I saw my first animal killing in Turkmenistan as a Peace Corps volunteer. It was on a winter’s day and the sky was like marbled silver. My host brother Merdan selected a goat from our hay den out back. It was a sickly little goat with spindly legs and horns that twisted out diagonally from one another.
Merdan grabbed the goat by its up-pointing horn and dragged it across the yard. He pulled it out the gate and around the corner to the neighborhood dump. Two of his friends were waiting there. One carried a rope in his hands and the other, a dull knife with a yellow handle. They all greeted each other and Merdan took the knife from his friend. He wiped the blade off on his pant leg and crouched, pulling the goat down with him. He dug a small hole in the dirt and placed the goat’s neck over it. I pulled out my video camera and clicked it on. When Merdan heard the “beep” he looked up at me.
“Please, don’t film this,” he said in Turkmen. “Just go.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because nobody in America will want to watch it. And if you watch it, it’ll change your psychology.”
To emphasize this he lifted a finger to his temple and twisted it into his brain. I ignored him and continued filming. He shrugged and pinned the goat with his knees. He placed the blade carefully on its throat and thinned his eyes. Everything froze for a moment. Then like a mechanical toy, he charged to life and sawed open the goat’s neck. Steam rose up from the wound and blood poured down. The goat let off a burbling cry. From behind the safety of my viewfinder, I watched as its animal eyes slowly turned to frog eggs. When the last drop of blood left its body, the goat was no more – just a wooly carcass with a tongue hanging from its mouth like an arm from a coffin. I felt bad for a bit but that passed. The viewfinder had acted as a shield, protecting me from the reality of the killing. Now that the goat was dead I barely had an ounce of sympathy for it. This remained the case as it was strung up, gutted, quartered, and carted off into the house.
That evening, my host mother and sisters prepared a birthday feast for an uncle. They used every part of the goat, including its guts, brains, tongue and testicles. This was a real treat for me as I’m a huge carnivore. In my travels, I’ve eaten everything from alpaca heart to yak's tail. I must admit though, that a few of the dishes they prepared baffled and disgusted me. For example, I didn’t understand why it was necessary boil up the intestines and serve them in a bowl of scalding broth. Despite my aversion to some of the dishes, I enjoyed the feast and the sense of community it created. All us guys were huddled into one warm room where we picked at hunks of meat and organ, swilled cheap vodka and told stories of our various exploits.
By the end of the night our bellies were distended and our lips were caked in goat fat. We bid each other adieux and staggered off to our respective rooms and homes. Before going to sleep, I replayed the killing in my mind. I remembered Merdan’s words. Though I’d felt sorry for the goat as it gargled its last breath, I didn’t feel like witnessing its killing had “changed my psychology.” Maybe I was cold-hearted, or maybe I was just a coward who’d hidden behind his camera. Whatever the case, Merdan’s little phrase was a mystery to me. It remained as such throughout my service. Eventually, it faded from memory, becoming nothing more than an enigmatic bead lodged deep in my brainstem.
The years passed and I came to Prague. I knew no one here and that made for a sad existence. After a while, I made a few friends but it was nothing like what I’d had in Turkmenistan. I missed the feeling of living with a host family and participating in their traditions. I spent most of my days alone. Teaching students helped, but not much. I tried to use them as vessels to learn about this place. But traditional culture is largely watered down in the city, as is the case with most big cities. I gleaned what morsels I could. Then one day while teaching a public course on “American Customs”, I got a break.
“Have you heard about Czech custom ‘zabíjačka’?” a female student asked.
I looked at her like she’d just farted in my coffee mug.
“It is great. Vee do it in countryside.”
“Oh, so kinna like a hippie-orgy sorta deal?”
“Vat? No! It is ven family hire butcher to kill pig. Dis is big celebration. Vee drink, vee smoke, vee eat. It taking all of day and food is wery, wery delicious.”
I felt a tingling in my neck. It crawled up and around my brain and widened my eyes.
“Is that so?” I said.
That night I got on the internet and checked it out. I learned that a “zabíjačka” or “little killing” is a tradition practiced in Central and Eastern Europe during which a farm animal (usually a pig) is slaughtered, gutted, cut into parts, and then used to prepare various dishes such as “jitirnice” (liverwurst), “tlačenka” (head cheese), and “ škvarky” (fried pork rinds), to name a few Czech favorites. The article said that these “pig-slaughters” generally take place during winter months so that the meat preserves better. It also said that recent EU regulations regarding sanitation were slowly wiping the zabíjačka from the left cheek of Europe. This last bit troubled me. I decided that before I left The Czech Republic, I would participate in a zabíjačka come hell or high water.
During the coming months I hounded my students incessantly for more information. I became an un-scratchable zit in the middle of their backs. To stop my pestering, they asked family and friends if they knew of any zabíjačky going on in the near future. But all of them were either clueless, or unwilling to invite me.
Any normal person would have given up the hunt after one year. I, on the other hand, continued it for three straight. Many of my repeat students knew me for this. Come wintertime they’d preempt my start-of-the-class question with:
“No Hans. Vee don’t know any zabíjačku.”
At which point I’d say.
“Alright, shit. Well if you hear of one, let me know.”
This past fall, I geared up for another go-around. I even started prodding my students a couple months early but it was all a big waste of time. By early November I was ready to just say “fuck it” for 2013. That’s when I got a call from Bert – a childhood travel buddy who’d moved to Prague the year after I had.
“You ready to hear some shit?” he said.
“I don’t know. If it involves you and that chick with the crush on you who looks like Rodney Dangerfield I think I’ll pass.”
“Hilarious. Look, Pavla’s Dad is having a birthday party in two weeks out at the cottage. We’re all invited. There’ll be a keg and a bunch’a liquor. And get this …”
When Bert says “Get this …” it’s usually followed by something lame. I was expecting him to tell me some banal bit of information like his girlfriend, Pavla was bringing an extra nice bottle of slivovice (Czech plum brandy). He cleared his throat and let it fly. I was only half listening when he said:
“We’re gonna go in one car and split the gas three ways to save money.”
“Wow,” I said. “Sounds like a plan.”
There was a pause. Bert cleared his throat again.
“Oh, and bring some Tupperware.”
“What in God’s name for?”
“All the pork. We’re having a zabíjačka.”
I dropped the phone and flew into a manic episode. I started bouncing around the room like a schizophrenic clown with a hot poker up his ass, screaming:
“HOT FUCKIN’ DAMN!!!”
This woke my dickhead flat-mate from his afternoon nap. He pounded on his wall and yelled:
“Close the fucking mouth!”
I ignored him and continued. When my energy was spent I climbed down from the shelves. I picked my phone up and put it to my ear. Bert was chuckling on the other end.
“Ya’ get it outta yer system?” he said.
“Haha, chea hea.”
“Ait. We leave two weeks from today.”
It was a slow crawl to the middle of November. By the night of (Thursday) the 14th, I was ready to burst from my shoes. I packed everything and placed it neatly by my door. All that was left to do before bed was charge my camera. I drew it from its case and plugged it into the wall. As I did, I felt that strange tingling again. It reached up through my nerves and gripped my brain. An image flashed that drained my face. I saw that little goat getting its neck sawed open. I saw myself, hiding behind the camera. I remembered Merdan’s words and tightened my fists.
“Tomorrow, I got this,” I said.
Morning came and I went to my only class. It was a beginners’ conversation group and everyone in it was eager to hear about the upcoming event. I told them we’d be driving out to the countryside that afternoon. We’d slaughter the pig at around 15:00, drink, have some dinner, drink again, and then the next morning, wake up and prepare a bunch of traditional foods from the meat. This provoked a wave of questions on which dishes we’d be preparing from which pig parts and what their English equivalents were. Like a good boy, I’d done all my zabíjačka homework beforehand so I knocked the skin off that bitch. By the end of the interrogation, the white board was scribbled up green with obscure, pork-related terminology in both Czech and English. I stood back and admired my work. A final student raised her hand. Though she didn’t have a question for me, but a bit of advice.
“Ven you see zabíjačku,” she said. “Wery important is, you no look to eyes of pig.”
I clicked my jaw and scratched my bald spot.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“I can’t explain you. Just no look to eyes.”
I’d have dismissed this as total nonsense, but everyone else in the class was nodding in agreement. I chalked it up instead to some sort of “sympathy plea” and moved on. The minutes ticked off and the class ended. I tipped my hat and hit the metro. A half hour later I met Bert and Pavla at the end of the red line. I tossed my shit in the trunk, got in the car and we sped off through the fog ...
Note: I reserve the right to occasionally alter the character names, descriptions, and/or event details in my posts for the purposes of identity protection and “fluidity of story.” If this puts a kink in your panties, read someone else’s blog, homey.