Cassiopeia, and the story about The Hog Butcher. THE HOG BUTCHER
By: Jerry Smetzer
First public reading: October 31,2015
My mom and daddy named me Cassie. That's short for Cassiopeia. Cassiopeia is a constellation visible in the night sky a few degrees on the other side of the North Star from the Big Dipper. We live on a farm in northern Ohio where we have some animals, and we grow some corn, wheat and soy beans. There is a small farm house, a barn for storing feed, and a workshop and sheds for the tractor and corn picker. I am 15 years old, and I am scared to grow up too fast.
My daddy helps work the farm, but mostly he is a mechanic who can fix anything that is broken. He is very tall. His hands are usually dirty. Even after washing them his fingernails still have dirt under them. During the growing season he is gone a lot because he goes around to farms in the area fixing farm equipment.
My mom likes to wear a pretty ribbon in her hair even when there is no one to see it. She mostly stays at home doing the cooking and cleaning, feeding the animals and taking care of things around the place when daddy is not there. Mom never went beyond 8th grade, but she has many books of her own, and is always delighted when one of her quilting friends bring around a new one. She has read with me every day since I can remember. She doesn't much do that anymore because I learned early how to read by myself.
My daddy reads too, but he also taught me to shoot and hunt. Now I go out and shoot whenever daddy gives me some bullets. He gave me a 22 bolt action rifle when I was 8. He looked at me serious and told me he wanted me to learn how to help feed the family.
I do try really hard to help with chores. Mom and daddy keep us all well-fed with home-grown chickens, a small garden, a couple of hogs, and milk from a scrawny goat daddy named Jack Rabbit. I like working with all the animals, and sometimes give them names. In the fall, though, we slaughter the chickens. Daddy takes the heads off the chickens, I dunk their bodies in hot water, then pull off the feathers. Mom cuts them up, and wraps them so they last through the winter. After helping to raise them, I don't like the slaughtering, but I know it has to be done if we are to have decent food to eat.
Mom and daddy both say I talk too much, especially when we sometimes have guests over to the house. I have always talked a lot, and I ask lots of questions. I don't have any fear of treating adults like I was as old as they are. When they say something dumb I make a face. I can't help it. I didn't really care if they told my parents that I was rude child. Maybe my parents should have been strict with me so I would be polite with the neighbors. But they never were. Mom would sometimes say: "Cassie please settle down.' Once, daddy told me to shut up, but there was only that one time. After he said it, he seemed very sad for awhile, and couldn't look me in the eye.
Whenever my dad's head dropped in a sad frown after one of my dumb remarks that was always the worst punishment anyway.
When I went to school, I read every book I could find, and sometimes had to hide to do it. I wanted to know about the world; about history; about science; about art. I wanted to know what others thought of these things. I was often blunt in asking older people what they thought about things, even really personal things.
Mom and daddy liked each other well enough, but they had always had to work hard to keep the farm a decent place to live and with enough food to eat. They never really had time to help me understand all the things I was learning about. Their parents before them were raised in the depression, and worked especially hard on this farm to make sure there was plenty of food on the table.
When I was thirteen, my dad bought me a 3-speed bicycle for Christmas. In the summers I was never home after that except when tornados were forecast. There was another kid more or less my age who lived on a nearby farm. Before we both got bikes our parents would get us together for a visit. As soon as we could break free from the parents, we would go out to explore the neighborhood, and whatever farm equipment, barns, or animal pens we could find. Later we biked to our closest little town three miles away so we could hang out with our other school friends. There was a bigger town seven miles beyond, and the bunch of us would sometimes ride our bikes to that town, and marvel at all the stores and tall buildings.
As I became more independent, more aware, and more curious about the complexity, diversity, and all the wonders of my small farming community, and the larger world beyond I and one of my more adventuresome friends traveled further, even dangerously further, away from home. These adventures began to give me more focused interests, and about how those interests would fit when I grow up. After seeing the pleasure that adults took in listening to the telling of good stories, I wanted to learn how to tell good stories too.
So, in quiet times, I wrote little stories about myself and my life on the farm. My parents were my audience as I read them aloud.
But I am getting ahead of this story, and this story is the one I really want to tell. The thing I want to talk about is the day my daddy woke me up early on a cold and crisp fall morning, and told me to bring my rifle out to the hog pen. I had learned how to use the rifle in the 5 years since daddy bought it for me. I was a pretty good shot when I was shooting at tin cans and bottles. Usually, when daddy gave me some bullets to practice with he would send me on my way with a smile, and a head rub.
This morning, he was very somber. As soon as he was sure I was awake he turned and left the room without speaking. When I went out, I saw my Uncle Sid's pickup truck in the driveway. I remembered then that it was hog butchering day. My daddy called on his brother Sid to come over because Sid - actually Uncle Sid to me - knew all the steps involved with efficiently killing and cutting up a hog for winter meat.
Once the hog was down, it was drug away and strung up by the hamstrings on a pulley rig suspended on tall tripod. Underneath the hog was a barrel of hot water. The hog was dropped into the hot water, left a few minutes then lifted out. Uncle Sid, Daddy, and Uncle Sid's helper, Showalter would then use a special tool to scrape the bristle off the hog's hide.
I didn't like having Showalter around. In the summer time he wore a floppy hat and bib overalls, but no shirt or underwear. He had looked at me in the garden the previous summer in a way that made me very uncomfortable.
I had never watched the butchering up close. Usually, I looked out from the kitchen window when I heard the shot that killed the hog. Then I turned back to my kitchen chores. This morning, though, they had not yet killed the hog, and I began to feel chills as daddy motioned me to come out to the pen by the tractor shed. Uncle Sid was another big guy like daddy, but I didn't like him very much either. He was gruff, he swore a lot, and he treated me like I was a child in the way of his important business.
"You gonna let this little shit shoot that hog?" Uncle Sid said. Daddy didn't answer. He motioned me to his side. "Did you clean the rifle, Cassie, and check the rounds before loading?" "Yes, daddy." I said, but my lower lip was starting to quiver. I began to think of the chickens that mom and daddy killed in the fall, about the time I spent feeding them, getting to know them, and sometimes naming them; about how much I hated to think about their being killed so we could eat. I thought I might cry, but daddy put his hand on my shoulder, and squeezed hard. "Let me see your rifle," he said. I lifted it to him. He took it, looked at it, and pointed it toward the sky. He partially cocked the bolt back to check the round, then he closed the bolt, and handed the rifle back to me.
"Do you see that hog over in the corner of the pen with the black spot across his left rump?" Yes, daddy." It was all I could do to keep from bursting into tears. "I want you to walk up to the fence and rest your rifle on that railing so you are comfortable. Then I want you to aim your rifle between his eyes, right here." Then, with the index finger on his right hand, Daddy pointed at a spot between his own eyes. I could see the dirt under his fingernail. "Then I want you to pull the trigger." I felt frozen to the spot where I was standing. "Go on, now, Cassie. This is something you need to do."
Sid said: "Jesus Christ, Ed (Ed was my daddy's name.) Why don't you shoot the goddamn hog. Yer kid's scared to death, and I got work to do."
I looked at daddy. He looked into my eyes, his face a mask. I looked briefly at Sid, then turned and walked toward the pen. I laid my rifle on the rail like daddy said then looked through the iron sights at the hog's forehead. The hog looked at me. I drew the rifle barrel down to a point right between the hog's eyes.
I know all the animals have a sensibility. They have friends and neighbors among their own kind; they have a language; hogs especially are very social and very intelligent. I saw all of those things in that hog's eyes. My only thought was that I had not named either of our hogs. That made them almost strangers to me, but I felt no comfort in that.
I squeezed the trigger. The hog dropped in place, gave a brief quiver along his flanks as his eyes went out of focus and he died. Uncle Sid said: "About goddamn time," then climbed over the fence with a knife and slit the hog's throat so the blood would run out onto the ground. I felt dizzy. I pulled the rifle close to my body with the barrel skyward, then flopped down on my butt, totally drained… too drained of energy and emotion to even cry or think.
Daddy came over and took the rifle from me. "Good job," he said, and rubbed my head, then set the rifle up against a tree near me. Uncle Sid went to get his butcher's saws and knives out of his pickup. Daddy and Showalter then strung a length of chain through the hog's rear hamstrings so they could drag it out of the pen, and lift it up to the tripod. I moved out of their way, then sat down again. I had never felt so tired and weak. I watched for awhile as Uncle Sid, Showalter, and daddy stripped the bristle off the hog, then cut the gut open so the intestines could spill out. Later I went back into the house.
Cassiopeia is a constellation visible in the night sky a few degrees on the other side of the North Star from the Big Dipper. In Greek mythology, Cassiopeia was Queen to King Cephus. Together, they ruled Ethiopia. Like most Ethiopians, the family was probably black. There was no racism in my family, but, secretly, I took pleasure in the blackness of Cassiopeia, and in the feeling of an earthy strength and otherness it gave me. Cassiopeia was the mother of Andromeda. Both were proud of their beauty, and both spoke of it to all in their presence.
This pridefulness was a problem for the gods of the day, and particularly for Zeus, the main god in the Greek pantheon. Zeus was so angry with it that he resolved to punish both women. Andromeda was stripped naked and chained to a rock in the sea. There she was to become food for the sea monster Cetus. Cassiopeia was banished to the sky, forever tied to her throne, and forever locked into a nightly rotation around the pole star, and, so, upside down to us for half of each day.
Before I could fully absorb the meaning of all these wonders of myth and cosmos, I got diverted from my studies and brought back down to earth, hard, by the bloody curse that reminds me, still, that I am no longer a child. Menstruation, and the expanding changes in my breast, butt, body hair, and sexual awareness that come with it, caused me to wonder about the natural world, about the ancient mysteries of our species, about the roots of our humanity, about the orbits of the moon and planets, and about the evolutions of all things. Mostly, though, today, I am wondering about the odd looks I am starting to get from boys who are older than me.