Nothing to be Gained Here
Jacob’s ladder fell from the sky in columns lit white and wide and vultures held high above in perpetual circle now descended wholly and their shadows danced upon the frozen ground below.
—You gone have to put them sumbitches down diddy, Kinard said. —We still aint done butcherin the hog out.
Kinard and Eugene slid their knives down the hog’s back and pulled up hunks of thick white fat. Owen placed the water tub back on the fire and the steel belly dimpled and popped in the heat. Kinard and Eugene tossed fat into the tub and it screamed and sizzled. The shadows grew in the dirt. Horace clapped and rocked. He laughed as the vultures pulled closer to the earth and the sound of the wings beat in his ears.
Horace tugged at Maddox’ overalls and held his hand out. Maddox extended his hand and Horace set a tiny tortoise in his palm and it rose from its carapace and crept and then fell to its side and flipped, its plastron bone white and forked as a wishbone broken two.
Owen limped inside and returned with a handful of shot shells. He fed two into the action of his gun. He chambered a shell. He squinted in the sunlight and his cheek bunched against the wood of the stock. The shotgun boomed and shot sprayed into a vulture’s breast and ripped through its wings and it fell to the ground.
It shrieked and mewed and its talons contracted as it died. Black feathers shook in the air and wafted slowly to the earth. The other birds beat higher into the sky and chattered and wheeled slower circles over the house. The fat bubbled in the tub as the lard rendered and it smelled salty and rich.
—Aint ah bad shot, said Maddox.
—Could put ah goshdernd blowhole in you quicker than hell, said Owen.
Maddox laughed and looked at Owen and the shotgun he cradled. His forearm was heavy and scarred—an ampersand heralding message in blue ink. & THEYE SHALLE TAKE UP SERPENTS, it said running from wrist to elbow, stilted font jagged as mountains.
Clouds became one and the white rolled into gray and snowflakes fell and dropped to the ground without sound. Owen set his gun over his shoulder and looked at Maddox and spat a run of juice to the ground and rubbed it wide with his boot.
—This’n just like any other day, Owen said. Aint no different. Even if you says you known what to expect. Aint no nothin different. Aint a thing. Just any other day.
Maddox smiled and drank deeply from the bottle and handed it back to Owen.
—You make it good then, Maddox said.
—Show me how to bygod, Owen said and turned and walked towards the house as snow fell heavy from the sky.
Author interview continued:
Can you tell me where the story came from? That and the when and the where of it?
I tend to write a lot about people killing and dressing animals and I don't think I'll ever stop writing about it. There's a sort of quasi-religious aspect to these sorts of things that gets glossed over. Like when the kid pops his first deer and gets the blood on his face and then you grill up the heart and eat it, or when the first hog of the season is butchered out and the bladder is inflated so the kids can kick it around like a soccer ball while the adults make blood sausage or cracklins.
They're rituals, and they're difficult to sit through, but they are illuminating, and unbelievably satisfying. You kill something. You honor it. It lives on through cooking, preservation, whatever. It's simple and beautiful.
'Nothing to be Gained Here' is an excerpt from a larger work (i.e. novel) called "Shaking Through." It appears here in much different form. Characters are renamed, the setting's different, the ending's different, etc.
Long story short, in the novel, the family lives in a milltown, tenant style. The mill owner sells the property right out from under the workers to the railroad so a line can be run through town. Mill shuts down. No work, little food. The family butchers out the last of its hogs and wonders where to go from there. Actually not very different from the Ayle Family in "Nothing to Be Gained Here."
Think about all the things you get out of the hog: lard, blood, meat. Even the parts you never see at the grocery store get turned into incredible food. The head and tongue turned into headcheese. Ears boiled down and fried up crispy. Brains scrambled into eggs for breakfast. Trotters are either boiled down and pickled are stuffed with potatoes and more pork and fried up. Same for the tail.
There's the liver, heart, spleen, lights. All good. We haven't even gotten to the belly or hams or ribs... These are the things we miss out on today. I hope we somehow find a way to put down the fucking smartphone and get back to where we were a 100 years ago. But I doubt it.