The decision I made decades ago to stop eating animals can be traced back to the day my father shot that hog. I was nine, standing barefoot in a field of collards, just across the dirt road from my Grandma and Grandpa’s pigpen. All morning long, Daddy kept saying we were going to have ham that night, and being from Detroit and on an extended vacation in the open fields of Creekmore, Alabama, I assumed he’d meant he was going to the grocery store to purchase the ham, rolled in cling wrap or perhaps already glazed, with pineapple slices toothpicked around the top, but standing there in the July sun with my six-year-old cousin Junior, I realized that even though daddy wasn’t drunk, he was fixin’ to do something crazy.
Daddy was out of breath and standing on the back of a green pickup with his brother Lee—Junior’s father. Daddy and Unc had cigarettes hanging from their lips, their shirts were off, and their backs were turning red and were so slicked with sweat they looked as if they’d anointed themselves with oil. In one hand, Daddy held a rope that was tied around the neck of a pig, and in the other, he held a pistol.
It wasn’t unusual for me to see my father with a gun. He was a hunter with a rifle that seemed about as long as a boa constrictor, and back in our crime-infested Detroit neighborhood, he also kept a pistol on the nightstand in case the “niggas in our neighborhood got any fresh ideas,” whatever that meant. But as I stood there about fifteen feet across the dirt from him, it dawned on me I’d never seen him fire a gun.
Uncle Lee held onto the rope just below the tie around the pig’s neck. In his other hand he held an axe, and he stood his bony, denim-covered legs on either side of the pig, locking the animal in the center of the pickup.
“Hold the sucka down.” Daddy fussed at his younger brother, who grinned the way that the youngest son does when the eldest chastises him. Unc was the spitting image of Daddy, curly-haired, skin like butter; only Daddy was a foot taller.
“It’s bucking like a damn horse.” Uncle Lee and Daddy came from a family of farmers that never referred to animals as he and she. The pig was an “it.”
With that cigarette still hanging from his lips, the ashes so long they broke off and fell on the pig’s back, Daddy squinted with his right eye, and with his left, he gave Unc a look I was familiar with. It was the face that said, Who you think you talking to? Daddy was the oldest, born when Grandma Beulah was sixteen, and, because Grandpa Clyde spent all his days in the fields and his nights “running the streets,” Daddy had been the one to buy rice from the grocer, pick the butter beans they brought in from the field, stir the bone-in chicken soup on the stove, and tuck his sisters and brothers in at night. He’d told me the reason he could comb my curls with ease was because he had to plait my aunts’ hair every morning before walking them to the schoolhouse. Uncle Lee lowered his eyes and complied by tightening his grip on the screaming pig’s rope.
Have you ever heard a pig scream? It’s how I imagine a person sounds when he’s on his knees and his rival makes him watch as they beat his fellow gang member and brother to death; how a mother sounds when she watches her toddler blown to bits by a blast from a suicide bomber; how a teenager sounds when he realizes his classmate has shown up to school with a semiautomatic weapon and has his sights set on everyone who laughed at him after the homecoming game. It’s that primal scream. The kind of scream that lets you know you’ve lost a thing that is so central to your being you might as well be the dead one. The kind of scream that lets you know that an animal wants to live whether it deserves to or not. And who deserves to live? Did the pig?
Uncle Lee whacked the pig on the head with the axe. Junior whimpered, grabbed my hand, and pressed his body against mine. Junior wasn’t a whimpering kind of kid either. He was a leap-out-of-trees, fire-rocks-from-slingshots, and rip-apart-Barbie-dolls kind of kid. That he was on the verge of tears made me want to both comfort him and also scoop him up, run away, and hide. The pig stomped on the truck bottom so hard, I thought they’d all fall through.
“I knew you wouldn’t knock him out, with your weak-ass. That’s why I brought this.” Daddy held up the pistol and laughed through cigarette smoke, teasing his younger brother. “I knew you would get soft at the end.”
When Daddy fired the pistol into the pig’s forehead, Junior cried out, tore across the road, and burst into the backdoor of my grandparents’ house, screaming the entire way. I was frozen. I couldn’t feel my feet in the dirt any more. I couldn’t feel anything. I could only stare at that black hole between the pig’s eyes with smoke wafting out of it, feeling my heart pound and my breath involuntarily increasing. The wound didn’t bleed. The pig’s mouth did. I hadn’t thought it possible, but the pig screamed louder and continued to pound his hooves on the truck bed even though he was half dead. The whole truck rattled when the creature finally dropped.
That night, Daddy grinned at me from across the dinner table when he walked past my fourteen cousins and eight aunts and uncles, Grandma Beulah, and Grandpa Clyde, and proudly placed a slice of ham the size of a fist on my plate. He was on his fourth or fifth tumbler of whiskey, his cheeks and nose rosy, and his eyes glassy.
“She saw the full circle of life today. Not too shabby for a city girl, eh?” Between Daddy’s grin and the sight of the ham I thought I was going to throw up. My hands trembled in my lap. Juices rose up my esophagus and pooled in my throat, and I swallowed, fearing embarrassment if I hurled all over the table. Something else made me take a big gulp too.
The last time I’d seen Daddy’s face like that, I’d brought home a report card with straight A’s and a teacher’s note that said I was helpful and gracious in class. Maybe it was all of the whiskey he’d drunk or my memory of him firing that pistol, but this time Daddy’s smile took on a demonic edge. The way that the devil might look when he’s praising his child.
I ate the collards, potato salad, and mac and cheese. The ham I hid beneath two pieces of cornbread, and then I offered to clear the table myself so that I could dump the meat in the trash.
The following winter, when I was ten, Grandma got mad at Grandpa for “laying up with some jezebel” and shot him in the stomach with a double-barreled shotgun. Luckily for everyone, Grandpa was across the dirt road from where she’d stood, and he fell near the hog pen.
Some sensible folks driving by say they saw the hogs in the pen screaming and running wild, and when they turned to see what had those animals going, they saw Grandpa’s injured body lying there for God knows how long. Imagine that. The pigs cared that their owner’s life was leaving him. The pigs could sense he was hurt, and what did they do? They screamed for him. They screamed for the man who would eventually slaughter and eat them.
The driver and passengers loaded Grandpa in the backseat of their vehicle and drove him to the hospital. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have survived, because after Grandma loaded him with metal, she went back into the house, turned on The Young and the Restless, called Daddy, who was one thousand miles away in Detroit, and said, “I shot him.”
When Daddy arrived at the hospital the next day, he said Grandpa was out of surgery and kept whispering, “She shot me. After all these years. After all I’ve done for her. That heifer shot me.”
“Was she drunk, Daddy?” I regretted the question right after I asked it. The phone trembled in my hand. I didn’t want Daddy to think I was taking a swipe at his drinking. In the silence that followed my thoughtless question, I heard him take a drag from his cigarette, and a sip from what I assumed was a tumbler of whiskey because I could hear the ice clink against the glass.
“Wish I could say she was drunk, but she stopped drinking back in ’75 when she got born-again.” He said “born-again” the way he would have said “alien abduction.” “Nah. Momma wasn’t drunk. She just stone-cold crazy.”
Grandpa didn’t divorce her either. When he was released, he moved into a tiny shack the next town over and let her have the farm. I assumed they really loved each other. And I also assumed that sometimes love means violence.
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