It is one of the last weeks of September; the air is cool. In the sun, horseflies are still biting. In the shade, mosquitoes hum toward me like wandering tourists, trying to determine which location might be best for a snack or meal. In cool weather like this, even the hand of a small child can thwart most mosquitoes’ efforts. With each successful swat, grey dust outlines a dead mosquito’s silhouette on an arm, elbow or leg.
My father, sister and I drove up early this morning, specifically to butcher. Winter is coming on. People who have known hunger view an approaching long, cold winter with an attitude and timbre radically different from those who have known only moderate weather, packed pantries or full larders. A one-and-half year old steer is being readied to become steaming spaghetti dinners, hot beef-onion gravy, paper-thin breakfast steaks, broiled rib-eye and roasts to be baked with carrots, onions and potatoes—garden produce from this summer’s harvest.
When our trio bursts onto the scene at my grandparents’ house, my father’s family is not prepared for us or the day’s project. The shotgun must be retrieved from the back of the closet underneath the stairs. A sufficiently sharp knife must be found in one of the crammed kitchen drawers. The red trailer remains to be hitched.
Our early arrival marks the beginning of chaos in the house. Except for my grandfather, already on his morning walk, my father must rouse everyone. My grandmother came in late last night from work. My young aunts and an uncle are rousted to get breakfast and look after my younger sister and myself. Because she is working at the hospital, my mother is not there to care for us herself. We did not actually bring the chaos. The chaos is the result of two overly-full schedules colliding on one of the last available weekends for butchering.
In October, the snow will come halting all outside food-producing activities for the next seven to eight months. Except for the canned vegetables and fruit already set aside, our freezers are empty. The meat from the steer will fill two freezers. Urgency surrounds preparations today. Fear of hunger is factored in. I think of my father.
After breakfast and a few warm hours in the house, I walk outside to amble about the yard. Peering around the edge of the now-hitched trailer, I look inside to see the dead steer’s head staring back at me. His supple black, velvety hide is in a low crumpled heap, cushioning his head. Closer to me, his tail lies discarded—a rope with one frayed end.
In the dark, yawning doorway of the barn behind me, hanging from his back legs, the steer’s carcass has been hoisted up by a chain with block and tackle. With his skin fully stripped, I observe a thin milky membrane covering the fine musculature of his body. Component parts are connected by thick fibrous strands, crisscrossing his legs, hips, trunk and shoulders. My father and his father are preparing the animal for meat cutting at a shop forty miles south-east.
Peering again around the monstrously tall sides of the hay trailer, I am struck by the contrast in colors. The trailer is red. The hide and head and tail of the Angus steer are a glossy jet black, except for cut surfaces which bleed red. I am also amazed by the size of the animal’s head and his protruding tongue. I stick out my own tongue to examine its color, texture and shape. We seem to have the same tongues on different scales. Somehow, it feels like we are siblings. I know that, if I were to peel back my own skin, we would look much the same, except that I am smaller, leaner—skinny.
Padding toward the house, across the dark green grass, it is almost noon. I feel how cold the ground is already. My sister is chasing cats in the yard. Despite many scratches, she looks pleased to have caught a grey puff of fur. When I finally catch my own cat, I observe in its heft that there is not enough meat on this skinny-carcassed animal for even one meal.