Wood smoke burns my eyes despite the air flowing in the door and out the roof vents of the cinder block cookhouse. My job is to stir the copper kettle filled with pig necks, feet, hearts, and livers that will become the scrapple that I like cut thin, cooked hard, and doused in maple syrup. The kettle perches on a hollow square of bricks that enclose a fire nested in a shallow earth pit. Though I am tall for my eight years, I have to hold my arms awkwardly to manage the wooden paddle. The smell of smoke, dirt, blood, and boiling animal flesh fills my nose and saturates my hair, skin, and clothes.
My mother’s childhood friend, Norma, invited me to spend a summer on her farm while my mother and brother settled into our new double-wide mobile home a few miles away. At first, I was scared of her. Norma is tall and broad-shouldered like a man, with rough red hands that she wipes clean on the front of her red and black plaid shirt. She wears loose fitting jeans that she yanks up as she works. She doesn’t appear to own a hairbrush. She spits in the dirt and calls her boots shit kickers. One day she threatens to kick the shit out of someone, and I wonder if she needs to wear her shit kickers to do that. My fear evaporates one evening as she watches me shovel a third helping of mashed potatoes into my mouth. “You have a hollow leg just like your mother!” Norma exclaims with a grin. Her instructions today are crystal clear: “Don’t let the crap stick to the bottom and, for God’s sake, don’t let the fire go out.”
Through the dirty, cobweb-covered window of the cooking house, I see cattails lining the farm pond like rows of the cigars my grandfather smokes in his basement. Swimming has become my favorite pastime when I’m not working. I like the feathery feel of minnows against my leg and how the water is cold in some places and mysteriously warm in others. Norma’s son, Harold, tells me that the warm spots are where someone peed in the pond. I don’t believe him. I avoid Harold, his sister, Susan, and their boisterous friends at the pond. While they splash and dunk each other, I curl my toes over the edge of the rickety dock and practice my freestyle-racing dive. When the black inner tube is free, I sprawl across it to sun myself like one of the painted turtles perched on the log at the pond’s edge.
On my first day on the farm that summer, I asked Norma if I could go swimming. “Absolutely,” she said, “go put your swimsuit on and Susan will take you down.”
“I don’t have a swimsuit.”
“No problem,” Norma assured me, “you can swim in your skivvies.”
“Your underwear, silly.”
After carefully folding my shirt and shorts and laying them on the foot of my bed, I timidly entered the kitchen in my flowered cotton underwear with my arms crossed tightly over my chest.
“Look, mom! She’s covering up her titties!” Susan shouted.
“Her itty-bitty titties,” teased Harold.
“Knock it off, you two,” Norma scolded as she put her hand on my shoulder. “Honey, you don’t have anything that we haven’t already seen. Now get out of here.”
Harold and Susan ran off to the pond ahead of me. When I caught up with them, I sat on the dock with my knees pulled up to my chest worrying over Sunday school lessons about godliness and modesty. Nudity wasn’t my only problem at the farm. My mother hadn’t told me much about what to expect as we packed my suitcase sans swimsuit. From books, I had learned about fat farm wives in crisp aprons ringing dinner bells as their laughing husbands in tidy overalls pulled overflowing wagons of hay with red tractors under persistently sunny skies. The farm animals talked lovingly to their curious animal children and smiled when the kind farmer and his wife strolled through the barnyard. I fell asleep picturing apple pies cooling on windowsills, red-and-white-checked tablecloths, laundry flapping in the sunny breeze, and cows and horses grazing contentedly in clover-filled fields while apple-cheeked children played in the yard with their dog, Spot.
The first chore Norma gave me was feeding and watering the pigs. I was distressed to find the pigs lying in their poop. When no one was looking, I’d sneak into the pen and scoop out some of the soiled straw to make a clean spot for the pigs. Within minutes, the cleared space was covered in muck. Like Wilbur in “Charlotte’s Web,” I imagined the pigs could understand me when I told them I wanted them to run free in the pasture and drink clean water from the stream.
One afternoon, I saw a nursing sow roll over on one of her slow-moving piglets. I ran to the house yelling for Norma. “Help! Help! The baby is getting crushed!” Norma took me gently by the hand and walked me back to the pigpen.
“Get it out! Get it out!” I screamed, pulling at her arm.
“I’m sorry but I can’t do that,” she said softly as she stroked my back. “That pig would attack me if I got near her babies. All we can do is hope she rolls over soon.”
The sow blinked dumbly ignoring my pleas for her to roll over. I stopped trying to persuade her when I could no longer hear the muffled squeals of the piglet.
My other responsibility was feeding the chickens and collecting eggs each morning. After filling the feeder with pellets and refilling the hanging water container, I rooted around in the straw-filled nesting boxes for eggs. I refused to eat the scrambled eggs served at breakfast when I realized that they were the eggs I pulled out from the boxes while the hens cluck, cluck, clucked nearby.
“I won’t eat their babies!” I declared.
Norma explained that they weren’t fertilized and couldn’t become chicks. Even so, I was horrified at the thought that I might eat what had the potential to become a downy chick I could cradle in my palm. When Norma explained that her scrumptious chocolate cake recipe included eggs, I scraped the icing off with my fork and left the polluted cake behind. When Susan pointed out that I was eating an actual chicken when I bit into a piece of savory fried chicken, I spat it out on my plate.
My throat ached as the calves – tethered to their igloo-like hutches with short chains – bawled for their mothers and their mothers called mournfully back to them. My desire to help them deepened when Norma explained that these were the male calves that couldn’t produce milk.
“What will you do with them?” I asked.
“We’ll sell them to a veal farmer.”
“What’s a veal farmer?”
“Jesus Christ, your mother hasn’t taught you anything! The veal farmer will take care of the calves until they are ready to be butchered for veal meat.”
“You mean someone is going to eat the calves?” I asked with unconcealed horror.
“Yep. We had veal the other night with our spaghetti. Remember?”
“Yeah, I do, but nobody told me I was eating a calf!” I shouted as Norma walked away chuckling.
The scrawny barn cats with weepy, fly-infested eyes were a constant source of anxiety for me. “Why doesn’t anyone take care of them?” I fretted as I stroked the ones that would let me touch them. Dozens of hungry cats swirled around my legs whenever I passed by with a bucket of anything that might take less effort than hunting a mouse. When Norma caught me sneaking cheese out of the kitchen for the cats, she threatened to give my dinner to the pigs if I did it again and I believed her. If she would let a piglet die or eat a baby cow, surely she wouldn’t hesitate to let me go hungry.
When I wasn’t doing chores or swimming, I liked to explore the dark and mysterious hay mound in the upper level of the barn. One day Harold introduced me to the wonders of the barn rope swing. He slid open the massive wooden barn doors and showed me how to balance on the plank of wood held in place with a knot at the bottom of the thick braided rope. Spinning in circles in the barn doorway felt adventurous to me, but Harold had other ideas. Despite my protests, he pushed and pushed and pushed until I was flying high in the sky and back into the vaulted barn. As my stomach flipped at the peak of each swing, I imagined falling to the hard wooden barn floor and gripped the rope with my hands, arms, and knees. When I told him I wanted to get off, he said that the only way off was to jump into the hay mound.
“No, Harold! I can’t do that. I’ll get hurt.”
“You’ll be fine, trust me. When I say now, let go.”
“But what if I land on my head?”
“Stop worrying. Everything will be okay.”
Harold gave me a few more hard pushes so I could regain my swing height. Each time I swung over the hay mound, I strained to look at him.
“Stop twisting around. Just focus on the swing.”
Just when I thought I would swing in the barn forever, Harold shouted, “Now!”
As if my limbs were connected to a hidden spring-loaded switch, I released my arms and legs and, for a glorious moment, I defied gravity before falling safely onto the hay.
In the cookhouse, I yearn to be outside in the fresh air but fun is on hold until the scrapple cooking is done. I blink smoky tears from my eyes and keep stirring as meat falls from bones and cartilage, skin, and tendons are rendered soft for the grinder. Norma appears at the door and, after examining the contents of the kettle, releases me from my cookhouse bondage. Beside the porch steps, I strip down to my underwear and race to the pond. I run the length of the dock and leap into the air for a precision cannonball splash near Harold and Susan. Harold swims beneath me and pulls me under the water. “You’re a jackass!” I shout before shoving Susan’s head under to stop her laughter. When the sun sets, we drag ourselves back to the house and slip into pajamas. In the kitchen, steaming bowls of unset scrapple and oyster crackers are at our places. I pause briefly before greedily lapping up a bowlful of the pigs I had befriended weeks earlier.
Michelle Rae Kissinger is a recovering business manager, independent scholar, and writer. In addition to short creative nonfiction pieces, she is working on a book about the first women to graduate from a Pennsylvania residential boarding school for impoverished children. She lives in Bernville, PA, with her husband and seven cats.