“Let them stand still for the bullet,
and stare the shooter in the eye,
let them die while the sound of the shot is in the air,
let them die as they fall,
let the jugular blood spring hot to the knife,
let its freshet be full,
let this day begin again the change of hogs into people,
not the other way around,
for today we celebrate again our lives’ wedding with the world,
for by our hunger, by this provisioning, we renew the bond.”
Wendell Berry, For the Hog Killing
“So, what happens if you mess up?” asked Rusty.
I’d just explained to the men assembled how we were going to slaughter the hog in the pen in the yard. Half of the hog was destined for Rusty’s freezer. His three-year-old daughter was perched on his right arm. The rest of his children were whooping and hollering with my kids out back of the house.
“I’ve done this, oh, ten times,” I said, hefting my .22 and shrugging so my shoulders would seem wider. “But it’s a forgiving process.”
We gathered at the small pen into which we’d lured the animal. The big barrow paced back and forth, glaring at us, his bristly white fur sullied grey with dirt. He was a cross, brooding creature, who even at feeding time had preferred to sulk under a willow tree than let a human hand come near him.
“What’s he weigh?” asked Rusty.
“I think he’s around 500.”
“He weighs more than my entire family,” Rusty croaked.
The barrow eyed me and my implement with suspicion. I glowered back at him. There was no love lost between us. I rested the muzzle on the fence about eye level with him and drew a bead on him. He kept pacing.
“What are we doing at this part again?” asked Doug.
“I’m gonna shoot him, and you and Tyler’ll jump in, spread his front legs, and I’m gonna stick him. Then we’ll roll him over and let him bleed,” I said. “This part goes fast, once it goes.”
Sighting him in again, I heard Wendell Berry’s drawl in my ears: “…one of the firm laws of hog killing was never to make them squeal. If they squealed after you shot them, you had done a bad job. You had hurt them.” Last year I watched a friend miss the spot—just to the left of an X drawn between the eyes and the ears—three times. He’d had to chase his shrieking black hog around the pen until he finally dropped it with a point-blank slug behind the ear. Four bullets to lay that one down!—an animal half the size of this one. “A righteous man,” says the Proverb, “regards the life of his beast.” The best we could do that day had been to regret how the life of that beast had ended. My hands, following that spot on this big white hog’s head, were trembling.
“Who’s got the Wild Turkey?” I stood up and held the rifle at my side.
Tyler handed me the uncorked bottle. “You’ve got an audience,” he said. I took a pull of the liquor, turned around, and cussed under my breath. A loose crowd of 15 or so had gathered: neighbors and friends there to watch, three of my pastor’s daughters and their friends, my wife, my children, Rusty’s children. All would watch this living creature pass from life to death by the operation of my hands. From her perch atop her father, Rusty’s daughter cooed at the barrow.
“Hi piggy! You’re such a fat piggy!”
The bourbon settled me and I resumed my crouch. “Who’s got the blade? I’ll need that handy in just a second,” I called out.
“Got it,” said Doug.
There’s a sweet spot on a rifle trigger where just an ounce more of pressure will fire it. There I held my finger, waiting for my shot. Twice, and then three times, the barrow paused, almost at the right angle but never quite. A fourth time, and he paced again. I grit my teeth and snorted, tense and rigid. He circled around the pen again and barely glanced at me.
Into the muddle of “dammits!” and “stand stills!” in my head, I fit a prayer for his swift death, then exhaled slowly. On his next circuit, he paused a fifth time, the spot just twelve inches from the muzzle, my eyes on it, his eyes on me. I gave the trigger that one more ounce.
In a thousandth of a second: he jerked his head as if startled by the pop; a black hole appeared on the bridge of his snout; he screamed and rammed the fence by Rusty, shoving his snout underneath the wire and lifting the entire panel.
“Shit!” I spat, and rammed a new bullet into the bolt.
The beast tore at the dirt, blood bright in his nostrils, shaking his head as if to fling the bullet out. The fence panel crashed back down. Rusty shook, his daughter on his shoulders.
Doug was in my way. “MOVE!” I growled, and took aim at the animal. The hog thrashed away from the fence and hung his head in the corner of the pen, his grunts angry and labored, his lip curling over the small tusk in his gums. My helpers gripped the fence at arm’s length, waiting for him to charge again, to break through the wire and trample us in his rage. I shook and pined for that bourbon. “Everyone, just be calm, and he’ll be real calm, and we can do this right,” I announced.
Rusty’s daughter leaned over his face and squealed, “The piggy will be all right!”
I crept along the fence. The hog startled and backed into the corner, lowering his head at me. I’d gotten him right on the bridge of his nose, a little black dot on his big shovel-shaped head. He had calmed, and was now no more cross than he’d ever been at any normal feeding time: just sulking in the corner, waiting for me to go away so he could boss the other hogs at the feeding trough. I pushed the muzzle through the fence, aimed it at his forehead above his eyes, and squeezed. He dropped like a bag of sand.
In an instant we were in the pen, Doug and Tyler pulling his forelegs apart, my hand plunging the dagger into his throat, levering it on his breastbone towards his heart. A hot dark flash of blood pursued the blade. We rolled him on his belly and watched it pool in heart-timed spurts on the ground beneath his jowls, the soil and grass blackening as his body shook feebly and grain-studded crap sputtered from his anus. And then the peculiar stillness of death passed over him, a change blurry like the shadow of a cloud, the light in his eye leaving behind a moist sack of darkness.
Neighbors and friends dispersed. The hog’s blood was already tacky on my hand and arm. Rusty stood beside me. “I won’t lie,” he said. “I can’t believe you missed.”
“Me, neither,” I grumbled and shook my head. “Sorry about that.”