They were going to slaughter the pig today.
The little village gathered happily at Farmer Nulko’s. It was his pig that was getting slaughtered this time. The day was heavily overcast, and the ground underfoot thick with mud from the days of rain, but that made no difference to the village. They, those that had nothing else to do, came flocking eagerly, because pig slaughtering didn’t just mean pork for everyone; pig slaughter was a social occasion.
There was Ratko, in his old camouflage-pattern jacket from his army days and his peaked army cap. There was Mika, who was fat and moustachioed. There was young Goran, blond and thin, who had got married only a month ago and already rumoured to be on the verge of a divorce. There was Milovan, who always felt the cold and was in a heavy winter jacket although it was only autumn.
Old Grandfather Zeljko came, with his bleary blue eyes and perpetual white stubble that never quite grew into a beard yet never appeared to be shaved. His wife came too, Grandma Milomira who had no teeth and whose nose and chin almost met over her sunken lips. Their daughter came, golden-haired and pretty as a painting: Dafina, wife to Goran, with a baby-bump already showing under her dress. She came with her parents and not with her husband, and the other women saw this and liked it, very much. It gave them something to talk about.
The women came, too: Radana, tall and stately, of whom they said she never looked at her own feet because she never looked at anything below eye level; Ruza, short, round, black-eyed and spite-tongued; Krasna, the “beautiful one” (that was what her name meant) who always looked tired out because of her brood of five children, of whom three came along with her; and there was Jovanka, too, of whom it was said that if she gave you the evil eye you would sicken and your fondest hopes fail.
They all came, men and women and children. All came to Farmer Nulko’s to watch the pig slaughter.
Farmer Nulko’s wife, Gavrila, had made steaming tea with brandy for those who wanted it. As the adults gathered, warming their hands on the cups and chewing on thick slices of black bread, young Ivan wandered into the muddy yard and went to the pig pens. Farmer Nulko had been hard at work since the morning. The pig to be slaughtered had been removed to a different pen, and stood there alone, morosely looking at the grey, lowering sky. Sometimes they would slaughter two pigs. It was just the one pig this time though. It was a Large White like all Farmer Nulko’s pigs, born a little over a year ago and tipping the scales at a hundred and fifty kilograms. The pig snuffled at Ivan when it caught sight of him. He looked back at it, fascinated.
Ivan was ten years old. He was short for his age, and thin, so that his big ears seemed to stick out even more from the sides of his head. He stood in big boots that had belonged to his oldest brother and still had a year or two to go before Ivan would grow into them. Maybe it would be two years more before he would grow out of them. The boots were good and tough and might last that long. That would make Krasna, his mother, content.
“Hello, pig,” said Ivan. The pig raised its pink snout and looked at him. He looked back at the pig and told himself that it would be dead in an hour, and partly eaten in a day. That was a fascinating idea; a living breathing creature that no doubt was thinking its own porcine thoughts, killed and turned into sausages and ham. He turned the idea over in his mind. He wondered what the pig would think of it.
“They’re going to kill you, pig,” he told it. He leaned over the wall of the pen. It was difficult for him to do this, because he was short. He held out an arm but could not touch the broad white top of the pig’s head. The pig raised its snout at his hand, and snorted loudly; suddenly afraid, he drew his hand back. Then he thought about his own fear and laughed a little. It was nervous laughter. Here he was, afraid of a large white pig that wouldn’t even be alive a couple of hours from now. Nothing the pig could do to him would be quite as bad as what was going to happen to the pig. He looked at the pig with a sort of awe. In a little while it would know what it felt like to be dead, while he, Ivan, would have to wait a hundred years at least. Maybe he would never ever die. Just like Grandpa Slobodan, who was a hundred and three and still planted his own garden.
There was a shrub growing near the pen. He twisted off a branch and held it towards the pig. “Hey, pig,” he said. “Eat this.” The snuffling pink snout twitched the branch out of his fingers. The pig chewed at the leaves and spat them out.
“Sorry, pig,” he said. “There isn’t anything else.” The pig looked at him gloomily. He decided the pig knew it was to die. He wondered if the pig could somehow come back and tell him what it was like to be dead.
His sister, with her hair in pigtails and her round face red and shining, came out to him. “You’re to come in,” she said. “Mother wants you inside.”
“But I want to see them kill it.”
“Mother wants you inside.” Lyubomira was a year older and heavier and stronger than Ivan. She was also the better fighter, because she had no scruples about gouging and scratching. He sighed, theatrically as one of the stars on TV, and followed her inside. Krasna was waiting, sipping at yet another cup of tea and chatting with Radana. She broke off her conversation to look at Ivan. “In the front room,” she said. “Go and have tea and bread.”
“But I want to see them kill it.”
“That’s not something you need to see. Go to the front room.”
“I don’t want tea or bread.” He tried his last shot. “I’m not hungry or thirsty.”
“You should listen to your mother,” said Ruza, her black eyes like wet stones. She smiled at Krasna, her smile sweet as poison. “I know your mother is tired. You should make things easy for her, not even more difficult.”
“Thank you, I can manage them, Ruza.” Krasna kept her voice even with some difficulty. Over in the corner, she saw Jovanka watching with detached amusement, and the blood rushed to her head with the anger of it. “Go to that room, Ivan,” she snapped. “Go and stay there until I tell you to come.”
“Come on,” said Lyubomira, and she caught Ivan by the sleeve and pulled him into the front room. Their youngest brother was there, Miroslav, but he was only a kid, so they both ignored him even though he looked at them hopefully. In the front room, Grandfather Zeljko was trying to light his pipe. Each time he tried the pipe went out, and when he pulled at the pipe it make strange sucking sounds rather like the snuffling of the pig.
Grandma Milomira was slurping tea from a saucer, dribbling some of it. Everyone was kind to her even though she was not quite right in the head any more. They had all been taught by her in the village school, except the young ones, and they remembered how she used to be. Everyone pretended she was drinking the tea like any other person and not spilling half of it on herself.
“So when is the baby due?” Gavrila asked Dafina.
“Six months.” Although she was so pretty, Dafina’s eyes were sunken and shadowed with blue. She looked exhausted.
“Six months. And you were married, er…”
“All right, so I was pregnant before I got married. I admit it. Is that what you want to know?” Dafina looked at the three children and quickly fell silent. But it was too late.
“Yes…” Milomira might be half daft, but her voice was still the same teacher’s voice she had used for fifty years. “She was pregnant, and got married because she was pregnant. And as for the father…”
“Shh, dear.” But Zeljko had never managed to rule his wife even when she had been in her senses, and he could not rule her now. “The father,” she went on, “who knows who that was…not that stupid little Goran, I’m sure.” She pointed one wavering finger at Dafina’s bulge. “You wait till the baby comes out, it’ll look nothing like –“
“Mom!” Dafina was outraged. But Miroslav had been listening too. “What’s pregnant?” he asked.
“I’ll tell you, little boy.” Milomira dribbled a little tea and put down the saucer. “It’s like this, when a man and a woman, you know, the man, he puts his…” she trailed off in inarticulate mumbles. The whole room held its collective breath, and sighed in relief when it was obvious she had lost the thread of her own thoughts.
“I’d better see if the men are ready,” said Gavrila. She was blushing violently. She went out without meeting Dafina’s eyes.
“What a thing to say!” said Dafina. “That Goran isn’t the father!”
“You shouldn’t mind her, dear.” Zeljko sucked at his pipe. He, too, couldn’t meet his daughter’s eyes.
“Is that what you really think, that Goran isn’t the father? Both of you think that, do you?”
“No. She isn’t in her right mind.”
“Oh, think whatever you want.” Dafina spun on her heel and stalked toward the door. “I’m going home,” she said. “You do whatever you want here. I’m sorry I came.” The door slammed behind her. She had not even waited to put on her jacket.
“What’s pregnant?” asked Miroslav again, but nobody paid him any attention. Lyubomira and Ivan had watched the exchange wide-eyed, clustered together as if for protection.
The squealing started outside. “Ah yes,” said Zeljko, with relief. “They’re starting the killing.” The squealing went on and on, like a steam whistle.
“How long will it scream?” asked Ivan. He felt suddenly sorry for the pig, and excited at the same time. He felt as if something tremendously important was happening and he was not part of it. “Have you ever killed a pig, Grandpa?”
“Ivan isn’t it? Krasna’s son?” Zeljko peered at the boy with his bleary pale blue eyes. “Yes, I killed pigs. Many pigs. Maybe a hundred.”
“How do they do it?”
“Why don’t you go and watch? You’ll have to do it one day, you know.”
“Mother doesn’t want me to watch.”
“Oh, nonsense. Go out from this door and round the side, to the back. Then come back this way when you’re done. And you, too, missy. Women have their own bit to do in pig-killing, and you ought to see it.”
“But mom said –“
“I’ll handle your mom.” Zeljko obviously was glad of the opportunity to talk of something other than the baby. “You go and watch.”
“I’m not going,” said Lyubomira. The pig was still squealing.
“Fine, so you stay here.” Ivan ran quickly to the door, and when he opened it he almost ran right into Dafina. Her eyes bright with anger, she strode past him, snatched her jacket off the hook, and strode out again. Ivan gave her no further thought. Slipping a little in the mud, he ran round the back of the house to the yard.
They were dragging the pig out of the pen. They had hooked a rope round the pig’s pointed canine teeth, and Milovan and Mika were pulling on both ends of the rope, and Nulko himself was pushing the pig from behind. The pig had set its trotters in the mud and was straining backward, but the combined force of the three men was pulling it through the mud. If it had not been for the mud they might have needed three more men to pull it. It was a strong pig.
Ratko stood off to one side, in his army outfit, with a cigarette in his mouth and swinging a long hammer. Nobody felt quite comfortable around Ratko. He had fought in a militia in the civil war and still looked the part, bulky, shaven-headed, heavily tattooed and muscular. The long handled hammer seemed to fit his hand like a weapon of some pagan god. He glanced briefly at Ivan with total lack of interest, and stepped up behind the pig. Nulko stepped aside. Ratko swung the hammer up over his head and brought it down in a vicious arc on the pig’s head, just between the eyes. The pig dropped flat and the squealing stopped as if someone had shut off a switch.
Ivan hadn’t even noticed Goran till now. The thin blond man was to one side and wore an apron down to his knees. He now stepped forward, and as he bent over the fallen pig, one knee on its neck, the boy saw a flash of metal in his hand and when he straightened up a fountain of blood was spouting from the pig’s throat. Nulko hurried forward with a large plastic basin to catch the blood. The pig’s legs began trembling, and it began to convulse a little. The basin filled. Gavrila came out of the house, put another basin down, and took the full basin in. The pig stopped moving and the blood stopped spouting out as before. It leaked into the muddy ground and turned the mud from brown to maroon.
“Enjoying it, son?” Ratko grinned at him slyly, with his hammer over his shoulder. He puffed his cigarette. Goran was bending over the pig again, and cutting the neck open with the knife. He reached in and began pulling things out from the pig, throwing them into the large basin Gavrila had brought out. Every now and then he would reach inside with the knife and cut. The basin was full of steaming mottled red and white and pink entrails, heart and lungs and gullet. Ivan walked up to the pig’s carcass and stared down, fascinated.
“Move to the side, Ivan.” Farmer Nulko and Mika had brought out a red metal cylinder of gas, and Mika was attaching a long black pipe to it. He turned a switch and held out the pipe. Ratko took his cigarette and put the glowing end to the end of the pipe. There was a soft whumph and a long tongue of yellow-blue fire shot out of the end of the pipe. Mika and Ratko took turns playing the fire over the pig’s body. The pink-white skin turned black, and the smell of burned hair filled the air. Milovan and Nulko carried the heavy basin away. To one side, Gavrila was doing something. They took the basin to her. Jovanka came out of the house and joined her. They both looked at Ivan and Jovanka said something. Gavrila shrugged and bent over the basin.
“Where’s Dafina?” asked Goran, standing at Ivan’s side. “Can you tell her I want to talk to her a moment?”
“I think she went home, Uncle Goran.”
“Is that so.” Goran looked thinner than ever, and weak. Ivan thought he was ill. “Thanks.” He began to wander away.
“Hey, Goran,” Ratko called. “Where are you off to?”
“Dafina…” Goran waved one hand vaguely and wandered out of the yard. Ratko said something in Mika’s ear and both of them shouted with laughter. The pig was wholly blackened now and they shut off the fire. Ratko detached the tube and Mika took a long knife, bent, and began scraping vigorously at the pig. “You interested in this, Ivan?” he asked.
“Sir? You heard him call me sir?” This seemed to amuse Mika a lot. Ratko grinned at Ivan and went away. He came back with Milovan, both men carrying ropes. They tied the ropes round the pig’s hind legs and dragged it away to where Nulko stood near a frame like a scaffold. Ivan followed, watching them hoist the pig up. Nulko brought out a long knife, one of the longest Ivan had ever seen, and slit the pig wide open. He reached in and scooped out the whole tangled mess of white looping intestines and dropped it into a bucket of water, it and the liver. Ivan jumped back as the water splashed. Nulko laughed and bent to wash the intestines and liver. The pig looked deflated now, and empty, like a collapsed balloon. Ratko had a hacksaw. He began sawing the pig up, with quick efficient strokes, into chunks of reddish meat and white bone and white rubbery fat.
“Ivan,” Krasna shouted from the back door. “You come here this minute.”
Ivan started and looked up guiltily, but there was no help for it. The men around the pig didn’t look at him either. Slowly he went up to her. Looking white-faced and frightened, Lyubomira stood in the doorway behind her.
“I told you not to go out there,” Krasna said, and then she slapped him. It was not a hard slap, as slaps go, and it was not the first time she had slapped him. But it was the first time she had slapped him in public. The tears sprang to his eyes.
“Hey, Krasna,” Milovan called from the pig’s carcass. “The boy wasn’t doing any harm. Why did you hit him?”
“You mind your own business, Milovan. He’s my son, not yours.” Krasna grabbed the back of Ivan’s shirt and pulled him into the back room and through into the front room, not looking to left or right. To Ivan’s eyes everything was a blur of tears. Except for Miroslav, the front room was empty. Krasna grabbed their jackets off the hooks so quickly there was a ripping sound from Lyubomira’s. Krasna hissed in annoyance, but thrust the jackets into their arms almost violently. “You put those on. We’re going home.”
“Going home?” A slaughter was usually an all-day occasion.
“I told you, didn’t I? Put them on or should I hit you again?” Krasna’s teeth were set, her face taut. Ruza and Radana came to the door between the front and back rooms and stood there watching. Radana looked aloof, Ruza intensely smug and excited.
“Why don’t you let the boy stay, Krasna?” she asked. “He’s not doing anyone any harm.”
Krasna hissed again. Her entire body seemed to tighten up, and for an instant Ivan thought she was going to turn round and hit the black-eyed woman. Then she propelled the children before her and walked out, pushing the door shut very quietly, not giving them the pleasure of hearing it slam.
“I’m sorry I hit you,” she said when they were in their own home. “I don’t expect you to understand why I did it. Maybe some day you’ll understand me. But I’m sorry, that’s all.”
Later, she sat with a glass of wine and sipped it, looking out of the window at the grey overcast sky.
“I’m glad they don’t kill pigs every day,” she said.