In a Pig's Eye
I could hear the boys in their rising clamor of bloodlust. They were preparing to slaughter the pigs, a ritual that I had come to dread. After eighteen months, I knew what to expect.
Frustrated by the noise of the slaughter, I tried to drown it out with the Irish mood music of Enya. My mother had sent the tape with a letter describing the wedding and funeral I had missed, and the porch screen that needed my attention. Looking up from the letter, I stared across the soccer field at the women and their cookpots, which stood near the cafeteria of the Catholic mission school where I taught. My village was on a plateau surrounded by a formidable circle of jagged mountaintops. At the edge of the plateau, beyond the school, were the animals -- the pig sties, the chicken coops, the overmilked cow and the tired oxen. They eyed the approaching boys with stoic suspicion.
I did not object to killing pigs for food. I had accepted the realities and indignities of farm life -- the stench of the outhouse, the gore and fuss of butchering chickens -- long before my arrival from New York City. However, I had come to rest my sanity on the belief that the universal behavior of human beings would always produce basically the same feelings and reactions to the world that I had. In my village, I knew smart people and dullards, comedians and Casanovas. They were all there, just as they had been in New York City.
Only occasionally did a moment or an event shake this belief and make me mutter to myself little arguments that something was tolerable or acceptable or unavoidable when my heart and head told me that it wasn't. The sadism of these boys -- bright, sensitive boys who were learning Shakespeare this week -- disturbed me. I went through the same old arguments: "This is their country...in their culture they believe...it's not my place...they don't understand and if I try to explain it to them...I can't change the world..." and so on. The week before, I had confidently told a group of new Peace Corps arrivals how to live in southern Africa. The boys were reminding me how little I really knew.
I sat down with a novel and was momentarily comfortable until an unusually high scream from one of the torture victims rang out. I decided that I couldn't take it any longer. Africa or no, Peace Corps Volunteer or no, I was not going to sit idly by as my students caused innocent animals needless pain.
I would go to Nils for help, I thought. Nils was my neighbor, a member of the Danish Volunteer Service, who had an expert knowledge of pigs from a decade or so of pig farming in Denmark. In addition to his expertise, Nils was nearly seven feet tall and towered over my small, skinny students. If he couldn't change their thinking, perhaps Nils could at least intimidate the boys into containing their glee and showing some respect to the animals.
But Nils was no help.
"Go get a ball-peen hammer from the wood shop, hold the pig by the ears and give it a wallop between the eyes. Don't worry about the squealing," Nils said. "Pigs squeal the same whether you pet them or cut them. The hammer will knock it flat out. Then you can cut its throat with the heart still beating, and bleed it painlessly to death," he said in a matter-of-fact voice, as if describing how to build a model airplane.
Nils never slaughtered animals, I learned, and didn't like to be around when they were killed. Even after ten years of pig farming, he explained, he always packed his animals off to be "dressed."
A sustained squeal followed by the thudding sound of an animal being kicked spun me on my heel toward the boys. Not on my watch, I thought. There were some things I could be culturally sensitive about because these people had a different "style" of humanity, but I knew that even the mothers and fathers of these kids would not permit them to be needlessly cruel.
This was a boarding school for the best and the brightest from villages around the country. Wasn't it my responsibility as a teacher to impose some moral guidance, to offer a more decent approach to living? I charged across the soccer field, my head held high. A familiar feeling of confidence rose in me. It was the way I used to feel when I rushed from the locker room to the playing field with a herd of football players.
Here were about fifteen boys who had formed a circle around three pigs. Also present was the school principal, Modeekee, who seemed to be enjoying the sport as much as anybody. What an example, I thought to myself. I shouted at all of them, "I think that's enough!" trying hard not to lose my composure. The voices of reason were again rising in my head: "Try to see it their way...Don't be too self-righteous...Be respectful of other customs..." and so on.
I failed in my attempt to be calm. "Why are you torturing these animals? Why don't you respect them? They are giving their lives for you to eat their meat!" I declared, sounding like a wild-eyed prophet admonishing the sinners.
"Yes. It is true," said Modeekee, trying to placate me.
Nathaniel, one of my best students, attempted to explain in a way that I would find convincing. "It is their time, sir. They have lived a lazy life doing nothing for their food and now they must pay the price." He smiled at his own cleverness. The others nodded approvingly.
As a teacher, even a new one, I had learned a few things about my students. They only respected my authority if I could turn an argument back on the arguer. Having failed countless times already, I had a few ready replies. "May we then torture the students for not doing their homework?" Not great, I thought, but not bad for the spur of the moment.
"No, sir!" they shouted together. Modeekee smiled politely. Feeling that I had won the moment with my righteousness and wit, I took the opportunity to suggest my alternative. I shouted orders. I needed a ball-peen hammer from the wood shop, and a sharp knife. "Stand by with the kerosene." The boys were disappointed that they were not allowed to light the pigs while they were still alive, scraping off the first layer of trembling, hairy skin with the tips of their shovels. No. We were ready to begin a new way of doing things, more humane, more efficient, more skillful.
Excited that I was going to show them a new technology from the United States, the boys and the vice-principal tightened the circle around me and the largest of the three pigs. As word spread of the unfolding spectacle, other students added themselves to the ranks. Near the edge of the crowd the two remaining pigs were tied to stakes, condemned to watch the slaughter that foretold their own. Holding the shiny hammer high, I rotated it so that it caught the afternoon sun and captured the group's attention. I was going to hold the pig by the ear, I said, and whack it between the ears, presumably crushing its frontal lobe. Then, while its heart still beat, I would cut its throat and empty the blood into the bowl that the students kept on hand so that they could drink the blood -- no waste here.
Modeekee interrupted to make a suggestion. "Perhaps if you just hold him on his side and put your knife in here," he said, pointing to the spot in the rib cage just over the heart, "you will kill him very painlessly and quickly."
The pig looked at me. I had to answer politely. Modeekee's proposal was an accepted method, done without the torturous fanfare, but I had seen too many pigs bawl minute after minute, their blood a fountain. I also had seen the knifeman miss, then dig frantically for the central organ. I listened to Modeekee, appearing to consider his point of view carefully, then explained that this new method would be at least as effective, and less noisy.
I knew that I had begun to fall back on wishful thinking, and so did Modeekee. He was in his forties, and taller and bigger than any of us. While his unusual stature had more to do with his authority than his intellect did, his years had at least educated him in the ways of know-it-all young men. To his credit, he was offering me a way out with fatherly tact. Too late for that; I was now set on doing the right thing my way.
Holding the swine by the ear and raising the heavy hammer over my head, I squatted down and drew the circle of eyes to the shiny weapon, repeating my mantra about the importance of a painless death for the animals we eat. I directed two of the younger boys to sharpen their knives and to be ready. The group seemed to fold its arms as one. The pig, grunting and leaning away from me, gave a look of supplication as I brought the hammer down.
I knew before the hammer struck that it was all wrong. The weight of the instrument grew heavier as I held it up for my brief lecture. The pig seemed to figure out my strategy, and in one blunderous smash my hammer met the pig's suddenly upturned snout with a crunching thud, knocking most of the pig's mouth down its throat.
Its screams echoed crazily in its pain. I clung to its ear as we spun, screwing ourselves deeper and deeper into the mud. I brought the hammer down again and again, its weight growing so heavy that I could no longer hold it properly. The flat of the hammer fell dully on the animal. The crowd roared.
Finally, in sudden silence, I sat in the mud holding the twisted ear of the barely conscious beast. I dropped the hammer and ordered the two boys holding their knives to cut the pig's throat. They hesitated, as people do when shock and spectacle collide. Another order got no response as I slowly pulled myself to my feet. Modeekee was looking grave and a trifle smug. He nodded at the boys, who sprang into action.
"Well, that's it," I said, handing the hammer to my smartest, who looked at me with an ironic, you've-got-to-be-kidding expression. "Don't miss, and you're all set," I said, clapping the dirt from my hands and the seat of my pants, as if all had gone as planned.
My head felt light and my body heavy as I carried myself away. My feet rose and fell as if my shoes were made of lead. My arms swung straight and dejected from their sockets. As I neared my house, I could hear laughter behind me, followed by a hush.
Then came the screaming of the last two pigs.
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