There used to be a guy at my dad’s slaughterhouse, name of Cassius ‘Big Cass’ Bigsby. People are real jokers, I guess, but it was one of those rare nicknames that perfectly fit him. Big Cass wasn’t a tall man, but he was solid, muscles like steel and a neck like a bull. He was my dad’s only black employee, and he worked a job most would call gruesome.
Big Cass had a big hammer that he used to stun the animals before they were stuck. Every animal that came through my dad’s slaughterhouse met Big Cass, then they met God. They never even saw the sticker, or the knives, or whatever. Just Big Cass and his hammer, then nothing. Big Cass would never let an animal pass him by that was still conscious, still kicking, still frightened. He didn’t care how much it slowed production, how long the line behind them was. If they were still conscious, he brought that hammer down until they wasn’t.
He said it was his duty to them. Before anyone has to face a knife, he said, they deserved to be asleep. Forcing anyone to confront their death? That’s too cruel, he used to tell me, cleaning that hammer off, blood on our rubber boots. If there’s no way around death, and there isn’t, then those alive, those humans who are good as God to animals, have a duty.
Have a duty. That was Big Cass’s favorite phrase.
Growing up, Big Cass was my hero. You know those little papers teachers have you write, about your personal hero? I wrote my paper on Big Cass, marched right up to the front of the classroom with my pigtails and gingham dress, told those kids that my hero was a big black man with a big hammer that stunned animals for a living.
It was 1970’s America in a Deep South small town. You can only imagine how well that went over.
And I didn’t understand, either. Didn’t understand how nobody could see that Big Cass was an angel of mercy, good and Godly, practically a saint for butchered animals. My teacher even called my daddy in to have a talk about it. “Something Bonny wrote really concerned me…”
Daddy told her she was being ridiculous, but in the car on the way home, he did tell me that I ought not to run my mouth so much. I ought to think before I spoke. What did I think was gonna happen, saying something like that?.
Big Cass and his wife liked the paper though. When I went through Mama’s stuff after she passed on, me and her daughter Nevaeh, we found it in a box with some other letters and pictures. There were stains on the corners where someone, over and over, with dirt and grease and whatever else on their thumbs, had turned the pages.
“Oh, Bonny Joy,” Nevaeh said, shaking her head. “You and that damn slaughterhouse!”
We all inherit things from our parents. Nevaeh inherited Big Cass’s solid build and Mama’s good spirit. Me? I inherited sharp eyes and the slaughterhouse, and all the responsibilities associated with it.
In all my life, that slaughterhouse is the only constant. Even roads change, even their names get switched as different municipal councils rise and fall from power. The land itself buckles and warps to fit the whims of the men with the money. They bulldozed the neighborhood I grew up in, replaced it with a suburban labyrinth and strip malls, but that was fine because by that time I’d gotten Mama a real nice house like the one she’d always deserved, in a much nicer part of town.
Big Cass left me. Daddy left me. Nevi and I became women, Cassius Junior became a man. Mama became an old woman, and eventually she had to leave me, too.
But the slaughterhouse stands there among it all, unchanging in all these years. The same paint colors. The same layout. The only thing that changes there are the people within, and the carcasses in the freezer.
In a world of change, it’s nice to have something you know you can cling to. A little bit of flotsam. Time is always a-tricklin’ on, y’know, but in the slaughterhouse, there is no time. There’s only the work, only the stream of animals into meat, only money into meat into money. Only the work, and the abattoirs and freezers, only the walls and the floors and the drains all swollen full of blood.
In the slaughterhouse, there is only the slaughterhouse is only the slaughterhouse is only the slaughterhouse, for as long as you stand within its boundaries.
My real mother run off when I was only about four. Daddy said it was probably his fault, on account of his odious personality, one time when he was very drunk and putting sausages in the smoker. Probably his fault. I always figured that his personality may have needed work, but that a real mother woulda stayed for her child, or at least taken her with her.
I’m glad she didn’t, of course. I have my family here, and my slaughterhouse. My whole life is here. I just wish my daddy didn’t take all the blame onto himself.
One of my first memories is in the house I grew up in. Mama’s got me in her lap, patting my hair with those smooth hands that smell like cold cream, and I’m eating fried chittlins hand over fist from a plate balanced on my knees. Nevi’s sitting at Mama’s feet, playing with her doll but keeping an ear on the proceedings. Occasionally, she reaches up, and I drop some chittlins into her waiting palm. We recently traded places, see. Before, Nevi had been in Mama’s lap, getting her hair braided. But now she’s on the floor, and I have to ensure she gets her chittlins. I take this duty very seriously, I recall, serious as a heart-attack.
Daddy’s counting out a big pile of cash while Big Cass looks on, drinking a soda pop. Daddy sits up and sighs, leans back and pushes hair out of his face.
Something about a new, open-air abattoir. Something about rent. Big Cass scoffs and dismisses the whole notion. Why would he make Daddy pay rent? So long as he contributes to the household and doesn’t start trying to mooch. Ain’t they best friends? Maybe put that money towards college for the kids, though, and that abattoir’s a good idea. You don’t have to worry ‘bout all that yet. Just let yourself feel better first, Jim.
Just let yourself heal. You’ll be over Becka before you know it.
“Miss Bigsby, I want ketchup!” I said. Back then I didn’t call her Mama, not yet.
“Me too, me too!” Nevi said.
So we went to the kitchen and finished off the chitlins, and then I brushed my teeth with Nevi and we went to sleep. It wouldn’t be until later, with more context, that I realized what had happened.
From since I can remember, my daddy has slept in the spare room of the Bigsby household, and me in Nevaeh’s. I don’t remember the inside of the house they had me in. When my mother left him, Daddy sold that house away and moved in with Big Cass.
It was crowded as all Hell, six people in that little house, always trippin’ on each other. But we all got real close. Well, I got real close with everyone, that is, and they got close with me. Daddy? He stayed distant.
He and Big Cass were a lot alike, but I could tell that Big Cass made the effort to reach his children, to reach me. My daddy was content in his solitary orbit, and never reached out. He put meat on his block, put money in the bank, and showed up when it was required of him.
The closest we ever was, was in that slaughterhouse. There, me and Daddy weren’t child and parent; we were co-workers, an employee and their boss, and amongst the hanging carcasses and the constant need for cleanup, we were together.
“Bonny, boil these knives. Bonny, mop the floor, that fucking Sanders tracked his boots all over my tile floor again. Bonny, check the chutes, fix the joists. Bonny…”
All my life, my daddy only ever told me he loved me just a handful of times. But in that slaughterhouse, a clap on the shoulder and a “job well done, Bonny,” was far sweeter, far more heartfelt, than any “I love you” could ever be.
My dad never told me how to deal with boys, with bullies, never did anything like that. Instead, I had Mama, and, when he could manage it, Big Cass.
There was always something on his mind. I could see it, even then, and so could everyone else. It was eating him alive. But he never said nothing. I did my best to be a good guest and a good friend, and Nevaeh bent over backwards making life easier for him.
We knew that whatever it was, Big Cass would never tell us. He would let it eat him hollow, and take it to his grave. Something that bad, he’d never put on little girls, not even his own son or his wife. He kept it inside, let it ferment, and did the best he could. All me and Nevaeh could do was try to lighten the rest of his burdens.
Me and Nevaeh, we were real close, from day one. Same age, same interests (outside of the slaughterhouse, which Nevaeh was terrified of). We had our doll family and played house in the front yard every day, slept in the same bed until we were teenagers. Cassius Jr pulled my pigtails and put my doll where I couldn’t reach her, but I suspect if I had a biological brother, he’d’ve done the same thing, so once I grew up I didn’t mind that too much.
We was a family. A family with two broken add-ons nailed to it, sure, but we was family. I inherited everything I am from them. And even when things got real bad, they were there for me. Through thick, through thin. Like a real family should.
I musta been about thirteen. Night had fallen a while ago. But I was busy cleaning the open-air abattoir. Deer season had just opened up, so we were doing a lot of processing. Cherry-red blood from over a dozen bucks and a handful of does slicked the floor, and there were buckets of offal and severed legs to be sorted, sanitized, and put away for tomorrow.
We do good business selling waste product to a rendering plant upstate. I was sorting it into shipping containers and hauling those into the front cooler. It was old, from when the building was brand new way back when, and currently full of deer carcasses.
Heads with the pelts hanging from them dangled on one side, and the skinned carcasses that were to be turned into venison on the other. Between them, naked heads, ready to be European-style mounted. You always think of the full shoulder mounts when you think of deadheads, but Euro mounts are way cheaper, and Daddy had me and Junior do them, since all you gotta do is boil and scrub off the meat. We had a man that did the real deadheads, the stuffed ones, but Daddy had his kids to do the Euro mounts. Didn’t even have to pay us extra.
He tried to get Nevaeh to do it, too, but she refused, and Mama said that if her girl didn’t wanna boil no damn deer head, she didn’t have to. Growing up, I teased Nevi for being a weenie, but now that I’m older I feel pretty bad about it.
It’s amazing, how growing up with something desensitizes you to it. Took me years to realize just how freaky people found my job. I mean, I thought it was a little gross sometimes, like when we prepared chitlins, but I didn’t realize how bad slaughterhouses freak people out.
So I’m hauling the containers, putting them up against the back wall. One of the coolers has been putting up a hell of a racket recently, but I been putting off actually fixing it and buying the replacement. That’s what I get, I suppose.
There was a horrible, mechanical stink coming from it, and, as I straightened up, popping my back, a crash. And the fucker started blowing hot air. I shouldn’t have to explain why that’s a disaster waiting to happen.
“Oh no oh no oh no oh no–” I climbed up on the lid of one of the containers and just stared at the cooler, not knowing what the Hell to do. “Please, please, don’t do that–”
The hot air was thick as fog in my mouth, in my throat. Already, in what I assumed was my panic, the meat and blood smell was stronger, already spoiling.
I slammed my hand on the cooler a few times, but, shockingly, this failed to have any effect. And I burned my hand.
I jumped down, and started to pace. It was late at night, I doubted any place was open. We had a replacement, of course, still in its box in the side storage unit, but I didn’t think I could get it lifted by myself, let alone install it. Hell, I couldn’t even uninstall the one that was in. Daddy was gonna be pissed if I woke him up for this.
All I could do was call the house, though, and pray that he wasn’t the one that answered. I unplugged the broken AC and shut the cooler door, hoping that would preserve as much of the cold as possible.
After a few rings, during which I swear I aged twenty years, someone picked up.
“Big Cass!” I gasped, more relief than shock. “Big Cass, can you come to the shop? One of the coolers just blew, I need help, please don’t wake my daddy–”
“Calm down, Bonny Joy.” My teeth clacked together. “You just wait in your daddy’s office for me. Me’n’Junior will be there soon as we can.”
“In the office. Wait in the office.”
Well, I tried. But it was twenty minutes from their house to the shop, nevermind whatever tools he’d wanna pick up or how long it would take him and Junior to get ready. I couldn’t sit still. I just couldn’t.
I paced for a little bit, but Daddy’s office was way too cramped for that. Finally, throwing my hands up, I went to the back abattoir, flicked on all the lights, and started pacing from end to end, almost sprinting in my nervousness.
My footsteps and the buzz of fluorescent lights were sort of a music in my ears as I ran. A snare drum and a timpani. I wanted to go look at the cooler, but I was scared of letting out the cold. Spoiling the meat.
“Shoulda just put in the new cooler, shoulda just, shoulda just–”
The air was thick in my throat. Humid, though it was autumn and getting pretty nippy out in the world. Ragged with the iron-rich stink of blood and meat. Rotting, rotting, rotting because I’d been cheap and lazy. The lights flickered, and I was thinking, great, those are gonna go out too. Great. I done really fucked up now, ain’t I?
Something in that empty space caught me around the ankle.
I hit the ground, unable to catch myself. I put my hands out but they slipped on cement far slicker than it ought to have been. The lights flickered wildly, all in a different rhythm, but not for long: they all synched up by the time I’d rolled over, inspecting my skinned palms.
I heard footsteps behind me. There weren’t no doors off in that direction, and Daddy didn’t raise no fool. Leastaways, he did his best, and pure terror did the rest. I kept my eyes on my palms.
It was behind me. Huge and sticky. As tall as the ceilings. It was staring down at me. It was angry. It stank of fresh-opened steer, or pig, or deer, or anything, really. That thick, velvety smell, too rich to be called metallic for all the iron spilled. Innards and death.
The smell coats the inside of your nose when you smell it. There’s no other smell quite like it, the smell of insides. It coats your nose, your throat, your mind, there’s no mistaking it when you smell it. You know what you’re smelling, something deep inside and ancient as the seas knows what it’s smelling and it don’t like it, not one bit.
The smell of it was in me, and it was on me, too, slimey on my skin, wrapping around me like a wet sheet. Heavy, constricting. The flickering lights faded away. All there was in the whole world was that smell.
I don’t recall if I was shaking or not. My first instinct is to say I wasn’t. I was past the point of trembling. I was waiting for it to nab me.
It didn’t. It stayed behind me, impossibly massive and reeking. It didn’t move and neither did I. There was no breath on my neck but I’d have preferred if there was, I think. I’d have been able to run, if there was. If it needs to breathe, you can outrun it. You can outrun, outmaneuver, anything what lives.
If it weren’t breathing, it weren’t alive, and who knows what the dead or never-living are capable of? I kept myself parked right where I was until Big Cass showed up, hands in front of my face, elbows wobbling with the effort of keeping them in place.
The front door opened, and the lights all came back on, the buzz filling the once-again empty space. That smell, though, it was slower to leave, and still present when Big Cass came into the back abattoir.
“Bonny!” That was Junior. He hustled forward and picked me up by both elbows. “Done tripped over them big feet, didn’t you?”
“I told you to wait in the office,” Big Cass said.
There wasn’t a trace of anger in his voice, and that was how I knew I’d really pissed him off. He’d sprinted past anger and into concern, past his disobeyed orders and right to my wellbeing.
I wanted to apologize. I did. I opened my mouth to do it and everything. When I did, though, all that came out was my dinner, all over Junior’s front. Junior flung himself back and swore, and I tried to apologize to him, too. More vomit. More vomit than I thought I had in my whole body.
“You lay down, Bonny Joy Cook, and it better be in the office this time,” Big Cass warned.
I wasn’t gonna argue after that. I curled into the loveseat crammed into the corner and listened to them installing the new AC. My head was swimming, my throat still raw, the smell of puke and offal swirling together into one misty odor that pulsed with my heartbeat. Throbbed with every hammer blow and indistinct word between father and son.
Whatever had been in that abattoir, it was angry. And I would do my best to make sure it never had cause to be angry with me ever again. Some lessons you only gotta learn once.
Now you might be sayin’ about here: Bonny, why didn’t you just leave? Surely you coulda. Daddy and Big Cass woulda understood. And if they didn’t, Mama definitely would have, Mama and Nevaeh, they’d have been on your side.
But that slaughterhouse has been in my family for generations, ever since the town was founded that’s been my family’s slaughterhouse. My Daddy never even talked about college, about other careers, and it wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I started to wonder myself.
There was never any question. That slaughterhouse would one day be mine, the way it had been his. And then it would go to my firstborn, too, or more likely whoever didn’t have a choice. It’s a different day and age today from the one I grew up in.
I couldn’t leave it. To do something, first you gotta realize you have the choice.
And it’s a damn good thing I stayed for it, too. I grew up there, I knew that place inside and out. I knew the rules. No animal gets killed while it still knows how to fear death, no man who bleeds on the job gets put back on the floor. The owner is the first one to come into work, and the last one to leave. No man whose job it is to kill drinks or does drugs, and if his wife says he hit her, he loses his job and he loses his wife and kids.
Never forget what you do. Never forget that when you stand on the border of life and death, on the border of animal and meat, you have a duty. Have a duty. Damn, that always was Big Cass’s favorite phrase.
If that slaughterhouse went to someone who didn’t realize they had a duty, the Good Lord only know what trouble they could have caused. Not even their fault, not really, because if you don’t realize… but it would have been trouble. Real trouble.
This other time, when I was maybe six but mostly likely five, I reckon, I was cleaning the lobby. I had swept the floor, mopped it, shaken out all the rugs, and now I was cleaning all the windows. My daddy’s slaughterhouse had the cleanest lobby you ever saw, because he believed God gave people children to do manual labor until they moved out and had their own kids to do the same. Very old-fashioned type of guy, my daddy was.
I tossed paper towels at the garbage basket as I used them up, pretending I was a basketball superstar, as one does. Of course, after a bit, as I got further and further and the angle got weirder, I missed. Bounced that sucker off the rim and into the back, where the freezers were.
I just figured I was getting a bit funny-headed from the smell of Windex and tottled off to pick it up. Well, it had gone a ways back there past the freezers and into the back abattoir, soaking up blood and stuff and getting real nasty.
Daddy didn’t like me wandering around in the back abattoir all willy-nilly. It was a dangerous place and the work was especially gorey, and back then he made an exception because he didn’t want to turn me into some sort of disturbed child. The boys were hanging up hogs (it was winter, then, winter is hog season, and all the colder in the back for the coldness outside) and Big Cass was standing by the chute, raising that hammer for the stunning blow.
It was full of noise and chaos, clattering boots and squealing hogs and men shouting. I waited for someone to notice me, or the trash, and get it taken care of. Watched the work with the mild interest of a child, feeling a little thrill at having seen what Daddy said I wasn’t allowed to.
A worker came up and fetched the crumpled-up towel for me. He was wearing a jacket with the hood up and drawn tight under the usual equipment, and sunglasses and a face mask so I couldn’t recognize him, couldn’t hardly see his face. If I’d been a bit older that might have given me a scare, but as it was, I just chalked it up to someone being sick, or really, really not wanting to inhale pig blood.
“Thank you, sir,” I said, because if I didn’t tack on ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ Mama used to give me a pinch.
He said nothing, but put his hand on my shoulder and urged me forward. We passed the freezers and went into the office, and I put the paper towel in the trash like a good little worker.
I turned back to the worker. He was standing there, silent, no emotion visible past his concealing clothes.
“You sick?” I asked.
He shook his head ‘no.’ I nodded, and went to sit down. I thought it would be rude to go back to cleaning while I was talking to someone. When he had to go back to work, he would, and I would as well, but for now, small talk was required.
“You work for my daddy a long time?”
‘Yes.’ He nodded vigorously. It was odd to see it, because the rest of his body was stock-still and relaxed-looking (hard to tell exactly past all the protective gear and with only a five-year-old’s reckoning of the world), so it was like it was bouncing on a spring. I giggled, hoping he didn’t know it was at him or he’d tell Daddy and I’d get in big trouble for being rude.
“My name’s Bonny, what’s yours?”
The mysterious worker said nothing. I pouted, I recall being very upset that I was going through so much trouble to be polite and he was being so rude. Crossing my arms over my chest, I stomped my feet, bouncing the laces on my shoes, and fixed my sternest look on the worker.
“I said, what’s your name?”
“I’m gonna tell my daddy you were mean to me and he’s gonna–”
As if on cue, Daddy came in from the front, from shaking hands and saying goodbye to one of the customers dropping off the hogs. His eyes fell on the worker, and his face… it went through all sorts of interesting changes, from white to red to sweaty, eyes bugging then narrowing in turn, and finally to normal. He put his shoulders back, and gave me a such a look.
“Bonny Joy Cook, didn’t I tell you to wash these windows?” he rumbled.
“Daddy, he’s being mean to me!” I declared, with maximum dramatic effect. Lord, I was a brat about it. “He won’t tell me his name!”
He transferred his look from me to the worker.
“I don’t pay you to bug my daughter, I pay you to butcher hogs!” he said. “Get back out there.”
The quiet man nodded, and waved at me. I stuck out my tongue at him. Shoulders shaking as though with laughter, but still silent, the man turned on his heel and disappeared out the back door.
“He was mean,” I complained, the second I thought he was out of earshot.
But Daddy wasn’t looking at me. He wasn’t even looking at the back door, though his face was pointed that way. I could tell that he wasn’t looking at nothing but his own thoughts.
Where the man had been standing, there were bloody boot prints. I said as close to a cuss as my little girl self would let me (“fiddlesticks!”) and went to clean them up. The blood was thick and almost black, more sludge than liquid, and it took a fair bit of scrubbing to get it all the way up.
“Gross,” I told the soiled paper towels, as though it was their fault.
“Finish them windows, Bonny Joy,” Daddy murmured.
He ruffled my hair, and went back to his office. The door shut with a very final-sounding crack, and, still miffed at my treatment, I went back to my task. By the time he came out, all the windows were spic and span.
I watched the workers file out that evening, trying to determine which one of them had insulted me. They all said “goodbye, Bonny Joy” just as nice as you pleased, and I made a note of all their names. None of them had the hooded jacket I’d seen before, and all their faces were exposed and, if not smiling, at least relieved to have the workday over.
None of them looked right. The mystery worker was tall, and he had big long arms and big ol’ hands. I had figured he was just a big man, the same way Big Cass was. Back then, all big hands were about the same to me; didn’t realize the limit on just how big most human hands can get.
When they were all gone, I went looking through all the freezers and rooms. I checked the offal room and the abattoir, every closet and changing room. I even went into the showers and peeked behind all the curtains.
“Who you lookin’ for, Bonny?” Daddy asked, following a few feet behind me.
“The rude man! He didn’t leave.”
“It was probably just one of the regular guys. Looked like Fred Holland to me,” he said.
“Fred got real tall,” I commented. “It’s empty here…”
He picked me up and took me back to his car, despite my protests that I could walk just fine. He buckled me up, locked up shop, and we drove back home in silence. That night, we had sausage and beans. When I went to sleep, I dreamed about the mystery worker, standing over the bed and staring, lights from outside reflected on his sunglasses.
I thought it might be real, but when I got up, there was nothing. Man, was I pissed that I had such a dream. I probably only remember him at all because of how angry I was that his rude self had disrupted my dreams.
I didn’t have too many friends aside from Nevi and Junior. Whether it was living with a black family or being the butcher’s girl–shit, probably both–there were a lot of people who didn’t want to spend any amount of time anywhere close to me. It didn’t bother me much, not until I got into highschool and got bit by the socialization bug.
Worse than not having many friends was having a few people who, for better or worse, whatever service I did them and the rest of the community, that I was their enemy. Or at least, a fun punching bag.
Big Cass told me not to let it get me down. That so long as I knew I was in the right, so long as I was the bigger person, it didn’t matter what people thought. Mama told me they were just sad little people trying to make themselves feel better. Daddy told me that if it bugged me so much, start fighting people.
I considered taking Daddy’s advice, but, luckily for me, even then it seemed a little spotty.
It was deer season once again, and two boys from school came late with an unimpressively young, few-pointed buck. Daddy was getting dinner at the burger joint on the edge of town, so it was up to me to handle them. I kept my eyes on the floor and filled out all the paperwork, and the boys were just as polite and quiet. I thought it was just awkwardness. I never suspected a thing.
“Can we take a look in the freezer?” one asked.
“Sure. Lots of good bucks this year.”
I led them to the freezer. Flicked on the light and undid the latch, forced the heavy steel door open. Didn’t have it but wide enough to fit myself before I felt a good, hard shove at my back.
I shoulda suspected something. I really should have.
The door clanged as they yanked it to, and before I could even start pounding, the lights were out. They were laughing, choking on hysteric gouts of cackling. They didn’t even say anything. Didn’t taunt me or nothing. They just fucking laughed.
I screamed. I wasn’t scared, just pissed. Too angry with them to think about the smell of blood and meat, the skinned bodies hanging around me. Anyway, dead bodies weren’t scary for me.
“Y’all can keep your money and keep your buck!” I remember shrieking. “Y’all can just go and never come back!”
I knew my daddy would be there soon to let me out. I knew he’d be furious with them, that their parents would be getting a call and no mistake about it. I wasn’t scared of dying in there. I was just so–so–so angry, so hurt. All I’d even done was my job. All I’d even done was my duty.
There was a box with some old knives in it on one of the shelves. They weren’t good for cutting anymore, but a good sharpening and they’d be alright for the kitchen or Goodwill or something like that. Daddy had them in there because most of the time, it was out of the way of everything else, a good storage for the misc things that didn’t need to be done right away. I groped for the box and (very carefully, mind!) found one.
It was comfortingly heavy. I felt the blade, long and curved and nearly a quarter-inch thick at the spine. Yup. It would do just nicely. When those fuckers let me out, if they let me out, I was gonna start waving that thing around and telling them to get the fuck out.
As I smiled, grim and sarcastic and just for myself, the air went from freezing cold to heavy. It didn’t get hot, no, but there was warmth, and the smell. That familiar smell. I heard the clinking of chains, the groaning of metal, and, under it all, a distant, gentle sloshing. Mostly, though, I breathed the scent of blood and meat.
When I screamed this time, it was terror. The laughter outside picked up, and was at its height as the door opened.
Boy, I was just angry enough, rage edging over fear just enough, that when I saw the light I lunged for it. Didn’t even stop to wonder why they’d decided to open the door for me now. I raised that knife and burst out of the darkness like Nike from the marble slab. Only I didn’t have wings, I had two arms and two hands clutched tight around the handle of that cleaver.
“Which onna you did it?!” I bawled, wild with tears streaming down my cheeks. They were staring at me, bug-eyed and white-faced, and I figured it was the knife in my hands. They were about a yard back from the door, just far enough that I’d have to start running again to really threaten them with the knife. “Which onna you?! I swear to God above I’ll bleed you like the pigs you are!”
They didn’t answer. They looked at each other, looked back at me, and bolted. Scrambled for the door, pushing each other back in their urgency to escape. I swear one of them was crying as he did.
“Fuckers!” I shouted at their backs. They didn’t say nothing in return, just fled out the door. I spat, winced (now I was gonna have to clean it up) and turned back to the freezer, thinking to put the knife up.
Every carcass in that freezer was turned on its chain or hook. Every carcass was facing the door. Eyeless faces staring at me.
No, I realized, as I collapsed to the floor, knife still clutched in both white-knuckled hands. Staring through me. Staring in the direction the boys had run. Slowly, they turned as one unit, following the boys’ path down the road. The chains creaked, not especially loud but still enough to fill all the world. I couldn’t hear nothing but those chains.
Slow. So slow. Was it hard to move the pounds of chain and meat? Or was it just deliberate, the slowness of the arrogant who know there’s nothing that can be done to harm them? What can you do to meat already long dead? What can you do to skinless, legless carcasses? What can be done, that the butcher ain’t done already?
The door swung shut, ponderously slow, the way it had swung open for me. It didn’t bang shut, nothing like that, just swung as slow as Christmas and thunked into its jamb gently.
Daddy came back with burgers to me wearing the spare pants I kept stored in his office, cleaning the pee off the floor with the look of dead determination that comes when you exhaust all your fear. I told him what had happened, and he cussed up a storm, but there was no fire in it.
“You best,” he said, “say thank you to whatever let you out.”
Well, what could I do? I was raised with manners. You don’t get to be a near grown-up in the South without having ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ drilled so deep in your skull it’d take a mining team to get it out. I did it. I said thank you to the cooler door.
“Thanks. I owe you one.”
When Big Cass died, my father fell apart.
He didn’t eat, he didn’t sleep. He just drank and dozed and drank some more. He didn’t even go into work. I was so scared that if I left Daddy all alone, I would come back to a corpse. I was so scared, those days, of losing him.
I wouldn’t let us become mooches on the Bigsbies, not in their time of need. It was their patriarch what passed away. I took up all the slack he left and then some, determined not to make a mockery of the kindness they’d shown us. I cooked his supper, I cleaned his messes, I went down to the liquor store and bled my pockets dry to keep the cabinet full.
I dropped out of high school to take care of him, and to run the slaughterhouse while he was laid up. I did the books, bossed the boys, and butchered meat, just like he did. Wrapped the cuts, weighed them, and counted the money. Good Lord did I get good at pinching those pennies, not that anyone blamed me in such hard times.
My arms got strong, my palms calloused. My fingers didn’t fit in the grooves on the knives’ handles, the grooves Daddy grip had worn over the years (and his daddy, and his daddy’s daddy before that), but by God I did my best. That’s all anyone can do, in a situation like that.
Nevaeh told me that if I didn’t take time for myself, I’d never move on. I told her that if I didn’t keep this damn business afloat, didn’t keep my daddy afloat, I’d never forgive myself.
I wonder if Big Cass was at peace, at last. He died in his home, and in his last moments, with all of us around him–with Daddy weeping like a little child, and Mama holding his hands, and me and Junior and Nevi at his bedside–that dour face uncrinkled. He closed his eyes, and smiled.
No last words. Big Cass was a quiet sort of man. And maybe he couldn’t think up nothing fitting. All he did was smile, and shed a decade of time from his face. He looked so much younger there, smiling in his sickbed as he never did out of it. Not a broad smile, not a grin, just a happy little twist. He gave a final sigh, and rather than tired, as he’d sounded for years, that sigh was relieved.
And then he was dead, and when he left, I guess he took a fair part of my dad with him. He took a part of all of us.
The slaughterhouse was colder, those days, though I thought it was only my grief that turned it that way. The lights were dimmer. Everything was quieter. Every freezer door, every piece of equipment, it all felt a little heavier. Sadness weighed it down. But I did my job all the same.
I was the first one in, the one who turned on all the lights. I got into the habit of saying ‘good morning’ to every room. It made me feel better, like I was extending a kindness. Mama always said the best cure for sadness was to make others happy. And I didn’t have too many friends, so the slaughterhouse and its many rooms would just have to suffice.
I greeted the slaughterhouse and all its workers, and I cut the meat, pinched my pennies. Every evening I was the last to go. I said ‘goodnight’ to every room as I flicked off the lights. It was like a little song.
The buzzing of the bulbs. “Goodnight, Freezer A.” The click of the switch, then silence.
Buzzing. “Goodnight, Scalding Tub.” Click. Silence. Buzzing. “Goodnight, Back Abattoir. Click. Silence. Buzzing. “Goodnight, Freezer B.” Click. Silence.
The steadiness of it, the pattern, it made me stronger in those hard days. It made it easier. It made me happy. Maybe it made the slaughterhouse happy, too.
“Goodnight, Slaughterhouse,” I’d say, as I got in my daddy’s truck to go home.
If a building had a face to smile, I always felt the slaughterhouse would be smiling at my taillights, waiting for me to come back and say ‘good morning.’
I gave Big Cass’s job to some doughy-faced white man, and he did it just as well. He knew the rules. God, I missed Big Cass there, though. I didn’t think it was right, some white man in his place. I offered the job to Junior, but he said he wanted to finish school. Didn’t have the stomach for it, or the strong swinging arm.
I bought a new hammer for the new stunner. I took Big Cass’s and put it in the office that had once been Daddy’s, and now belonged to me. Sometimes, when it was late at night and I was still struggling with the books, all the different things required to keep the place running, I’d go sit next to that hammer, and I’d cry.
“Why’d you hafta go and die like that, Big Cass?” I’d ask the hammer, knowing Big Cass was in Heaven and not attached to some ol’ hammer. I wouldn’t wanna bother him with my whining anyway. “Why’d you hafta go break all our hearts that way?”
One night, musta been eighteen or so, yeah, eighteen years old and a businesswoman already, I had a dream.
The sound of the hammer meeting a skull. The sound of a squeal, cut off. The sound of fear dying. Over and over. I followed it through countless hallways like the ones between all the freezers, and at last came to the back abattoir, or a place like it. A vast, cavernous room, the lights too high up to see. The walls nothing but shadowed suggestions.
Most of the room was in shadow, too. But at the far end, swinging that hammer, was Big Cass. I ran up to him, and stood on the shute panelling nearby, waiting for him to finish. A river of hogs was coming in, crowding each other, squealing, but Big Cass did his job with the same purpose he had his whole life.
“It’d never work in a big industrial slaughterhouse,” Big Cass said. “That’s where worse things happen. When you treat living things like they’re car parts or somethin’. Every man oughta know where his meat comes from.”
A thud. Hot blood hit my face, but I didn’t move or flinch. The hog was dragged away by hands I only saw vaguely. I didn’t move my face away from Big Cass.
“You have a duty, Bonny Joy,” he said.
He swung. More blood splattered to hit my face. It never splashed like that in real life. But in the dream, it was a torrent.
A thud. But the number of hogs never dwindled, and they never got quieter or less pushy.
“To your Daddy.”
Thud. Splash. The thick smell of blood was getting overpowering.
“To the slaughterhouse.”
The air was wet. Practically a liquid. But I breathed it anyway, and didn’t wipe my face.
“To your animals.”
“I know, Big Cass. I’ll do my duty. I promise.”
Big Cass dropped his hammer. The hogs disappeared, their squeals abruptly silenced. The abattoir fell away, and wherever I was, it was dark. And even wetter than before. The floor beneath my feet had a lot more give than was even remotely comfortable.
Hot liquid started creeping up my legs as the dark room flooded. I didn’t need to look down to know it was blood. Some things, they’re just too dramatically appropriate to not happen. Dreams is like that.
“You ain’t gotta choice, Bonny Joy Cook,” Big Cass told me.
I woke up, then, choking on the smell of blood and the heat of the dream. I opened my eyes, and felt sticky wetness on my face. Over my bed, the shadowy silhouette of a man. I didn’t even bother trying to sit up, I just started hollering.
Nevaeh screamed too when she clicked on her lamp and saw me. The shadow disappeared with the light, of course, but still, I pointed and babbled. How terrified must she have been, knowing she had been laying right there, sound asleep, unknowing, unable to help me?
As scared as she must have been, she was the one who came forward and helped me out of bed while Mama and Junior stood at their doors and stared. She got me by my elbows and walked me to the bathroom, while I blubbered and stammered.
Thick, almost black blood, all over my face and neck. My hair sticking in it. It almost looked like face-paint, so opaque and bright. A few drops of it on my arm from where I’d pointed.
“It was standing right there!” I shrieked.
“It stinks,” Nevi complained. She pushed me away from the sink toward the tub. “God, what is it?! It stinks like that slaughterhouse! Wash it off!”
I turned the shower on without bothering to take off my clothes, and a good thing too, because Daddy came barrelling in, bleary-eyed and still a bit shaky from his drunken stupor. I was scrubbing my face, struggling to get the sludge off. It stuck something fierce.
“You’ve been kind,” he said, after staring for a long, long time. He crouched down, and patted my back. “You’ve been kind. You ain’t done nothing wrong. It’s not that, Bonny Joy. It’s not that you’ve done wrong. It’s that you’ve been kind.”
“It was standing right there!” I repeated, water in my mouth and eyes.
“Sometimes kindness is keeping to yourself. But not everything understands that, Bonny Joy. Not everything understands how to be kind.”
And that was all I got out of him.
Sometimes, when things were so damn busy I thought there was no way we’d be able to keep up, I saw the man from my childhood. The tall man, the man with his sunglasses and his jacket. As a child, I hadn’t feared him, all brazenness and naivety.
Now I saw, and I wondered how I’d missed it. Those long, long arms. Them big hands.
I see him out among the workers, my real workers. At every station, I’ve seen him working. Chopping meat, sending the cuts to my station, working in packaging. Gutting steer, plucking chickens. I even saw him in the chittlin room, next to three black women working fast as you please, while they talked and pretended nothing was out of the ordinary.
Like some kinda fool, I looked for him in old photos. But he weren’t in none of them. Why would he be? Photos, no matter how ‘candid’ they’re supposed to be, are always staged. He wasn’t for the world of photos, the world shown to outsiders looking in. That worker belongs to the slaughterhouse. Belongs to the busy work and the carcasses.
Only job I never seen him work was as a stunner or a killer. Once the animals are dead, he comes up to help, but it’s up to us to do the killing. To make sure the animal doesn’t know how to fear death.
It’s the price of meat. To those who stand on the border between life and death, animal and meat, there is the duty. The tall man, that hard worker, helps keep us afloat when things are busy, fills in when there’s nobody else to do it, but he doesn’t take our duty from us.
Is that something I ought to resent? Maybe. But that’s just another one of the rules.
No one ever complains about the tall worker. I know they see him, and I know that people know there’s something wrong with him, that he never talks and that he doesn’t seem like he belongs. But they never talk about him. They’ll talk right to him, sometimes, though he can never respond, but they never bring him up.
It’s not a rule I wrote down, or a rule I enforce. Some lessons, you only gotta learn once. I wonder how they got learned, and when. Which one of my ancestors had to feel that angry stare, breathe that hot, humid smell, or if something more drastic was needed.
Lord knows things can get drastic if they need to. But these days, the lesson is learned, and we’re quiet about him. Not to him, but about him.
I talk to him when I see him. A few times, I’ve touched him, though the jacket is too thick to feel anything beneath. Still, it seems to be tempting fate to get so nosey out in the open, so I only do it when I’m feeling bold, or if I think he’s doing an especially good job.
“Keep it up,” I’ll tell him.
“Hey, good work today.”
“I owe you, man.”
“Thank you for all you do, I mean it.”
He never talks. But sometimes, his shoulders heave, like he’s laughing, though he doesn’t make a sound. And sometimes, he shrugs and turns away, like he’s embarrassed, but you can’t see enough of a face to know for certain.
My Daddy was never like that. But I wasn’t raised just by him. I had Big Cass and Mama, and they musta rubbed off on me.
Eventually, I had to do that unpleasant part of the job that comes with being the boss. Jed Barings, one of our killers, he was a sad-faced man and I’d never known him to have a temper. His daddy didn’t get along with mine, but I never had a lick of trouble out of him. Said good morning and good evening nice as you pleased, worked hard, always asked for his wife and son’s birthdays off to spend with them.
Until one day his son come to me, his little son, and tells me he saw Daddy slap Mommy for back-talking him. Tells me Daddy don’t like his job, that Daddy says it makes him miserable. His little son, who’s waiting for Daddy to finish packing up, while Mommy waits in the truck, comes up and tells me Jed has broken the rules.
Everyone who works for me knows those rules. They all get told, they all get reminded. They’re framed and hung up in my office, for Christ’s sake.
Any man whose job it is to kill, that man strikes his wife, he loses his job and his wife. Any man who kills must be watched. He can’t be allowed to start liking the taste of hurting, to start wanting to do it.
Killing is a hard job. It makes good men suffer, makes bad men go crazy. We go through more killers than any other job, and that’s good, in my opinion. If you get used to killing, if it stops being… I don’t wanna say special… significant? If you forget that every time you draw that blade, you’re taking a life, you need to step away from it.
So I went to Jed’s house. I brought a casserole and a tupperware full of chitlins, and had dinner with the Barings family. Lo and behold, Meredith had a bruise on her cheek, and Jed was looking nervous. I kept the conversation light, though. No reason to worry the woman and the boy, not anymore than they already were.
After dessert, me and Jed went to the front room to have our private talk.
“Are you feeling alright lately, Jed?” I asked. “You ain’t seemed happy for a while, is everything okay?”
“Just working hard. Got a wife and kid, you know, and that’s no summer vacation.”
“Yeah, so I’ve heard tell.”
Jed bites his lip.
“Listen, Jed,” I say. “You do work hard. And I know you’ve got a hard job.”
His knuckles go white, and his knee starts to bounce up and down, real fast, real nervous.
“You know that we all keep a close eye on y’all.”
A muscle in his jaw goes tight.
“Jed, why did you hit Meredith?”
I’m not sure how else I coulda handled the situation. I thought that maybe giving him an opportunity to speak his piece would make him feel better about the whole thing, make him more likely to listen. Well, maybe it did go better than it could have, but that don’t mean it went well.
Jed stood up fast as lightning and knocked the chair he was sitting in backwards. Now, I’d been punched in the face a few times before, just little altercations or accidents, but never the way Jed Barings punched me. My nose musta gone flat, the way it cracked and the way it gushed. And he punched me again in the mouth, and again in the jaw, while I sat, too stunned to move, in too much pain to speak.
“I hate that place!” he roared. “I hate that fucking job! I hate that goddamn slaughterhouse! Everyone pretends they don’t see it, but there’s something wrong in there, and I hate it! But where else am I gonna work?! Once you’ve become a killer, you can only work in a slaughterhouse!”
“Jed,” I tried, and got another punch, this time a little tap compared to the first three.
“I’m sick of slaughterhouses! I’m sick of animals! I’m sick of everyone pretending they don’t notice the weird shit that happens there!”
I wondered if Meredith was listening. God, I hoped she didn’t come in, come in and get roughed up, or, God forbid, her little boy.
“Fuck you, Bonny Joy Cook! Fuck your daddy! Fuck your haunted-ass slaughterhouse! And fuck your stupid, stupid, stupid goddamn fucking RULES!”
Which one of those ‘fuck you’s was the one that damned him?
At first it was like misty, gauzy and transparent but growing thicker. The lights flickered, all at different rates before syncing up. The smell of opened organs slammed into my lungs, into Jed’s. There was blood on his knuckles, his fist still drawn back, as the thing solidified.
It was human-shaped enough. At least, the silhouette was pretty much human. But tall, so tall, and with long arms. And it was made out of meat and blood, solidified, mashed together, bits and pieces just crammed into shape.
It put one massive hand, its fingers the discarded trotters of a pig, on Jed’s elbow. It brought its head very close to Jed’s, cocking it back and forth as though curious, though with no facial features it was hard to tell. Slow as molasses it was, and I knew now this was because it knew it could never be harmed.
What could Jed do, that hadn’t already been done by a butcher?
Jed didn’t make a sound. His face was grey, his eyes wide, fixed on the figure. It was still as stone, standing there in plain sight like it wasn’t some sort of hideous abomination. Insolent, brassy, uncaring.
The room filled with the sound of animals dying.
Pigs squealing. Cows bellowing. The final shrieking cluck of a chicken. My hands flew from my nose to my ears. Every bulb went out, the only light what was coming from the street light outside the window. I could still see the shape of it, and the shape of Jed, limp in its grasp, held up only by that vicious hand at his elbow.
The noise cut off as suddenly as it started, and the lights flickered back on, still unsteady. The thing let Jed down to the ground. I thought he might be dead, but, no, I saw his chest rise and fall, though shallowly. Must have been a good goddamn spook.
My heart had slowed. I’d blown through all my reserves of fear, all my terror, and now I was only tired.
It reached for me. I flinched, but there wasn’t much I could do, pinned in my chair as surely as I had been with Jed. Those fingers very carefully, very slowly, brushed my broken nose, the split on my lip.
It leaned forward. I closed my eyes.
Squishy, warm meat pressed to my forehead. For a second, it held itself there, head to my head, and when it disappeared, I kept my eyes shut. Shut until I heard Meredith come in and scream.
“Call the cops,” I said, eyes still closed. “Before Jed wakes up.”
Well, that Jed, he went to jail. I hope he likes it better than the slaughterhouse. Last I hear from his son, they have him making license plates for the state, and I figure that’s gotta be easier on him than slitting throats.
“You saw it too, Bonny Joy, didn’t you?” he begged me, the first and only time I went to visit him. My nose was still swollen, bruises still livid on my face, but I figured he deserved at least one last talk. “Please tell me you saw it too.”
I wondered what Meredith told him she saw. If she heard that horrible orchestra of animal death.
I remembered the bruise on her face, and how scared her son had been as he came to tell on his Daddy the way he did. And how scared and stunned I’d been as Jed wailed on my face.
I thought about the rules, and the lessons you only gotta learn once.
“Saw what, Jed Barings?”
I reckon I’ve told all there really is to tell. All the important bits, at least. It’s a damn long story as it is, and my throat is starting to hurt. Hear there? I’m getting a little frog!
I never told anyone else. Even Nevaeh doesn’t know all the things I seen, though I daresay she’s put it together just as well as anyone else. I do know she doesn’t go there no more, and sometimes, when we visit Big Cass in the cemetery, she just shakes her head at his headstone. Like she can’t believe he’d do it for so long.
I wonder if it’s more of a burden knowing what he shouldered all his life, or if the ignorance hurt more. That seems a damn rude thing to ask, even of Nevi. It seems… it seems cruel. And we aren’t cruel, not in this family.
Remember the rules, darlin’. Remember that this slaughterhouse has been in the family for centuries, and will go down long after I been laid to rest like Big Cass. Like Daddy and Mama. You may think that you got a choice, but if it isn’t you, it might be someone who doesn’t know.
What kinda trouble could that old slaughterhouse stir up, if it gets someone that don’t know? If it gets an owner that don’t respect it, that it don’t like?
I’ll be here to help you, darlin’, you don’t have to be afraid. And as long as you remember that you have a duty, you’ll never have cause to fear, even when I’ve said goodbye to you and those abattoirs, those freezers.
Remember, my love, my little boy: you’ve got a duty. The one who knows always has a duty. To me. To the slaughterhouse. To your animals. You’ve got a duty. Good Lord, that was his favorite phrase.
The slaughterhouse looks after its own, son. As long as you remember your duty, you ain’t got nothing to fear.