3rd scene from my memoir

On a cold morning in late winter I’m driving home to the farm after a Friday breakfast date in town with Kathy. The Muslim students are returning to kill six lambs. This is Islam’s highest holy day, the Festival of Sacrifice, and will be a big feast night after a long day of fasting.

Eid-al-Adha commemorates the willingness of the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son to Allah.  At the last moment, Allah allows the substitution of a ram. Traditionally, in a symbolic reenactment of Abraham’s obedience, a Muslim family slaughters a large animal. The family consumes a third of the meat, gives a third to friends, and shares a third with the poor.

I know that Muslims believe Allah has given them dominance over animals and allows them to eat animal flesh, but only if they say His name in gratitude at the solemn instant of taking life. I lack rituals for this and am aware of none in my culture. There’s the saying of grace at meals, of course, but nothing for the moment of fatal harvest. After Cream’s death [in January they’d killed a ewe with a genetic birthing defect] I read that Christians once observed a ritual when they killed animals, and the book of Leviticus prescribes killing unblemished, sacrificial sheep and goats on an altar “northward before the Lord.” The killing has since been outsourced. A loss, it seems to me, a lessening of our connection to other creatures, to our sustenance, and to our own mortality. Yet I’ve worried about this day, about the men killing six lambs at once. They’d wanted to kill many more, to bring vanloads of students from the university to slaughter twenty or more, but I feel I can’t handle such a bloodbath.

It’s February 2002. Returning from breakfast, I listen to the news on my truck’s radio about the murder of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter who’d been kidnapped in Pakistan. Warm and well fed, I imagine how cold and hungry and terrified he must have been. Sorrow stabs at me; the world seems unbearably full of tears. I hope he was able to prepare himself. How hard that must be, though, to surrender hope and make yourself ready somehow for death. How can someone be praying to live, to be spared like Abraham’s son, but ready to die? For Daniel Pearl, life’s hardest spiritual task must have been compressed into hours.

The radio announcer doesn’t say how he died but implies it was horrible, gruesome. So not a bullet. Then I realize. They cut his throat—that’s how Muslim extremists would kill a hostage. Such a death also would have maximum horror for Americans. I wish I couldn’t imagine it, but I can, after Cream’s death. Suddenly I’m nervous—soon I’ll be surrounded by young Muslim men wielding knives. This embarrasses me, this fear, but I’ve just pictured the journalist’s murder. And I’m reminded that, only five months ago, Muslim terrorists attacked America. I try to push my fear beneath the surface as I park at our house. They’ll be here soon. I go inside and make a pot of coffee, a comforting ritual, something against the cold. My knees are sore and my spine feels achy for its entire length—common enough, now—and I remind myself to be careful handling strong animals.

Two vehicles come up our driveway and stop at the barn. I recognize Jamal’s boxy blue van. Doors open, and Jamal and four other students spill into the farmyard. Are any extremists? I doubt it. I’d liked Jamal and the young men he’d brought in January. We gather and shake hands. Two of the men are from Qatar and three are from Saudi Arabia. I think about mentioning the troubles in the news, then decide not to—and then do. “Has there been any backlash?” I ask. Jamal shrugs and says, “Nothing serious.”

“Religious extremists in all countries bring pain,” I offer.

Jamal nods. “People are people,” he says. “Life is short. There is enough sadness in the world. Why bring more?”

They produce an assortment of cleavers and small knives they’ve gotten from the Odd Lots store in Athens. I help them sharpen their cutlery and again loan Jamal my sheath knife. They select lambs from the pen in the barn. For them it’s a festive occasion. Their ritual of fasting is nearing its end. They laugh and joke, a mix of Arabic and English. Again, I feel I’m betraying my sheep. I catch the first lamb and halter him, wrestle him outside across the frozen gravel. I yield as he jerks against the rope, then take up slack, like I’m playing a fish; he thinks he’s fighting the rope, not me.

The killing goes fast. Two men hold down the lamb, with his nose pointing northeast, at the curve in Marshfield Road just before Ernie’s house; one man cuts the lamb’s throat while speaking softly his prayers. I’m mute, offering no prayer of my own, and feel impoverished by comparison. I own no words to help me with my emotions. Yet the slaughter isn’t as hard for me as I’ve feared, not as traumatic as when Cream died. Is this because I’ve prepared myself or because the killing is becoming routine? Probably both, I decide, and catch the next lamb.

The men are a likable bunch and work hard in the cold, still morning. It’s quiet in the farmyard; the winter sky, milky blue, is streaked with clouds ripped in long mares’ tails. I have room for them to cut apart both lambs at once. They hoist the carcasses using ropes I’ve thrown over the front support beams of the dilapidated shed nearest the barn. They skin and disembowel the lambs, rinsing their knife blades in buckets of chilly water I haul from the barn’s hydrant. To warm them I start a fire in our burn pit, leftover bricks from house reconstruction arranged in a low-walled circle on the concrete slab where one of Fred’s grain silos had stood. After they kill two more lambs, I walk over to the fire and see they’ve made a grill from a scrap of tin and are roasting small pieces of the first lamb. In the coals they’re charring the heads of two lambs, which surprises me, but I guess some people eat the heads. A man who speaks poor English but who exudes kindness offers some meat to me, and we eat together in the weak sunlight. This lamb was alive moments before, but I try to suppress such thoughts for this communion.

The man, who has large, expressive brown eyes says, “Thank you so much. I am so grateful.” They’ve agreed to pay me eighty dollars for each lamb—$480 for the six—so this is a business transaction for which I’ll be fairly compensated. Still, his gratitude touches me. Then he insists on giving me a cut of my choice from his lamb. I try to refuse, but it seems important to him. Maybe he appreciates being able to buy and harvest lamb this way, or appreciates my helping with the killing and cleanup. Or, in the Festival of Sacrifice’s spirit of gratitude and friendship, he’s sharing with the farmer. Perhaps, in his country, all farmers are poor.

“Jamal is famous,” the man volunteers. I turn to Jamal, a serious man whose smile sometimes breaks like a cresting wave through his black beard.

“I can tell you are a leader in your community,” I tell him. “I admire that.”

I know nothing about Jamal, but he does embody leadership, in the confident way he moves and in how he deals with me on behalf of the men he brings to the farm. He’s the one who has engaged with the outside world—with me, the farmer, the stranger.

As they leave, I return to our quiet house, carrying a leg of lamb in a white plastic sack, thinking about their resolve. They’ve come into the unfamiliar countryside to conduct the sacred taking of life for their women and children, for their small community far from home. I know professors who’re afraid to venture outside Athens’s city limits. And I can’t imagine Americans driving into the country alone in an Arab nation for food—certainly not after September 11, 2001.

Anyway, in America meat arrives in grocery stores as the final step of unseen and increasingly mysterious processes.

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8 Comments

Filed under dialogue, memoir, MY LIFE

8 responses to “3rd scene from my memoir

  1. Oh, yes, I remember this scene well! It’s so beautifully written and evocative. It is one of my inspirations for wanting to buy a farm-raised, grass-fed cow this year, rather than eat grocery store meat.

    Wonderful way to refresh my morning. Thank you.

  2. Thank you, Leslie. Yes—buy direct! There’s plenty more in the book about the virtues of that . . .

  3. My heart was in my mouth reading this section. Hard to change channels from this powerful reading to going out for lunch downtown. My husband looks like he wonders what got hold of me.

  4. Beth, love it. But now I am glad I didn’t post the scene before this where Cream died. Very traumatic for me—worse for her, of course.

  5. Scribbly Jane

    Insightful and chilling parallel between ritual killing and Daniel Pearl.

    I have a new Pakistani friend who just celebrated Eid. I’ve been meaning to look up the origins of this holy day. Thanks for doing it for me!

    I like the idea of knowing where my food comes from, but not quite ready to raise my own. I do however, try to buy locally.

    It was good to have some dialogue with your guests. It made them seem more sympathetic, less mysterious. Well-written piece, Richard.

  6. Thanks, Beth! It was one of those days that made a great email to friends. Turning it into a scene was a challenge. At first I had the first ewe’s death on their first visit and figuring out where was Mecca, then this visit, then a meditation on on-farm slaughter. It works better now, I think, that I have broken it into three parts. Long story short, I decided I admire kosher and halal rituals for their retention of spirituality, or at least for imposing a spiritual discipline on something we should be humble before but which can become just another task.

  7. On this day of ritual feasting, Thanksgiving, I wonder how many turkeys were grown and butchered locally? And how many of the butchers had a spiritual relationship with either the animal they consumed or with the flesh as they ate it? I too have always been impressed by the Native American, Jewish, and Muslim rituals around the killing of animals. Your scene is vividly written. I agree with Scribbly Jane that the juxtaposition of the killing of the lambs and the killing of Daniel Pearl works beautifully.

  8. I read this the other day in my feed and then woke up the next morning thinking about it. What a lovely piece. Thoughtful and evocative. Thank you so much for sharing it.