Growing up, mostly vegetarian, in suburban Canada, I faced the gamut of emotions when our first ram was slaughtered at our home in rural Mexico. The poem was born as a reflection on food sources, butchering, and eating here in Mexico following the style of Wallace Steven's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Through the process of writing "Carnicero," and reflecting on the connection we get to have with our meat sources on a farm, I found it strangely beautiful to be able to know how each animal lived, what it ate, how it was slaughtered, and especially, to know each one by name.
Juan takes long sweeping steps. He is
focused force, all efficiency, his chin
square, his eyes small. They told me
he was fast: one long knife to the heart,
arms embracing the ram, both
creatures still and silent,
one spurting red until finally it didn’t.
The sheep collapsed gently
on the concrete. Offal, viceras, skin,
feet, organs removed and buried, blood
rinsed into the grass. It took twenty minutes.
We paid Juan one hundred pesos.
Imagine killing for a living:
Do the hands of a butcher look different
at the end of each workday,
weighted by the lives of so many
creatures? Is there an unseen cost
to making death easy? I’m squeamish,
I can’t stomach the acrid stench
in the kitchen of burnt feathers
when Luis plucks chickens in the sink,
or watches YouTube videos
for better slaughtering ideas.
It’s cliché but true, Miguel
tells me. Practice makes perfect.
The first chicken was a mess:
neck half cut, feathers everywhere.
He said he looked at his kids then.
Either the kids go hungry or
he kills chickens. Chop. Chop.
He learned to make it easy.
They butchered, defeathered, and
sold chicken for a year
before the economy improved and
he got his office job back.
My neighbor builds a low, red brick
fire pit. His wife skewers ribs, chops, marinated
chicken legs, and chorizo sausage on metal stakes
planted inside the rectangle where the embers
glow. The scent of roast: the BBQ juices
dripping, heat, and tender cuts.
She removes the meat from the skewer
places it in thick corn tortillas;
the salsas are tangy fire:
chunky tomatillo or roasted red chile ancho
with sweet cilantro and spicy onion.
The smoky scent is a good sales pitch,
and they sell out every weekend.
When I was a kid, I once cried
because I believed that my yolk should
have been a fluffy yellow chick,
and it was better to give up my dad’s
eggs on toast than to kill for food.
I drive past Juan’s tiny abattoir on the main street
heading out of town. There’s a pig squealing inside,
but nothing like the noise the time that three pigs
escaped there, screeching and hollering down the street.
Luis says, we can’t keep pigs; they’re too smart.
He can’t even hire Juan to kill a pig
who would be too aware of impending intentions,
but Luis still likes a nice bowl of pozole or chicharrón.
I stop at the local supermarket chain. My cart’s rear wheel wobbles up the aisle.
It’s privilege to have a variety of protein sources;
Tofurkey is not universally available.
The shelves here are stocked with items in plastic, refined, colorful flavours.
The Western diet, with higher intakes of meat and processed foods
is acidic to the body and can increase risk for heart disease and cancer,
but none of the packaging spins it that way.
However, the supermarket’s meat section seems a very modern,
very Western privilege, with that magic of refrigeration and
well-travelled packages of instant, fun-shaped food products so we can
eat ourselves into disease, while industrial farming feeds
our planet into extinction. I was vegetarian for awhile.
The trucks go fast on the highway and
there is nearly always a dog carcass rotting
somewhere in the hot sun along the roadside.
I’ve heard more than one story of fresh road kill
mysteriously disappearing and the rumours:
taco stands selling tacos al pastor too cheaply.
One night I went outside because
there was an odd noise; the dogs
had found a young red hen. She was
still alive, body fully intact but
they had chewed her legs
right off. Luis got the machete
and told me to hold her head
and body, neck stretched out
on the wooden log in the backyard.
The sky was full of stars above,
and I cried for so many things
but mostly that a good farmer
should be able to do the right thing
for a suffering animal and I
wasn’t sure that I could.
Her blood was good compost
for the guava trees.
The day we got him, Luis laughed, said he’d call
the sheep Asado. With a name like that, his destiny
was assured. There is spirit and body, and at some point
they separate, even in sheep, I think. Juan had taken
the carcass to the butcher’s cooler. El Güero offers me the head:
bare, red, familiar eyes staring, good for soup. He rips off
the outer skin of the testicles, wraps it in paper, marking it
criadillas and adds it to the rubber tub filled with rack,
ribs, leg roast, chops. Asado is delicious, the kids say.
The dogs are ecstatic with the bones.
Armando told me
back in the days
when NAFTA was snuffing out
all the small local economies
and there was not much to eat,
his brother would go hunting:
skunk, possum, rabbit. A good birria stew
covers the flavour of anything, he grins.
Feedlots, injected hormones, cages
plastic wrapped packages of neat slices,
bloodless, hygienic, no recognizable animal
parts, creatures with no name
slaughtered at six weeks of age,
fast food, frozen food sections’
icy anonymity – It’s easy to cook
because it doesn’t even feel like
flesh: sterile, safe, without a soul.
New lambs are born, wet
and steaming in the cool
of the morning. I wipe
embryotic goo from tender nostrils,
run a finger through a mouth still
unbreathing, the lamb
shakes its heads and finally cries,
the sweet morning air
entering its lungs for the first
time. We exhale together.
The ewe licks and sniffs and
licks and sniffs. A few hours later,
the lambs are dry, walking,
nursing. They will grow hearing
morning birdsong and the sweet
sound of breeze through grass.
The children will chase them, bring
them alfalfa and clean water,
and I will name each one, even those
whose destiny is assured.
Born in Kelowna, BC, Lisa López Smith is a writer, translator, farmer, and mother living in a rural part of central Mexico. She has her BA from the University of Calgary and MA from Royal Roads University, and is a fellow of the Macondo Writers Workshop and Under the Volcano Writers Workshop. Recent publications include the UK-based Lacuna Magazine and Sin Fronteras, as her writing often addresses migration and refugee issues in the Americas.
Née à Kelowna en Colombie-Britannique, Lisa López Smith est une écrivaine, traductrice, agricultrice, et mère qui réside en milieu rural du Mexique central. Elle détient un baccalauréat de l’Université de Calgary et une maîtrise de l’Université Royal Roads. Elle est membre du Macondo Writers Workshop et de Under the Volcano Writers Workshop. Ses publications récentes sont parues dans la revue anglaise Lacuna Magazine et dans Sin Fronteras. Ses écrits portent notamment sur la migration et les réfugiés dans les Amériques.