Christmas Eve, 1975: Tea with Bacon

4 Nov

Through the drafty window of the very small room, I watch the men in the courtyard struggle to take down the animal. The mud is now frozen in the afternoon cold and no longer a sticky nuisance. It reminds me of dried lava fields in Maui, only I have never been to Maui. But I know what those fields look like.

The men can find footholds in the scarred stiff earth, but so can the animal. It’s an equal struggle for quite a long time. It’s valiant. The fight for life always is, no matter if from man or beast. Two younger men are working to grab each pair of spasmodic legs. The third—a short, sunburned soldier with hands made from leather—has the pig by his neck in a headlock. This is my grandfather. He is wearing cuffed suit trousers that are splattered with dried mud and a flannel shirt. Off to the side, two old peasants are nonplussed with the scrap. They roll the dice and move their men on those triangular points, occasionally bumping one another up onto the bar. Grandfather once tried to explain backgammon to me.

(Once, he lost his temper and took a short, thick tree branch to the back of his cow. He wailed on the poor animal who didn’t understand the beating. I had never seen so much rage in a man other than my father.)

(Once, a cow stepped on my foot by mistake. It was the gentlest accident I’d ever known. It’s as if she wore plush slippers on her hooves. But I was three and began to wail from fright. The animal understood and immediately stepped back. I cried for nothing…I cried from being startled and anticipating pain. And the cow understood that as well.)

Up on the bar one of the peasant’s wooden men goes. The other rolls, picks up the piece, and re-enters the board on an open point. There is a flurry of activity in backgammon. And almost no emotion on the players’ faces.

Down goes the pig now. The screams are terrible but only from panic. My grandfather senses the very short opportunity. He removes the blade from the holster threaded by his belt. It goes into the animal’s neck so quietly so smoothly. The pig shrieks now. It’s horrible. I hear him through the window. He sounds like a human being. Like a child. Like a man. Like a woman. Then, all three. And then, like nothing that has ever lived in this world.

I am nauseous so I sit at the table, still by the window. Still watching everything. On the table there is a very small clock that ticks so loudly I imagine someone is hitting a brick wall with a two-by-four slat. Next to that clock is a picture of Jesus, only it’s a picture of an icon of Jesus. The factory across the river sounds end of second shift.

The blood softens the backyard mud. Players roll the dice, move the wooden pieces, bump, roll themselves back in. They  move everything counterclockwise, which to me seems strange. Unorthodox. Behind them, my grandmother is splitting wood. She looks up, looks in at me, surveys the dying beast, its disheveled killers, then raises the axe and comes down hard on the dry lumber.

My little brother walks into the room like a cat. He’s smelling the air. He is still holding his palms over his ears. Is it over, he says. Almost, I say. He steps back suddenly, as if he’s just burned the soles of his feet. It’s all right, I say. He’s not screaming anymore. It’s all right now. I can tell he has been crying: face puffy, eyes red, lips wet. The screams are awful and he is so little and so sensitive. He smells the air and walks around to the hearth. Will you make the fire, he says. Buni will want his tea when he comes in. What kind, I say. The kind with bacon. No, I say. What kind of tea. Mint. Chamomile. I don’t know, my brother says. He walks to the bed and climbs up and stands.

Don’t jump up and down, I say. They’ve hid needles inside the mattress, I lie to him just like they lied to me. He smells the air again like a bear. From where he is standing, on the bed, he can see what the men are doing to the pig. But he does not look. He does not go to the yard. He looks at the picture of the icon of Jesus. And then he looks at me very sadly.

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