The Slaughterhouse

By Karen Halvorsen Schreck

Although you may find this hard to believe, I was once a little girl, and terribly discontent. My bones ached with it, my desires pointing like fingers in all directions. For instance, the year I visited the slaughterhouse, I longed for another name. Mother and Father had called me for a flower, Rose, the flower of their youth. But I knew enough about fairy tales to know that a Rose is always dark like blood drawn from hands torn by thorns. I wanted to be a Lily–a Lily fair as snow, fair like you and the other women I first thought of as beautiful.

Like me, you were born in the upper reaches of Wisconsin, on that idyllic farm surrounded by Mother’s Danish relatives. But your birth was as complicated as mine was simple. The story goes that while a three-day blizzard howled, Mother’s cold deepened into pneumonia. She coughed until blood and phlegm ran down her chin and throat and stained the white pillowcases. Then the sheets were stained with her water, breaking one month early, and her labor began. She was too weak to scream, but her whimpers and whispered hallucinations seeped through the house like smoke. Every hour or so, an uncle saddled a horse and stumbled toward his memory of a road, only to return with his eyes frozen shut. Finally the storm lifted, and the two strongest men made their way to Luck, the nearest town. It took them hours to find the doctor, and when they did, he was woozy from the whiskey he’d slugged to soothe his own hacking cough. They brought him home anyway, for their sister-in-law was in convulsions now, her heavy body heaving on the bed, at times so bowed it seemed her spine might snap like the tree limbs breaking outside the windows of her room, borne down by the weight of the snow. They say her eyes were as blank as the sky.

When your bloody crown finally bloomed between her thighs, the doctor-sober now, perhaps too suddenly so-took the forceps from his black bag, locked them around the soft hollows of your temples, and pulled, drawing you from Mother’s body and a scream from her raw throat, a jagged scream that tore the air so loudly and for so long, no one could tell that you weren’t making a sound.

The doctor stood motionless for moments after the birth, as if transfixed by the cry issuing from his patient’s mouth. Perhaps he also studied the delicate indentations in the blue skin shielding your skull, and just how tenderly these marks oozed red blood. It was Father who plucked you from his arms, lifted you up by the ankles, whacked your bloody bottom, stuck his fingers into your nostrils, down your throat, into your ears, scooping out anything that might obstruct your breathing, and finally turned in circles, spinning you in the air. Until (probably out of irritation more than anything else) you sighed. That’s what they say: as if knowing we needed a sign, you uttered a single note of resignation, one tiny sigh and nothing more.

On this night, I found a lighted kerosene lamp, and sat down inside its dull yellow circle. I was four years old, and understood what was happening, although I couldn’t translate it. They found me asleep, with my head on the kitchen table, my hands balled into fists. When they carried me to bed, someone touched my hand, and exclaimed at the chill, then opened my cold fingers and saw that the nails had gone violet. Back in the kitchen, they found the pattern I’d left on the windowpanes: my handprint replicated in the frost, crystals overlaying crystals in an intricate, mysterious system of shapes like leaves, honeycombs, flowers, and fossils regenerating; over and over again, my palm making a temporary home in this miniature garden of sharp angles, the glittering whorls of my fingerprints spiralling in the faint moonlight.

The next morning, the sun broke through the gray wall of sky, and thawed my handiwork and everything we’d assumed was fixed for months. Soon the only reminder of the storm was you, the still surface of your silence broken by spasms that shook your body. Everyone in the house searched for some means to calm you. Aunts bound you in strips of cloth; uncles ladled whiskey and honey down your throat; Mother held you for days on end; Father danced a mirror before your eyes; the minister prayed over your crib; and a specialist in St. Paul said it was all empty magic. The damage to your brain was final: you would be an invalid for life.

It would have been unfair to blame the doctor, who’d delivered more calves than children, and perhaps confused the two on the night of your birth; and so we said that no one was at fault, although we kept searching you for clues. With none to be found, this new world of green pastures and farmhouses became an old world for our parents. Within your first year, we’d packed our things, said good-bye, and moved to Chicago, there to find telephones, electricity, the Danish Baptist Church, and more than one doctor-the things our parents valued now, things that muted the unspeakable and tempered fate. We moved into our own house, with its leaded glass windows and icebox. Father became an interior decorator instead of a house painter, covering the walls of wealthy men’s homes with flocked sheets of hand-made cloth. He brought home samples, and Mother tacked them up on the walls of our front room. she often sat on the divan, and stared at them. I went to first grade in a room the size of the entire schoolhouse in Luck, Wisconsin; you grew bigger in your crib. But once a year, we left the city and the polio bred in its summer heat, and returned to what we had left behind, as mythic, now, to the family as they were to us.

The year I visited the slaughterhouse, you were seven and I was telling everyone that I wanted to be a Lily. We’d made a tradition of celebrating your birthday twice: once, in February in Chicago, and seven months later, at the farm. We waited until the end of the summer, when Father joined us. He’d arrive in the DeSoto, and stay for two nights-and one of them was always your party-then pack the car and drive us home again. This year, they pulled out the stops for your birthday, Sophy, delighting in the sounds you’d learned to make for ‘yes’-sounds like little kisses. You kissed the air when someone offered you tiny bites of aebelskiver and chocolate raspberry cake. you managed to kiss the fingertips that held up a necklace of the colored glass you loved. You were passed from one embrace to the next. Consistently, your lips found a way to smile, and your blue eyes held as many charms; it was frequently exclaimed that they seemed to speak. You wore a yellow dress and calfskin dancing shoes, and your hair, which was the color and texture of milkweed, was curled and clipped back in a mother-of-pearl barrette. I saw how you took after this side of the family. And I heard the whispers: you were a miracle.

A gigantic oak tree stood in the far corner of the backyard, near the grape arbor and the chicken coops. It was the oldest tree on the property, and this summer, had provoked the family’s concern, for it seemed to have been stricken by a blight. When your party peaked, and Father pulled out a bottle of cherry herring to begin the toasts, I ran to the oak, mounted the swing that hung from its strongest branch, and tried to touch my toes to the aging leaves, curled dry and brown at the edges. Higher and higher I went, pumping my legs until the wind rushed in my ears, silencing the song they’d begun to sing for you. The branches creaked under my weight. Leaves rained around me. Sophy, back in Chicago, people stared at us when we walked the streets, and Father spent all his evenings with you in his arms, reading aloud from the Danish newspaper, his Bible, St. Augustine and James Fenimore Cooper, massaging circulation into your limbs. I knew better than to show what I felt for you, but how many days did Mother sense it, and scold me until she herself was in tears? Yet when other children scorned you, I defended your dignity with such furor that it might as well have been mine, you might as well have been me-my hands clenched around hunks of hair, redfaced girls and boys screaming in rage and pain. Indeed, I’d dreamed you were me, and I was you. I’d awake flailing, the sheets twisted around my limbs like the strips of cloth with which our aunts bound you as a baby, saliva pooling on my pillow, and the fading ghost of you (as me) standing over my bed, the expression on your face just the other side of discernible.

I heard my name through the rushing wind, and looked down from my heights. Richard stood at the base of the tree, the cousin nearest my age, who loathed me, as I loathed him, because of how often we were paired. “The Two R’s,” the adults called us; and especially this summer, the other children collected themselves into groups on either side of us: older and younger, teen-agers and babies. “Rose,” Richard was saying, “Rose, come here.”

I leapt from the swing, followed Richard to the chicken yard, and watched him chase a hen into a frenzy of clucks and feathers. When he’d cornered it, he grabbed it by the neck and held it up like a trophy, but its wings beat the air so powerfully, that he dropped to his knees, and clutched the bird against his thighs, crushing the fight out of it. “Get the axe,” he shouted, “By the coop.” I ran and found it there, propped against the side of the hen house. “OK,” Richard said when I returned, “You hold the head.”

“No,” I said.

“Well, do you want to kill it?” His arms trembled with the bird’s spasms. Its little black eyes glittered. Its beak was open, and it panted.


“Well, I can’t do it by myself.”

He was glaring at me now, and so I tried to remember how the most capable aunt stood, when she held a chicken down. I pressed the bird into the earth, bones snapped beneath my hands. In the next moment, the axe whistled past my ear, there was a thunk, I blinked, and the chicken’s head lay next to its body. The beak was open, the tongue a tiny dark triangle against the ground. Blood spurted between Richard and me; it seeped into the folds of my pale blue dress, but I didn’t stand up or move away, for then I would have to lift my hands from the body which twitched beneath them. It might stand up and walk; the soul of it might emerge from the hole where its head had been and haunt us forever. I was trying to swallow this fear, which seemed to be solidifying into something substantial in my throat, when Richard laughed, a weak giggle with a hint of triumph. Then I laughed, and soon we were shaking, hysterical. By the time we quieted, the chicken had too. We covered the blood with dirt, stuffed the carcass into a feed bag, and headed for the woods.

There, we yanked out the feathers, now mucked with blood and grit, and plucked the quills as best we could. I insisted that we wash the prickly remains in a stream, and held it under water until the blood thinned, curling to the surface. These tasks were tedious, at best, and we were snapping at each other by the time we started to build a fire. Then we noticed that the sun was low on the horizon, in fact, above us the sky had turned the color of bruised fruit. Frantic now, we searched for dry twigs, leaves, shreds of bark, pine needles-anything to fuel the little flickers of flame we’d managed to ignite with Richard’s box of matches. We skewered the chicken on a long stick, this in itself a clumsy trick, which involved Richard’s pocket knife. Finally our meal hung between us over the fire, and all we had to do was wait. We waited for what seemed hours until the first drops of fat fell hissing onto the embers, and we cheered, our spirits briefly restored. We waited again. The woods were dark. Something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. I looked at Richard to see if he’d noticed. He sniffed, I sniffed. Then his hand was to his nose, mine was over my mouth, and we were gagging. The stench that rose from the meat was beyond decay, beyond excrement, beyond anything we’d known. We’d forgotten to gut the chicken.

We threw the leaking carcass into the woods, and while I retched, Richard stamped out the fire. At home, everyone shrieked at the sight of us: at the blood caked in Richard’s blond hair, the dried blood streaked on my arms, our clothes clotted with it and feathers. When they saw that we weren’t hurt, they gave us whippings and sent us to bed. I lay awake for hours, my fingers testing the welts rising on my thighs, my empty stomach growling. I’d missed tasting your birthday cake.

The next day, our family headed back to Chicago, and on the way, Father told Mother that he’d rented our house to strangers, and moved us into an apartment. Times were different, he said, with the Stock Market and all. Hearing this, Mother leaned across the front seat of the car, grabbed the steering wheel, and sent us careening off the road. Father slammed on the brakes, the wheels spat stones. The car stopped on the brink of the ditch. We sat in perfect silence, looking out through a veil of dust. When it dissipated, Mother got out, motioned for me to get out too, and then slipped into my place in the back seat. Standing in the dirt on the shoulder, I could see that she wanted to be next to you, Sophy. And you must have known that now you were free to cough-as all of us needed to, what with the dust lining our throats and nostrils. Only your coughs meant seizures, and soon Mother was holding you the way she’d been held during your delivery, and Father was on his knees, leaning over the seat, tearing through the picnic basket until he found a spoon, which he forced into your mouth, against your tongue. I looked in through the window like this was some kind of moving picture show. After a few minutes, you collapsed into sleep, your face wet with tears. Mother lifted wet strands of hair from your forehead; Father turned back around, started the car, and pulled the front door closed. Then he looked into the rearview mirror and saw me, still standing outside. He opened the door again. “Sorry,” he said, shaking his head slightly as if jarring his memory into place. I slid in next to him, and in silence we drove the rest of the way to the new apartment.

The apartment was empty when we arrived; Father had rented our furniture as well. For several weeks, our voices and footsteps echoed through the rooms. To sleep we made pallets on the floor, and during meals, Father encouraged us to pretend we were Romans. “There are Romans downstairs, and they have a table,” Mother replied. An Italian family lived beneath us, and the smell of garlic penetrated through our floorboards. Upstairs, the place was vacant for weeks, until one Saturday morning, when a man in a dark suit appeared, a roll of blankets under his arm, a young woman huddled at his side. We listened to them mount the stairs, enter the apartment, and echo-as we did-through empty rooms. For an hour, there was silence. Then they descended the stairs, got into their car and drove away. A few days later, a bed was delivered, and the next Saturday, the couple returned, without blankets. This time, we listened to the steady scraping of the iron frame against the floor.

Mother paced through the apartment in a rage. “They have furniture, even they-ours is no home, theirs is more home!” In moments of powerful emotion, she usually spoke Danish, but on this day she made her point in English. “Crazy, you are crazy, Jacob, to live like this. We cannot live like this. The girls cannot.”

Father stood in the center of the dining room, looking around as if lost, as if directions might be written on the blank walls. He sank into a squat and rested his head in his hands. “Elizabeth. We are saving money.”

“I do not ask for luxury. I ask for necessity. We did not come here to want.”

That afternoon, Mother dropped a wad of bills into her handbag and led me out the front door, casting a good-bye over her shoulder to Father, who sat on the floor in a patch of sunlight, you stretched out beside him, your head in his lap. We took the streetcar to Marshall Field’s, marched to the furniture department, and ordered three beds, two dressers, a kitchen table and chairs, a mirror. Mother lingered over everything. She traced the carved details in a cherry wood armoire, trailed her hand across a mahogany china cabinet, fingered the gilt edges of a gold picture frame. She gazed at porcelain figurines, and I stared at the image of her, reflected back in plate glass cases. In “Fine Linens,” she asked the sales clerk to show her napkins of Belgium lace. “But my dear,” the clerk said. “Those are imported.”

Mother looked up from the display. She opened her purse, drew out the pair of ivory gloves she usually wore on holidays, and slipped them on, adjusting them fingertip by fingertip. She stared at the clerk until the woman looked away, her spectacles glinting. “But my dear,” Mother said, her voice low and measured. “So am I.” Then she grabbed my hand and whirled around, with me stumbling behind her as we headed for the door.

Outside in the rush of State Street, she stopped so suddenly that I fell against her. “Stand up straight,” she said. “We’re going to have dessert.” And back inside and up the stairs we went, to Field’s best restaurant. We waited through a long line to sit down to a linen tablecloth, heavy silverware and cut-glass goblets. Dark walnut walls stretched up to a dark walnut ceiling from which hung crystal chandeliers. We ordered ice cream, then leaned back in the plush chairs.

Light flashed before I saw her, then light bulbs were popping all around us, applause resounding. For a few moments, I sat and blinked, dazzled, dark spots floating across my field of vision. When I could focus, a girl my age materialized, standing on a chair just like the one on which I sat. she turned in circles as she waved her delicate, plump hand. Her dress was resplendent, a pink cascade of ruffles, cinched at the waist with a red velvet bow. Nothing in the world compared to this dress, it took dominion everywhere. Everything rose up to it, transformed.

The girl was the child radio star of the hour. No one remembers her today, but at that moment, in that place, she was the face on every product from canned cling peaches to whitewall tires, the name on everyone’s lips. I could practically taste her sweetness. Whenever I woke from bad dreams about you, Sophy, I comforted myself with the vision of her, twirling like a ballerina on the cushion of a plush green chair. For months I begged for a copy of her dress. Every time Mother went downtown to buy something else for the apartment, I lamented my wardrobe, reminded her of the star, described the cut of the bodice and the color of the ribbon. My baptism loomed in the Spring, and it was my only hope. On that day, my outside had to reflect the soul inside me, and surely Mother knew that nothing hanging in my closet could serve this purpose. In that dress, I could be a Lily.

The week before my baptism, I came home from school and found a package wrapped in rose-scented tissue paper lying on my bed. My hands went cold, they were trembling as I undid the string, but, yes, inside, neatly folded was the dress I’d coveted. Gently, I held it up; true to form, the pink ruffles floated into place, the red velvet bow hung heavy from the satin belt loops stitched at the waist, the neckline dipped and narrowed to a graceful point like a heart. I stared at it for a minute, then spread it out on my bed, went and switched on the electric lamp. I hoped it would illuminate what I wanted to see. I knelt on the floor and put my face to the fabric, smelled it. In a moment, I’d unbuttoned my wool jumper and cotton shirt, let them drop on the floor, and pulled off my heavy shoes and thick stockings. Shivering, I lifted the dress over my head. It descended in a pink haze. I fumbled with the satin buttons and the bow and couldn’t get them right. So I ran to find Mother.

Sophy, do you remember that afternoon, the sound of my bare feet pounding down the long hall’s bare wooden floor, into the kitchen-pause, no Mother there-pound pound pound down the hall again, aha! a glimpse of Mother in your room. So I back-tracked, entered your room, laughing in a whirl of pink, and stopped short.

Mother sat on the bed, bowed over you, who trembled and twitched in a pink ruffled dress. Kissing the air. My pink ruffled dress-a duplicate. Mother looked up at me and smiled. “Are you happy?”

“Yes, thank you.” I left the room and went to mine, took off the dress, and hung it in my closet. It drooped there, disheveled.

“Save it for Sunday,” Mother called.

The next morning, my grade school class was going to visit the slaughterhouse. I’d told Father, and he’d expressed some surprise, but then shrugged and said, “I suppose they know what’s good for you.” He was already at work when I got up, and Mother was out early as well, pushing you in your rickety wheelchair to the market. So the apartment was empty while I washed my face, ate my toast, and put on my new pink dress. It was as simple as that. It hung on me as simple as that. I looked in the mirror for a transformation, but didn’t find one.

Our class boarded a bus-this in itself an adventure, since most of us walked to school-and I sat down carefully in a seat near the front. The dress’s ruffles were already wrinkled, and my hands worked over the fabric, trying to press it into place. During the ride, I imagined all eyes on me, even the teacher’s, who lurched up and down the aisle, clutching at seats, swaying with turns, maintaining order with a swat of her hand. Her voice wove a net over our heads: “Stockyards . . . Packingtown . . . immigrants . . . millionaires and finest citizens . . . the future”-a vision that contained the vision I was having, of me rising like an angel, my hands raised in a blessing over my adoring classmates. “Look,” someone said. Clouds of thick, black smoke billowed before us. I recognized the smell. Or at least one layer of the smell. It was the odor of hot blood, flesh, and entrails, the odor of butchering I’d known that summer.

We filed out of the bus, and into the packinghouse, where we were greeted by a guide, an old, weary man who pulled balls of cotton from his ears when he said hello to our teacher, then immediately put them back in. Music floated through the entryway, a soothing melody, reasonable and decorous. “Mozart?” our teacher asked, but the man shrugged, pointing to his ears. When she gestured toward the radios lodged high in the four corners of the hall, he mouthed, “Oh,” and said, loudly, “To welcome visitors in. And to let the workers know when they’re back.”

He led us past a display of packaged meats, each piece labeled, its cut carefully printed on a card. We went outside and climbed a flight of stairs to a wooden catwalk, which overlooked the stockyards. The pens seemed to stretch on for infinity; at a certain point the animals grew indistinct from each other, and became a shifting mass. He pointed to a corral just beneath us, against the wall of the packinghouse. Inside it, a small group of cows stood in a circle, their noses touching, their breathing heavy, rhythmic. The wind carried the faint strains of the music we’d heard inside. Our teacher cleared her throat and reminded us about Orpheus, whose myth we’d studied earlier that winter. “See how music soothes the savage beast?” she said, then put her hand to her throat. “Or is it ‘breast?”‘ I tasted smoke and my tongue went chalky.

A herder moved around the cows, nudging their gleaming, brown haunches with his stick. Suddenly a door swung open, and he lunged at one of the herd, cursing as he prodded it toward the building. When it disappeared inside, the door swung closed.

“The chute,” the guide said. He sighed, turned away from the sight of the yards, and pushed his way through us. We followed him down the stairs, back into the building, through a set of metal swinging doors and out onto an observation platform.

At first, I couldn’t breathe. The place seemed to boil with something other than air, something more like soup, thickened with rot. Animals bellowed, men shouted, metal clanged and rattled. Hulking, lumbering shapes solidified into carcasses swaying, hanging suspended from chains. These bore great incisions, from which rose pockets of steam. Inside, membranes shimmered over organs. Men moved through this forest of meat, waving their arms like they were casting spells, wielding knives with blades like small scythes, blades like narrow daggers, blades broad as swords. They’d make passes over what dangled before them, sharpen their knives, then perform the same motions again on another, their magic practiced, precise and intricate. Their dull eyes never seemed to blink, set fast in slack faces, and glistening yellow pieces of fat and a bright sheen of blood covered their skin and clothes-covered everything. At the last stroke, hides dropped down into the muck with the weight of wet rugs, leaving behind naked gleaming flesh.

I looked away from all this, down at an empty pen. A man walked toward the door beside it, which he flung open. A steer entered, careening through the slime, and the man held up a hammer, its handle as long as an axe’s, its mallet a spike. He brought it down on the skull of the steer, the spike embedding there with a crack so loud, he might have been striking stone. The animal collapsed, shuddered, its broken head back, tongue slavering, the powerful muscles above its spine jerking. It rolled to the side as another animal entered, and it all happened again-only this steer had caught the scent of death, he reared and took a lunge that carried him half over the fence. The man cursed the steer’s mother, the children never to be sired, and landed a blow behind his ears. But this was not the right place. The animal took another leap forward, which tore his belly and left a jagged wound. Perhaps the cost of a hide so damaged would come out of the man’s pay-perhaps that’s why he went livid, veins thick as garden snakes pulsing in his neck, his spit budding at the corners of his mouth. He heaved the mallet high, then down with a groan, striking the animal between the shoulders. The steer pitched back, landed rolling in the blood and mud, and bellowed when the spike finally pierced his skull.

The man dropped his hammer on the ground and hunkered down, trying to catch his breath. He rested his head briefly on the broad, wet, shuddering flank of the steer.

“Children.” Our teacher’s voice trembled; it broke with something like laughter. “Let’s not lose our leader.”

We shuffled forward, toward the sound of the guide’s voice, shouting above the din, “We use everything but the squeal.” There was an abundance of squeals like screams. The man before us wore an apron furrowed with blood. He held a narrow knife. A pig spun by, upside down, glossy hooves flailing. One hind leg was hooked through a metal loop at the end of a chain. As it passed, the man darted forward and slit its throat. Blood black as oil gushed from the cut, pumping in bursts with the regularity of a heartbeat, hanging in arcs in the air.

Do you remember what Father read aloud from St. Augustine: when the blood runs out of an animal, the soul runs out too. I knew this meant that animals didn’t go to heaven, but what about the souls, running for eternity?

The man looked up and saw us watching him. Rows of children on a fieldtrip. He paused. Light gleamed on his slick skin. He pulled something from the deep pocket of his apron, waited for the next soft throat, slit it, and lifted what he held-a cup-up to the cut to catch the spurt of blood. He turned to us. “Time to go,” our teacher cried. I felt the press of bodies, smelled vomit, heard sobs and laughter. Then the man looked right at me-at the girl holding herself just so in her child star’s dress-raised the cup in a toast, and drank.

Why is everyone breathing so loudly, I wondered. People, speaking too slowly, are fading away. We must be leaving; I am ready to leave as well.

But Sophy, in the next moment, I saw you there instead of the pig, caught up by one small foot, your hair and arms hanging down and swinging as gently as the tumbled ruffles of your pink dress, as gently as a pendulum; and I stood beside you, instead of the man, holding high a glass of Cherry herring. I put it to my lips and drank until the sticky red stuff ran down my chin.

Was there a knife in my hand, was there a wound at your throat, would I be haunted by your soul? Finally home, I ran to my room, and shed the mess I wore, the dress falling to the floor like a rotting flower. Mother and Father were in the kitchen, shouting-their two languages skidding in and out of each other, a blur of voices translating money and ruin, the cost of a baptism dress. I found you on your bed, the muscles in your face still and beautiful in repose. I thought you were dead, and threw my body down beside you. But you opened your eyes and grinned, then frowned, garbling words you surely understood, your hands batting the air. I grabbed your arms and put them around my neck, and with a strength that jarred my breath, you pulled me to you, nestling my head beneath your chin. As if you’d been waiting, you held me there, kissing the place where a spike shatters the skull of a slaughtered calf.

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About Karen Halvorsen Schreck

KAREN HALVORSEN SCHRECK is completing her doctorate in English and Creative Writing at the University of Illinois in Chicago. She has published in a variety of journals, and has had several exhibitions of collaborative phot-text projects with her husband, Gregory Halvorsen Schreck. This story was recipient of a Pushcart Prize.

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