It was a brisk winter day and I witnessed a killing.
A single rifle shot to the head and the victim’s body dropped to the ground, eyes going lifeless as it crumpled.
Six strong men began a repeated and well-rehearsed ritual. Four of them lifted the body, carrying it to an improvised scaffolding. A fifth man attached a chain to one leg and began pulling on a block and tackle until the body hung suspended head down.
The sixth man hefted a knife with a long glistening blade, sharpened in anticipation of what was coming next.
And come it did.
One expertly-executed slash across the throat and blood cascaded into a metal pan.
But the plainly dressed knife man wasn’t finished. He lifted an ordinary carpenter’s crosscut saw and began severing the victim’s head from its body. Each thrust of the saw produced a sound similar to a surrendering two-by-four but muffled by muscle and skin.
A fire under a 55-gallon barrel had brought the water inside to near boiling. The knife man directed the team to first raise the body then lower it into the scalding liquid.
At this point, six aproned women joined the men. The knife man asked for silence and began a chant, a string of familiar words and phrases designed to spread a collective responsibility for the actions taken so far and the actions yet to come. The brief recitation ended with a unified “amen”.
Dismemberment is difficult.
Bone and tendon and sinew give up their connectedness only after great effort. That effort produced chunks of muscle, bone and fat spread out on planks supported by home-made saw horses.
Now the women armed themselves with long knives and began carving the larger body parts into smaller ones. Incongruously they also began a light, gossipy chatter about their children and their neighbors and the weather.
Slowly the scales fell from my eyes as this grisly ceremony transformed into a scene of love, respect and fellowship. The body I had watched die was that of a 220-pound hog and this was a neighborhood butchering.
At one end of the table a severed head floated in a pan of bloody water. At the other end, fresh pork chops were stacked, ready to be fried and shared around a kitchen table once the butchering was done.
The knife man’s family had planted a crop. They nurtured and harvested the crop and fed it to an animal. Then the knife man took that animal’s life transforming it into sustenance that would give life to his family for months to come.
This was no solitary effort. The knife man enlisted the help of neighbors and nearby relatives and they gladly volunteered because at some point in the future, the ritual would be repeated on their farms. These stalwart, individualistic conservatives unknowingly practiced communal living in a most perfect form.
Fifty two years ago it was a brisk winter day and I witnessed a killing.
I mourn not for the lost life. What I mourn is the loss of the knife man’s style of life, one filled with understanding and reverence for the great circle of life and one filled with love and support to and from those around him.