “We got a good day for butchering this year,” Ris says. “The tempe’ture’s right at thirty-three and tonight’s the full moon. We should get good lard and good meat.” They hunker down, waiting for the hog to bleed out.
When there’s just a little blood still dripping, Daddy says, “Let’s get on with it.” They drag the hog over to the scalding pot. If the water’s too hot, it’ll set the hair rather than loosen it up. When Ris can run his finger through the water three times – but not four – it’s ready.
Mama and Aunt Marie help the men dipping the hog and scraping off the hair, and then they haul it up again, pouring more hot water over it and scraping the last bits away. Aunt Marie says, “I don’t know which is worse, the smell of wet hog hair or the smell of wet hen feathers.”
Uncle Ris uses the Pig Sticker to cut the hog’s neck all around, clear to the bone. Daddy twists off the head. He gives it to Mama and Marie to start the souse and scrapple. Daddy lays open the belly from crotch to chin, showing muscle and fat and not much blood now. Ris says, “I smell you got a good cut this time,” and laughs. Last year Uncle Lewie cut the bowel. It stunk something awful and liked to ruin the innards.
The men work on gutting the hog. The guts fall into the washtub, slick with the wet, all the colors of mourning doves. The bulges and bends’re pretty-if you don’t think about what they are.
Marie says, “I don’t much like cleaning the guts for sausage casings, but it really ain’t no worse’n cleaning a baby once he’s dirtied hisself. Smells about the same. And there ain’t nothing you can get on your hands that you can’t wash off.” Mama and Aunt Marie work on trimming up the heart, soaking the liver and such.
All this time Weezie is standing around watching, eyes round as nickels, sidling up closer and closer. Sister’s only three and no help a tall. “You go on and play now,” Daddy says. “Don’t be getting under foot.”
Weezie walks up the hill a ways, dragging Sal behind her by one foot. Mama made Sal out of a flour sack, with a stitched-on face and loops of brown binder twine for curls. Weezie takes Sal everywhere and now Sal’s so dirty, there ain’t a white spot anywhere. Uncle Ris says her name ought to be “Nig” now, and Mama puts her fists on her hips and says, “Ris, don’t you go teaching my baby to talk trash!”
Weezie goes to washing Sal in the horse watering trough and when she drops her outta reach, cries till Mama fishes her out. “Now you stay away from that horse trough,” Mama says. “I don’t have time to fool with you today.” The third time Weezie throws Sal in on purpose and Mama says, “I told you I’m not fishing her out no more. Sal’s gone for good this time.” And she is, too. Mama would go back for Sal later, but Daddy won’t let her. “Don’t make threats you won’t carry out,” he says. Weezie cries till she gets hiccups and wears herself out and falls asleep on the porch swing, tears chapping her dirty cheeks. The grownups don’t pay her no more mind.
Mama and Aunt Marie take the hog’s head into the house. I hurry behind, trying to keep up. They cut off the snout and ears, remove the eyes and brain, singe off the last of the hairs and bristles. Aunt Marie says, “I used to think it was bad at home, with a dozen younger’n me to look after, weeds to pull and soap to make, shaving Dad whenever Mom couldn’t. I used to think there wasn’t much worse’n sleeping four to the bed and wearing feedsack dresses.” Aunt Marie puts pieces of pig skin in a skillet to fry up crisp. When they’re sizzling good, she says, “Now it seems like out of the frying pan, into the fire. Married to a little man who needs to be big, strutting and loud when he’s sober, mean when he’s drunk.”
While Aunt Marie talks, Mama takes an axe to the head and lays it into quarters. She puts the pieces in fresh water to soak. She starts to put her arm around Aunt Marie but her hands’re bloody so she just says, “Oh, Sis,” in this real mournful voice.
Aunt Marie shrugs, but she sounds dead serious. “That last time he cuffed me better be the last time-and he knows it, too. I was still wearing that bruise the next time I shaved him. All leaned back in his ladder-back chair, the shaving soap thick on his face, and me just nicking his neck, drawing just a drop of red to pink the white lather. Him saying, ‘Watch what the hell you’re doing, woman,’ and me saying, ‘It ain’t just the Pig Sticker that can get the job done, Ris. The day you hit me again better be the day you start shaving yourself-and cooking your own meals, locking up the guns and tools, and sleeping with one eye open.’ You should’ve seen the look on his face! I liked to of busted out laughing. I should’ve stood up to him a long time ago. Things would’ve been a whole lot different around here iffn I’d stood up to him from the beginning.”
Mama says, “It’s no use beating yourself up over that now.” She and Aunt Marie clean the entrails. They start the sausage pot for the lean meat trimmings and the lard pot for the trimmings of fat. I push more wood into the fires and stay outta the way.
“Bessie’s always going on about how much more she helps Lewie, being on the farm all day. I say, ‘More power to you, Sis!’ The best thing I ever did was to keep my job at RBM after I got married.”
Mama says, “I know it’s hard, working the factory by day, the farm nights and weekends.”
Aunt Marie says, “But mark my words, it’s worth it. A woman needs some money of her own-more’n just butter and egg money. Money in her pocket and a way to get more … a woman’s got that much, she’s got choices. And if it weren’t for some of the women on the line, I don’t know when I’d ever of learned about taking brewer’s yeast and pennyroyal tea. I might of been like Mom, dropping another youngun every couple years, instead of stopping at one. The pennyroyal’s good as any other mint and better’n most, but that sour-bitter taste of the yeast is enough to curl your tongue. Still and all, it gets the job done-and Ris none the wiser.”
Mama says, “Sis,” and tilts her head toward me.
Aunt Marie shrugs. “If she understands, she’s old enough to know. She needs to learn sometime.” I keep my eyes on the fat melting into lard and try to look like I’m not hearing anything. After awhile Marie says, “He’ll want me in bed tonight. Lord, he’s randy after butchering. Unless he starts drinking to celebrate and passes out early. It’s almost more’n I can stomach, him coming after me when he’s been at the hog’s blood. I almost think I can taste it, that salty metal taste, mixed in with the sweet of the bourbon. But at least he’ll’ve had a bath. ”
Aunt Marie dries her hands on her apron. “The hogs’re good this year-not a one under two hundred pounds-and he’s had ’em penned up and on corn for a month. There won’t be any a that acorn bitter to this meat, and the lard’ll be whiter’n cream.” She moves over to the stove and pokes the pieces of hog’s head. “That’s the best thing about the farm – having all the fresh cream and eggs I want. Ris knows his farming all right. We own this place free and clear and rent fields besides. He’s a hard worker, Ris is-a good provider.” Marie pushes a bit of hair back under the bandanna tied around her head and looks out the window. “I got the smell of apple blossoms in the spring, and the creek below the house talks to me all year long. That’s more’n lots can say.”
Daddy and Uncle Ris cut the gutted carcass up into middlins, hams, and shoulders for the smokehouse. When they finish, Daddy picks up the sledgehammer again and takes his stand at the mouth of the chute, knees bent a little, the hammer resting on his shoulder. Uncle Ris sets the Pig Sticker on the fence post and starts herding another hog from the pen into the chute, waving his hat and yelling “Soooo-eeee!” We’ll all have plenty to eat this winter.
I measure seasonings into the sausage pot, just like Aunt Marie wrote down – red pepper and black pepper, salt and brown sugar, and lots of sage. Mama says, “You’re doing a fine job, Jeannie. You’re gonna make some farmer a good wife.”
I smile. “I sure would like all the fresh eggs and cream. But maybe I won’t want to marry no farmer. Maybe I’ll just be a farmer.”
Mama and Aunt Marie laugh. Mama says, “Another ten years, you’ll be singing a different tune.”
Maybe. But I won’t change my mind about the Pig Sticker. I won’t take none of that.