I grew up on a dairy farm in south Georgia. It was old, thin land where the cows would muzzle through to the red clay underneath as they grazed. There was a lake nearby where the cows would shit, and when Daddy fished catfish out of that lake they always tasted like cowshit.
It was my job to herd the calves when they were sick and to give them their medicine. Calves are sweet. They let you pet them; they’re not skittish like colts … they’re not as smart as goats, though. You can make friends with a goat. I had one named Gina when I was little. I raised her from when she was a kid. Used to feed her from a bottle: milk, raw egg and cod liver oil. She was sweet. She’d follow me around when I picked pecans. Eat from my hand with her rough little sandpaper tongue.
My other job was to deal with the chickens. We didn’t raise chickens, but Daddy was good with healing animals — he wasn’t a vet, he just had a knack — and whenever he cured someone’s cow or pig or horse, they would give us a whole mess of chickens as payment. Chickens are dumb. They’re dumb, and they stink, and so my mother would insist we just go ahead and slaughter them as soon as possible. The coop was in the garden, and she didn’t want chicken smell mingling with the roses and the lilac she worked so hard to cultivate. So we had to kill the chickens. Daddy would cradle each bird, pet it to keep it calm, hold the wings and legs together in one of his broad hard hands, and then he would lay it against the stump and chop its head off with the small axe. Of course chickens are so dumb they don’t know they’re dead at first. So I always had to chase their little headless chicken bodies around my mother’s garden until they fell down dead, officially.
I remember one August it was so hot that the chicken blood hissed like oil when it hit the ground. People say you can cook an egg on the sidewalk when it’s hot out, and you can cook a chicken just as well the same way. One time I chased a chicken right into Mama’s tiger lilies, and the blood stained the orange flowers red.
And then another time Uncle Bill was over for dinner. He was a lot younger than Daddy and had these tattoos Mama hated because she didn’t think they were “genteel.” But I always liked Uncle Bill. He knew how to laugh. We were sitting down to dinner, which was cube steak and biscuits and yellow squash, except the steak tasted a little different than usual. Not bad at all, just … meatier. Hairier. As though you were chewing on the whole hindquarter, fur and all. As I was eating, Uncle Bill was watching me. He asked if I liked it. I said I did because likes and dislikes weren’t the kind of thing my parents were known to tolerate. And Uncle Bill burst out laughing and said, “That’s your pet goat, baby girl! That’s Gina!” And I burst into tears, but after a minute I kept eating because food got eaten. I kept shoving chunk after chunk of Gina into my mouth and swallowing. And Uncle Bill kept laughing. And Mama went “hmmph!” because she didn’t like to talk about where meat came from at the dinner table, even though you could see Daddy’s killing stump right through the window. And Daddy was quiet, just kept chewing his biscuit, and it wasn’t until we were clearing the table that he turned to me and said, “Honey, you know that’s what the goats are for.”
I haven’t told anyone that story in a while. When I went away to college a few years later, I stopped eating meat. It wasn’t a moral thing exactly. It just got to the point where I flat-out didn’t like how it felt to chew on a muscle. I was premed, and I had to learn all this anatomy — blood and bones and muscles and fat. If I saw someone eating a chicken thigh, I started thinking: I know what that muscle does. I know how that joint works, what those tendons are made of.
For a while, I really liked being premed. I was good at science; I could memorize things, no problem. I had steady hands and thought I might be a surgeon. I would’ve been a good doctor, I still believe that. But I wouldn’t have been a perfect one. Once I messed up putting a lame mule to sleep, and instead of dying quickly the poor thing lingered.
I still dream about that mule. I can still hear it crying.
After college, I got married and moved up north with my husband to an apartment in the city. We had children, and eventually, I insisted that we get a dog. The kids were growing up in a place where the only animals were pigeons and rats, and I wanted them to have a piece of what I’d had as a child, surrounded by life, always an animal or two to play with. So we did get a dog — a tiny, finicky one, the kind you get when you have four people sharing a two-bedroom apartment — and it turned out I hated the dog, because it loved me more than it loved my children.
I couldn’t forgive it for that. Always shrieking, whining to be held, running past the kids to simper at me instead. And shitting on the floor. Growing up, I’d never thought about cleaning up dog shit because dogs stayed outside. You didn’t clean up after a dog. But suddenly, on top of everything else, I also had to clean up dog shit.
Almost every day, it turned out. The damn thing had digestive issues.
I tried not to complain too much, though, because my children wanted so badly to love the dog — and maybe they did, maybe they didn’t notice that it didn’t love them back. It kept simpering and shitting and driving me crazy, but it was fine. It was OK.
And then one night I was cooking dinner with my daughter, showing her the basics like my mother had done. I was teaching her the best way to chop vegetables, because there’s a trick to it: You’ve got to rock the knife back and forth, and curl your fingers under your knuckles so you don’t cut yourself. We had this whole beautiful spread fanned out on the cutting board in front of us — onions, peppers, carrots, fresh herbs. There was garlic frying in olive oil on the stove. The kitchen smelled just like a kitchen should. And it was a beautiful moment, even if the dog was underfoot, skulking around for scraps like it always did.
But then my daughter got distracted by something out the window. She said she saw something fall from the sky, and at the time it looked to her like a person. But there weren’t any accidents or suicides reported afterwards. I think it must’ve just been a bird.
Whatever it was, it shocked her enough to take her eyes away from the cutting board, and to forget what I told her about where to keep your fingers. And the knife came down, and — schlick — it sliced right through her left ring finger, severing it almost perfectly at the second knuckle.
She screamed. I screamed. The blood was pooling around the carrots, staining them red just like the chicken blood had stained the tiger lilies all those years ago. I wrapped her hand in a towel, put as much pressure on it as I could, and shouted to my husband to call the hospital. Then I looked around for the rest of the finger. It had landed on the edge of the counter, bloodless and almost colorless except for the chipped pink polish on the nail, and as I reached for it, my hands that had always been so steady began to shake. I knocked it to the floor, and quick as a flash, the dog scampered forward and ate it.
It was the manner, I think. The dog ate my daughter’s finger exactly the way I’d seen it eat a stray sausage a few weeks before.
I didn’t even know, then, if the doctors would have been able to reattach it or not, but that didn’t matter. I just felt rage. It was an absurd rage, I realize that now. The dog was only doing what dogs do. We’re all just meat, after all. It was perfectly natural.
But at the time, I wasn’t thinking. I reached down and tried to pry its jaws open, but they wouldn’t budge. The dog squealed, like it always did when it misbehaved. And so I put my hands around its neck and squeezed. Maybe I thought I could squeeze the finger out of its throat. I don’t know. I squeezed. It made a terrible sound. My daughter, I remember, was crying. And then, without even realizing what I was doing, the dog was dead. It lay still, its head to the ground and its paws stretched out in front of it. It didn’t move at all.
In the end, my daughter was fine. She had to quit piano, but that was the worst of it — physically, I mean. It was a while before she wanted to hug me again. She had nightmares, so we got her a therapist. She’d never seen either of her parents kill an animal before. I hadn’t quite grasped, before then, how radically different our childhoods were.
If we’d been in the country, we would’ve buried the dog out back and nobody would’ve asked questions. But this was the city, where dogs had winter jackets and every square inch of dirt had someone who answered for it. We had to bring it to an animal crematorium. There was a poem on the wall about a rainbow bridge. And after all the questions and all the red tape, the dog and the finger in its belly were truly gone, burnt up, turned to smoke floating over a factory somewhere in an outer borough. They gave us a plaque with a pawprint on it. My daughter keeps it hanging above her bed.