Route 7 Review
Issue # 2015
Lance Turner is a writer living in the Heartland. He has a MFA from the University of Kansas and a BA in English from Kansas State University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blinders Literary Journal, The Penumbra Review, Gravel, Indiana Voice Journal, The Pierian, and Touchstone.
Leaning over the fence of the pen, Elizabeth tilted the bucket and clean, fresh water sloshed into the trough. She looked into the back of the pen and saw the hog move to the front. It trotted up to the trough and drank. She could hear it lap up the water, sucking the liquid into its mouth. Elizabeth bent forward, teetering on the wooden fence and stroked the hog along its back as she continued to drink. Elizabeth felt the short hairs against the palm of her hand. She let go of the bucket, letting it hit and roll onto the ground, and reached her other hand out to the hog, putting her hands on either side of its flanks, feeling the roundness of the body and the thickness of the meat, its body gently rocking with each mouthful of water the hog took down its throat.
The top bar from the wooden fence pressed into her stomach as she leaned over, but then the hog started to move away and her arms stretched farther out until her hands began to run along the length of the hog, and then it was away from her.
Elizabeth looked to the shed. The door was propped open. She stepped closer and a sharp, scrapping sound echoed in her ears. She pictured Eugene sitting down and pushing the knife across the whetstone, from the tip to the base. Walking closer to the shed she wondered which knife it would be, the sticking knife, the carving knife, maybe even one of the blades he would use to cut through the spine. He had showed them to her, explaining the process. He went on to say how the tools had to be sharp because if they were not the job would not go as smooth and the flesh could tear. The meat could sour with an improper butchering. This last hog had to be done right.
Elizabeth pressed her back against the outside wall of the shed, leaning her head back against the wood and closing her eyes. She listened to the sound of the blade on the stone. The continuous movement and pressure put on the length of the cutting edge. She had seen him work. Eugene would hold the outer edge of the blade and angle it away from him, steadying himself with his other hand. Tilting her head toward the open door she could hear him breathing. Deep breaths coming through his nose, his legs spread open as he sat, working on one of the low benches. She adjusted her body, shifting her weight back and forth. She pressed her hips back into the wall and heard another stroke of the blade. The air smelled of cow. The wind was blowing down from the neighbor’s farm. The neighbor and his cows always seemed so close because of the smell. She rubbed her nose with the back of her hand and pushed herself away from the shed. She retrieved the bucket from beside the fence and headed back toward the house.
“Where are you going?”
She heard his voice behind her and turned around. Eugene stood in the doorway of the shed, wiping the sticking knife with a damp cloth to remove any metal flakes clinging to it after the sharpening.
“Back into the house,” she said. “Have to get ready to head into town.”
He stepped away from the shed. “You know I need you to stay and help out.”
She knew he couldn't butcher by himself anymore. Their bodies were already tired at the start of the day. “I would’ve if you had done it yesterday.” She turned and walked back up to the house. Their hog should have been more important than their neighbor's cattle fence. “But I won’t be long. You should have the hog bled by the time I get back.” She pulled open the screen door and looked back at him.
“I’ll just wait,” Eugene said, throwing the cloth over his shoulder and turning back to the shed.
Elizabeth let go of the screen door and let it snap shut. “What?” The meat was close. She pictured the slabs on the counter. He didn't need to wait.
She waited for him to answer, but he was already back in the shed. She heard him scraping a knife along the whetstone. She tossed the bucket up against the base of the house and walked to the shed. “What?” She yelled, standing in the shed’s doorway. “You’re going to wait?” She felt her stomach heave at the thought. No meat. No lard for soap.
“Yeah.” He made another pass at the whetstone, sharpening the carving knife. “Always good to have another pair of hands when butchering.”
“You can still bleed her though.” Her voice was getting higher, strained. She rubbed her throat with her palm.
Eugene pushed the blade across the stone. “Maybe,” he said, looking over at her. His eyes did not reach her face, but stopped in her general direction, like he was looking at something on the table next to the door. “Might not be a good day for it.”
She reached out and gripped the edge of the doorway to keep herself from hitting him. “Why not?” He wanted to breed her, she thought. He was backing out from the butchering. He wanted to wait. He was holding out for work to come from town. He wanted a boar. He wanted her to be hungry. He thought they were doing fine as they were. She didn't know what to think. A splinter worked itself underneath her fingernail as she dug into the door frame. She breathed hard as it went into her.
“She seems restless.” He made another pass with the blade.
“Get out here and look at this hog.” Elizabeth left the shed's doorway and walked over to the fence. She looked at her nail and saw the splinter burrowed underneath. She saw the hog was on its back, wriggling in the dirt.
Eugene stood near the edge of the shed.
The hog stood up in her pen.
“She’s perfectly happy,” Elizabeth said, using her finger for emphasis, pointing at the hog as the sow relieved herself where she stood. “She’s calm. Relaxed. She isn’t restless, Eugene.” The hog snorted and Elizabeth looked at her. “What is going on?” Kill this hog, she thought.
Eugene wiped his hands on the back of his overalls and stepped toward her, taking a quick glance at the hog before looking at her. “You’re putting too much into this hog, Elizabeth,” Eugene said.
Too much, she thought. The hog was everything. The hog was food. The hog was cooking fat. With the hog she didn't have to worry when they would eat meat again. She could feel full every now and then and not sit at the kitchen table watching Eugene slowly eat his portions after she finished hers.
“It’s not going to solve everything,” he continued. “It’s not going to get us money. No one's going to buy the meat. Not for a good price.” He stepped closer toward her. “It’s not going to make things easier. It’s only going to get us food.”
Good food, she thought. Meat.
“And even that’s only for a couple months and then we’ll be right back here.” Eugene gestured around him. His hands including the house, the yard, the fence, the pens, the fields and them, their whole lives enveloped in one short gesture of his hands. “But then there won’t be a hog to butcher. It’ll just be us.” He put his arms down and looked at the hog.
She looked too. The hog was back at the trough, drinking.
“What are you going to think about when we don't have any more meat?”
Elizabeth clenched her teeth. She didn't know what would happen after the meat was gone, but she still wanted it. She thought about the meat too long to turn back. She thought about the meals during winter. She planned which holidays she could cook up the chops. She turned from him and walked back to the house. Opening the screen door, she looked back and saw Eugene return to the shed. He was back sharpening his knives, she thought. He was making sure the knives were sharp enough to saw through the head and the spine, even though he wasn't going to butcher. She let the screen door slam shut behind her.
Going into the kitchen, Elizabeth pulled a pair of tweezers out of the kitchen drawer and dug the splinter out of her finger. The splinter was deep, hooked into her skin. Her fingertip bled when she pulled the sliver out. She leaned over the kitchen sink, her head sinking forward. The hog. The meat. The lard. If Eugene was not going to start the butchering, she was. She left the kitchen and went into the bedroom. She reached under the mattress near the headboard and pulled out a .45 revolver, her own. Eugene kept his shotgun by the front door. The people in town were more agitated now because there was not enough money, work, and food to go around. She knew not to sell the guns.
She went back outside, the screen door swinging shut. Her coat blew open with the breeze. Eugene was in the shed. She heard him scraping against the whetstone again. He had a one track mind, she thought. All he cared about was the damn knives. She went around the side of the pen, cocking the revolver. The hog stood near the trough, its belly low to the ground. She opened the gate to the pen and went inside. She saw Eugene do the kill before. The hog moved as she came closer, trotting to the other side of the pen and then to the back. She followed the hog around the pen, grabbing it around the neck, but she couldn't hold it. The hog was stronger; it pulled away. She shook her head as the hog went back up to the trough. She didn't even have the strength to keep a hog in place. The meat would fix that.
She crept slowly along the edge of the pen. The hog was drinking. She was thirsty. Elizabeth stepped closer and bent down, putting the revolver up against the hog's right ear, aiming towards the left eye. She pulled the trigger. The gun kicked in her hand. The bullet went through the hog's brain and blew out the left eye socket. Elizabeth rested against the fence as the hog dropped over.
Eugene rushed out of the shed, turning toward the pen to see the bleeding body of the hog.
“That’s how you said to do it, right?” She walked toward the gate.
“What did you do?” Eugene looked from the dead hog to Elizabeth as she walked out of the pen and stood next to him.
“Someone had to step up around here,” she said, leaning forward onto the fence. “Now, stick that hog.” She wanted to get the bleed started before she walked into town.
She watched as Eugene stepped into the pen and grabbed the hind legs of the hog. He dragged the body out of the pen and behind the shed. He tied a rope around the hogs back legs, above the hoof but below the hock to save the cut of ham shanks and hoisted it into the air by the pulley he rigged beside the shed. With the hog suspended well above the ground, he tied the rope off on a post. They'd have a little tomorrow, she thought. A small cut. A small strip. She wanted the meat, but she knew how to make it last. She wanted just enough to taste and smell.
Eugene grabbed his knife and stuck the hog, making a short incision into the throat at the breast bone, severing the vein and artery. He started the bleed. It would take longer, she thought, since the hog was dead. The heart could not pump the blood out in spurts and gushes because it had already stopped. Sometimes they cut the hog's throat and let it run out around the pen. It was a faster bleed and kept the skull intact, which lessened the chance of contaminating the meat, but it was more of a mess, the pen soaked with hog's blood. This looked like a clean shot to her.
Eugene stepped away from the hog and watched the blood begin to stream from its throat. He brought the sticking knife over and gave it to her.
“I'll wash it before I go,” she said. She figured he would have time to finish the bleed, start the fire and get the scalding tank ready to boil the water before she got back from town.
He nodded in her direction.
She watched Eugene put a bucket under the hog, catching the blood. She was a strong hog, she thought. The meat would be good and they would have almost a year, if she really stretched the food out, to figure out what to do next. She nodded to herself. They had to butcher the hog. They couldn't take care of it. They couldn't feed it. They didn't have the money for a boar and they needed a boar to make a litter.
The dead hog swayed in the wind.
She had never killed a hog before. She remembered Eugene had told her it had to be a precise kill or the meat could sour. Yes, she thought. It was a good kill. She remembered how the hog felt against her palms as she held on to it as it drank. What if the meat sours?
Standing by the fence, she watched as Eugene moved to the backside of the shed, setting a couple logs down into the fire pit. He bent down, his back toward her, and gathered a handful of dry leaves, throwing them in with the logs. She saw the strike of the match, the fire catching in the pit, consuming the leaves, climbing over the wood. He dropped a metal grating over the pit and moved the scalding tank into place over it, ready to fill it with water. As she watched him work, she closed her coat against the chill of the morning and wondered if the butchering could have waited.