Rockingham County, North Carolina
“Go call your daddy and Uncle Kenneth,” Papa says, taking his big thermometer from the scalding trough. “This water’s near hot enough. We need to get to killing these hogs.”
He gestures toward the pen some thirty feet away. The hogs grunt and start away as if they understand him.
“Yes sir.” I rise from my crouch. I have been tending the fire, making the water hot enough for scalding the hair off the hogs after they are slaughtered. I trot up the hill to the house and stick my head in the back door.
“Water hot?” asks my uncle. I nod. He gets to his feet and pulls on his jacket. Daddy puts down his coffee mug and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
I lead the way as he and Uncle Kenneth follow me down to the hog pen. As he reaches our truck, parked near the scalding trough, Daddy opens the door and takes out his single shot .22-caliber rifle from behind the seat. He slips it free of its cloth case, then takes a box of bullets from the glove compartment. He shakes three or four into his hand and closes the box, tossing it back onto the truck seat and shutting the truck door with a bang. “Where’s Papa?” he says, looking around.
Uncle Kenneth is busy working the scraping table nearer to the scalding trough. I run and help him. Just as we get it situated, we hear the clank of metal. Papa comes down from the smoke house carrying a tin wash pan full of butcher knives and hog scrapers. These are rounded pieces of steel, slightly conical, with handles attached to their outer centers that make them look rather like shallow hand bells except that their edges are sharp.
I go to Papa and take the pan. He selects a particularly wicked looking knife and tests its edge with his thumb. He smiles and winks at me. “Razor sharp,” he says conspiratorially.
I smile back uncertainly. Papa goes to the hog pen as I take the scrapers and other knives to the scraping table. I hear the crisp snap of the bolt as Daddy loads his rifle.
Papa is already in the hog pen. Daddy hands his rifle to Uncle Kenneth and climbs in carefully. He takes the gun again. “You want to kill all three or just the two?” he asks Papa.
Pap stands and surveys the hogs for a long moment. “Just the two,” he says deliberately. “We’ll wait on the big boar. I’ll get him castrated next week. Then we’ll fatten him up and kill him to sell for sausage after Christmas. Make a little money.”
Daddy and Uncle Kenneth look at each other. Though all three have invested in the hogs about equally, Daddy has said several times before that the only person who ever makes money turning hogs into sausage is Papa.
Uncle Kenneth shakes his head, then lightly vaults over the fence into the pen. His action disturbs the hogs and they begin to stump about the square circle of the pen like boxers maneuvering for an opening. One comes over to Daddy and noses the barrel of his gun. In a smooth motion Daddy swings the gun barrel up to the hog’s forehead and fires a bullet into its brain. It immediately falls to its knees. Papa is beside it immediately. He grabs it by its right ear and pulls it over onto its left side. Kneeling on its right shoulder he plunges his butcher knife into its throat. Long experience helps him find the jugular vein, and blood spurts in a long stream, some spattering next to Daddy’s boots. He deftly steps away.
The other two hogs smell death now, so they move warily around the far end of the lot. Daddy coolly reloads his rifle. The click of the bolt as the bullet goes into place makes the hogs jump and trot first toward one side of the pen, then toward the other.
“Don’t let them run,” says Papa, rising laboriously from the dead hog. “Can’t kill that one if she gets heated.” Uncle Kenneth stands still. Daddy has walked nonchalantly to the side of the pen opposite his brother. Uncle Kenneth takes a step toward the hogs and they turn and start for the other side, stopping short when they see Daddy. Papa has moved toward the hogs trying to prevent them from running toward the front of the pen, away from both Daddy and Uncle Kenneth.
Papa gestures to me. “Charlie, come here and help us hem in this hog.”
I put down the scraper I have been fingering. Papa has never asked me to help with the killing, even though I am ten now and this is my third hog killing. My eyes are on the hog already dead. It lies on its side, its back toward me, the ground around its head dark with blood stain. I move timidly toward the pen.
“Come on, son. These hogs are getting restless.” Daddy’s tone makes me hurry and I catch my jacket on the hog wire as I tumble over the fence, nearly falling onto the frozen ground except that my jacket keeps me suspended. After gaining my footing and freeing the buttons of my jacket from the wire, I turn to face the hogs.
They eye me curiously, their heads turned to one side as if they were dogs. The hog on my right snorts philosophically and turns to my daddy. He shoots it. Uncle Kenneth grabs its ear and turns it on its side. In a moment Papa has slit its jugular and its blood spills on the ground. Its legs move as if it would run away, find safety. Suddenly I wish that it could.
Papa senses my confusion. “Go to the smoke house, Charlie, and bring two big wash tubs.” I stare at him a moment, his hands covered in blood, his butcher knife smoking. Then I turn and run to the fence, vault over it, and race up the hill to the smoke house as fast as I can. It seems essential to escape the sight and smell of the killing. I fumble with the latch on the smoke house door. It swings open after a small struggle.
The still cold inside the smoke house is penetrating; it chills me quickly. The two large washtubs are too heavy for me to carry. I put one inside the other and drag them down the hill toward the hog pen.
Daddy meets me at the scraping table. He takes the tubs apart. One he puts aside; the other he slides under a singletree hung from a limb on a big oak tree near the scalding trough. Then he goes to help Papa and Uncle Kenneth with the first hog. It is dead and they are ready to begin scalding it. For a few minutes I stand dumbly as they maneuver around the hog trying to figure out the best way to lift it. Then I am in the hog pen with them taking a firm hold on the right foreleg. The four of us carry the hog to the gate of the pen. “Let it down,” Uncle Kenneth tells me. I open the gate after we have put the hog down. When we have carried the carcass through, Daddy shuts the gate with his foot.
“Charlie, go latch that gate. Kenneth can hold your leg.” At Papa’s words my uncle takes the leg I have been straining to hold. As I lock the gate, I look across the pen at the other downed hog. It has stopped moving. The big boar who is to be killed later for sausage stands on the unbloodied dorsal side his late companion. He puts his snout down and nudges the back of the dead animal as if to wake it. Then something, the smell of death maybe, frightens him and he turns sharply away. His gaze fixes on me. He grunts low and mournful. Then one, high pitched like a shriek, that startles me and stops the others from their work.
“The dead hogs have upset him. He’ll be all right once we get the other one out of there. By tomorrow he’ll have forgotten that they were ever there with him,” Papa says.
His words seem all wrong. How can the boar forget so easily?
I watch the boar. He grunts once more, then turns and goes to the far end of the pen. There he lies down in the same posture as his dead friend. He looks around awkwardly once or twice to see if the dead hog has moved, then settles down, his breath rising steamily in the chilly air.
“See. He’s over it already,” Daddy tries to reassure me.
The clanking of chains, then a splash, tells me the first hog is in the scalding trough. I turn back to Papa and the others. With the help of two chains, held on each side of the trough by Daddy and Uncle Kenneth, they turn the hog from side to side so that the scalding water loosen its hair. “Lift her up,” says Papa. He plucks at hair along the hindquarter, the side, and the neck of the hog.
“She’s about right on this side,” he says. “Turn her over.” Daddy lowers his chains as Uncle Kenneth lifts his and the hog rolls splashily to its other side. “Not quite ready on this side,” Papa says, plucking at hair. ”Turn her back over.” Uncle Kenneth and Daddy reverse their chain movements and the hog sloshes back to its original position.
“Charlie, stoke that fire a little bit.” Uncle Kenneth waves an elbow at the end of the trough under which the fire burns. I kneel by the fire hole and chunk the coals with a tobacco stick, then add two more pieces of wood.
That’s good,” Daddy gestures with his head for me to stop feeding the fire. “We don’t want to overheat the water. Just keep it right for scalding.”
Papa checks the other side of the hog again. “She’s ready. Pitch her out on the table.” Uncle Kenneth and Daddy lift the hog with the chains and it rolls toward Uncle Kenneth who stands in the narrow space between the trough and the scraping table. He grabs the hog’s legs and hangs on. Daddy drops his chains and rushes around the trough to grab hold of the hog. I want to help but there is no room.
Uncle Kenneth sits back on the table and lifts his legs, resting his behind and heels on the table. He tugs at the hog as he scoots backward. Daddy and Papa shove mightily from the other side and the hog comes to rest on the table. Somehow Uncle Kenneth keeps from being knocked off the table and swings around to land on his feet.
Papa grins. “Kenneth, you and that hog can’t lay there together on that table.” I hand around the “bell scrapers.”
The hair comes cleanly off the side of the hog. It gathers in large clots that I must pull free from my scraper. Daddy and Uncle Kenneth do the same. We fling hair on the ground until soon there are pile around the table like those around a barber’s chair.
Some parts are harder to clean than others. Papa works on the face and chin of the hog with a butcher knife scarping off hair, then rinsing off the blade in a small pan of water taken from the scalding trough, much as Daddy rinses his razor as he shaves. As I watch him working I remember something my Grandmother Lea told me. Dead men have to be shaved by undertakers because their beards continue to grow after they’re dead.
Daddy nudges me and I step back so that he and Uncle Kenneth can turn the hog over. We move to the other side of the table, hemmed in from behind by the trough, and scrape off the rest of the hair.
Uncle Kenneth and Daddy have stopped scraping now and use knives to clean the hair from the hog’s feet. Papa finishes with the other side of the snout.
“Let’s hoist her up and get the insides out,” Papa says, straightening, his task done. The four of us carry the hog over to the block and tackle. Papa uses his knife to make a hole through the hog’s back legs, about where the ankles would be on a human. Uncle Kenneth and Daddy slip hooks through the hog’s ankles, then attach the hooks to the singletree that is fastened to the chain pulley. In this way the hog can be hoisted into the air with its legs apart making its middle easier.
When the hog is swinging, gently suspended from the singletree, Papa slides the large washtub under its head. Blood drops slowly from both the hog’s nostrils. The drops make a hollow ring as they land in the empty tub.
I have seen this before. On a television show. Except people were hung up like this hog. In Germany. During World War II. This is the same.
Suddenly Papa plunges a gleaming butcher knife between the hog’s haunches. As the knife moves down the middle of the hog’s stomach and chest it makes a ripping sound like tearing cloth, stopping occasionally as Papa tries to guide the fall of the hog’s innards into the tub. First the intestines, then the liver, then the heart and lungs droop, slither, and finally drop into the tub, all with a whooshing and splattering of blood, some bright red, some dark purplish black.
Daddy and Uncle Kenneth have just pulled the second hog from the scalding tank where they had put it without any of my ten-year-old help. I go to it and begin furiously scraping its shoulder trying to forget the image in my mind. I get my left hand out of the way of my right too slowly and the edge of the scraper cuts across my knuckles. It stings, so I jerk my hand away and shake it. When I look at it, blood trickles down two fingers.
“Whoa, there.” Daddy stops his scraping and takes my hand. He gets out his handkerchief and wipes away the blood. “Go up to the house and get some iodine and a band-aid on that first finger.”
Suddenly I hear a sound somewhere between a thump and a crack. I look around at the suspended hog. Papa is cutting it in two with an ax. He has already decapitated it. He chops straight down the hog’s backbone. He puts down the ax, takes up a saw, and begins again with that. I watch woozily, feeling my own blood trickle, feeling the saw’s rasping in my own bone.
“Run on to the house and tell Granny what you need,” Daddy tells me. I go. I run. The rasping of Papa’s saw gets fainter with each step.
* * * * * * * * * * *
I dawdle, talking to Granny, watching a little of the Macy’s parade on TV. It is Thanksgiving Day. When I get back to the hog pen, the second hog has already been gutted and split into halves. Washtubs full of internal organs sit on the scraping table. The two heads rest on feed sacks at one end.
Papa asks, “Did you get a band-aid on that finger?” I hold up my hand to show him. He nods. “Good. Go look in the back of your daddy’s truck.” He gestures with a blood-stained hand.
I stand on the truck’s running board and look into the truck bed. Half a hog rests on feed sacks. It is easier to look at now, more like meat in the grocery store.
“When I get the jowls cut up, I’ll save some out for you,” Papa is saying. “You can get them tomorrow or Saturday. We still going to hunt tomorrow?”
“All right with me.” Uncle Kenneth lights a cigarette.
Daddy leans against the side of the scraping table. “What time ya’ll want to start?”
“Be here at six o’clock and we’ll get into the woods at first light.” Papa dips his hands into the scalding trough. The fire is out now and the water has cooled some. He rubs his hands to remove the caked blood, then dries them on a feed sack.
Uncle Kenneth winks at Daddy. “I’ll be here about seven-thirty. We can get started by eight.”
“That sounds about right.” Daddy puts his hand on my shoulder as I stand by him. “You about ready to go home? We’ve got to get that hog to the frozen food locker place to get it cut and wrapped.”
“Yes sir.” I shiver again. The cold is still strong.
“Ya’ll run on, then,” Papa tells us. “Kenneth can help me take this to the house. We’ll see you in the morning.” Papa holds out his arms and I go to him. He hugs me roughly, fondly. “You have a happy Thanksgiving at your Grandmother Lea’s. You’ve been a good helper. Don’t eat too much Thanksgiving dinner.”
“I won’t. You have a happy Thanksgiving, too, Papa.”
Daddy and Uncle Kenneth have already walked over to our truck. “You gonna let Charlie hunt tomorrow?” I hear my uncle say.
“I reckon so. If he can help kill hogs, he’s old enough to hunt with us.”
Daddy ruffles my hair as we sit in our pickup waiting for Uncle Kenneth to move his so we can back out to the road. I have unbuttoned my coat and taken off my toboggan. We wave to Kenneth as we drive away. I look down the hill toward the hog pen. Papa has the two hog heads, one in each hand, holding them by the ears. He hoists one in a gesture of farewell as we wave goodbye.
Just as we turn from the unsurfaced road Papa lives onto the paved Draper Road, Daddy asks me, ‘Did some of that today bother you?”
“A little bit,” I answer, tentative. I do not know how to tell him that I hated it, that I do not want to hunt, that I want no more of killing.
“Well, don’t worry about it,” he says lightly, patting my knee. “You’ll get used to it.”
“Yes sir.” I say no more.
A few moments later he says, “We had to do what we did.” He shrugs uncomfortably. “People have to do things to live. You understand, boy?”
That night in my dreams Papa uses his ax to hack men suspended from singletrees into gushing, bloody halves.