Like he had been doing every morning for the past thirty years, Edgar Boswell trimmed his beard over the bathroom sink. He had high cheekbones that paired well with his ash-white beard, which was thick everywhere except around those bones where the hair had remained thin and feathery. He had smoked cigarettes for most of his life, and as a result the scruff on his chin was permanently stained yellow. A sliver of light, dim yet opaque, came in through the glass and pressed the shadow of the window frame against the foot of the bathtub where his wife, Edna, used to stand. It had been two years since Edna had died from a stroke. Edgar splashed water on his face. The water dripped from his beard into the sink.
When he turned the faucet off, he didn’t find Edna behind him, but Mitchell, his grandson, standing there. Mitchell was nine years old, a quiet, reflective kid; though physically strong for his age, he was skinny as a rail. His mess of hair stood in weird directions from a night of restless sleep. Mitchell wiped a fleck of sand from his eye, the same way Edna used to, and Edgar sensed a layer of sleep still lingering in Mitchell’s bones, weakened and battered by an overwhelming feeling of excitement.
“I hardly slept a wink,” Mitchell said.
“Get your energy up,” Edgar replied. “You’ll need it.”
In the kitchen, Edgar set a bowl of oatmeal in front of the boy and poured himself a thermos of coffee.
“Could you hear me tossing and turning all night?”
“The rattling floorboards kept me awake,” he said. It was really the boy’s crying that had kept him awake. It did every night.
Edgar had sole custody of the boy since last winter when the boy’s parents—his daughter and son-in-law—while driving home from the movie theater, hit a patch of black ice and rolled their car over the guardrail into a shallow creek. Landing upside down, they broke the thin layer of ice that stretched over the water and died before the upturned car’s wheels finished spinning. Edgar was not thrilled to have the boy. At fifty-one he felt too old to be the primary caregiver of a pre-adolescent boy and too young to be a widower. Even when he was younger, he never claimed to be good with his own daughter. Yet, bound by his own grief and filled with a sense of responsibility, he took the boy in as his own.
Mitchell ate the bowl of oatmeal that he drowned in sugar while Edgar got the gun. He kept the revolver loaded in the cupboard. Mitchell watched Edgar jam the gun between the waist of his pants and the small of his back before he lifted the bowl to his mouth and licked clean the last bit of oatmeal and sugar.
“All finished,” Mitchell said, both with caution and eagerness. “I’m ready.”
“Grab your boots,” Edgar said. The cambered handle of the revolver scratched his back.
Mitchell slipped them on one foot at a time. His feet were small, and he hadn’t grown into them yet.
When they walked outside the dew was thick and, caught in the morning sunlight, colored the lawn silver. A thin fog, translucent and diaphanous, rose from the grass. The farm sat on twenty acres of flatland, which was bought cheap thirty-two years prior. They walked down a small hill that Mitchell liked to use for sledding last winter and toward the pigpen. Their footsteps broke the silver on the grass. Edgar felt the dampness in his socks as he tried his best to keep pace with Mitchell who walked full of pride.
Edgar remember the harmony the farmland once held; he saw how it all had changed. Verdant fields had given way to empty, overgrown stables and winds that kicked up black spirals of dust from exhausted soil.
The pigs were all that was left. They were rolling in the dew behind the feed trough and were letting the sun warm their bellies.
“I know it doesn’t look like it,” Edgar said, “but pigs are pretty clean animals. They’re smart too. Real smart.”
“Grandpa, why do they roll in the mud like that?”
“To keep themselves cool.”
One pig flipped to his feet and rooted near the edge of the fence at the dying scent of the previous night. Mitchell reached out his hand and the pig ran its wet snout against his palm.
“Don’t get too comfortable with that thing now,” Edgar said.
“I think he likes me.”
“And pretty soon, for good reason, he’ll be scared to death of you too.”
The pig grunted as Edgar lead it into the barn. He pulled a pair of rubber overalls over his jeans, strapped the suspenders over his shoulders, and buttoned them around his waist. He snapped a pair of blue latex gloves over his hands. The sleeves ran to his elbows.
The barn was designed for slaughter. A collection of chains dangled from a system of pulleys, which were raised and lowered by a small yellow electrical box that swayed along with them. Hooks and carabiners were attached to their ends. A red garden hose, fastened to a spigot in the corner, ran past a collection of saws and blades; a sprayer, shaped like a blunted handgun, was coiled around its brass nozzle.
Blue light glowed from an electric bug zapper that hung from the rafters.
Edgar took the hose and doused the floor with water. A wet, sandy smell, along with tufts of steam, rose from the concrete. He sprayed the pig into the corner. Water dripped from its belly.
Edgar aimed the gun at a downward angle from behind the pig’s left ear, toward its right ear and pulled the trigger. The report caused Mitchell to flinch.
Smoke leaked from the end of the barrel; small grains of exhausted gunpowder glittered on the surface of Edgar’s rubber gloves. The pig let out a long, sharp squeal similar to a deep belch, went down, rolled, settled on its side, and kicked its feet. Edgar didn’t hear Mitchell muffle his own gasp. The bug zapper cracked and a shock of blue light flickered through its grill.
“He looks like he’s running,” Mitchell said. His voice was loud and short because the gunshot still echoed in his ears. He wasn’t looking at the blood, only the legs kicking. “If he gets up will he run?”
“He isn’t going nowhere,” Edgar replied. Edgar jammed his knee into the pig’s rear to control its spasms, clipped a chain around its leg, and raised the pig by way of the yellow electrical box in one quick motion. The pig lifted easy. A watery mat of blood remained from where the pig went down, from where its head had hit the concrete. A metal barrel screeched across the floor when Edgar moved it underneath the dangling pig, its head swallowed in the opening. He pulled a curved blade from the wall, pressed the tip through the skin below its elongated neck and severed the pig’s aorta, a clean upward cut, opening flappy folds of skin. Thick, deep red blood emptied from the incision into the barrel. They could hear it splatter against the bottom of the barrel, viscous and almost gelatinous.
The pig kicked some more and its head smacked the side of the barrel, which caused it to wobble. Blood splattered against the side of the barrel and across the pig’s hooves. When Mitchell saw the blood and the pig’s movements, he turned pale as a ghost. “I need to sit,” he said.
The smell got to him—it was more than he could bear—and with his head between his knees, he puked white chunks of oatmeal onto his boots. With the hose, Edgar sprayed the blood from the pig and then aimed the water at Mitchell’s boots. “Your heart’s a bit faint,” he said.
“The blood,” Mitchell replied, “I can smell it.”
They left the pig to bleed and walked outside into the fresh air. Edgar lit a cigarette and sat down next to Mitchell, careful to keep the smoke from drifting into his eyes.
“Buck up, son,” Edgar said.
“I blew chunks on my boots.” Mitchell dug his feet into the ground and tried to swallow his shame. Mitchell didn’t like the thought of his grandfather knowing he had been scared.
Flecks of grass and specks of dirt, mixed with traces of vomit, clung to the toes of his boots. Edgar passed his cigarette to the boy. Mitchell held it in his hand and let the smoke twirl around his fingers. He took a small drag, watched the amber tip light up, and listened to the tobacco burn. He didn’t inhale but let out a cough of thick smoke. The color of his skin changed from white to green. He handed the cigarette back to his grandfather as his eyes watered. Edgar had meant to steady the boy, but Mitchell’s shame only deepened. He looked away from his grandfather to hide it.
Edgar slapped his grandson’s back to reassure him, but also to size him up. He noticed how fragile the boy’s spine was. His jeans and shirt were too big for him too, just like his boots.
When they returned to the barn, the pig’s eyes, emptied of blood, had turned black as ink; their surface had an icy shine to them, somewhere between the sheen of marble and the precious luster of a well-cut stone. The rusty, bitter smell of the pig, coupled with the weight of the dust and the heft of black mold, hit Mitchell again and caused him to lose his balance. He didn’t fall, only staggered; yet, to maintain his footing, he gathered a strength through the doubt, something like pride, from deep inside himself. He pulled the collar of his shirt over the bridge of his nose.
Other than a few flies and the slight sway of the dangling pig, the barn was calm and steady. Mitchell found the tranquility haunting as if the barn itself were alive, watching and waiting, anticipating their movements. He looked at his grandfather who sprayed the final bit of blood from the pig’s skin, a layer of mist rising off the concrete. “Hold the pig steady,” Edgar said.
Mitchell was startled by how coarse the pig’s legs felt as he held them back. He closed his eyes. With the blade, Edgar cut a vertical line across the pig’s midsection from neck to anus, exposed the pink concave ridges of its ribs, and then worked at the gristle around its neck. He made a vertical cut across the chest and then pulled hard, ripping the skin from flesh. He continued to score and pull, pull and score the hide from flesh.
“Want to try it on for size?” Edgar asked. On the fingertips of the gloves, blood had collected. He pulled the carcass open like a jacket. “All it needs is a zipper.”
A fly flew around Mitchell’s head, which he swatted at. “I don’t think so,” he said.
“I guess we’ll have to use it for football and basketball skins then.” He continued to antagonize the boy.
“I don’t want to use it for anything.” Mitchell’s heart beat in his ears.
“Well, we can’t just let it go to waste. Maybe we can deep fry it and eat it, like pork rinds.”
The bug zapper cracked, sent out another blue shock. The sound shook Mitchell and he buckled forward. The sudden shifting of the pig caused Edgar to slip and the blade came across his forearm.
“Goddamn it, fuck,” Edgar said. Because he never heard his grandfather use it, the profanity bothered Mitchell.
The knife fell and hit the concrete, blade first, before it settled with its weight pressed against the handle.
Edgar leaned against the wall, applied pressure to his arm. He felt dizzy, sat down, and looked up into the rafters. Boxes filled with antiques, seasonal decorations, and other items saved, discarded, and forgotten from a past life rested across the rafter beams. He noticed the faint smell of gasoline and vinegar. “Go find your grandmother,” he said to Mitchell. “Tell her I’m hurt.
Mitchell looked at the clouds in his grandfather’s eyes. He didn’t know what to do. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to slip.”
“Your grandmother, get her.”
Edgar remembered Edna was dead.
“I don’t know where she is. She’s not here. I don’t know how to get to where she is, to heaven.”
Edgar pressed his hand tighter around the wound. Blood was on his shirt, pants, and across his knuckles. He took a breath to gain his composure and then spoke to Mitchell. “Neither do I,” he said.
Mitchell wanted to cry because he was scared, because he felt responsible for the accident, because he saw his grandfather as vulnerable and doubted him, because he didn’t know what else he could do. It took him all he had inside of him, but he didn’t cry. His pride wouldn’t let him. He couldn’t afford to let his grandfather down again. Instead, he thought about the pig’s grainy legs, how he still felt their roughness on his palms as he clenched his fingertips into fists.
Edgar removed his hand from his forearm and examined the wound. A line of blood bubbled from the cut. The wound was deep. Edgar’s blood had always been thin, slow to clot. He reapplied pressure to the arm, watched Mitchell, tense, scared and motionless, and wondered if he had expected too much from the boy. He wondered if he had been too hard on him; as a result, maybe he had let the boy down. He lifted his arm above his heart. He knew the boy looked up to him. He was ashamed with himself because he couldn’t meet the boy’s expectations. Across from each other, they stood in silence; they both felt their failure in it.
They went inside the house and found first aid supplies in the medicine cabinet. Edna had always kept it well-stocked. The bandage they wrapped around Edgar’s arm changed from cotton-white to maroon as it absorbed the blood from the cut, the gradations of red becoming lighter near the edge of the bandage. There was blood in the sink next to a patch of trimmed whiskers and a ring of toothpaste caked the bottom lip of the stainless steel drain. The bathroom light reflected off the mirror above the sink, which was speckled with dots of iron-rusty water. Edgar sat on the toilet bowl and tightened a line of tape around the cotton gauze to hold it in place. Even though the bleeding had almost stopped, the cut still throbbed and pulsed.
Mitchell brought Edgar a clean shirt and a glass of water.
Edgar took a long, hard drink from the glass.
“You know, you have a lot of her in you,” Edgar said.
“What about her?”
“You got little moments of her running through your blood, in your bones.”
Edgar pulled the bloody shirt over his shoulders, tossed it in the bathtub, and then stretched the clean one over his neck and down his back.
Mitchell studied his hands, through his skin he could see a large blue vein run from his wrist to the fold of his elbow. “I don’t feel her,” he said.
“Trust me, she’s there. You don’t always have to feel things to know they’re there.”
Mitchell folded his arms across his chest, the way Edna used to do, and Edgar noticed it.
In the barn they removed the internal organs, kidneys, stomach, liver, gall bladder, gizzards and heart, and then threw them into the barrel. They appeared wet and glossy in the barn light. The ropey intestines coiled against the lining of the barrel. The sour smell no longer bothered Mitchell.
“It was an accident,” Mitchell said. The bandage on Edgar’s arm was nearly all red.
“It doesn’t matter,” Edgar replied. “What matters is taking responsibility for our actions. For the consequences of them we don’t quite expect or foresee. No one does everything right.” He cut a piece of bone from the pig’s leg. The revolver pressed against his back.
“I got scared.”
“I know. You got thin skin like your grandma.” He ripped at the flesh, felt and heard it tear.
The excitement Mitchell had felt earlier was gone, yet his bones still ached. His shoulders were slouched. He walked over to the dangling pig and stretched out his arms. “Does it fit?” he asked.
They loaded what was left of the pig into the bed of the pickup and drove down the road. Mitchell stared out the window and followed the curves of the ditch that ran alongside them. The tall trees overhead caught the wind and sunlight, turning the high branches blue; in the wind, their shadows swept at the gravel and dust. They made a left turn and followed a winding dirt road through a clearing.
Edgar parked the truck on the shoulder where the grass was worn away and let it idle. Tufts of heat and exhaust bellowed from the tailpipe. The handgun lay between the man and the boy. The boy picked it up and felt how heavy it was. He didn’t have the muscle for it.
Together, they took the pig carcass and threw it over the ravine. It tumbled down the decline, skull bouncing against the dirt and tree trunks, before it settled, contorted, against the rim of an old rubber tire. They followed it with the trash bag that contained the internal organs, it gained speed as it bumped and flipped down the slope; it stopped against the carcass. Some of the contents spilled from a tear in the plastic.
“What’s going to happen to it?” Mitchell asked.
“The birds will probably get to it, maybe a coyote or two.”
“You think it will be there for a while?”
Edgar took Mitchell’s shoulder in his hand. Underneath the bandage, he felt the cut reopen. He looked into the boy’s eyes and saw his own eyes, deep blue irises and a slight red beneath the whites. He looked down the ravine at the pig, at what he thought was a remaining piece of its heart, and thought about dust and bone. “Yes,” he said, “at least a part of it. Maybe forever.”
Timothy Treder studied at Western Michigan University. He currently lives, works, and writes in Lafayette, Indiana.