The knife’s handle stuck out from her pocket and tipped her hip as she walked across the grey, cold mud. Her father walked ahead of her. He was breathing hard and his braces hung from his trousers. The ground spit up as he walked upon it. Each foot left an oozing mark, trails of mud slime on the soles of his boots.
There was a smell of pig shit. The girl ran her tongue along the inside of her mouth just to taste the remains of the chicken soup her mother had given her for breakfast. She held her breath for seconds then blew out hard. Her breath condensed white in front of her. She focused on the mist, longing to be somewhere else.
She did not like killing pigs. She did not like looking into their eyes and fearing that they were a little bit human inside. Pigs were intelligent. Pigs had human eyes, her father once told her and the Devil’s feet. That’s why we kill them. That’s why we eat them.
The girl had never believed that story but every time she dug the knife into a pig’s throat, its blood boiled upwards and smelled like hot iron.
To kill a pig was not unlike killing a man, her father had also told her. You take the throat in almost the same way. The daughter tried hard not to look at her father’s hands when he spoke like that. They were crossed with lines and dirt from the vegetables, dirt from the pigs. He had often tried to clean them, to make them as perfect as they could be.
He used gun oil sometimes. He’d sit in the shed on an upturned bucket with a bowl of oil into which he’d dip his fingers, then slather up as far as his wrists and sing a song he had learned from the militia.
His daughter knew by now that the gun oil cleaned nothing but it was useful to shift the ingrained dirt. She watched globs of scum collect in her father’s palms, which he flicked at his daughter who squealed, sidestepped and deliberately kept laughing because she had seen what her father’s hands could do.
‘Your father is a brave man,’ the girl’s boyfriend said as they drank cheap beer in his new car.
The girl said yes.
Her boyfriend smelled so good. He liked being clean. He liked his girlfriend’s blonde hair. He liked that she wore the clothes he brought back to her. But she liked books too much.
He once went into her bedroom with her father’s permission and found where she hid the books. She had cut a hole in the wall so well that the seam was hidden in the wood grain. She must have learned that from her father.
She was angry but scared. Her father piled the books one on top of the other on the kitchen table. She did not look at her father. Not until he told her to. And when she did, she remembered how she saw people on their knees: boys and men mostly, ready to fall back into their graves yet some had lifted their faces and looked at their killer.
‘They are all pigs,’ her father had preached. ‘You kill pigs before they kill you.’
The little boys didn‘t look up. They clung to their fathers. They wet themselves, cried for their mothers who had been raped, burned to death or were still alive somewhere else. Little boys in their school uniforms or pyjamas dug their fingers into the arms of men who knelt beside them. The little boys wanted to go home. Once or twice they looked up into the watching crowd and saw a school friend but the friend was told to spit on them.
Some of the men would pretend to be a boy’s father, if the father was already dead, and would hold the boy in his arms to hide him from his own death. But one boy would not stop crying for his mother. A gun was put in his mouth and fired. The man holding the boy screamed as if his heart was being ripped out.
The girl looked at her mother who sat in a chair and stared at the books. ‘This is what you spend your money on?’
‘They are just books,’ the daughter replied. ‘Burn them,’ her mother ordered.
The girl burned the books one by one.
She had developed into a good pig killer and by now she could kill by touch. She had learned not to look at the pig’s eyes but to straddle its neck while her father held its haunches down. She had strong arms and hooked her left elbow about the animal’s neck. She swallowed down the feeling in her own throat as she held her knife in her other hand. Her father had made it to fit her palm, blade at her fingertips. You feel for the pulse then you plunge the knife in straight.
You release the pig. It stumbles. It looks at you and you think how human the look is. It moves forward and its blood gushes. You don’t want to cry but you want to do something. Your own body is empty. You want to faint and not wake up.
She had once asked her father: ‘When did you stop?’
Her father had slung the pig onto a hook to drain the blood. Outside the other pigs were restless, and a sow was feeding. The girl’s father had stopped to check them before he had suspended the dead pig. He pointed out a runt, clicked his teeth and winked at his daughter.
‘When did you stop?’ she asked him. He glanced at her. ‘Stop what?’ ‘Killing people,’ she said.
Her father laughed. ‘What people?’ Her father kept on laughing and slapped the pig. It swayed on its hook. ‘That was war,’ he told his daughter. ‘It was war and we had a right.’
‘I don’t like killing pigs,’ his daughter said. ‘I don’t like the smell and I don’t like eating them.’
‘We eat pigs,’ her father said. ‘We don’t have cows.’ ‘I don’t want to kill another pig,’ the girl said.
Her father took her outside to the sow that was feeding its litter. He scooped up the runt and placed its wriggling body under his boot. He crushed down. The runt’s skull burst outwards. The girl’s father picked the runt’s body up by its tail and flung it at his daughter’s feet.
‘Give it to the dog.’
The girl buried the runt instead and she thought if she said a prayer then the sound of its baby skull splitting would leave her head but it didn’t. Nothing seemed safe or right until the moment she told her boyfriend that she wanted to leave.
‘And go where?’
‘Where you go,’ she said.
Her boyfriend liked to drink and smoke in the back room of his friend’s house. His friend was listening to music with earphones strapped to his head. His friend’s mother was polishing her jewellery. She smiled at the girl and the girl whispered into her boyfriend’s ear.
‘And I don’t want to come back.’
Her boyfriend calculated something in his head. He looked at the girl’s face, at her skin and noticed how rough her hands were.
‘You will have to make them soft,’ he said. ‘They don’t like hands like that in the West.’ He kissed her knuckles. ‘I’ll give you something. It can be a present.’ The girl gave some of the hand cream to her mother and grandmother. They
laughed as their fingers slipped in and out of each other’s.
Her boyfriend had told the girl to use it all over her body and each time she moved in her bed, the smell of her skin made her feel beautiful, no longer a pig killer.
When they reached Berlin, the girl finally persuaded her boyfriend to buy her some perfume. He hadn’t liked spending the money but she told him that she would pay him back when she got a hairdressing job.
‘Maybe you would like another job,’ he said. ‘No,’ she said.
His friend had laughed and said what a waste. The girl didn’t understand his laugh. They were sitting in the back of another friend’s car. She was in the middle. The friend put his hand on her knee. She jerked, half laughed because she was surprised. His hand lifted for a few seconds then landed on her thigh, high above her knee.
Her boyfriend was looking out of the car window. The driver glanced in the rear-view mirror. The friend was singing, tapping along the girl’s thigh and in time to the song on the car radio. The girl dug her elbow into her boyfriend’s ribs. He turned and smiled at her, shrugged then resumed staring out of his window.
The girl shoved the friend’s hand away. His own surprise was nearly funny and she wanted to laugh, to make things good again but he hit her on the upper part of her face. The force snapped her head back and the last thing she remembered was how the red ribbed roof of the car looked like the inside of a mouth.