They were tossing back their second shot when his mother said it’d gone off its feed lately, animals always seem to know what’s going to happen. Then the neighbour began to tell how their smaller hog, the one they’d set aside for the spring, had been so terrified it’d had a stroke and up and croaked on them. This was how they stepped outside, still telling their tales, and with a wire noose gripped in their neighbour’s hand. They’d wrap that around the hog’s leg, he explained, worked like a charm, ever since somebody’d come up with this thing the little shits hadn’t a chance o’ running away.
The dog whined, the cauldron was rumbling with boiling water and the boy hung back. The hog had retreated to the far end of the sty. His mother was trying to draw it out. The men were standing in absolute silence, to trick the hog into thinking they weren’t there. Only the dog whined. The hog moved, keeping its eyes on the woman and the hand scattering corn, its trotters pawing against the sty’s plank floor, one instinct pushing it forward, the other pulling it back. But the woman’s voice was calmly reassuring, and the instinct to push forward eventually won out. Even if it didn’t exactly hurry, it was still taking slow steps toward its doom.
It’d just reached the woman’s hand when the sty door flew open and the neighbour had already tightened the noose around its right leg and was dragging the hog out of the sty. The animal screamed, the boy couldn’t bear to look, that sound just kept pouring from its throat until it was all mixed up with the dog’s frantic barking and filled the whole yard, how long he couldn’t tell. Grab its back leg, kid, the neighbour shouted, before it gets away! The boy awkwardly tried to catch hold of the leg, all the time thinking he can’t let the tears out, he can’t, because then he’ll never be a man. Anyone who feels sorry for the hog will never grow into a man. He remembered what his father always said: if you like sausage, then you’d better like this, too. And he did like sausage. They hauled it another few yards and then threw it down on its side next to the manure pile. Now his father was gripping the noose, a knife flashed in the neighbour’s hand and he thrust it in at precisely the right spot, slashing the animal’s throat. His mother rushed in with the basin to catch the blood, they’d need it later for the blood sausage. The frothing red liquid flowed in torrents at first, then came out in great spurts toward the end, when the hog was breathing its last—only not through its nose anymore, but through the yawning gap at its neck.
Ya done good, the neighbour said, and slapped him on the back. The boy didn’t say anything, the sharp scent of blood and the stink of hog shit was filling his nostrils. They laid the enormous body in a wooden trough, poured boiling water on it and rolled it over with heavy chains. The hog kicked once. It’s still alive, thought the boy, but it wasn’t. The men set to tearing the hair out of the softened skin, then they turned the naked hog out onto the straw. Want to light it? his father asked, and the boy answered no. His mother appeared with the bottle of pálinka and they drank again. God, but it fought, said the neighbour. The boy watched the flames and it felt so good and warm there that he moved closer until his stomach was just about singed and he didn’t even notice the back of his coat had frozen stiff.
The neighbour tossed his drink down and then used a little bundle of straw to scorch the hog’s tail. Careful you don’t burn it! his father yelled over. The boy wasn’t watching what they were doing anymore, instead he was wondering how much longer he’d have to stay. The neighbour shouted to him: here you go, see? The boy glanced up at him. What? he asked. What is it? Better’n chewing gum! the neighbour guffawed, and pressed something into the boy’s hand. The boy looked at the hog. A piece was missing from its tail. It was there in his hand. It’s good, said the neighbour, go ahead and gnaw on it. The boy held on to the little bit of hog. He figured he could go now. He felt numb with cold but still didn’t go into the kitchen since he didn’t want to see the hog all chopped to pieces. He decided to go slide on the ice in the street instead. It was ten degrees below, all the puddles were frozen solid. Out on the street, he thought, he could get rid of the piece of tail. But in the end he forgot to take it out of his coat pocket, where he’d quickly tucked it away in case the neighbour checked to see if he’d taken a bite or not.
It seemed to grow colder the lighter it got. It seemed to him he wasn’t sliding on the ice anymore, but in it, and the air would shatter into pieces all around him and slice his face to ribbons the farther he went along. Just like the painters last spring, when they’d knocked the ladder into the hall window, Jesus H. Christ, they’d said, what in hell was a window doing there, and shards of glass had covered the little square floor tiles. The boy slid, all the time waiting for the icy air to shatter to bits and cover him with the hog’s horrible stench and terrifying scream. Everybody in the village was busy butchering then, right before Christmas. He tripped and fell at the end of the patch of ice. He sat on the ice and gazed up into the sky. It’s like a huge lid covering the entire village, he thought, this stinking, frozen air that won’t let the souls of all those butchered hogs go free. Maybe they’ve been here for centuries. They congeal into one mass over the village and it doesn’t matter when Christmas comes, no angel can get through that lid. Only the souls of dead animals gather around the Christmas tree, only they bring the gifts, they listen to Angels We Have Heard on High, they fill the church at midnight mass, they watch over his dreams when he can finally climb into bed after church. It’s warm now, there’s always more wood on the fire at Christmas and he doesn’t need to heat a brick for his feet.
He stood up. He was the only one on the street. Again he heard the squeals coming from every part of the village. He shoved a hand into his pocket and felt something warm, a bony little finger that startled him at first, what is that, then he gripped his fingers around that little bit of hog. Maybe it’d be better to live somewhere else, he thought, somewhere…but he didn’t know where because that village was the only thing he’d ever known.
Translated by Maya J. LoBello
Tags: János Háy