The Abattoir

By

On Sunday, it’s announced at church that we are going to kill a pig. I’m five years old, and I have never thought to kill an animal before. It was an ancient Hmong custom from China: the pig slaughter feast marked special occasions like good harvests, the spring festival, and daughters being wed. It’s important to choose the pig with the broadest and flattest back. A rounded back means that a pig is all fat, which is only good for making candles. The pig must have firm and rounded buttocks, clear eyes, a wet nose, and a calm disposition because panic spoils the meat. Every morsel of fat, muscle, cartilage, and offal will be stripped from the gilt and eaten within two days: stewed, boiled, grilled, and fried in giant cauldrons with whole fingers of ginger, rock sugar, star anise, garlic, and lemongrass. Nothing wasted.

The whole congregation is invited to the Moua wedding. The pastor adds that, if enough people pitch in cash donations, perhaps there will even be two pigs and enough leftovers for everyone to eat for weeks.

 

My parents’ Hmong American food mart is not doing well. I know this, because each day I walk four blocks through weedy alleyways to my parents’ store on R Street after the yellow school bus drops me off on the corner of our apartment complex at noon. We’re located near the Highway 99 overpass, across from Denny’s and a Shell gas station. We share the crumbling concrete building with a barber who only speaks Spanish, and the swamp coolers hanging over our doors drip mildewy water on anyone passing by. Every day, my plastic step stool waits for me behind the cash register. While my mother uses the restroom, I restock the shelves and tag the inventory with the black pricing gun. When I’m done, I sit on my stool and do homework, or I steal quarters to play Donkey Kong and Centipede on our two video coin-ops, because no one comes in to say otherwise. Each night, my parents fill our plates with fried bologna with eggs and rice while they tear at pieces of sliced bread, and wash it down with tap water. When that runs out, my father drives us to the back of the local McDonald’s, idles the car with the lights turned off, and, when he’s sure no one is watching, he opens the dumpster and reaches in. All day, my parents sell food that they cannot afford to eat. I watch how they stare hungrily at our forks, but they always refuse when I offer. “No, no, you eat,” they say, shaking their heads. “It’s too late for us. We’re already grown.” My sister and I hear their hurried whispers at night in the kitchen, praying feverishly. Thank you Lord for blessing us with this day. Give us, your humble children, your blessing. Show us the way. I pray, too, to be good.

We had moved to California from Oregon two years before, drawn by the promise of sunnier weather, my mother’s desire to be closer to her sister, and, rumor had it, General Vang Pao—my mother’s uncle—planned to purchase farmland in Merced. Thousands of Hmong refugees inundated the small Central Valley town. But the land deal fell through and now we were all stuck. The Vietnam War ended over ten years ago. Thousands of Hmong died saving downed American fighter pilots, but those were state secrets. No one wanted to hire Hmong. So, my parents did the only thing they could: they started a business for people like them—lost, unmoored, homesick, and abandoned in a stranger’s house. On weekends, they toiled in the fields, stashing a few secret strawberries in their pockets for us. And like millions of immigrants before them, they endured the mockery, the pointing, the humiliation, and a hunger that gnawed at their bones.

“Even if most of the meat goes to the wedding, I can ask for scraps and make sausage,” my mother reasons on the drive home. “My lemongrass is tall enough, and I can borrow a meat grinder from the neighbors. If the meat is all gone, I can make rice sausages instead.”

My father breathes in deeply and nods, licking his lips slowly.

 

The following weekend, we follow a caravan of secondhand sedans, used minivans, and rusted pickup trucks to the slaughterhouse out in the country.

Labattoir. My father rolls the word, and it unfurls like silk. He practices his French with me daily, afraid that four years of formal schooling at the prestigious lycée français de Vientiane will be wasted here. Bonjour. Ça va? Nous allons à l’abattoir aujourd’hui. He’s the only person at church with an American college degree. We speak Hmong at home, and I proofread their English paperwork: bank statements, census surveys, parent-teacher notes, bills, final notices. My father teaches me proper Thai manners, but, when my mother wants to discuss serious things without me eavesdropping, she volleys Lao words that bounce against the walls of our tiny, two-bedroom apartment like heat-maddened flies. I hate it when she does this, like I’m too stupid to figure out her meaning.

At the slaughterhouse, my mother warns me not to play near the large metal building in halting English. She enunciates clearly so that the white workers can overhear.

“Do not go inside,” she says. “No matter what you hear.”

“Why not?” I ask.

“Do as I say. No more questions,” her usual reply.

I play outside. I find a shady copse down a concrete hill—it’s more of a low driveway than a hill, really—where I can scoot my butt to the bottom, run up, and slide back down again. I am squatting at the bottom, the way children naturally do, and picking dandelions along the wire fence when I hear something shrill and desperate. In one ear, it sounds like a woman screaming. In the other ear, the angry whistle of a tea kettle boiling over. Then it is gone, and there are only the dandelions and me, and the brilliant flash of a red-winged blackbird against the silver sky.

 

What I don’t see is the metal claw driving deep into the skull of the pig. The fracture cleaving its tender symmetry. Hard enough to stun, but not to kill. The coursing shockwave, a muscular contraction so absolute that the pig violently shits and pisses herself spontaneously. Her brain on fire. The body seizing and punching the ground, thrashing like a fish. This is what my mother doesn’t want me to see: the death rattle in a forbidden room. This is what she doesn’t want me to know: how one life is sacrificed for another to live.

 

I only look up when I hear new sounds approaching: the dry, heavy scraping of the pig’s body dragging in short-fast bursts and wet sandals slapping the concrete. Men grunting and laughing excitedly. The hollow bell of a plastic bucket hitting the floor. The crinkling plastic tarp laid down at the outer lip of the small concrete hill catching on her limbs.

At the top, I see a man crouch down with a long knife and finger her neck. She is still trembling. Two men hold her legs while he slits her throat. His friend rushes to catch the blood rumbling from the gash with the tall bucket, the blood spilling so hot and furious that it foams and bubbles over the lip of the pail. The men roll her onto her back, four sets of pink toes en pointe, and the man with the long knife drives the six-inch blade deep through her sternum. He unzips the pig. The men shout happily, wiping their brows. Then they return her onto her side toward the edge of the short sluiceway, pull her ribs apart, and open her like a giant clamshell. An old woman stands by with a hose crimped in her hand, aimed at the opening, and unfolds it. And then, it’s already too late: I look up from the bottom of that shallow hill and see a carmine wave of hot water and pig blood splashing down over me. I try to jump away, but I’m too slow. A pink snake of intestine wraps around my ankle. It is soft and mushy, still warm, and smells of shit. I am covered in her blood, and I scream.

My mother’s head peers over from the top of the hill and she gasps. She runs down the grassy side of the sluiceway, kicks the intestine off my leg, and carries me back up. The golden dandelions in my hand are flecked with blood. At the top, she sets me down and scolds me.

“What in the world were you doing down there?” she wants to know.

“You said to stay outside, as long as I didn’t go near the big metal house!”

“Aiyah—you look like you went to battle and lost,” she sighs. She strips me down and hoses me off. She looks at my shoes and tsks. “Waste of money,” she spits.

I am not paying attention to her. The men start butchering the pig with a chainsaw and cleavers. I am watching the pig’s pink legs wiggling as the men empty her out like a treasure chest, plundering the innards in great armfuls, all shades of red, some so dark they look like black jelly. And then the old woman rinses the hollow cavity once more. A man stands next to a swirling mound of innards that look like grey and purple worms coated in globs of butter. He picks up a green sac and throws it away. There is a great cracking noise, like a tree branch snapping, and suddenly the pig splits in half. They chop off her head. The old woman limps toward us, and she hands my mother a black garbage bag of meat. She smiles at me, tipping a blood-caked finger toward my chin.

Ab, me ntxhais zoo nkauj,” she cackles, “thaum twg peb yuav noj koj tshoob, na?” Oh, pretty little daughter, when will we get to feast at your wedding?

I stare into the toothless maw of her black mouth. Freckles of blood and gore confetti her cheeks. I wrinkle my nose, disgusted.

Ab, kuv thab koj xwb,” she laughs. Oh, I’m just teasing.

“Don’t mind her,” my mother apologizes. “This one is always grumpy. She never smiles. Must have been born this way.”

In the car, I sit in my underwear and pick scabs of dried blood out of my hair. I twist the strands between two fingers, and burgundy flecks pepper the seat. My mother tells my father that we have enough to make real sausage—but that I have ruined both my best dress and my leather sandals because I was careless. That I don’t deserve to have nice things. I don’t understand why she’s mad at me, because I only did what she asked me to. I was good.

 

This was the first and the last time my parents took me to the slaughterhouse. I’ve often wondered why my parents they did it, now that I’m a mother, too. Nice family outing with blood spray? No thanks. Looking back though, their reasons were most likely simple: there was no one they trusted enough to watch me and they couldn’t afford to pay a babysitter, so I could go as long as I stayed out of trouble and didn’t embarrass them too much. Wearing a dress and fancy shoes was not my idea. In many ways, my mother wanted me to be an extension of her, which meant looking polished in matching outfits and hairstyles in every photo. One year, we even had matching home perms, and I looked like Asian Lucy van Pelt in my frilly sky blue dress and white moccasins until the thick curls finally relaxed around Christmas and my big toe bore a hole through the top of my shoe. I was window dressing, well-fed, well-mannered, good grades, the perfect advertisement for their unquestionable success, and American in every way. Little did I realize then that I was also being prospected for my own future marriage potential.

 

When we get home, my mother asks me to join her in the kitchen because she wants to teach me something that will make my future husband’s family very happy: how to make traditional sausage.

“The first step is to rinse out the shit from the intestines,” my mother says as she runs the open end of one intestine underneath the tap. “The nice thing about American slaughterhouses is that they starve the pigs the day before you kill them. In Laos, we weren’t so lucky. So much shit. You would cut the pig open and vomit on your feet.

“Next, you have to check to see if there are any tears. If there are tears, then the meat will fall out and all that hard work will have been for nothing,” she says.

“How do you do that?” I ask.

“Watch.” And she places the raw intestine to her lips and blows. It fills with air and curls like a coiled snake in the sink. She holds it up, and taps it. It’s like a balloon. It bounces, floats mid-air for a second, then alights onto her open palm. “That is how you know.”

As she takes the second string of intestine to her mouth, I remember that it is raw and had stored pounds of rancid pig shit just hours ago. And now it is on my mother’s lips. That is the mouth that kisses me in the morning before school, and at night before bed. “Gross,” I shudder.

“If you want to eat, you have to change your ideas of what is good and what is gross,” she sniffs. “Trust me, by tonight, you will not even remember where this came from.”

And then, I have a troubling thought.

“Mom, is this what I have inside me, too?”

“What do you mean,” she says.

“This stuff, all of this stuff,” I say, pointing to the sink and to the random offal lying on top of the black garbage bag on the kitchen floor.

“Yes,” she says carefully, “of course.”

 

Up until this point, my theory was that people and animals were filled with air and had clothing lines strung up between their shoulders to hang their hearts. This is where the air went when we breathed. This is why, when you ran too fast for too long, it felt like your heart was going to drop to your feet. This is why birds could fly: they were filled with air. When you squeezed someone too hard or tickled them too long, the air escaped in farts and hiccups. And this is why, if I was thrown into the sea, I would surely float safely instead of sink and disappear forever on the ocean floor. I was so wrong.

 

“Everyone has these deep inside them, like a secret,” my mother says. “You can’t see them, but you can feel them. They tell you when you are hungry. They tell you when you feel scared. And when you are ready, they will make a baby, too.”

No way.

“So, everyone has these,” I say.

“Yes, you have them. Your father has them. I do too,” she says. “In fact, you came from inside my guts.” She points right below her belly button and smiles. “You came from right here.” I don’t believe her.

“From your intestines?” I ask. “Wait, did I come out your butt?!?”

“No, dummy!” she laughs. “You came out from a different hole between my legs.”

“Does Dad have a hole, too?”

“No, his is different,” she says.

“What does it look like?” I ask.

“No more questions,” she snaps. “I’ll tell you when you’re older.”

At dinner, she’s right: the sausages are delicious, and I can’t taste the shit at all.

 

The next afternoon, we join the congregation at the Moua house for the afternoon wedding feast in the backyard. There are so many cars that some have parked right on the front lawn, and we get dirty looks from neighbors as we pull up.

“Don’t look back at them,” my mother says. “Just keep walking. C’mon.” Her heels gallop on the hot pavement as she marches off with my sister straddling her waist. My father smooths his hair with the small, black plastic pocket comb he always keeps in his front pants pocket, and clears his throat. We can smell the smoke of roasting meat down the block, still slightly barnyard, and we walk a little faster. A few stray dogs are already pacing in front of the house, ears alert, and drooling even as teenagers throw rocks to scatter them.

We haven’t reached the driveway yet, and there is already a thick line of men waiting to get in through the front door. They see my father and extend their hands to shake his while my mother motions me to enter through the side gate where the women are cooking over gas burners, and children are running in gleeful circles with soda-stained shirts.

Once we’re inside, the house is all knees and elbows. There are so many people that the buffet line folds upon itself like a giant organ. A clear plastic tarp is taped over the carpet, and greasy puddles of pork soup and chili-flecked larb dot the floor. I ask my mother to hold my place in line for me while I escape into the hallway, because I’m only tall enough to tell people apart by the shape and spread of their asses, and the constant eye-level jostling of strangers’ buttocks is ruining my appetite.

The Moua’s hallway is a welcome sanctuary filled with family photos, and I cannot believe how many relatives can fit inside one house. My parents’ apartment is practically bare. We are a family of four, and that is our entire world except for one photo of an old woman with my grandfather. I’m still gazing at the Moua family’s photos when my mother finds me and thrusts a paper plate piled with pork, rice, and mustard greens into my hands.

“Here.”

“Mom,” I say.

“What.”

“How come it’s just us here?” I ask.

“What do you mean,” she says.

“I mean, where are all of our relatives? Where’s grandmother?”

“She’s here,” she says. “You saw her at church just this morning.”

“I mean, your mother.”

My mother pauses. “She’s in Thailand,” she says finally.

“Why is she in Thailand? Can’t she come visit us?” I ask.

“No more questions,” she says. “Let’s go eat outside.”

No. “If you don’t know where she is, just say so,” I snap.

She whips around. “What did you say?”

I don’t catch the danger in her voice. “I said, if you don’t know just say so.”

She raises her hand, but then remembers herself and points her finger at me instead.

“Outside,” she growls, “now.”

 

The following Sunday, after church, my mother tells me to play with my little sister while she makes lunch. My sister’s two-years-old and loves hide-and-seek, although she gives up way too soon. I hide in my parents’ closet, deep in the back, past all the heavy winter coats. I have been reading C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and I am delighted by the possibility of secret passageways and magical creatures that give me candy whenever I wish. I push past my mother’s heavy fur coats, my fingers running along the smooth, long hairs. I feel the nubby wool threads of my father’s coats, slightly frayed at the cuffs. I stretch my hands out, feeling for a wall or the cool handle of a door that has been waiting to be discovered. Instead, I feel a rod. No, two rods, pressed together. They are ice cold, and hollow. They feel dangerous, like two snakes entwined. I jump back, and trip on a book.

The book is unlike any other. It isn’t hard or glossy. It isn’t laminated like the textbooks at school, or slippery like the plastic-jacketed library books. It’s rectangular, and covered in loose and scratchy fabric. Like many ribbons woven together. I pick it up in my hands, exit the closet, and sit on the floor. It’s beautiful with gold and black threads woven into a naga, a dragon, and the book opens with a sizzling crack of the spine to reveal my parents’ life before me. It is a photo album.

I don’t recognize anyone in the photos. I forget to breathe. I feel my belly button clench and flex, a wave of nausea washing over me as I unpeel one of the square photos from the sticky album page, and hold it closely to my face. The girl in the photo looks so familiar. Her face is milky white and round with a delicate, pointed chin. Her lips are pink and full, but they are distorted because she is shouting something. Or screaming. Her long black hair is parted in the center and pulled back, tucked behind her ears. Her small breasts pull at the buttons of her wet blouse. And she has a streak of blood across her face.

It hits me: this is my mother. This is my mother as a young woman.

No, she is a girl.

The room in which she stands is dirty, even in the dark. This must be Ban Vinai. Whenever my parents’ friends come over for tea, they always whisper this name. This must be the city where they lived before coming to America. And the old woman in my mother’s arms, she must be my grandmother—the one who still lives in Thailand. Except. How can that be? My grandmother’s head is thrown back, teeth parted and lips torn. Her face is tilted away, revealing the gaping hole in her neck, and the blood is gushing out. It defies gravity and goes wherever it wants. On the floor, on the walls, down her shirt to the soles of her feet, all over my mother, everywhere. In the photo, my mother cradles her like she gave birth to the old woman herself. My grandmother has been shot in the face, the neck, and chest. She looks like a wild tiger has ripped her apart. My grandmother is dead. She has always been dead. And in this photo that my mother has hidden from me so well until now, my grandmother is bleeding to death in a secret room for all of eternity. What else has your mother lied about?

 

I don’t hear my mother calling my name. I don’t feel her footsteps padding across the kitchen floor, or the clicking of doors in the hallway. I don’t notice her step into the room as I am sitting there, hunched over, mouth open. Like her mouth. Red, all over. I only see the dark shadow of her hand raised above me when it’s already too late. Her hand looms like a black crow, and then the slap is happening. It’s a hornet’s sting, the venom burning bright in fiery waves across my cheek. I’m momentarily blinded and confused by pain. The room turns sideways because now I’m on the floor. My ears are ringing, and my eyes are vibrating in their sockets, unable to focus except on her pink toenails and the veins of her feet pulsing microscopically. The carpet smells salty and animal, and I push against it to lift myself up. I can’t tell if my nose is bleeding or not. My whole face feels wet and hot.

She is screaming at me now, the words foaming at the corners of her mouth. Tiny specks of spit fleck my face as she tears the photo album away from me and throws it back into the closet. She pinches my ear and lifts me off the floor. When I scream, she grabs a fistful of my long black hair and drags me out of her room, flinging me into the hallway. Her eyes are wild and bulging. She is possessed. The door slams shut, and the lock clicks.

 

My parents sell the store a few months later, and my father retreats into the silent world of his Bible when he returns from his new office job. The French lessons end, and the door to his study stays shut. We are left alone with our mother, who tells us that if we don’t behave, she will replace us with another—any orphan girl from Laos will do. I never see the photo again.

After my mother hid the photo album, she spent thirty years convincing me that I had hallucinated everything—that I made it all up just to hurt her—and that I was a bad daughter. But my grandmother haunted me, still. I obsessed over the details of her photo in secret, but it was easier to recall the slaughtered pig, which stained itself into my psyche. The pig became her proxy as I excavated the reasons for her absence. No, for her murder. I lost my innocence the moment the pig was slit open and its blood washed over me, but it was my mother’s tireless campaign to cover up the truth—which was also my truth—that broke my heart.

When I found my mother’s darkest secret and discovered how easy it was to cleave a living thing in two, I realized my ideas were childish: bodies weren’t hollow, mothers didn’t love their children unconditionally, some doors couldn’t shut once opened, and the world demanded a sacrifice. Beneath the frilly petticoats and matching perms, the violence was always there, just below the surface—the bloody cycle of birth and dying, the gore, were always inside and biding its time to suddenly erupt and overtake me completely. It happened to my grandmother. It happened to my mother, and now surely it would come for me.

My mistake was trespassing into the forbidden room and learning this secret too soon: the abattoir’s killing floor, my mother’s gilded album hidden deep inside her closet, the blood-stained hut where my grandmother died in her daughter’s arms, and, in a way, all my questions. These were the secrets that we were supposed to carry silently within us—they were horrible, but they were ours.

***

Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.


Lisa Lee Herrick is an award-winning writer, artist, community organizer, and media professional who helped produce the film, The Hmong and The Secret War, now available online at PBS.org. She is a former television executive and award-nominated news journalist, and a founding member of the LitHop literary festival. She is writing a family memoir about the inheritance and aftermath of trauma; a cookbook; and two graphic novels. https://lisaleeherrick.com More from this author →