The Saturday following Mr. McGuire’s funeral was butchering day. Nell and Littlejim carried load after load of long firewood and banked it underneath Mama’s big black iron wash pots hanging from poles suspended between the two sarvice trees in the barnyard.
By nightfall on Friday, Bigjim and Cousin Tarp had readied the hanging bar, the iron meat hooks, and the carving table at the back of the smokehouse. Bigjim had sharpened all of Gertrude’s knives on the big round whetstone in the woodshed. He spat on his hand and rubbed the skin of his thumb along the edge of the blade to test its sharpness. Tarp nodded in agreement. Littlejim was allowed to arrange the knives on the carving table set up under the leafless form of the Winter John apple tree for the big day ahead.
Long before the winter sun crept over the top of Wolf Hill that morning, Littlejim had finished his cathead biscuit, slice of sidemeat, and gravy. The year past, Littlejim had helped to carry the meat to the kitchen and had worked with the women. This year he was older, and so he would be allowed to work with the men. But as much as he had been looking forward to today, he wished it hadn’t come so soon. He still felt light-headed every time he remembered Mr. McGuire. Still, he didn’t want to let Papa down, so he didn’t ask to work inside.
Nell was to work in the kitchen. Covered with huge aprons, she, Mama, and Aunt Josey would work up the meat, making sousemeat from the hogs’ heads cooked until the meat fell off the bones. Then they would mix the meat with sage, salt, and pepper, and run it through the grinder. The mixture would be placed in the springhouse to jell. The sousemeat would make a fine supper later in the week, served with boiled cabbage and cornbread.
Later, the women would make liver mush from the boiled liver, mixed with cornmeal and gelatin from the bones of the feet and head. When it had jelled, Mama would store it in a crock in the springhouse to fry in slices for breakfast.
But best of all, or so Littlejim thought, was the sausage they would grind and mix with spices. All day long they would cook the batches of sausage on Mama’s cookstove to can in glass jars. Littlejim knew that Mama had already made an extra pan of biscuits and that for both dinner and supper that day there would be fresh sausage biscuits. The thought made his mouth water. Sausage was one of his favorite foods.
Littlejim, his father, and Cousin Tarp walked out into the frosty morning air. One of the men who worked with Bigjim in the woods already had the fires started. The flames leaped under the iron kettles already filled with water from which steam had begun to rise.
Banjer Brown, from up the head of the Creek, was there to help, puffing on his corncob pipe. He was known to be the best at butchering for miles around and had been there since long before sunup.
Bigjim carried his rifle. The man of the house always did the killing on butchering day. That was his right. As the men approached the hog pen, all the hogs shoved one another for a place close to the fence, waiting for food to be thrown into the trough.
Bigjim stepped one booted foot on the lowest rail of the fence and placed the stock of the rifle against his shoulder. Lowering the barrel to within inches of the shoat’s head, he pulled the trigger.
Littlejim’s ears heard a cracking sound. The shoat screamed and fell on his side, one leg still kicking. The other hogs squealed and ran frantically around the pen.
Bigjim took aim again. Another hog lay in the mud of the pen. Banjer Brown leaped over the fence and quickly stabbed each hog’s neck with a butcher knife to bleed it as soon as it stopped moving.
Lilac and the other hogs stood in the far corner of the pen, making small rumbling sounds in their throats. Bigjim walked around the corner of the pen, brought an ear of corn out of his coat pocket, and offered it to Lilac.
“Open the gate,” shouted Bigjim.
The two men dragged the hogs, one after the other, out onto the brown frost-bitten grass. Banjer Brown carried the buckets of boiling water to pour over the hogs’ bodies. With sharp butcher knives, Littlejim and Cousin Tarp scraped the bristles quickly from the hide of the first hog and moved on to the second one.
Banjer Brown split the skin of the hogs’ hind feet to expose the tendons. Running a gamblin stick, sharpened at each end, through the tendons allowed the hog to be suspended from the supporting pole.
Bigjim and Banjer Brown lifted the pole into a notch between two water oak trees. When Tarp and Littlejim had cleaned the second hog, the two older men hoisted the hog up beside the first.
Banjer Brown took the largest butcher knife from the cutting table as Tarp placed a galvanized bucket in front of each of the hanging hogs. With one swift movement, Banjer slashed the hog down the underbelly. With a second cut, the intestines oozed into the buckets, steaming in the cold air.
The sweet stench of blood and hog guts hit Littlejim’s stomach like a blow from a fist to his middle. The bloody body of the head gaffer at Uncle Bob’s sawmill appeared before his eyes just as he had seen it last week. The world swam in and out so he could not see clearly. He dropped the bloody knife he was holding and ran for the outhouse door.
“No-account boy . . .” he heard Bigjim say, as his stomach exploded into his mouth.
Mama came to the outhouse door with a cool wet cloth. She washed Littlejim’s face and helped him walk back to the house.
“It is my opinion,” said Mama, standing firmly with a fist on each hip facing her tall husband and daring him to disagree, “that my son has the terrible influenza that is going around. He should stay in bed this day.”
So while the rest of the family worked to prepare the winter store of meat, Littlejim lay, a lump of misery, in his bed in the sleeping loft. He wanted to go back outside, but every time he went to get up, the picture of Mr. McGuire flashed in his head and he lay back down.
“I wish,” he said to the ceiling, “that I was dead. I hate you, Papa.” But he dared not think such a sinful thought. No wonder Bigjim thought he was a no-account boy.