By Jesmyn Ward
I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight. When Pop tell me he need my help and I see that black knife slid into the belt of his pants, I follow Pop out the house, try to keep my back straight, my shoulders even as a hanger; that’s how Pop walks. I try to look like this is normal and boring so Pop will think I’ve earned these thirteen years, so Pop will know I’m ready to pull what needs to be pulled, separate innards from muscle, organs from cavities. I want Pop to know I can get bloody. Today’s my birthday.
I grab the door so it don’t slam, ease it into the jamb. I don’t want Mam or Kayla to wake up with none of us in the house. Better for them to sleep. Better for my little sister Kayla to sleep, because on nights when Leonie’s out working, she wake up every hour, sit straight up in the bed, and scream. Better for Mam to sleep, because the chemo done dried her up and hollowed her out the way the sun and the air do water oaks. Pop weaves in and out of the trees, straight and slim and brown as a young pine. He spits in the dry red dirt, and the wind makes the trees wave. It’s cold. This spring is stubborn; most days it won’t make way for warmth. The chill stays like water in a bad-draining tub. I left my hoodie on the floor in Leonie’s room, where I sleep, and my t-shirt is thin, but I don’t rub my arms. If I let the cold goad me, I know when I see the goat, I’ll flinch or frown when Pop cuts the throat. And Pop, being Pop, will see.
“Better to leave the baby asleep,” Pop says.
Pop built our house himself, narrow in the front and long, close to the road so he could leave the rest of the property wooded. He put his pigpen and his goat yard and the chicken coop in small clearings in the trees. We have to walk past the pigpen to get to the goats. The dirt is black and muddy with shit, and ever since Pop whipped me when I was six for running around the pen with no shoes on, I’ve never been barefoot out here again. You could get worms, Pop had said. Later that night, he told me stories about him and his sisters and brothers when they were young, playing barefoot because all they had was one pair of shoes each and them for church. They all got worms, and when they used the outhouse, they pulled worms out of their butts. I don’t tell Pop, but that was more effective than the whipping.
Pop picks the unlucky goat, ties a rope around its head like a noose, leads it out the pen. The others bleat and rush him, butting his legs, licking his pants.
“Get! Get!” Pop says, and kicks them away. I think the goats understand each other; I can see it in the aggressive butts of their heads, in the way they bite Pop’s pants and yank. I think they know what that loose rope tied around the goat’s neck means. The white goat with black splashes on his fur dances from side to side, resisting, like he catches a whiff of what he is walking toward. Pop pulls him past the pigs, who rush the fence and grunt at Pop, wanting food, and down the trail toward the shed, which is closer to the house. Leaves slap my shoulders, and they scratch me dry, leaving thin white lines scrawled on my arms.
“Why you ain’t got more of this cleared out, Pop?”
“Ain’t enough space,” Pop says. “And don’t nobody need to see what I got back here.”
“You can hear the animals up front. From the road.”
“And if anybody come back here trying to mess with my animals, I can hear them coming through these trees.”
“You think any of the animals would let themselves get took?”
“No. Goats is mean and pigs is smarter than you think. And they vicious, too. One of them pigs’ll take a bite out of anybody they ain’t used to eating from.”
Pop and I enter the shed. Pop ties the goat to a post he’s driven into the floor, and it barks at him.
“Who you know got all they animals out in the open?” Pop says. And Pop is right. Nobody in Bois has their animals out in the open in fields, or in the front of their property.
The goat shakes its head from side to side, pulls back. Tries to shrug the rope. Pop straddles it, puts his arm under the jaw.
“The big Joseph,” I say. I want to look out the shed when I say it, over my shoulder at the cold, bright green day, but I make myself stare at Pop, at the goat with its neck being raised to die. Pop snorts. I hadn’t wanted to say his name. Big Joseph is my white grandpa, Pop my black one. I’ve lived with Pop since I was born; I’ve seen my white grandpa twice. Big Joseph is round and tall and looks nothing like Pop. He don’t even look like Michael, my father, who is lean and smudged with tattoos. He picked them up like souvenirs from wannabe artists in Bois and out on the water when he worked offshore and in prison.
“Well, there you go,” Pop says.
Pop wrestles the goat like it’s a man, and the goat’s knees buckle. It falls face forward in the dirt, turns its head to the side so it’s looking up at me with its cheek rubbing the dusty earth and bloody floor of the shed. It shows me its soft eye, but I don’t look away, don’t blink. Pop slits. The goat makes a sound of surprise, a bleat swallowed by a gurgle, and then there’s blood and mud everywhere. The goat’s legs go rubbery and loose, and Pop isn’t struggling anymore. All at once, he stands up and ties a rope around the goat’s ankles, lifting the body to a hook hanging from the rafters. That eye: still wet. Looking at me like I was the one who cut its neck, like I was the one bleeding it out, turning its whole face red with blood.
“You ready?” Pop asks. He glances at me then, quickly, but his look ain’t soft. I nod. I’m frowning, my face drawn tight. I try to relax as Pop cuts the goat along the legs, giving the goat pant seams, shirt seams, lines all over.
“Grab this here,” Pop says. He points at a line on the goat’s stomach, so I dig my fingers in and grab. It’s still warm, and it’s wet. Don’t slip, I say to myself. Don’t slip.
“Pull,” Pop says.
I pull. The goat is inside out. Slime and smell everywhere, something musty and sharp, like a man who ain’t took a bath in some days. The skin peels off like a banana. It surprises me every time, how easy it comes away once you pull. Pop yanking hard on the other side, and then he’s cutting and snapping the hide off at the feet. I pull the skin down the animal’s leg to the foot, but I can’t get it off like Pop, so he cuts and snaps.
“Other side,” Pop says. I grab the seam near the heart. The goat’s even warmer here, and I wonder if his panicked heart beat so fast it made his chest hotter, but then I look at Pop, who’s already snapping the skin off the end of the goat’s foot, and I know my wondering’s made me slow. I don’t want him to read my slowness as fear, as weakness, as me not being old enough to look at death like a man should, so I grip and yank. Pop snaps the skin off at the animal’s foot, and then the animal sways from the ceiling, all pink and muscle, catching what little light there is, glistening in the dark. All that’s left of the goat is the hairy face, and somehow this is even worse than the moment before Pop cut its throat.
“Get the bucket,” Pop says, so I get the metal tub from under one of the shelves at the back of the shed, and I pull it under the animal. I pick up the skin, which is already turning stiff, and I dump it into the tub. Four sheets of it.
Pop slices down the center of the stomach, and the innards slide out and into the tub. He’s slicing and the smell overwhelms like a faceful of pig shit. It smells like foragers, dead and rotting out in the thick woods, when the only sign of them is the stink and the buzzards rising and settling and circling. It stinks like possums or armadillos smashed half flat on the road, rotting in asphalt and heat. But worse. This smell is worse; it’s the smell of death, the rot coming from something just alive, something hot with blood and life. I grimace, wanting to make Kayla’s stink face, the face she makes when she’s angry or impatient; to everyone else, it looks like she’s smelled something nasty: her green eyes squinting, her nose a mushroom, her twelve tiny toddler teeth showing through her open mouth. I want to make that face because something about scrunching up my nose and squeezing the smell away might lessen it, might cut off that stink of death. I know it’s the stomach and intestines, but all I can see is Kayla’s stink face and the soft eye of the goat and then I can’t hold myself still and watch no more, then I’m out the door of the shed and I’m throwing up in the grass outside. My face is so hot, but my arms are cold.
Pop steps out of the shed, and he got a slab of ribs in his fist. I wipe my mouth and look at him, but he’s not looking at me, he’s looking at the house, nodding toward it.
“Thought I heard the baby cry. You should go check on them.”
I put my hands in my pockets.
“You don’t need my help?”
Pop shakes his head.
“I got it,” he says, but then he looks at me for the first time and his eyes ain’t hard no more. “You go ahead.” And then he turns and goes back to the shed.
Pop must have misheard, because Kayla ain’t awake. She’s lying on the floor in her drawers and her yellow t-shirt, her head to the side, her arms out like she’s trying to hug the air, her legs wide. A fly is on her knee, and I brush it away, hoping it hasn’t been on her the whole time I’ve been out in the shed with Pop. They feed on rot. Back when I was younger, back when I still called Leonie Mama, she told me flies eat shit. That was when there was more good than bad, when she’d push me on the swing Pop hung from one of the pecan trees in the front yard, or when she’d sit next to me on the sofa and watch TV with me, rubbing my head. Before she was more gone than here. Before she started snorting crushed pills. Before all the little mean things she told me gathered and gathered and lodged like grit in a skinned knee. Back then I still called Michael Daddy. That was when he lived with us before he moved back in with Big Joseph. Before the police took him away three years ago, before Kayla was born.
Each time Leonie told me something mean, Mam would tell her to leave me alone. I was just playing with him, Leonie would say, and each time she smiled wide, brushed her hand across her forehead to smooth her short, streaked hair. I pick colors that make my skin pop, she told Mam. Make this dark shine. And then: Michael love it.
I pull the blanket up over Kayla’s stomach and lie next to her on the floor. Her little foot is warm in my hand. Still asleep, she kicks off the cover and grabs at my arm, pulling it up to her stomach so I hold her before settling again. Her mouth opens and I wave at the circling fly, and Kayla lets off a little snore.
When I walk back out to the shed, Pop’s already cleaned up the mess. He’s buried the foul-smelling intestines in the woods, and wrapped the meat we’ll eat months later in plastic and put it in the small deep-freezer wedged in a corner. He shuts the door to the shed, and when we walk past the pens I can’t help avoiding the goats, who rush the wooden fence and bleat. I know they are asking after their friend, the one I helped kill. The one who Pop carries pieces of now: the tender liver for Mam, which he will sear barely so the blood won’t run down her mouth when he sends me in to feed it to her; the haunches for me, which he will boil for hours and then smoke and barbecue to celebrate my birthday. A few of the goats wander off to lick at the grass. Two of the males skitter into each other, and then one head-butts the other, and they are fighting. When one of the males limps off and the winner, a dirty white color, begins bullying a small gray female, trying to mount her, I pull my arms into my sleeves. The female kicks at the male and bleats. Pop stops next to me and waves the fresh meat in the air to keep flies from it. The male bites at the female’s ear, and the female makes a sound like a growl and snaps back.
“Is it always like that?” I ask Pop. I’ve seen horses rearing and mounting each other, seen pigs rutting in the mud, heard wild cats at night shrieking and snarling as they make kittens.
Pop shakes his head and lifts the choice meats toward me. He half smiles, and the side of his mouth that shows teeth is knife-sharp, and then the smile is gone.
“No,” he says. “Not always. Sometimes it’s this, too.”
The female head-butts the neck of the male, screeching. The male skitters back. I believe Pop. I do. Because I see him with Mam. But I see Leonie and Michael as clearly as if they were in front of me, in the last big fight they had before Michael left us and moved back in with Big Joseph, right before he went to jail: Michael threw his jerseys and his camouflage pants and his Jordans into big black garbage bags, and then hauled his stuff outside. He hugged me before he left, and when he leaned in close to my face all I could see were his eyes, green as the pines, and the way his face turned red in splotches: his cheeks, his mouth, the edges of his nose, where the veins were little scarlet streams under the skin. He put his arms around my back and patted once, twice, but those pats were so light they didn’t feel like hugs, even though something in his face was pulled tight, wrong, like underneath his skin he was crisscrossed with tape. Like he would cry. Leonie was pregnant with Kayla then, and already had Kayla’s name picked out and scrawled with nail polish on her car seat, which had been my car seat. Leonie was getting bigger, her stomach looked like she had a Nerf basketball shoved under her shirt. She followed Michael out on the porch where I stood, still feeling those two little pats on my back, soft as a weak wind, and Leonie grabbed him by the collar and pulled and slapped him on the side of the head, so hard it sounded loud and wet. He turned and grabbed her by her arms, and they were yelling and breathing hard and pushing and pulling each other across the porch. They were so close to each other, their hips and chests and faces, that they were one, scuttling, clumsy like a hermit crab over sand. And then they were leaning in close to each other, speaking, but their words sounded like moans.
“I know,” Michael said.
“You ain’t never known,” Leonie said.
“Why you push me like this?”
“You go where you want,” Leonie said, and then she was crying and they were kissing, and they only moved apart when Big Joseph pulled on to the dirt driveway and stopped, just so his truck was out of the street and in the yard. He didn’t lay on the horn or wave or nothing, just sat there, waiting for Michael. And then Leonie walked away from him and slammed the door and disappeared back into the house, and Michael looked down at his feet. He’d forgot to put shoes on, and his toes were red. He breathed hard and grabbed his bags, and the tattoos on his white back moved: the dragon on his shoulder, the scythe down his arm. A grim reaper between his shoulder blades. My name, Joseph, at the root of his neck in between ink prints of my baby feet.
“I’ll be back,” he said, and then he jumped down off the porch, shaking his head and hauling his garbage bags over his shoulder, and walked over to the truck, where his daddy, Big Joseph, the man who ain’t never once said my name, waited. Part of me wanted to give him the bird when he pulled out of the driveway, but more of me was scared that Michael would jump back out of the truck and whip me, so I didn’t. Back then I didn’t realize how Michael noticed and didn’t notice, how sometimes he saw me and then, whole days and weeks, he didn’t. How, in that moment, I didn’t matter. Michael hadn’t looked back after he jumped off the porch, hadn’t even looked up after he threw his bags into the bed of the pickup truck and got into the front seat. He seemed like he was still concentrating on his red, naked feet. Pop says a man should look another man in the face, so I stood there, looking at Big Joseph putting the truck in reverse, at Michael looking down at his lap, until they pulled out of the driveway and went down the street. And then I spat the way Pop does, and jumped off the porch and ran around to the animals in their secret rooms in the back woods.
“Come on, son,” Pop says. When he begins walking toward the house, I follow, trying to leave the memory of Leonie and Michael fighting outside, floating like fog in the damp, chilly day. But it follows, even as I follow the trail of tender organ blood Pop has left in the dirt, a trail that signals love as clearly as the bread crumbs Hansel spread in the wood.
Excerpted from Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, to be published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., in September 2017. Read two additional excerpts in the Oxford American’s Summer and Fall 2017 issues.
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