On the eve of butchering day, I was in the kitchen of our one-room house on a hill. A single light burned. I scraped a blade against a stone, the sound slicing through the darkness like the beat of a drum. I have always begun the ritual of butchering this way. As I sharpened knives, I focused on the grave task ahead. My heart was heavy, anticipating the imminent demise of a friend. My nerves buzzed, fearing a slip of the hand that would cause unneeded suffering. My mind turned to the three goat kids, alone in the kidding room, sent to bed without dinner, motherless in the hushed midnight barnyard gloom. Though I was mourning for them, I was also starting to practice detachment, erecting a wall around my heart stone by stone.
The next morning, I paced through the barn in mud boots, collecting and arranging tools, placing them as if onto an altar. On the milk stand sat an array of knives, a whetstone, and a bowl of cold water for receiving hearts, livers, and kidneys. An ominous loop of rope swung from a barn rafter, waiting to bear the weight of a carcass hung upside down from a singletree. A wheelbarrow load of sawdust had been spread solemnly on the ground, where it would catch the blood that would pour from the animals. A bundle of dried sage, a box of matches. Once everything was in place, the three butchers gathered.
My two friends and I were all present because we were seeking better meat than the grocery store offered. We cared how an animal lived, what it ate, how it died. We were willing to shoulder the burden of butchering in pursuit of this ideal. I raise a herd of milk goats because I love goats and I love making cheese. The herd swells with the birth of kids in the spring, and shrinks again in the fall as most of those kids transmute into food. Since I was the most experienced butcher at hand, I murmured a plan to the others, explaining how to make a fatal cut, how we would complete the process most efficiently. We burned the sage and took turns bathing in the smoke. We prayed for steady hands. We felt stark, deliberate, severe.
I went first. The goat I meant to kill was my favorite. Her name was Mo, short for Mahonia, or Mahonia repens, the scientific name of our local Oregon Grape. I was present at her birth. She had slid gooey and asleep into my waiting hands, shook her outsized ears, and took her first breath. Since then, she seemed to be the fondest of me. She crossed the barnyard to greet me every time I entered it. She lingered at my side as we walked through pines and oak brush. She frequently jumped into my arms, letting me rake my fingers through her soft white fur. She also happened to be the biggest kid, which is why I decided she was destined for our freezer. Soon there would be packages labeled “Mo shoulder roast,” “Mo rump roast.” She would be curried, stewed with green chilies, packed into enchiladas. But at the moment, I wasn’t thinking about food.
Mo tacitly let me escort her from the shadows of the kidding room to the ashen light of day. I stood her on the pile of sawdust and straddled her back. I rubbed her neck and spoke to her, thanking her, fighting the shaking in my voice. She seemed at ease in our familiar intimacy. Someone was burning sage and walking circles around us. I breathed deeply, trying to appear calm. My heart was a firework.
The time to hesitate was through. I gripped my long, sharp blade in one hand, Mo’s horn in the other. I poised the blade at her jawline, closed my eyes, and committed to pulling and slicing with my entire being. The knife caught for one terrible second on Mo’s fur, as it always does when it starts to penetrate flesh. I pulled harder, with more desperation, and before I felt anything else Mo was opened from ear to ear, clear back to her spine.
She exploded forward, erupting in sound and color. What began as a cry disintegrated into a sputter. My eyes flew open, my hand grasping a flailing mass of white fur and red blood. We collapsed together, the bed of sawdust beneath us turning scarlet and warm. I righted myself and crouched over her, my hand on her heaving rib cage, thanking her over and over, watching her life leak out. She started violently kicking. Someone once told me that this kicking is the animal running to the afterlife, and that I should let it run. She ran circles in the sawdust on her side before finally coming to rest. Her head was the center of a crimson blood flower.
In some ways, the hard part had just begun. I pierced the thin skin between tendons in Mo’s hind legs with the hooks of the singletree. I hefted her limp mass and hung her from a barn rafter. I sawed through her spine to remove her head, depositing it in a bucket. I felt a familiar relief once this was done, as if the body I was working with was no longer Mo. I sawed off the bottoms of the forelegs; they also went into the bucket. Then I carefully skinned the cadaver, parting layers of clean white fascia, undressing it to reveal the thin, naked muscle beneath. I sliced the gut cavity open like a morbid surgeon, probing the mass of organs there, hunting for the ones I wanted to eat. I cut out the heart, liver, and kidneys. I detached the rest of the entrails from the spine, and guided them as they spilled into another bucket. Finally, I washed the carcass, shrouded it in a game bag, and hung it from a beam in our cold, dark storage cellar. It would cure there for a few days before being broken down into smaller cuts, packaged, and frozen. All of this took about an hour. My friends followed my lead through the whole process with their own animals, reluctantly wielding their knives and deconstructing timidly, but valiantly getting the job done. I truly love teaching others this disappearing skill, helping people reconnect with the death that is matter-of-factly required for life.
When I was a beginner, I found butchering somewhat traumatic, emotionally and physically exhausting. I remember catching whiffs of my hands for days afterward, the unique smell of freshly dead meat often impregnates the skin and cannot be washed away. I said that if I had to kill every animal I ate then I would only eat one animal a year. Now I act the part of grim reaper for four or five beasts a year, and I’m not disturbed by the effort. I’m grateful for the opportunity to dip my fingers into the dark place between worlds. I’m grateful to be able to feed myself this way.
Thanks to every dying thing, so we may eat.