09 November 2005

Blood on the Grass

WARNING: Today's post contains some graphic descriptions from life (death) on the farm, which may cause some discomfort to you. Please read at your own discretion.

White Boots. Il Biondo.

Two names for Spannocchia's house call butcher, who arrived in the early fog of Monday morning. Like "Coffee Shop Boy" from my college days, these are affectionate, underground sopranomi (nicknames) for a real person with something of an attractive or admirable air.

White Boots was standing by the wall when I saw him, wearing the ubiquitious aforementioned, as well as a pure white tutto (what we might call mechanic's dungarees, a flightsuit, etc), and a black beret. Clean, crisp. Poorly dressed (or perhaps perfectly) for the day's task. As I was noticing him, Nikki approached me and mentioned without breaking stride: "We're butchering your lambs today. Are you ready?"

Thank goodness it was a rhetorical question.

I thought of the breakfast I had thrown down my gullet minutes before, my jog - with a belly full of strong coffee - to the wall for the morning meeting. I thought of my shoes - were they the right sort for butchering my lambs? I thought, was I ready?

The morning was a brisk one, in activity as well as weather, and I didn't have time to think. I climbed into the back of the rickety Macchina Rossa and tried to concentrate on the Italian conversation in the front seat as we bounced along the gravel roads to the sheep stall. My mind wandered. Was I ready? How would I respond to the slaughter of my animals? Would I watch the whole thing? Would I participate in some way? Would I turn away, or gag?

All anticipation, I popped out of the truck once we reached the property. I swear it was 10 degrees cooler than at the upper farm. I shivered. I sweated a bit, too.

"This is my least favorite - slaughtering the lambs," Nikki said, with wide eyes and a set mouth. She watched me - for signs of queasiness, perhaps, or general inability. I acted without really thinking, opening the stall gate, and joining the 29 fuzzy sheep inside. It was the first time I didn't call out to them in greeting. I was almost embarassed.

We knew there were three or four male lambs - the young ones, not the full-grown sheep - and these were our selected ones. We began lifting tails.

Nikki pulled our first boy from the stall, and straddled him, gripping with her knees; she held onto his neck to keep him facing forward and still. I stood to his side, avoiding his eyes, and trying to block the entrance to the stall in a feeble attempt to prevent the sheep from seeing what was going on. For the first time ever, I wished I was really, really fat.

White Boots approached the lamb with a slender, aluminum tube, a "gun" of sorts. He quickly shot the "bullet" into the skull, between and just above the eyes. My head swiveled like I was watching a tennis match: looking at the lamb, then away, to White Boots, to Nikki. The gun had the immediate effect of stunning the lamb, and White Boots quickly replaced it in his hands with a sharp, thin knife, which he slipped through the neck of the lamb, piercing a hole to drain the blood. Nikki laid the lamb down.

Another male lamb followed. My stomach didn't once lurch, surprisingly, but the experience wasn't easy. I turned around once to look at my sheep, and finally had their undivided, wide-eyed attention. It was startling and nearly brought tears to my eyes. They were silent and still at first. They were trying to figure out what was going on, and they must have known it wasn't good. Minutes later, after we had pulled the second male lamb, I heard a collective heavy breathing behind me, wet noses channeling deep breaths. I glanced back at my herd and saw their big sheep bellies heaving - a sight seen before when they were excited; it took on a different, deeper meaning that morning. When we entered the stall to find the last male, the herd backed up as a group and began to scatter.

Just when I was about to exhale in having the first part of the morning's task completed, the lambs began to convulse on the ground, one by one, in the order in which we had slaughtered them. I had to get close to those little faces I had scratched and rubbed the evening before, this time to hold their bodies to the ground and prevent them from getting and more bloody or dirty. I remember wishing I hadn't put on clean work clothes that morning, as I noticed blood stains on my brown pants and saw Nikki's neck covered with a light spray of blood.

We loaded the lambs into the back of the plastic-lined truck, and I continued to wait for the morning to catch up with me. I didn't feel like a brute, didn't feel like a murderer. I didn't feel like a righteous meat eater. And yet I wasn't numb, either.

Before leaving the property, I needed to let the herd out for their usual day of pasture recreation and general mayhem. How to lead them into and through the three moist patches of blood on the ground right outside their gate? I didn't have time to feed them fry hay inside their stall, waiting until they finished to lead them to the dewy hillside. Instead, I laid the hay several yards from their gate. I called them loudly, brightly to the pile of hay, and willed them to rush over. If only there had been time to toss down straw, an opportunity for a freak, cleansing rainstorm... They moved as I wished, to the hay, but hadn't moved much farther when we pulled away. They were all looking up at me, their eerie sheep eyes imploring. Not one of us cried.

Nikki let me drive us back up to the farm, avoiding the return ride in the back with the animals. I rounded all the turns as gently as I could, remembered to say "No" when White Boots asked if I was Italian, and thought in my head of the best way to describe the smell in the car. My hands were cold. The car filled with the scent of earth and the metallic quality of blood, the smell of the taste you get when you suck on a finger after it has been cut; I smelled grass and sweet mud. It all synthesized, and I understood this inescapable odor as that of freshly slaughtered meat. It wasn't good or bad. It was strong. I won't forget it.

The rest of the butchering process passed in a flash of prowess and athleticism on the part of White Boots. Using sharp shears, he removed the front feet of each lamb. He then inserted a standard air pump - the kind we use to air tires, blow things clean, etc - into the edge of one leg, blowing the lamb up much like a balloon. It was surreal, horrible and comical at once, so that I wanted to giggle as my knees were shaking, one eye on the bloating lamb. White Boots immediately made incisions in the skins between each leg and the body, another preparatory step in removing the skin. We carried each lamb to a wooden pallet set near the woodshed. Three hanging ropes waited.

I held onto the lamb where White Boots pointed and said "Qua." On the pallet, he removed the rear feet and began to remove the animal hide, revealing the meat below. His technique was practiced, perfected, beautiful. With one hand he pulled at the cuts he had made; with the other he pressed on the flesh, effectively separating the two parts. When he had done as much as he could on the pallet, we ran a hook between the rear legs of the lamb, and hung him. White Boots continued to peel, now using his fist. Punch, punch I saw behind the fur, his fist interrupting the fur from the animal's back. Quickly, the lamb was reduced from animal to meat; the appearance of the lamb as I knew him disappeared.

White Boots threw the pelt into a waiting wheelbarrow. He crossed the lamb's forelegs behind the head, replicating a yoga pose of sorts, where they stayed put. This gave him room to remove the (plentiful) innards. A quick slit down the center of the chest and they spilled forth, steaming. They were strong, staying together when White Boots added them to the wheelbarrow. I saw blues, greys, veins, cords, pouches; there is such an art to an animal's construction. In little time, three lambs were hanging from the roof of the woodshed, slender with meat, not a piece of white fur on their bodies.

If I had to capture the morning in one word, it would be exhilaration. There was no time to comprehend, just a little to feel. The entire morning was fast, unexpected, and artful. Much like a roller coaster. I still felt composed at lunchtime, and think I could have eaten lamb if it was served at dinner. But I'm glad it wasn't.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi babydoll, hi! I'm not at all responding to your slaughter post, just that this is what I happened to catch in my midnight paper-writing procrastination. How ARE you? I can't believe it's almost December, and you'll be on your way back to us. (You will, won't you?) Headed down to New Haven tomorrow for Rowan's MEDAL acceptance. Bruce should be there. I'll tell all you say hi. Because you do, don't you?

Love love love. In Italian too.


8:58 PM  
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