“We were gonna kill the pig without ya’!” he said in Czech.
I laughed and shook his hand. My smile said “that would’a been a bad move, buddy.” He turned and introduced me to the butcher. The guy’s look knocked me for a loop. He was short and muscular with puffed hands. His peppered eyebrows rose to points and his jowls bulged like a chipmunk’s. His eyes were grey and still. A long cigarette dangled from his fingers. I introduced myself and shook his hand. He nodded and went into the prep house. Just then a tractor with a back-wagon rolled up. It parked on the lawn and Bert and I walked up to it. Inside was a pink-eared sow the size of a fullback. She was swinging her big ass from side to side and tossing hay up with her snout. We snapped a few photos of her and I took some footage. The whole time I was careful to keep the camera to one side of my face and not in front of it.
A few minutes later, the butcher came out of the prep room. He was carrying what looked like a steel wine bottle with a button for a cork. He fiddled with the contraption while his two assistants led the sow out onto the grass. When they had her stationed, one assistant tied a rope around her rear haunch and lifted it. This signaled to the butcher that she was ready. He walked up slowly from behind with his gadget raised like a knife. When he got within reaching distance he lowered it over the sow’s forehead. I kept the camera rolling and my eyes glued to the sow’s. They were calm and stupid in her head. I didn’t see what the big deal was. Then the metal touched her flesh. There was a loud “POP!” and blood came gushing up from the hole. The sow’s eyes widened. They turned white like over-boiling milk. All at once, they poured their fear into mine. It was human fear, and it made my sockets sting. When it reached my brain, I felt a separation like fingers breaking apart a loaf of bread. In one hand was a cocktail of remorse. In the other was something much blacker. I didn’t know whether to grin wickedly or cry. I just stood there watching as the sow snorted out blood and smoke.
Eventually, she gave up the fight. She collapsed to one side as Death made off into the trees with her spirit. All that was left was a still kicking carcass. The two assistants crouched down around it like vultures. One pinned its legs and the other, its shoulders. The butcher grabbed a pan and pulled a knife from his overalls. He placed the pan at dead pig’s neck and the knifepoint at its carotid. With the flick of his wrist, he split the artery and blood came pouring out like hot wine. To speed up the flow, he pumped the upturned leg. When the pan was brimming, he dumped the blood in a nearby bucket. He repeated this process half a dozen times. Once the bucket was full and the pig was empty, phase two began.
The butcher and his assistants dragged the pig over to a nearby trough. They flopped it in there and hosed off the dirt and blood stuck to its skin. Then they dumped a bucket of scalding water over its body. As it laid there steaming – its legs raised and crooked with rigor mortis – they grabbed a bag of kalafuna (powdered amber residue). The butcher scooped up handfuls of it and sprinkled it over the pig. Once the stuff congealed, each man grabbed a zvonek – a bell-shaped metal object used to remove swine bristles – and started in. With careful strokes, they stripped off every hair, wart, blemish and skin-fleck. When they pulled away, the pig was glowing like it had just been painted in moonlight. The butcher grabbed each of its hind legs and tied them to a pulley. His assistants yanked down and the pig rose up. When it was hanging good and stable, the butcher flashed his knife. He stuck it to the pig’s genitals and sliced downwards. The stomach cavity split open and a curtain of ugly guts came sliding out. The stench was almost unbearable. To take my mind off it, I started naming off pig parts in Czech. The butcher laughed, and every time I rattled one off he produced the corresponding part.
Once all the organs were bucketed and cooling in the fridge, the butcher grabbed his 20-lbs cleaver. He dragged it over to the pig and raised it carefully to its rectum. In ten swift chops the animal was a wide V. The only thing left to do now was remove its head. The butcher reached down and gripped it by the snout. He dropped the cleaver and picked up the knife. Three quick slices and the head was free. He took it in his hands, raised its cheek to his and smiled.
That night at the cottage we dinned hard. Pavla’s mom cooked up a mean plate of mozeček s vejci (pig brains with scrambled eggs and onions), followed by grilovaná vepřová svíčková (grilled pork tenderloin) with sides of bread and mustard. We washed everything down with good beer and shot after shot of slivovice. And though we were having fun, laughing and yelling and making the beams of the old roof above us shake, it was hard for me to party those pig’s eyes outta my head. Every time I reached for a slice of tenderloin, there was an eyeball staring at me from the plate. I dipped my nose in a shot and there was another eyeball looking up at me from the glass-bottom. Finally, I got so drunk that I could barely see anything. It was at this point that I raised a finger and suggested famously that we schlep our asses up to the local pub. The only thing I remember after that is doing cartwheels over a tiny creek-bridge. The rest of the night was lost in the fog.
We woke up the next morning to roosters crowing in our ears. Our heads were the size of watermelons and our joints ached something fierce. We gathered what few morsels of energy we had and got dressed. We were down at the farmhouse by 9:00. The butcher and his assistants were already there setting up shop with Pavla’s folks. They had various pots of water boiling and all the cutlery sharpened. We came staggering into the prep room like a gang of zombies. When Pavla’s Dad caught sight of us he pitched his head back and laughed. When his belly stopped rolling he handed us each a knife. He showed us to our respective work stations and told us to get crackin’.
To the tune of Pink’s horrific new album, the lot of us spent eight long hours cubing fat, mixing grouts, slicing organs, chopping meat, threading guts, shredding garlic, tying weenies, and on and on and on. By the end of the day, we’d prepared a whole heap of traditional dishes such as ovar s křenem (boiled and diced pig’s head with grated horseradish), smažák (baked liver and sirloin goulash), jitirnice (liverwurst), jelita (blood sausage), prdelačka (blood and grout stew), uzenina (smoked pork shoulder), škvarky (fried pork rinds), tlačenka (head cheese), and sádlo (lard).
When everything was finished we filled our beer mugs and broke out the slivovice. We drank in earnest until midnight and then hit the streets. The road carried us up a moonlit hill and to a local dancehall. It was the weekend of Svatomartinské slavnosti (The Celebration of Saint Martin) and the whole village was throwing a ball. We went inside and ordered drinks. The place was warm and the people were laughing. We took seats at an outlying table and watched the show. A swarm of drunken villagers danced below as a crappy Czech rock band belted out tunes on stage. I tried to stay awake but the day’s hard labor and the stress of battling an injured psyche had drained my energy. By 2:00, I was passed out with my front teeth hanging over the lip of my beer mug.
I spent the following week doing two things:
1. Slowly eating away at a freezer full of pork products.
2. Trying to figure out just what the fuck had gone on in my head as I’d stared into that dying sow’s eyes.
I had nightmares about those eyes. It was like they’d ripped me in two and I was desperately trying to juggle my separate halves back together. Merdan and my students had been right, it seemed. But how or why they’d been right was a mystery, even to me. When I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, I consulted a friend. His name is Jarda and he’s also a student of mine. We met at “Pigeon Shit Park” on a Tuesday like we usually do for our lessons. He greeted me warmly at the gate with a cup of coffee and some vegan snacks (he’s a vegan). We went inside and picked a bench. A flock of pigeons pecked the ground around our boots as we talked. He told me about his past week and his recent efforts to eat only raw vegan foods. I dropped the bomb and told him I’d just attended a zabíjačka. He widened his eyes and laughed through his enormous beard. Somehow his aura seemed old and wise and bright. I told him my problem and he scratched his chin. After a moment of silence, he said:
“If you want to eat meat, you must be willing to kill the animal. Or at very minimum, watch it die. I’m not willing to do these things so I don’t eat meat.”
His words struck me. I couldn’t produce an intelligent response so I changed the subject. That night I went home and thought hard about what he’d said. After five beers and hours of staring at my monitor, I realized something; seeing that pig get killed didn’t “change my psychology” per se, nor did looking into its frightened human eyes as it died. All that was different about me now was my awareness of a simple fact: If I choose not to eat meat, animals live. If I choose to eat meat, animals die.
Before seeing the zabíjačka I wasn’t willing to think about this sort of thing. I wanted to eat meat in blissful ignorance of its consequences. This isn’t just because a part of me would feel bad for the animal that would have to die so I could enjoy my sandwich. In fact it had more to do with what it might say about me if I were fully aware of the price of my sandwich and didn’t give a fuck.
Now that I’m aware, I do give more of a fuck. I try never to waste food, especially meat. And when I cook it, I stay mindful of the reality that a life is sizzling away in my frying pan.
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.