The Slaughterhouse: a true story -- creative nonfiction by Gray Fuller
I wait behind an obese security guard who the lady at the register knows as a regular. He orders his ground beef, and I tell the lady why I’m here, looking tall and smart and very nervous. I meet the boss and he tells me to go in the backroom. He does not lead me there — tells me to put my backpack down in the break room and walk through an open door.
As soon as I leave the front part of the building, the shop, my nose becomes inflamed in a stench I have never smelled before. Not on any farm I have been to, not in any shit I have stepped in. This is different, and it reeks. The boss is gone, and I walk in.
There is a body, a large body, being skinned.
Two men greet me but say nothing. I stand in the corner by the door I entered through, not wanting to get closer, not knowing how I’ll feel. I remember my mother. She was serious for a moment, told me that everything aside — this project and all the things I want to learn — my emotions matter more. “You don’t have to go,” she said with a frown. I don’t. I didn’t. But I’m here.
I see a belly, a belly up. The men stretch its hide, they run their knives under it amid the tension of a fur coat unfurled. Hooves are being sawed by the powerful strokes of small cutting knives. Bone breaks, crashes. The men cut and shatter chunks of life, chunks of death. Weak tendons stretch and joints pop sharply and split. My body jumps at the aching sounds, my nostrils are closed beneath the smell.
Blood dribbles softly, not violently. What I see is white: white and blue and purple flesh which does not scare me. The men do. Their attitudes are of killers, and I am taught to fear killers.
A thud as one of the men throws a hoof into a trash bucket, like it is trash, a chunk of wood or some plastic debris. Like it is no longer the leg of a cow.
I wonder what the top of the cow looks like, but query nothing. Instead I ask what’s in the white bucket on the floor. Blanky, “Blood.” Overflowing, foaming, thick—a seafoam of bright red.
I realize how long it’s been since I was really afraid. An asshole faces me and the remnants of legs point upward. I don’t dare go to that side of the room. It is cramped, and it is missing the head of an animal. A trail of thick ooze slips across the floor. It leaves the top of the cow, the part I wish not to see, and flows to another side of the room.
White concrete bricks and an upper wall made of tan. This room is old. Chains hang from its ceilings, saws and metal machines. They scare me like a child in a horror film. I am still a child. I am in that film.
I know the rounded thing sitting atop a metal gate is a head. I don’t know whether it’s upside down or rightside up; just that it is looking towards me, but the eyes are nowhere in sight. The bottom of a tongue hangs down with gravity. I later see it in a tin container, like a fish or squid, pale pink. I see holes. I see what I think is the esophagus, open and white and pristine like one inch PVC piping: perfectly circular and open. I stare at the head. It does not stare back. Two rounded bulbs, faded maroon, pulsate. Blood dribbles as the bulbs inhale and exhale the still, rancid air.
The men raise the body by its hind quarters, tying chains around its legs. They do the work so purposefully, so nonchalantly. With every sound I twitch. My body feels fragile like flesh, unstable as if I’m in a storm. It scares me that the way one reaches into depths of darkness and pulls out a pancreas is so… normal, that the way blood splatters softly, bright and red, and then washes over his fingers and hand and his arms means nothing. He cuts more. He throws the hide in the trash.
My mouth is dry and my insides feel empty. My nose is full, burdened with so much grass and dirt, a dirty, dirty, animalistic stench. It isn’t the blood. It’s the metal chains, the hardened smell of concrete, how everything is either red or pale white or some combination: the white floppy pieces of I’m-not-sure-what which litter the floor and the drain, the clotting suds of dark, dark red. It is sweat, it is anger and fear and dullness and adrenaline. “I think I’m having a panic attack,” my notebook reads in a frantic scribble.
I hear a light whistle. A man in a backwards camo hat, blue jeans, and a white apron points outside. He waits for me with a cigarette perched in two fingers, then talks. I hear him but don’t listen, linger in his cigarette smell because it is better than what awaits me inside the backdoor, and outside of it too. There is a wood corral, small. There are pointy edges and cement floors, beams of brown wood and slots which land at the height of where the cows’ eyes are.
“We run them through the gate, put them through the head-shoot…”
For some reason he pauses. I await what’s next.
“...expire them,” he chooses, and that is all he says.
The man in the camo hat tosses his cigarette to the side like every movie character ever. He doesn’t look back at me as he goes back through the backdoor. I wonder what he is thinking as he resumes his work, leaving the cows behind.
I wait outside by the carrol. My body eases as I lean against the wood bars, exhausted as if I’ve been running for my life. I can barely stand. I can barely breathe. I close my eyes. They burn. But I do not cry. I feel far too much to cry. And tears would not be enough.
The outside world quiets, and my brain begins to focus. I see large, black shapes, hear hooves on concrete. A snout peaks through the wood bars. It rests on the top of a wood plank and I see white foam dribbling from the side of a mouth. In another holding pen there are more black shapes; I can see ears and fur, but not animals. My head and eyes turn back towards the first one. This black shape is separated from the others, and it is breathing heavily. A pair of dark eyes surveys its surroundings, then catches me. I dart my head away and I don’t look back. Still, it saw me. I saw it, and I saw its eyes. I cannot bring myself to look into those dark, rounded beams of curious life, so I keep looking away.
I’d rather go back on the killing floor, where a body is hanging from the ceiling and I can finally see how truly massive it is. Blood streams down: dots like raindrops in a red lake. Shiny and clear and dark: a sea contains of much more than just liquid — fat and flesh and tissue.
A jolt hits me. I am shaken and move away, back towards the door I came in from. I stand in the corner and wait. This is why I am here, I tell myself. A black animal is locked inside a small pen on the killing floor. Like a dog it reaches its head down to the floor, opening its nostrils at the puddle collecting at the drain. Inside are the remains of its brethren: silky white globs of flesh and fat, ruby red — disgusting red of blood and organ. Its animal eyebrows raise upon the first sniff, and its body jolts back.
Then he knows. He knows everything and he knows exactly.
He writhes, still alive, aching to stay alive, to stay away — from the man, from the men, from the gates and smell and death and killing and to get away from here. He kicks and hollers, claws with his clubbed hooves. There is no exit. He cannot turn around. All that is left is to edge forward, still violently desperate to escape. The pale, stocky man with hands which were stained red walks calmly: towards me, past me, past the hanging corpse of drying meat, all the way to the door. Returning to the killing floor with a black gun, he nudges the hanging corpse with his body. There is no hurry in his disposition, no distress nor alarm. He heads to the corner of the room where a kicking and screaming — yes, screaming — animal attempts to run.
A mechanical chomp.
The cow’s head is in the shoot. I get closer and see his tongue, twirling and throttling up and down, side to side to anywhere. His head thrashes. His mouth opens and I see the depths of his body. Then violently, so heinously, the cow bellows out not a moo or ooo, but a sound I have never once heard, a sound I wish to never hear again: pure anguish, pure fear and adrenaline, pure sorrow and suffering, the opposite of what we call humane—so animalistic, so achingly pure of deep red and black — and yet human in how he pleads with all he has, for life.
“Why?” he screams. He flails his vocal cords. He screams without end. He has not yet been told the finality of death, but somehow he knows. He is in the worst of pain, because he knows. Foaming saliva pours down into the puddle the cow smelled a moment ago — the blood and flesh beneath. The stocky man places the black gun on the cow’s head, which is now restrained. He rubs the tip of it amid the convulsing and bellowing and writhing of the lifeform beneath, and SHHHK. The cow’s body freezes and I feel I have witnessed something mind-blowing, something horrifying, something ultimate. Legs go dull and the frame is lifeless. The killing floor is quiet.
I hurry towards the backdoor, past a depressed form on the floor which spasms and jolts in unconscious agony. I reach the open air. My hands are shaking and I feel I might explode. My skin feels weak like it could suddenly tear off. My mind is glazed with both youth and the once distant darkness of age. I settle myself in some grass and gravel behind the shop, close my eyes in the spring sun.
Open. There is a splotch, tiny and fading, of bright, uncomfortably bright red, on my fingernail. The red stain lines the outside of my cuticle. I sigh and close once more, incapable of forgetting.
Open. It is not raining, but my boots have what look like raindrops, small splotches of what I know is not the morning’s shower. The sun warms my skin, and I am sorry.
Gray Fuller is a light skinned, mixed kid from St. Louis with round glasses, curly hair, and long legs. Gray has been published in newspapers around the Midwest such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Kansas City Star, and The Tennessean. He loves to write mostly about politics, but feels most proud about the works he writes for himself. So here you go. He hopes you enjoy them.