ALL WE KNOW OF HEAVEN
I was tending the fires in the yard when I first saw him. It was dawn following a cold, clear night, the kind of morning you'd want for a hogkilling. The moon was still out but by then the last stars were slipping backwards in the sky and light was creeping in, tugging at the hidden corners of the shed and dancing on the windows of my aunt Charlotte's kitchen.
I knew who he was because he was with his daddy. Mr. J.C. helped Uncle Mac with hogkilling most every year. He was the best butcher in the county and glad to take a ham in payment, times being so bad.
I kept feeding the fires to keep the water at a boil and pretending not to notice how he was looking at me. I know what he saw. My cheeks and lips already felt chapped and I was wearing a ragged cap and one of Charlotte's old coats. I'd barely pulled a comb through my hair that morning so it was bunched up in tangled curls around my collar.
My best friend Olivia came about then and in a minute Uncle Mac pulled up with more relatives in his truck. They had the slaughter in the back. Charlotte wouldn't let him do the sticking at the house where we could hear. That was Charlotte for you - always protecting us from everything but herself.
"Why, that's Joel Calder," Olivia said to me. "Lord, he's turned out to be good-looking."
We watched him help my cousins Trax and Davey drag a hog off the truck. They staggered some, carrying it by its feet. He was holding the front end, the gaping throat at his chest. The pig disappeared in the water, bubbling and splashing like the heat had revived it.
"Be quick, boys!" Uncle Mac yelled. "We want to leave the cooking to the ladies." The men chuckled at the mention of women. I knew Olivia and I didn't count. It was the women in the house they were thinking about.
We went inside where Charlotte and Milly Holmes were getting ready to make sausage. From the long row of windows across the back of Charlotte's kitchen, we watched the boys put the pig on a tow sheet and start scraping. They lifted the wet hairs on their knives, then wiped the thick clumps on the grass.
Mr. J.C. went over and slit the hind legs so they could push a long peg behind the tendons to hang the pig by. Then they heaved it on a flatbed and dragged it to the gallows near the wash shed and strung it up. That's when Charlotte sent me out with a pan. I stood back a little while Mac cut the pig down the belly and pulled the slit open to expose the entrails. He cut the heart and lungs out, then slung the liver and bladder across the gallows. I held up the pan to catch the sweetbreads, trying to keep my face turned away from the splattering blood.
He was looking at me then.
I went back in the kitchen to tell Charlotte that Mac said we could come rid the chitlins anytime. I was standing at the window watching Joel's hand go deep into the pig's belly to pull the intestines out when I said it. In a minute, the ropes spilled into the tub at his feet. His hands were slimy with blood.