Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Chapter 9

Not more than once a month my granduncle catches a chicken, puts its neck on a wood chopping block, and cuts its head off with an ax. Because the chicken is thrashing wildly, he releases it, so as not to be splashed with blood. The chicken runs for a few seconds, blood gushing out of the place where its head used to be, and then collapses.  The family will enjoy chicken soup with homemade kluski.

Other than that, and the small fish we catch in the river, no meat is consumed during summer months, despite the extra energy needed for all the field work at harvest time. We have refrigerators in the city, but this invention has not reached the countryside yet. Besides, one would need a few of those just to store the meat from one pig. Chickens are in their egg-laying period, so not many are available for turning into meals.  (The male chickens are at a clear disadvantage here, but their numbers are limited.)

Fall and winter are when almost all the butchering happens.  I had a bout of jaundice, thanks to a teenager who ran me over with his bicycle, damaging my liver; I have been released from the hospital and can't go to school yet, so my grandma takes me along on her trip to Reg√≥w Stary to buy some meat and sausage.  That meat and sausage are still inside a large and very much alive swine, so we have to wait a few days, but when the day arrives I'm allowed to watch.

My granduncle bestrides the pig. With another farmer holding the animal firmly by its leathery tail, he places a crushing blow to its skull with the blunt end of an ax. The animal's front legs fold and it kneels down squealing, at which point a large, broad knife is plunged into its neck from the side.  Blood gushes out and collects in a metal basin placed underneath. It won't be wasted - it will be used to make kaszanka, a kind of sausage made of buckwheat, ground liver, and blood.  I will watch my cousin stir the blood in the basin with his bare hand - red, steaming liquid reaching above his wrist - to  prevent clotting.

I'm repulsed and horrified, but also very curious, so I will watch this to the end.  A shiver runs through the pig's body and then the creature is still. It is hoisted by its hind legs with a rope and pulley. Boiling hot water is poured over its body, and the skin is shaved with a sharp knife to remove bristles and dirt.  The belly is sliced open, and colorful, glistening innards spill out. Most will be consumed, or used up. (The intestines will become sausage casings, for example.) Only very few parts will be thrown away or given to dogs:  skull, bones, testicles, penis, anus...

The disemboweled carcass will hang in the stall overnight, then be carved up into quarters. The remaining pigs seem subdued, skittish. I wonder if the fear of death was passed on to them from their butchered cousin. Or if they mourn him. I feel sorry that the pig's life ended in such violence, but I do not like pigs that much, and I can appreciate that there was no cruelty, nobody seemed to enjoy the killing itself. It was just another farm chore, like harvesting wheat or nailing shoes to the hooves of horses.

Yet I will look at my village cousins differently from that day on. I ask myself whether slaughtering pigs, and sheep, and calves makes one capable of killing fellow humans. The answer I seem to find in my own mind is "yes", so I'm a bit more fearful. I imagine that this ax may be wedged in my skull one day, so I need to be  careful with what I say and do. Ironically, a few years later I'm teasing one of those cousins (Witek) about something. As he gets more and more angry I flee, laughing, from the wood-chopping place by the barn, where we have been talking. From the corner of my eye I see an ax flying by, a few inches from my head.

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