Blood in the Apron

Baker’s Pick
Kevin Spaide


The fat cook stuck her fingers into the afterbirth and pulled it cleanly from the backside of the sow. It lay in the dirt, bloody and swarming with flies like a gigantic dead heart.

“No animal,” said the gardener, “has ever looked so miserable as this wretched pig.”

It was the middle of the day and the sun had heated the tin shed into an inferno. Eleven piglets scrambled for a tit while a steady, angry-seeming consciousness beamed from the tiny black eye of their mother. The other eye was only a scar.

“That’s forty-four legs of ham,” said the groundskeeper.

The gardener turned and saw that the woman was drunk. Her drink-ruddy face reflected something of the squalor around them. Her neck was streaked with dirt and sweat.

“Leave the afterbirth where it is,” she instructed. “It’s full of vitamins she’ll need to eat later to get back her strength.”

Though the cook spoke nothing but Bulgarian she stood back from the pig and wiped the blood from her hands into her apron. Then she said something to the pig in her own language and made a few cooing noises of sympathy and regret. What was there to do but absolutely nothing?

Two of the piglets had strayed into a corner and were bumping blindly against one another and the wall. The gardener went over and scooped them up. Each wriggled wildly and kicked its tiny legs like creatures that had always existed in the world though they had entered it less than an hour before. He returned them to the frenzy of their siblings where his eyes lost them among the others.

“You won’t be able to touch them after today, you know,” said the groundskeeper. “Tomorrow she’d chase you right out of here if you did that. I’m just warning you.”

The gardener laughed a little and then backed through the doorway, leaving the spectacle of the new mother behind. The male pig, half the size of the female, stared moodily from the other pen as though deep in thought about the goings-on in the shed. The man tossed a stone at his eyes and set him trotting.

“Glad I’m not you,” he said and immediately felt idiotic for saying it.

It was early, but he found himself heading for the bar. The heat allowed for nothing else, he told himself. It was an extraordinary heat—a smothering, inescapable heat that sapped your vitality, shriveled the thoughts in your head, and rendered the landscape a distant and insubstantial vision. It was like some heavy object bearing down on you from the sky. No one seemed able to endure it without talking about it endlessly.

As he stepped onto the dirt path that led into town he wondered who he would meet that day: going into town meant surrendering yourself to chance. Most of the time nothing much happened on these excursions, but occasionally the most unexpected scenarios developed. And he could never understand why. It was the same town and the same people, but the place was never the same from day to day, which was part of the reason he had been able to remain there for so long.

As he rounded a bend in the path he saw a man walk out of the trees a little ways ahead. From the first moment it was clear that the man wanted to head back into the trees but, realizing he had already been spotted, decided simply to stand where he was. And now it was as if the strange ragged figure, whoever he was, was waiting there for him. A storm arose in his mind. His first impulse was to turn around and walk back to the farm, stubbornly forgoing his entire day so that he would not have to walk up the path under the sudden gaze of this other man. He had always found it embarrassing to encounter someone unknown to him out in the natural world, surrounded by none of the trappings of humanity, because to a certain extent you were obliged to acknowledge the other person as if he were the most important thing in creation. It was impossible to ignore another person alone in the natural world. In town he would pass the same man with as much ceremony as he would show a fence post.

What could someone possibly be doing hanging around out here in this heat? the gardener wondered. It was obvious that the man stood at that particular point on the path only because he had been seen and did not want to be observed moving off elsewhere. Then, as if in reaction to his own wonder, he thought, Whatever it is it’s nothing to do with me! It was as much to him as the fate of that tree the man was leaning on. He moved forward in the shadow of the unknown man’s heavy intrusive presence. As he passed, the gardener looked up and said, “How are you?”

The stranger mumbled something through his beard. His hands twitched in his pockets. He took them out and quickly put them back again.

At the bar he took a table under the awning and watched the children and the dogs run in the street and sipped at his bottle of beer. He hated the nearness of the dogs, all of which seemed to be suffering from mange, but enjoyed the loopy antics of the children. Despite the heat, they ran and fell in the street and howled wildly at one another. No one he knew passed by until he was onto his second bottle, and he merely nodded and said hello, forestalling any sort of social entanglement. It was not a day for talking much.

He found himself thinking about that pitiful sow, lying on her side in the dirt. The image of the massive brown placenta would not leave his mind; it swarmed there with flies. Above the placenta, the unblinking consciousness of that small black eye, imprisoned in heavy folds of gray flesh, stared at a wall. It was not a matter of patience or even resignation as she lay there allowing her offspring to suckle life from her body but a kind of inescapable doom; to do anything else was impossible (it was a pig, after all, he realized) yet he could not avoid the odd spine-shivering idea that, if anything, there had been a fire of resentment, almost of hatred, within that eye. He imagined her devouring the piglets one by one.

“How you sit there in this diabolical heat, I can’t fathom,” spoke a woman from behind him, “but I’ll join you a minute.” She touched him on the shoulder and sat in the other chair. It was the woman who owned the place. She lit a cigarette and leaned back against the wall, as if to capture more of the shade. Along with everyone else who was obliged to work in such heat, she looked like she had just finished running a marathon. Strands of her long dark hair were plastered wetly to her neck.

“Why do we stay in this hellish place?” she asked.

He pretended to deliberate a moment. “Just think of all the places you never want to see,” he said and laughed a little. It was something he had learned to say whenever someone asked him a question like that.

She laughed a little as well. “I suppose you’re right,” she said. “All the places I never want to see—like the Horn of Djibouti. Where the hell is that?”

“Djibouti? God, I hope I never have to find out.” Hearing himself say these words, something seemed to make a slight, shuddering movement in his mind—as if something that was closed were about to open. It was a distinct and very uncomfortable sensation. He took a long sip from his bottle.

After a while the woman stood and stubbed out her cigarette. “Imagine smoking in this heat,” she said. She gathered the empty bottles from the other tables and brought them inside.

The line that separated sun and shade was moving steadily toward him over the stone. One of the children fell in the street, stood up, then decided to cry. Two men leaned over a nearby table and wordlessly clicked dominos together while a third man stared at a newspaper, occasionally underlining something with the stub of a pencil. A woman hovered in the shade of a doorway on the opposite side of the street, smoking a cigar. Her hair was mounded oddly at the top of her head as if she had passed the morning in drudgery, which she probably had. Most people passed the morning in drudgery. The woman flicked the cigar into the street and vanished into the darkness behind her. One of the children found the butt and began puffing at it assiduously.

As the line of sunlight touched his bare toes he finished his beer and put his money on the table. It was not a day for lingering, for tempting fate. Nothing worthwhile, he felt, would happen after this. An indefinable sense that the day was spoiled seemed suddenly to radiate from some inaccessible area of his mind. It was reflected in the objects around him: the dullness of the spoon on the ground, the ashtray full of olive pits and cigarette butts left there by someone else. The fingerprints of other people on the tabletop became almost sickening. What had given him pleasure a moment before, the sunlight, the frolicking of the children, were now a source of oppression. It was as if he had failed in some area, had neglected to do some crucially important thing, and nothing would be right again until he had slept and it was morning.

He could summon no desire to return to the farm but there was nothing else to do at that time of day. By now the children would have discovered the piglets and were probably thronging to see them—no doubt terrorizing the unfortunate pig in the process. Most of the children were savages, but then that, he supposed, was the nature of children.

As he turned onto the dry little road the gardener remembered the man he had encountered there earlier and all at once was possessed by a worry, almost a fear, that he would find the same man again, lurking in the same area. If he should see him a second time, he would be forced to say something—to account in some way for his presence in that particular place in the world. The more he thought about the stranger the more the gardener understood that an air of inevitability had settled over his mind regarding the subject as if he were already somehow deeply involved with the man. He tried to recall his face but could remember only that he had had a beard. The image of the stranger’s uneasy hands moving inside his pockets returned to him like a flash from a half-remembered dream.

While he was thinking these thoughts, he walked slowly at the edge of the road in the thin shade of the trees. At a certain bend, a place that his body knew well, he looked up instinctively and saw a large rock standing in the grass under a tall tree. He stopped walking. In its commanding stillness the rock was like a person waiting there for someone, for him.

The vision of these objects, the rock and the tree—maybe it was the angle at which he had approached them—suddenly and violently prized open his mind, and the memory of something that had happened there a long time before emerged. Horn of Djibouti! It was as if a bird had been let out of a cage and was flapping wildly about his head. Years earlier he had smashed the skull of a dog against the face of that rock and strangled it until it was dead. It was a sick stray and he had killed it only to have killed something. Years had passed since the last time he had thought about that dog. Beads of sweat slid down the skin over his ribs and something deep within his guts loosened and slithered.

He stood still, staring at the rock. It was as if the sky had been torn away from the world and he was falling upward into a void. He was paralyzed, frozen. He thought of that bloodied dog. He had tossed its carcass into the trees. Its sun-bleached bones were still out there. He started walking again, faster than before, and his sandals scuffed against the coarse, dry earth. Little clouds of dust arose and then settled on the path.

When he reached the place where the strange ragged figure had emerged from the line of trees the gardener stopped and looked into the shadow of the forest. There was a palpable lushness to this part of the forest. The leaves on the trees were green and the grass was not scorched into brittle yellow straw as it was everywhere else. Even the air smelled fresher. He drew in a deep breath and stepped off the path and felt more at ease as the sun ceased burning his face. It was as if, with one step, he had crossed from one world into another. He had not been aware of the sun’s ferocity until he was out of its unremitting glare.

A red ribbon was tied around a tree not far from the path. The gardener advanced further into the shade of the woods. Now he could see a faint trail where someone had trodden through the undergrowth. Compelled now, as if the mere existence of the trail were reason enough to move forward, he walked into the trees, half-expecting to come face to face with the bearded stranger at any moment. And what would he say to him? He took his hands out of his pockets as he imagined a sudden confrontation with the man. Then, “What wouldn’t I say to him!” he heard himself say, surprised to hear his own voice in the midst of such hot silence. He carried on along the trail. Desiccated fern-leaves brushed and scraped against his bare legs.

At the edge of a small clearing, he halted. Yellow flowers grew there in tall grass. The sunlight was cool and blue. Not far from where he stood, on a preternaturally brilliant patch of greensward, as green and luxurious as the grass in a story-book for children, ranged the massively naked form of the Bulgarian cook on hands and knees, her tits swaying in rhythmic circles just above the grass as the grotesquely skinny figure of the bearded man he had met earlier pumped away at her backside. The woman let out a violent expostulation as if the man had thrust a knife into her ribs. They were unaware of his presence. He was amazed to see, flapping from a low tree like something left there after a murder, the same blood-stained apron of that morning.

pencil

“I’m a writer from upstate New York living in Ireland.” E-mail: fatalcandle[at]yahoo.com.