This week, Oxford American has a stand-alone excerpt from Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, her first novel since 2011’s National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones. The excerpt, titled “Flayed,” follows a boy named Jojo in the rural Mississippi Gulf Coast as he helps his grandfather kill and butcher a goat on his thirteenth birthday. Filled with Ward’s distinctively visceral language, “Flayed” tells a story of family, racism, and poverty while showing us how perilously close the divide between love and death really is.
I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight. When Pop tell me he need my help and I see that black knife slid into the belt of his pants, I follow Pop out the house, try to keep my back straight, my shoulders even as a hanger; that’s how Pop walks. I try to look like this is normal and boring so Pop will think I’ve earned these thirteen years, so Pop will know I’m ready to pull what needs to be pulled, separate innards from muscle, organs from cavities. I want Pop to know I can get bloody.
Pop is Jojo’s grandfather, who has raised him for most of his life. Jojo’s white father, Michael, left them years ago and hasn’t been back since. Jojo’s mother is technically present but isn’t really, struggling with drug addiction. Jojo doesn’t call his father “Pop,” or “Dad,” or anything but Michael. Likewise, he’s stopped calling Leonie “Mama,” opting for her first name. These namings hint at the deep pain the young boy feels over his parents’ abandonment: he tries to distance or disown them in this small way, the only way he can, as they did to him.
At the same time, Jojo’s desire Pop’s approval throughout the story tugs at the heart, showing the love and respect the boy has for the steady, if taciturn, man who raised him when his parents failed to. As they head to select a goat for slaughter, Jojo keeps his shoulders straight, emulating Pop. The morning is cold, but he doesn’t show his chill, no sign of weakness. As Pop tugs the chosen goat to the shed, as he wrestles the beast to the ground, as the goat looks at Jojo from the dirt floor with its “soft eye,” as Pop slits its throat, Jojo never looks away. And this is a feat, because Ward’s descriptions of the slaughter and then the butchering are certainly not for the squeamish. Ward doesn’t hold back. She, too, refuses to look away.
Pop slices down the center of the stomach, and the innards slide out and into the tub. He’s slicing and the smell overwhelms like a faceful of pig shit. It smells like foragers, dead and rotting out in the thick woods, when the only sign of them is the stink and the buzzards rising and settling and circling. It stinks like possums or armadillos smashed half flat on the road, rotting in asphalt and heat. But worse. This smell is worse; it’s the smell of death, the rot coming from something just alive, something hot with blood and life.
If you’ve ever watched an animal field dressed, you probably know the shocking wrongness of it, this just-living thing skinned and sliced open, what should be inside, outside. This knowledge of death just a blade’s edge away lies under the whole story, a reminder of life’s ugliness and also its exigency. No matter the repugnance of this gristly scene, and despite Jojo’s struggle to “be a man” and maintain his composure, the fact remains that Pop is killing this goat out of necessity, to feed his family, and as he scoops out entrails and slices meat from bone, it is all essentially an act of love.
Later, Jojo goes back to the house to check on his toddler sister Kayla. She’s lying on the floor asleep. He swats a fly off her knee, alarmed that it may have been crawling over her the whole time he and Pop were in the shed. “They feed on rot,” he tells us as he settles on the floor next to his sister, protecting her. The fly in the midst of this tender scene serves as memento mori, a reminder of the meat that makes us all, waiting just beneath our skin, and of the startling immediacy and necessity of love despite it.
I pull the blanket up over Kayla’s stomach and lie next to her on the floor. Her little foot is warm in my hand. Still asleep, she kicks off the cover and grabs at my arm, pulling it up to her stomach so I hold her before settling again. Her mouth opens and I wave at the circling fly, and Kayla lets off a little snore.
Logo art by Max Winter.