Sunday, and as usual, her father took her to the slaughterhouse to play.
He'd come in to check on the livestock
scheduled for the kill on Monday, seeing to it they had enough water and
hay. He'd take the girl so they could spend his day off together.
The slaughterhouse was a labyrinth
she couldn't navigate without her father's help. Sometimes he'd leave
her alone in an unfamiliar part and, losing track of time as he did, hours
would pass before he returned to get her. For those long uncertain hours,
she sat trembling on the floor, trying to concentrate on play. To go and
find him was unthinkable. She'd been warned how simple it was to slip
in a drainage ditch or get closed up in one of the smokehouse rooms to
smother in the curing fumes. And even if she escaped all that, she knew
that if she found him, he would strap her for disobeying. To distract
herself from her fears, she played with the bones.
The heavy steel barrels of cow bones
were pushed up against the walls of the killing floor, like debutantes
waiting to be asked to dance at the ball. She thought back on the fairy
tale Cinderella; her mother's favorite. She picked her partner with great
deliberationone of the tall slender types, unique in the barrel
filled with ox bones.
"They'll be ground up for fertilizer
or dog food," her father told her. "Not a single part of the
animal goes to waste in my plant." His hand swept like a king's across
the barrels filled to the brim with offal, orderly dividedhooves
in one, stomach linings in another, testes in another, eyeballs in a separate,
She thrust her arms in the barrel,
up to her elbows in bones thick and wet with scraps of flesh that the
cutters didn't think worth scraping off for meat. She dug around to find
the perfect shapes to make her people. She tugged one loose from the pile
and held it out in the dank green light of the dressing room where carcasses
of beef swung in the shadows and saws, and cleavers rested neatly on metal
shelving. She held out the single bone to the bare bulbs shining above.
"A rib!" she confided to her audience of barrels, "the
most beautiful bone of them all!
Light pierced the thin flap of flesh
that hung down from curve of the bone like a movie projector screen. Through
it, she could see the whole drab black and metallic packing house now
tinged a pale red, and on it the child saw images growing.
Resting her back against the barrel,
she examined the pictures building bit by bit in the light reflected on
the ragged flesh. Its just like those illuminated manuscripts we
saw on our field trip to the museum, she thought, as she watched a creature
slowly emerge from the marrow. It had the wings of an angel, the body
of a snake. It moved in slow motion. Suddenly, the angel-snake split in
two and a spider crawled out and scurried up the wall.
"My mother's an angel,"
whispered the girl to the barrels. "She came back for me as an angel
except her body was a snake's. A snake with wings!" She pointed to
the sky which was a black maze of pulleys and enormous hooks. "Well,
after awhile she started flying up there, where a spider was spinning
its web. She said here spider, you can have some bits of my wings
for your new web. And the spider took every last bit of my mothers
wings which is why she cant fly anymore."
Shutting her eyes, the girl unbuttoned
her corduroys and brought down the rib bone and with a single push, poked
it up inside her. It felt cold and raggedy but the flesh still upon it
made it go in easily.
"The angel is gone, and the spider,
too," she said as she observed her jerking body.
She could calculate the height of
the ceiling of hooks and claws by the expansiveness of her breath. When
each breath was spent, she let out another one and followed it up to the
top, each new breath saving her from mourning the death of the last one.
She was ready to make Her People. She stuck her hand back down into the
Thigh bones were the best for this
as they were long and graceful, smooth as ivory and thick with big, glowing
knobs at both ends to represent the head and feet, but they were rare
as the workers pulled them out to take home for a soup. Usually, she had
to settle for the neck bones which were too light and delicate to be people
at all. But she was lucky this time and fished out two femurs to go with
her neck bone. She drew the outline of a house in the sawdust and placed
her bone family inside. The wood shavings soaked in blood stuck to her
"Mama Bone says 'go to sleep
now'" and the girl curled up on the sawdust and concrete. "Papa
Bone says do your homework and the girl obediently scribbled
numbers in the dust. She loved her bone parents. They were very refined.
They read Shakespeare, wore velvet, and took tea at four. Sometimes they
would all sit in a circle and play-eat a six course dinner. Of course,
the meal was made of six different kinds of bones.
She liked to work from the sawdust
frame and build a house of boneswith rooms and stairways and kitchen
appliances made of the many shapes and sizes of the cow's skeleton. When
her father returned and saw what she had done, he told her to put them
back in the barrel because if they got too dirty he couldn't sell them
for the penny a pound they'd bring. Then he grabbed her hand to go outside
and feed the steers in the holding pen that were getting killed tomorrow.
Her father thought the cows were beautiful.
He would point at each one and call tenderly
He pronounced each name as if he was
ruby sapphire topaz
frankincense cinnamon myrrh
begged off from petting them; they stank of dirt and manure and lowed
in a singular shrieking moan as they crowded around her fathers
body. She sat sulking atop the wooden fence, watching a spider on the
edge make its parachute net, "so it can fly like an angel,"
she whispered to herself while her father with the feed pail was inside,
up to his boot tops in the mud, calling to and stroking each one. The
spiders legs waved frenetically in the air. Her mother had told
her how they made webs that were just a single thread that grew from their
bellies, how theyd kick their legs up, waiting for a breeze to come
and when it did, theyd wrap their eight legs around the thread of
their flesh and parachute away.