Copyright is held by the author.
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born*
THE CLEAVER drops to the floor. Uncle stares at me, his eyes wide an’ bulgin’, with a kind of Christmas mornin’ surprise. His mouth opens an’ closes like a fish on the riverbank an’ spit dribbles out over his chins. A paw of a hand jerks up toward my face. My feet step back quick an’ I turn my face away before I remember, this time I got nothin’ to fear. His hand shudders an’ falls limp and useless at his side. My eyes follow his as he slumps, stunned- like, to the concrete floor like an oversize sack of grain.
Blood oozes silently from his neck an’ his throat makes that gurglin’ sound that reminds me of a creek as it spills over the rocks. His lifeblood swirls toward the drain, an’ mixes with that of the sow he so recently butchered. There’s a fresh, bright spray of red on my grubby muslin apron an’ the hem of my skirt is trimmed with his gore. I’m reminded of aunt’s best cloths with the fancy stitched edges that I starch an’ iron, but are never used. My hands smooth the front of my apron leaving them streaked with red. No matter, I’m not done yet. I bend over and whisper into his ear.
“There, there Uncle, nothin’ to worry about. It’ll be over soon. Remember, in death we are all equal.”
His eyes are already glassy. I doubt he hears me. I smile at the rightness of the pig an’ my uncle dyin’ side by side an’ I understand truly, perhaps for the first time, that spillin’ the old man’s blood was bound to happen. After all, it’s what Ol’ Gran prophesied.
I lean back onto the wide, stained choppin’ block an’ breathe in the sweet, heavy scent of death. It’s with me always now, this perfume of blood-lettin’. In fact, I can barely remember a time when I didn’t carry this fragrance with me. I smile at how the stench of death used to terrify me, but not anymore. It’s as much a part of me now as my dirty brown hair an’ Satan’s mark on my face. I settle back onto the scarred slab of wood an’ wait for the small spot on the side of uncle’s neck to stop throbbing. Memories flood back slow an’ steady like the blood that pools around my worn boots.
Now, I don’t have much in the way of a past, leastways not much worth rememberin’, an’ truth be told I hardly know what is a true memory an’ what I conjured up ‘cause I liked the way it looked in my mind. I do remember some things. For instance, I remember the day I was born. I know, you take me for a liar, on account no one can remember the day they were birthed, but I recollect that day clear as clear.
I slipped out from the dark wetness inside my mother onto rough, greasy sheets. As I lay there between her legs tryin’ to let out my first wail, a great gush of bright red blood followed me from the other side. Ol’ Gran said I was nearly drowned in the stuff. Anyway, that was the end of Ma. Ol’ Gran took me an’ raised me up. She was good to me even though I had the Devil’s mark on my left cheek.
‘Ccordin’ to Gran, ma took up with a Devil who vanished into the night after he did some kinda dirty deed. She claimed the angry, purple curve that covered half my face was my cross to bear for killin’ my ma an’ bein’ unlucky enough to be born under a blood moon.
“Girlie, you were tainted by the blood moon, baptized in your mother’s blood, an’ marked by the Devil. Make no mistake, one day he’ll come lookin’ for his daughter an’ he’ll know you by that red moon he set upon on your face. Then what Hell will be unleashed.”
That was my Gran’s prediction an’ she was never wrong. So, I guess I always knew this was how it would be.
Gran called me Girlie so I figured that was my name. But when Ol’ Gran took to wanderin’ out at all hours in her skivvies, castin’ the evil eye an’ cursin’ all an’ sundry, some men came an’ took her away. I watched as they led her to the wagon, figurin’ there’d be a fine tussle. Ol’ Gran never took to any man tellin’ her what to do, but this time she jus’ smiled at them an’ went along real quiet without so much as a backward glance. That was the last I saw of Ol’ Gran. A nice lady from a nearby church came an’ took me to live with her. She tol’ me to call her Aunt Betty an’ changed my name to Poor Little Thing.
Aunt Betty was a real stickler ‘bout cleanliness an’ it took some gettin’ used to. I had to have a bath twice a week, which I wasn’t too sure about at first. The sheets on my bed were so white an’ clean they crunched when I moved. It was strange sleepin’ in my own bed after sharin’ with Ol’ Gran who smelled like rotten cabbage an’ snored somethin’ fierce. Aunt Betty made cookies with raisins and sewed me two new dresses. I liked staying with her even if she didn’t know my name.
Then one day after I’d been there a while, she brought home a man who wore a checkered suit with a fancy tie and greased his hair with pomade. He changed my name to That Brat, an’ Kid Gives Me the Creeps, so Aunt Betty showed me the door.
At the next place, I was to call them Aunt Agnes an’ Uncle Roger. He called me Another Goddamned Mouth to Feed an’ she called me No Good Trash. Didn’t last long there either. So, I went from place to place, lastin’ only long enough to be given a new name before I was moved along. After a while I was wonderin’ just how many aunts an’ uncles I had, an’ why none of them could agree on my name. I reckon I was about 10 years old when I came to live with the Rileys.
“You can call us Aunt Del and Uncle Vernon, and this here’s your cousin Vern Junior,” my aunt said by way of introductions.
Uncle Vernon filled the doorway an’ had a belly that stuck out over his boots. His nose looked like a potato stuck to his face an’ his skin was the colour of uncooked piecrust. He wore red flannel shirts all year long and held his pants up with braces an’ a leather belt. He took to callin’ me Orphan an’ proved quick with that belt an’ quicker with the back of his hands.
Aunt Del was as spare as her husband was fat. Her chest was flat as an ironing board an’ she sewed ruffles on her dresses to make everyone think she had a womanly shape. Her face would stop a clock, as Ol’ Gran would have said. It was sharp an’ cold, pointed like the head of an axe. She proved sullen an’ silent ‘til she got mad, which happened real regular. Mostly she called me You, but You Fool did nicely when she felt like a change.
Vern Junior was ‘bout 15, wantin’ everythin’ with no idea of how to get it. He was tall like his pa, gaunt like his ma, with eyes the colour of a winter sky. His hair hung in greasy strings over a pock-marked face and his shoulders stooped. Vern was stupid and cruel which proved a bad mix for anyone or anything that got in his way. He took his pleasure where and how he wanted it. He just called me His.
All in all though, it was a big improvement on some of the places I’d been. Their house was clean; I had a room in the attic, an’ three meals a day as long as my chores were done. I didn’t even mind eatin’ in the back porch on account my face was an “offence to all Christian people” ‘ccordin’ to Aunt Del. As time went on though, I came to know the Rileys were no kin of mine, but by then it was too late. The soft sigh of my uncle’s last breath drags me back from the past.
I look down at my handiwork. I did the job cleanly, though Lord knows Uncle Vernon did little in life to be worthy of any kindness from me. Perhaps I wanted to prove I had learned his lessons in spite of bein’ just a stupid, lazy orphan. The thought makes me smile. I’m guessin’ right about now, Uncle Vernon doesn’t see the humour.
I learned about the building behind the barn early on. I’ll never forget the first time I heard the sounds comin’ from that place. In all my born days, I’d never heard the like of it. The hellish noise seeped out from the cracks in the grey stone walls an’ found their way up to the house. I wondered if it was the Armageddon which I learned about from a preacher an’ his wife who took me in an’ called me Little Heathen an’ made me do somethin’ called penance by only feedin’ me once a day.
Hearin’ those noises brought Ole Gran’s prophesy back to my mind. Could it be the Devil? Had my Pa come for me at last? That preacher hadn’t painted a very good picture of him. I admit the very thought of seein’ horns an’ a tail scared the bejeezus out of me. In spite of myself I screamed an’ hid under my bed. Aunt Del found me there, called me a no-good fool an’ set me straight. She called it “the abattoir”, which turns out, is just a fancy name for a slaughterhouse. Then she hauled me out from under the bed an’ dragged me to the front porch by my hair, her tongue flappin’ the whole way.
“We take you into our home, out of Christian charity; you, not fit to be seen in public, with that godawful mark on your face. How do you think we feel having an ugly thing like you around day in and day out? You’re a freak, that’s all you are. But do we complain? No. We soldier on, doing our Christian duty, and this is how you repay us? With laziness and judgements? We’ll see about that.”
To that end she made me sit on the porch an’ watch wagons arrive bringin’ their wide-eyed cargo to meet their maker. I covered my ears. It didn’t do much good. Aunt Del found me an’ threatened to tie my hands to the chair.
“Oh no, my girl; you’re going to listen. Listen to what we have to do to put food in your mouth and clothes on your back. Touch your ears once more and Uncle Vernon will see you in the shed tonight.”
I cried and begged, but Aunt Del stayed firm. I threw up on the porch an’ covered my ears an’ felt Uncle Vernon’s belt at the end of the day. Cousin Vern just laughed. I mark that day as the first time I met my pa.
He came into the cowshed on silent feet after Uncle Vernon left, an’ stood beside me as I lay on the straw. I looked for horns an’ tail, but I could only see his easy smile and kind eyes. With words, smooth like Aunt Del’s velvet cushions, he tol’ me I must learn to bide my time an’ be strong. An’ one day when I was ready, he’d come and take me away.
“Then,” he whispered with hot breath on my neck, “What hell we’ll unleash.”
“Yes Pa.” I smiled back and slipped my hand into his.
After that, pa was always nearby whisperin’ words of love an’ comfort. He taught me not to hear the sounds that surrounded me on slaughter days. Instead, he showed me how to push the squeals, an’ howls of those sad beasts deep inside o’ me, to take no notice of how it gnawed at my innards and get on with my chores. It took some time though, on account I was just a stupid orphan, but pa never raised a hand or spoke an unkind word.
What I couldn’t get used to was the smell from the abattoir. Nothin’ could block the stench of Uncle Vernon’s grim trade. It was an evil spirit that floated up on the breeze an’ infested the house an’ those who lived in it like a disease. Unlike the silence that fell when the killin’ was done, the odour didn’t stop. That stink of death soaked into every part of life on the Riley’s farm an’ eventually that included me. I scrubbed myself ‘til I bled, but I could never wash off that stink.
So my life progressed. On slaughter days, I smiled and hummed a little tune pa taught me. It helped pass the time as I cleaned, did laundry, cooked and gardened to keep Aunt Del happy. I milked cows an’ shovelled manure for Uncle Vernon and that kept his belt around his waist. It was less easy to stay clear of my cousin. When he found me alone in the back kitchen or the milk house I smiled and an’ looked away, thinking of my pa the whole time. I rarely spoke, and that seemed to keep everyone happy. I wasn’t there for the conversation if you know what I mean. But Pa always had an ear for me an’ I tol’ him everything.
When I was about 13, Rex, the Rileys’ chestnut stallion, grew weary of Vern Junior’s spiteful teasin’ and tormentin’ an’ made the fatal decision to fight back. He kicked Vern Junior in the head an’ knocked him three ways to Sunday. He never woke up an’ died five days later. I opened my mouth that day to plead for the stallion’s life when Uncle took down his shotgun. I told him how Vern used to beat the poor beast. It made no difference. He put lead into the horse’s brain and told me I’d be next if I didn’t keep my goddamned mouth shut.
The day after Vern Junior’s funeral Uncle told me I would replace his son in the slaughterhouse. I begged him but he only smiled.
“Now you will earn your keep, Orphan girl.”
He laughed an’ laughed, his gut bouncin’ up an’ down with every breath. I continued to plead until he stopped laughin’ an’ reached for his belt. How I longed for Vern Junior to return from the dead. I would gladly have put up with his wandering hands an’ wet mouth if he’d just come back on butcherin’ days. But of course, he didn’t. Not even pa could fix that.
In the abattoir Uncle Vernon proved a good teacher. He stressed the importance of doin’ it just right. I was not allowed to look away an’ I only puked that first time. It spewed all over uncle’s boots. After that I learned to control myself as I had long ago on the front porch.
So, I watched. I watched an’ learned. I remembered every move his fleshy hands made as he taught me the finer points of his trade. He spoke to each beast as he cut its throat.
“There, there. Nothing to worry about. It’ll soon be over. In death, we are all equal.”
For nearly seven years I bore silent witness to wild eyes, panicked squealin’ an’ the last breath of countless animals headed for dinner tables. At some point, I knew that I hated. I hated the boy for bein’ stupid enough to get himself kicked in the head by a horse. I hated the woman for makin’ me listen an’ believe that it was my fault. I hated the reekin’ old man who made me watch week in an’ week out as he spilled guts an’ gore onto my feet. At night, I dreamed of Ol’ Gran, Ma, Aunt Betty, the preacher an’ all the rest of them an’ I felt the blood wash over me, baptizin’ me again an’ again. I saw Rex, the long dead stallion an’ I envied his courage.
If it wasn’t for pa I might have gone crazy. But he was true blue, as fathers are supposed to be. He stood beside me the whole time an’ proved a better teacher than Uncle Vernon. Pa showed me how to hoard my hate, the way aunt stored her winter vegetables in the cold cellar. He taught me to use the hurt, bit at a time, to keep me sharp an’ alert. It made me good at my job.
Pa taught me to like the feel of the cleaver in my hand an’ the way it sliced so clean an’ neat. I started to look forward to butcherin’. Mostly though I grew to love my days in the abattoir ‘cause he was there, guidin’ whisperin’ an’ lovin’ me like a real pa.
The red half-moon on my face no longer shamed me. Pa said it was my talisman, like the dirty rabbit’s foot Ol’ Gran wore around her neck. It reminded me of who I was an’ who was comin’ for me an’ I almost felt sorry for the Rileys.
I look down at the body of the man on the floor. He’s not my uncle an’ I’m not an orphan. I have a father an’ he is with me at last, speakin’ soft words of praise. I inhale deeply an’ smile. “Yes Pa.” I’m comin’.” I pick up the cleaver an’ walk toward the house.
Fools! For I also had my hour
One far fierce hour and sweet,
There was a shout about my ears
And blood beneath my feet*
*”The Donkey” by C.K. Chesterton. Many apologies for the liberties taken with his wonderful poem.