Elizabeth pulled her coat around her, holding it closed with her hand. Standing inside the screen door that led out to the back of the house, she felt the morning chill spread into the kitchen. The first frost would be coming soon and Eugene still needed to board up the windows and butcher the last hog. Eugene had wanted to wait to the last moment because he said they needed the meat to last through the winter, but Elizabeth could not hold off any longer. She knew there was enough meat on the hog to last through the winter and on into the year. She didn't know why Eugene wanted to wait. There were too many things to be done to prepare for the coming season to put off the butchering. Butchering took time. And the work was going to be harder in the cold.
She was also hungry for the pork.
Elizabeth opened the screen door, grabbed the metal bucket she left sitting outside, and walked out. The screen door swung shut behind her as she made her way to the spigot. Today would be the last time they used the new spigot out back. They had only had it since the start of the summer; it was put in by a new government water project they heard about from a farmer down the road. They were lucky to get the spigot. They had heard the water project allocations were sparse for the area. When their well went dry last year before the dust storms started, they walked into town every other week to stand in line in front of the store to fill their jugs with the rationed water, but now they had the new water spigot and they could not chance the pipes freezing during the winter.
Looking over into the pen out by the shed, she heard a soft shuffling of hooves. The sun was trying to warm her face as the chill stung her lungs with each breath she drew through her mouth and she pulled the coat's collar tighter around her neck. It’s going to be a hard day, she thought. The cold would make the bleed slower. The butchering would take longer and her body was already tired.
Her hair hung loose down around her shoulders. She had run a comb though it, tugging at the tangles and knots. She thought she would do something with her hair before heading into town to the store, but she was not sure. She did not want everyone in town to see her slumming it with the hogs, believing she was so stressed and struggling that a simple styling was out of her reach. There was still some pride left in her, some belief that she could show it wasn't as bad as it really was and hide her hunger. But washing and styling her hair would take time and she did not want to wash it and go into town with it wet because, with the chill in the air, her hair would be frozen by the time she got to the store and she'd get sick from the head cold. She couldn't chance it; sickness was death. They didn't have money for a doctor and she didn't have time to wash her hair and let it dry.
There was too much work to be done with the butchering, but Elizabeth and Eugene, her husband, needed eggs and she knew there would be a man set up in front of the store today selling eggs. The man sold them cheaper than the store, but he was only there once or twice a month. She heard today was the day he was coming. And she needed some more yarn in order to darn Eugene’s socks and some thread to stitch the pair of jeans she caught on the barbed wire they put up last week as they reinforced the fence along the backside of their small pasture. They didn't want a fox coming after their hog in the final week before the butchering.
Eugene had heard about a fox getting into someone’s chicken coup as he passed time in town looking for work. They hoped the WPA would take him on for labor, but there were too many other men in the town who still looked strong enough to do the work. Eugene had lost some mass over the past months, the hunger catching up to him. When she held him, her arms were not full with his body. Her own body changed too. Her eyes were darker and her belly started to protrude. Some nights as she lay in bed, she held her stomach, almost wishing she was pregnant, a child pressing her stomach out instead of the hunger she felt inside.
Elizabeth carried the metal bucket from the house, slightly swinging it and grazing her outer thigh as she walked to the spigot. With each swing of the bucket, the metal slapped her thigh. She liked the feeling, the force of the bucket hitting her thigh, the sensation of contact driving through her body. The sound helped her legs to move in the rhythm of the muted slaps. It was almost as if she was marching to the sound of a steady drum, urging her to move on through the cold.
She needed something to make her move every day it seemed, some new purpose or thought or sound forcing her to go through the motions and clean the few dishes in the sink, scrub the laundry and hang it on the line, and make the few eggs last longer by sharing them for breakfast. It was not going to get any better if she did not go through the motions. Elizabeth was not going to lean on the fence while looking out into the woods behind their pasture, looking into the darkness between the trees, listening to the distant sounds of things living beyond her sight, and then suddenly kick over a rock by one of the fence posts and find a drifter’s fortune buried beneath it. She was not going to find a slab of raw pork in the freezer waiting to be thawed and seasoned and cooked, the aroma of meat filling the house. But that was what she thought about nowadays. Food and money.
She set the bucket under the spigot. The hog needed more fresh water in the pen out back. Eugene was already in the shed working on the knives again. It was the same as yesterday. Elizabeth did not understand why the knives needed to be sharpened against the whetstone again. He did not use them yesterday working around the house, sealing off holes in the foundation, or even when he went off to help a neighbor who owned the farm down the road replace a couple sections of the cattle fence that got torn through during the season’s last dust storm. Elizabeth remembered how Eugene and she sat in the house when the storm came, damp cloths covering the windows, holding back the dirt. She was thankful the neighbor gave them some milk for Eugene's work. But the knives, she thought. The knives should still be sharp enough to start butchering the damn hog. He didn't need to sharpen them again.
Eugene built his shed years ago when they decided to raise hogs. After they were married and moved onto the small farm, they thought about what they wanted on the farm. Hogs seemed like a good idea. They did not need the range like cattle did, just a good sized, clean pen, food, and water. They built two pens behind their house, one for the hogs to live in and get fed and a smaller one to seclude the one ready to be butchered. Eugene built his shed next to the small pen. On the outside, he secured a bar and pulley to hang and bleed the hog, he dug a fire pit so he could boil a barrel of water to scald the flesh and help loosen the fat, and he had a hard table to withstand the cuts of the saw.
With her hand holding the knob of the spigot, Elizabeth stood looking at the larger, empty pen. In the earlier days, they had spent the money, brought the hogs home, poured feed into their bellies, and bred them. Through the years, they were able to cure and sell the meat in town and it provided a nice living. Good pork was a commodity. But then came the crash and though the prices fell, no one could afford the meat. They had had some money saved for feed and decided to keep the hogs, trade them for goods when they could, and eat the meat.
But now they were down to their last hog. It was only the second one they butchered this year. Some disease was in the county. Hogs were dying, dropping dead overnight, the legs stiff and tongues hanging, and the farmers with chickens told of how the eggs were laid with shells so thin some broke while being laid. The first morning the disease found their farm, Eugene walked from the backdoor to the pen and found two of the sows on their sides. He cleaned them up and burned the carcasses out in the field before their death had the chance to spread to the others. But by the end of the month, three more died. Then seven others, including the boar. All of their bodies were buried. With the hogs dead, the money dried up. There was no meat to eat. No shoats to trade. They had to buy what they could. Only the little one, the newborn sow, the six month old, survived the outbreak. Eugene and Elizabeth fed her what they managed, and watered her, and petted her, and checked her over for signs of cuts and scrapes until she was a good age and weight to be butchered.
Last week though, over a dinner of dry oatmeal, Eugene questioned whether the hog should be kept for breeding because they had to discuss it.
“She’s been a strong one,” Eugene had said and Elizabeth had agreed, scooping the last remnants of oatmeal from her bowl. “And buying a male would be cheaper than buying a pair,” he continued. “And she did survive whatever the hell killed the others. Might be good to keep that strength around.”
Elizabeth sat back in her chair. Oatmeal clung to the roof and her mouth and settled between her teeth. They did not have the money to invest in more hogs yet; they had put it all into the dead ones. Eugene was struggling to find work off the farm and Elizabeth did what trading she could with the families around the town, but it barely kept them afloat. “When will we have the money to buy a boar?” Elizabeth stood up and cleared both of their bowls from the kitchen table.
She thought about how she could stretch the meat into seven or eight months of food, longer if they ate as they did now, if the hog was butchered. She figured they could each get a piece of bacon a day for five months from the hog. And then there would be the other cuts, the chops, the loins, the shanks. The ham. “I want the meat.” The sow was old enough to breed, but they didn't have a boar. In the off chance they had the money to buy one and the feed he'd need, it'd be another month for the breeding to take, four months after that for the litter. “I want the meat,” she said again. She dropped the bowls into the sink, the spoons and ceramics clattering on top of each other, and turned around, her hair falling over her eyes before she used her hands to push it back.
“I know. It's not like I don't.” Eugene turned toward her in his chair, resting one arm along the table and the other over the back of his chair. “But you don't have to get upset about it.”
“Upset?” She swallowed. “Why do you think I'm upset?” The sow wouldn't get any bigger with what they were able to feed her. Elizabeth wondered if the sow would even last the winter. With the butchering, they'd have food for a good part of a year, or they could wait and see if things picked up, if Eugene got work, if she found anything to trade or barter, if they could last on what they already had. There were so many ifs. She held her fist to her mouth and breathed. “Damn it.” She slammed her fist on the counter. A pain shot through her hand and up into her wrist, but it felt good. At least she was feeling something besides hunger, besides that want to have something in her mouth, chewing and swallowing. She shook her hand and ran it up through her hair, feeling the dirt and the dust settling in. Her hand came away oily. She wiped her hand along the side of her dress.
Eugene got up and put his arms around her, pulling her into him. “We'll butcher her,” he said.
She nodded as he held her. She didn't know if he agreed with her about wanting the meat over the breed, but they couldn't keep feeding the hog. She would not feed the hog over them anymore. The oats, the grains, the scraps. She fed the sow to butcher it. It kept her going when she gave her food, knowing it was for meat. But now, setting the day for the butchering was putting her over the edge. She tasted the possibilities of meat in her mouth. The chewy fat. The gristle. Eugene said they would butcher the sow. It needed to get done before winter, they agreed on it, but Eugene kept putting it off.
Turning off the spigot, Elizabeth wiped her hands across her apron and grabbed the bucket, walking to the pen. She would have to change her dress before going into town to the store, she thought. The dress she wore looked more and more like a patchwork quilt after every month. She used different swatches of fabric to cover the widening holes and whatever thread she had left to stitch into the seams. She sold off most of her belongings over the summer. She loaded up the Packard with dresses and hats, some pots and pans, and anything she thought would bring them a couple dollars and drove to town. Eugene did not go with her. He stayed in the shed.
When she got to the thrift stores and markets, she looked around, seeing others trying to unload their stuff for a few bucks and some change. When she started to barter and trade, she did not push back on the prices offered. She knew some people would hold out, hoping for a higher price that no one offered. She took the lowest bids. She did not know what Eugene did that day, but, after selling the Packard, she walked home with a few groceries, a sack of feed, and a couple dollars to get them through. He did not ask her how much she got for all the things she sold and she was glad. She didn't want to tell him the small amount.