Stewart Voegltin of the blog, Blood & Grits, has seen a number of hog killings. We were talking about how they worked in Georgia vs NC, and I asked Stewart if he'd write a story. It runs in three consecutive parts this week. I offer this short story as something to savor when you have time this Thanksgiving. There's a unique sense of place and time that you can see and smell and hear.
'Hog Killin' Time', Monticello, GA Photographer & Date Unknown
Nothing to be Gained Here
Maddox McKibbern stopped at the hilltop and stood hunched and trembling. His breath labored. He looked on the hollow below. Winter’d come to Polk County. Big Frog Mountain loomed north. Rolling broken white rock rose out of bare scarlet and white oak held briefly aflame only fortnight ago. Thin trees scattered up the mountain’s face.
Hawk lit from its perch and dropped quickly and then climbed into cold wind. Maddox watched the hawk. He listened to his breathing and his heart thudded heavy in his ears. Dirt covered Royal Crown Cola bottle jutted from his overall bib pocket and a dead garden spider spread in flattened black wheel upon its neck.
Ahead crows stood atop oaks softened by fog. Their gnarled and ancient boughs wandered in the gray and were spectral and boundless in the dawn. Caws came jagged and taunting and carried through the hollow. In the clearing smoke rolled heavy from the clapboard’s chimney blackened thickly with creosote, its bricks piled broken and crumbling from base to its mouth loosely agape.
Horace Ayle burst from the house in overalls stiff with dirt and blood. The door cracked closed behind him. Crows lit startled from trees. Sharp black wings sailed them headlong into morning breaking sunless and white and then they were gone.
Past them and through Cohutta mountains ran rivers Hiwassee, Conasauga, Ocoee. Mountain folk tricked trout from river riffle and traded their silvery sundried bodies for salt and shot shells in town. They walked mountain wood and took rutting buck and varmint from its recesses. They trickled back to homes hidden amongst trees. Farther out was electricity and invention. Men tied tracks to earth and steam locomotives no Ayle’d neither seen nor imagined thundered across an America unknown but somewhere strangely thereupon them.
Maddox knew churches half the size of the Ayle hollow. He knew creaks of their pine pews. He’d felt the sting in ways and means of salvation. The godly fire and profound chimera of their pastors. He’d known death too—least of which through host of Ayle hog killings.Maddox struggled mightily with his memory but he recalled the killings a might bit more celebratory than they’d come over time with family thinning to disease and misfortune.
He’d known Osal and Dathan’s dulcimers and Enoch’s fiddle. Leah, Rebekah, and Edna tending to brood ever-expanding, their names stolen from Sabbath sermon and never once seen in ink. Michah and Helda, Rachel and Ruth and Ram, and Zechariah and Zion and Zebedee, and Adina and Eunice and Bethany. Their laughter high and bright as Betelgeuse, hosts of cold bare feet bouncing hog’s bladder become ball by magic and breath. Those days gone—kinder times now only tales told from a patriarch unable to give them life with words that deftly escaped him.
—Here ah church an here ah steeple, Horace Ayle said. He smiled at Maddox as he wound his mottled hands together and brought them to his face and laughed. The steeple held short and crooked in awkward lambda, Horace’s forefinger taken at the knuckle a from snapping turtle summer past on Pope Hankinson’s pond.
His feet cracked from their broken leather boots and his back pumped in rhythm spun metronomic and incessant. Maddox pulled the soda pop from his bib and Horace took it and popped the top with the butt of his knife. He tipped the bottle to his mouth and drank and it ran over his jaw in sibilant and muddy foam. Horace ran to the hog pen and poured some in the trough and then brought the bottle to his lips. Maddox heard Horace’s father Owen jabbering as he led a massive hog from the pen. Owen saw Maddox and nodded.
—Mornin, Owen said and kept his eyes hidden with his hat brim and whispered nonsense to the hog as he led him. His shotgun sat clasped in the crook of an arm. Horace doted over the hog and poured soda pop over his snout and cooed at him in a tone reserved for children fresh to the world and without notion of the life they’d been brought into. Horace turned and smiled at Maddox. His grin shattered with teeth misshapen and broken.
Owen let the leash fall and shouldered the gun. It boomed and the shot slammed over the hollow. The hog collapsed into spasms and squeals and struck furiously at the frozen ground. Heavy hooves hooked the earth and broke through to the mud below and they made sucking sounds as they pounded.
The hog held sharply to the world as it deliquesced within and without him, its awareness pulled shrieking into a darkness unquantifiable and ineffable. Steam rose from its haunches and back in a vapor that wound into ghostly helix and then was gone.
Maddox lit his pipe and drew from the stem and stared at the hog’s head and at the shot pattern—a black and smoking diadem between thin marbled eyes. Owen shucked the shell from the gun and the hull hit the ground without sound.
Maddox smoked and looked beyond the pen to the wood and the piles of river rock squaring off plot and the scores of wooden cruciform fastened with deer sinew and embellished with flowers dead and dried. Sons and daughters and their own. Owen handed Maddox a heavy brown glass bottle and Maddox drank from it and it tasted wet and sweet and of crabapples and then took his breath with power.
—Flurs pop up yonder after first killin, Owen said. Ol Pope Hankinson tell us theys crocus. Purty goshdern flurs. Theys come up right outta ground where we kill em. Like theys grown out the blood an flesh itself. Bettern any flurs I ever seen.
Owen pulled a braid of tobacco from his pocket and ripped it apart and chewed furiously. Maddox handed the bottle back to Owen and he bubbled it and spat. Owen did not talk for a while. He looked at Maddox and then looked at the bottle and then drank again from it.
—Whyn’t you elsewhere?
—Cause I’m here, Maddox said. Aint want to be nowhere else.
—Aint got no expectations. Aint nothin to expect. Reckon I’m familiar with it. Put me at ease. You put me at ease.
—Aint never understood that. I’d be elsewhere if I could. I reckon most of us would. Always struck me as queer. This wantin to be somewhere other than where we is.
Two shacks pulled together from a patchwork of scrap tin and clapboard leant amongst wire fencing set down for hens. A clothesline sagged diagonally. Drawers and britches and shirts wet and stained stiffened in the cold. Chickens hunted, pecked. Pine logs cracked and roared with flame underneath a steel tub. Water rolled in a boil and sloshed and sizzled over the sides of the tub.
Maubry Ayle stood to the porch. His head held cocked, his right eye tossed asunder from skittish hinny, its empty socket flat and gray with lid that lay upon it as a centipede static and arrow straight. His mouth split wide over five teeth crooked and brown. He yelled and motioned and then laughed as a conversation unfolded between the ears of his massive head without ever hitting the air. He stood restless and rocking and spoke to no one present but himself.
Kinard and Eugene Ayle helped Owen work. They ran rope around the hog’s hooves and hoisted the beast betwixt tripod brought together from broken hoes. Dark red blood dribbled from the thick pink head as it dangled above the dirt.
—Maubry, whynt you come on done ere? Kinard said. —Diddy gone need all are help now.
Maubry turned his back and laughed and cocked his head.
Kinard and Eugene wrapped their hands in rags and pulled the tub from the fire and scalded the hog with the boiling water. Its skin flushed and Owen worked a worn knife over the hog, shaving hairs from its heavy jowls and snout. Eugene and Kinard worked from the tail up, scraping knives over the hide.
Eugene patted the hog’s white gut and smiled. His teeth were terrific and drawn out of gums dark and brown like a dog’s. He stabbed the hog deep and quick and blood rushed fast and red from the wound. Owen moved under the hog with the pail and the blood struck the bottom of the pail and rang as it hit sounding bright and clean and then dull and full as it weighed down heavy with the warm blood. Owen turned and spat a thick wad of tobacco juice into the dirt.
Eugene collared the hog with his knife and Kinard parted the flesh at its neck and chopped at the vertebrae with an axe. Owen helped Eugene pull the head slowly from the body. They each grabbed under a jowl and laid a hand over top. They pulled and their boots backed up in the dirt and the carcass lifted slightly and gave, falling, wobbly, back into line.
Crows screamed from trees. Their cackling sounded as the cold itself, indifferent and irritable in its metastasis. Owen wiped the sweat from his forehead with a blood blackened bandana and he spanked the hog’s head. Its eyes bone white, dead.
End of Part I
Interview with author-
Stewart Vogeltin of Blood & Grits
More than anything else...What do you like to drink?
Most days I’m a beer drinker. (Nothing posh. I’m a 30-pack buyer.) But when it comes down to it—there’s nothing better than two fingers of Bourbon, neat. The cheap stuff: Rebel Yell, Old Grand Dad. Won't turn down Tennessee sour mash either. I love Jack Daniel's and George Dickel.
If we're going to do that "last meal" thing, I'd have to say venison tartare with a few shakes of Tabasco and an ice-cold Budweiser out of the can.
Army surplus fatigues or Levis, LL Bean chamois shirts, old sneakers. That's my uniform. If I'm in the field, it's Filson double tin pants, Pendelton wool shirt, Welch suspenders, GA boots, and my old Carharrt coat. If I've got to "look nice" it's my dad's hand-me-downs: Brooks Bros. oxfords, chinos, and Bean camp mocs. I've got all my dad's ties from the 70s and 80s, too. Really gorgeous obese ones with ludicrous hunting scenes on them—my version of the GTH thing.
I go through a lot of phases, and I'm a fickle reader, but I always return to Agee, Faulkner, Melville, Homer, Aeschylus, and The Bible. This is the stuff that gets the blood going and makes me want to simultaneously write and give up writing.
Used to read a lot of contemporary fiction and avant-garde stuff. French stuff. Really fussy writing. Now I can’t stand it. Same goes for contemporary fiction, but Larry Brown is a good one though. He passed away not too long ago unfortunately. His novel, Joe, is the finest Southern fiction written since Faulkner's Light In August. Incredibly moving and realistic.
What did you like that you don't anymore?
Politics. I was this huge political junkie throughout high school and college and even up through GW Bush's first term. I read three or four different papers a day. Blogs. Watched all the bullshit pundit shows. Argued with people about it. Now I have to agree with William Gass' assessment, and I'm paraphrasing here, "Politics: for those not in love."
Part II of Nothing To Be Gained Here and author interview continues tomorrow