This story was originally published in StoryQuarterly, Issue 40 and New Stories From South: The Year’s Best, 2005
Of course it would be exaggerating to say that Slug had so estranged himself from the neighborhood that a phone call from him was as astonishing to Della as, say, a rainfall of fish, or blood, or manna, and as baffling in portent. Still, as Della stood phone in hand, about to wake her husband, Alvin, who was sleeping through the six o’clock news in his recliner, she sensed with a sort of holy clearness of heart that what was happening on the television—two cows dropping down through the trees and onto somebody’s picnic in the park—was tied, figuratively if not causally, to the call from Slug. “Mais, the cows done flew,” she thought.
The anchorwoman for the Baton Rouge news announced that a livestock trailer carrying over a hundred head of cattle on their way to processing had plunged over the entrance ramp railing at the Interstate 10-110 junction that morning. The driver had been speeding, possibly drunk, and consequently, definitely decapitated. More than a dozen of the cattle were crushed outright. Several others survived the wreck only to climb over the edge of I-110 and drop to their deaths in the park below, while the remaining seventy or so, dazed and frightened, fled down the interstate or into the leafy shelter of the surrounding neighborhoods, followed by a band of cowboys called in for the impromptu roundup.
Fifty-three of the seventy cows had been recovered already, and all carcasses promptly removed from the roadway in time for the evening rush. Calls were still coming in, however: from kids who had a cow tied with cable to a signpost on their street; from riverboat gamblers who saw a small herd grazing on the levee downtown; from a state representative who stepped in a sizable patty on the lawn of the Capitol. The search would continue into the night.
It was not the first time an eighteen-wheeler had gone over that railing, Della remembered. Back in the late seventies, absurd but true, some poor woman driving northbound on I-110 was killed when 40,000 pounds of frozen catfish dropped onto her Volkswagen. Della thought then, as she did now, that it was certainly a shame to lose all that meat, with so many people starving in this world.
When Alvin finally snorted himself awake, he first tried to make sense of the man on horseback in a cowboy costume, waving a lasso at a boxy red shorthorn under the statue of Huey Long—another advertising bid for Texas gamblers?—before he noticed his wife in the doorway, waving the phone and hissing, “C’est Slug! C’est Slug!” Alvin yanked the lever on his recliner, sending the footrest down with an echoing concussion that catapulted him up and out. “C’est Slug?” he said. The name dropped out of his mouth in the Cajun-French way, with a drawn out uuhh. “Let me talk to him.”
Della held the telephone out, covering the mouthpiece with her palm. “Poor thing, you can’t hardly understand what he says.” She rushed to a notepad on the coffee table and scribbled Slug’s name under the names of her four children and five grandchildren, all scattered to the ends of the earth. Next to Slug’s she wrote: Face. Visit, cook, clean? Tomorrow, in a quiet moment, the list of names on the notepad would be passed to Pearl, then from Pearl to Estelle, from Estelle to Barbara, and on down the telephone prayer line.
Alvin squinted at her and leaned into the phone. “Quoi?” he said quietly. “Ain?” he said gently. “Ain? . . . Ain? . . . Quoi t’as dit?”
Della thought regretfully of how foolish Slug’s wife, Camille, had been. A doctor had told Camille she needed to watch her cholesterol, so she cut all meat but chicken from their diet, and would not at all countenance an egg. They stopped visiting their neighbors, terrified of the gumbos and étouffées that threatened their blood at every house. At church each Sunday for two years, the neighborhood watched Camille grow thin and papery, painted with watercolor bruises, and when finally she died of pneumonia, no one wondered why. Many now attributed Slug’s present condition to the two years he’d been deprived of meat’s vital nourishment. Why else would the removal of a tiny melanoma turn into an infection that, having started at such a small place by Slug’s ear, now crept fast over his face like mold on bread. It was so simple. Why couldn’t the doctors see?
“Ain?” Alvin said. “Une vache?”
Alvin wasn’t much of a carpenter; measurements bored him, and he didn’t have the tools or the fascination with things intricately wooden. While a gibbet did not have to be intricate, only sturdy and built to fit inside his fourteen-by-twenty-foot garage, Alvin could not even vouch for that. But Claude, down the block, could do amazing things with wood. He made reclining porch swings out of cypress that never rotted. He whittled his own fishing lures. Many years ago Claude had helped Alvin right a fallen chicken coop in exchange for a dinner of the last pullet left alive.
Because Alvin could not build, he butchered, and he was not so sure, despite what his wife said, that the stink of guts and mess of feathers, or the old ways of village barter were at all worse than the mad relay at the Winn-Dixie on senior discount days: he and Della in separate lines, each with the limit—two nine-cent-a-pound turkeys—then the dash for the car, turkeys into the trunk, and right back for two more each at different registers before some faster senior citizen in one of those go-karts snatched them all up. These cheap and plentiful turkeys provoked his wife’s instinct to horde. In three deep-freezers, Della had turkeys for the next five years’ holidays, and they were not to be traded, these hard-earned birds. At the same time, she fussed, she threatened: no more live chickens, no more rabbits, no more pigeons, doves, squirrels in traps. She griped that she would never live to see the end of this meat.
Around the neighborhood, though, Alvin’s garage butchery was held in the highest esteem, so for Alvin’s promise of a fresh brisket and sweetbreads, Claude traded woodworking consultation, even at this late hour. He took one look at Alvin’s paper-towel blueprint and smeared on a few changes with a leaky pen. “That’s how they do for deer,” he explained. “But deers aren’t near as heavy.”
“Us, we used to do it from a tree,” Alvin said.
Claude said, “Us too. We from the same place, you know. Or you forgot that?”
He traced over Alvin’s lines until the paper towel split into a fuzzy stencil of an A-frame, deliberating aloud over weight limits and angles, then he drafted his own design on the back of a receipt from his wallet. To the basic frame, he added a crossbar with two hooks. He attached the crossbar to a block and tackle that could be tied to a truck, in case the bare strength of all the neighborhood’s aging men wasn’t enough. He even drew the truck.
He was dying to ask, Alvin could tell. “You got him tied in your yard right now?”
“Aw no, man,” said Alvin. “He went in those Indians’ yard. Slug says we better come get him quick before that little lady gets scared and calls the cops.”
“He’s a peculiar fella, Slug.”
“Aw yeah, he is.”
A moment of silent contemplation passed in observance of Slug’s peculiarities. It had been a long, long time since anyone had seen Slug up close. It had been a long, long time since Slug had participated in the give and take.
The Indians were actually from Sudan, and had been living in the house next to Slug’s for three years now. Through the mail carrier, Della stayed informed about them and their funny ways. There was a mother named Fatima, a little girl, another littler girl, and the oldest, a boy. Their last name was Nasraddin. They sometimes got packages of meat, frozen over dry ice and labeled perishable, from “Halal Meats Wholesale,” through overnight mail. There had been no sign of a father, but they had twice received official-looking letters from Sudan. Wasn’t Sudan, Della guessed, a part of India? She never thought to look it up.
When the Sudanese first moved in, the woman and the three children, on their own, the neighborhood watched from windows and porches. After hauling each heavy piece of furniture from truck to house, the mother and son, both so small and narrow, stood panting in the driveway while the little girls picked at acorns on the ground. The neighborhood watched them survey the remaining pieces for the next lightest, putting off the inevitable six-foot, hide-away sofa, bulky and impossible as a bull. The bright flowered shawl wrapped around the woman’s head was wet with sweat, and kept sliding off. When Alvin and a few other men offered to help, the woman waved them away. She and her children climbed into the truck and surrounded the sofa. They pushed. “Not heavy,” she said. The sofa shifted slightly toward the loading ramp. Her shawl slipped off again, but this time she untied it and draped it over her shoulders, like an athlete drapes a towel. The woman said, “Thank you.” The men, so ox-like and unsmiling, might have seemed presumptuous, a little crude, even threatening perhaps, advancing uninvited onto her lawn, but still Alvin thought it was a shame she didn’t have someone to help her get along in a strange place, tiny as she was, with three kids.
For months, the neighborhood watched as the woman came and went at odd hours in the familiar uniforms of food service and checkout counters, with her long hair pulled tight into a bun at the back of her neck. When they sometimes found her at the end of a line, bagging their turkeys and toilet paper or wrapping their hamburgers, the people of the neighborhood wanted to say something to her, if not welcome, then hello, maybe, or what do you need; but she would thank them and look away before they had decided; and then, they would doubt that it was her at all, but perhaps one of the many other dark people whose faces under fleeting scrutiny looked, quite frankly, alike.
The neighborhood watched when, a year later, the mother and son stood again on the lawn, this time with a garden hose and scrub brushes, washing splattered eggs off their windows and bricks. Much to the neighborhood’s surprise, Slug emerged from his hermitage next door to cut down the deer skin that was strung like a lynching from the low branches of the Nasraddins’ oak tree. News of a bombing in a government building had goaded the restless college and high school boys, who, for love of country and trouble, patrolled these neighborhoods in their pick-ups, rattling windows with speakers bigger than their engines, and shouting: “U! S! A!” and “Arabs, go home!” Fatima’s boy, for days afterward, lurked on the front porch with a baseball bat, or lingered at the gate. He silently dared the white faces in every passing car, and when no one took his dare, he battered the knobby, exposed roots of the oak tree instead.
By the end of the second year, the neighborhood had accepted the Sudanese in that they had lost interest in the family altogether. From time to time, Della still sent a prayer around for the woman Fatima and her three children. She knew the name Fatima only as the holy site of Virginal apparitions somewhere off in Europe, Italy or France maybe. To Della, that a brown woman could be so named was another sign that all the world’s people more or less worshipped the same god. When she called Claude’s wife, Pearl, to deliver the prayer list, Della said, “They just like us, them Indians. They love Mary and Jesus, same as us.” Pearl said, “I don’t think they’re the same.”
Last year, when Alvin slaughtered the last of his rabbits, Della put in a busy morning of head smashing and fur scraping, and then sent him around the neighborhood, a gut-reeking summer Santa with a bag full of carcasses and orders to visit the Indians. Alvin knocked at Slug’s door first, encouraged by the blue television light flashing on the curtains. He saw a shadow, movement across the room, and knocked again. He waited, knocked, prepared himself for the shock of Slug’s disfigured face should the door finally open; but it never opened.
When he rang the bell at the Nasraddin house, all at once he heard many bare feet running on linoleum. A dense uneasiness pressed on the door from the inside, but here too the door stayed shut. Alvin thought maybe he could just leave a rabbit on the front steps, and as he was fishing in the bag for a nice big one, the chain clattered, the door opened. The woman Fatima, swathed in a purple cloth that dragged the floor, said, “You are bleeding?”
There were spatters of blood on Alvin’s coveralls and, though he’d washed his hands, red on his elbows. “No, ma’am. I’m Alvin Guilbeau. I brought you a rabbit.”
Fatima shook her head. She smiled and waved him inside her house. The shy little girls, eyes wide and wet, peeked around her purple cloth.
“I raise rabbits. Me and my wife, we can’t use them all,” Alvin tried. “So I give them away.”
Behind his mother, the boy, about thirteen by then, leaned against the wall dressed in tight yellow sweatpants and a red t-shirt. He had grown since Alvin first saw him out on the lawn shoving hopelessly at furniture. His shoulders were wide, his chest thick. He was almost as tall as any man. “Mama,” he said, “he brought us a rabbit. Arneb.” His voice was still a boy’s voice, but it had an oscillating croak. He grinned a wicked grin at Alvin, then said to his little sisters, “Do you want a bunny?”
Fatima said, “No, no,” and shook her head so vigorously that long fuzzy hair exploded out of its bun. She blurted Arabic at her son, but he only smirked. “No,” she said to Alvin.
“It’s cleaned and skinned. Fresh,” Alvin said. Alvin reached into his bag again, yearning to prove they were pretty rabbits, but Fatima swung her purple cloth around and scurried to the kitchen. The two big-eyed girls were marooned; they drew closer together. Over her shoulder, Fatima communicated something to the boy in what sounded to Alvin like angry coughs and gurgles.
“She says we cannot eat that meat. That’s what she said.” The boy’s English bubbled and flowed, smoother and more proper than Alvin’s.
“It’s clean,” Alvin said. “Y’all don’t eat meat, maybe?”
“We eat meat,” the boy said. His eyes took in and then avoided the blood on Alvin’s coveralls. “That’s what she said to tell you.”
Alvin was deciding whether or not he should be offended when Fatima returned, her purple cloth pinched into a sack in front of her. “Thank you,” she said. She jutted her chin at Alvin’s bag. “Open,” she said. He did. She stood over it and let the cloth drop, dumping several pounds of candy over rabbit meat. “Thank you,” she said.
“Thank you,” Alvin said.
“Sorry. We cannot eat this meat,” she said. “Stay for tea?”
“No, no, thank you,” Alvin said, backing toward the door. “I got to go give these rabbits away.”
“Come for tea.”
“Tell your wife,” Fatima said, smiling, thanking, waving, closing the door.
Alvin stopped on the sidewalk and dug a caramel out of the bag. He unwrapped it thoughtfully, popped it into his mouth and continued down the block, wondering what in the world people eat, if not meat.
All the way to Slug’s, flashlights in hand, Alvin and Claude scoped a route to Alvin’s garage that would avoid attention. They met no one on their two-block trek. One or the other of them knew almost every resident within a four-block radius, many of whom would be invited to share in this lucky blessing from the Lord, but it was the passers-through, like the students from the college, who might make trouble, or the policeman, a neighbor’s grandson, who rolled down the block every now and then to check on the old folks.
Claude and Alvin turned the flashlights off near the Nasraddin house and paused at the chain-link gate to look and listen. Light from Fatima’s windows overflowed the curtains and pooled in a narrow moat around the brick walls. Alvin clicked on his flashlight and made a quick sweep of the yard, but the beam only fell upon a droopy fig tree and a rusted barbecue pit.
The sound of an opening door sent Claude and Alvin ducking to the ground. “Y’all signaling planes out here?” The voice was familiar, if garbled.
Alvin shined the beam on Slug’s porch where Slug stood, one hand holding him up against a column and the other lingering self-consciously near his chin. Only one eye, the left, reflected back under one silvered, bristling eyebrow. Half of Slug’s head, from brow down to chin and back over an ear, was taped up in brownish bandages, and Alvin thought of the cartoons he’d watched with his grandchildren: the sweating, pink pig who dabbed with a handkerchief and wiped his face right off, then thrashed around, grabbed blindly, a bewildered pink blank until the cartoonist leaned in with a giant pencil and gave the pig back to the world. “You looking good, Slug. You feel good?”
“Jesus,” Claude said.
Slug pulled down one corner of his mouth to straighten it out. “I feel alright. Can’t do nothing ’bout it anyway.” The words melted, dribbled down the steep slope of his mouth and drained out.
Slug’s front room was tidy, tidier than Alvin expected considering how long the man had been hiding out with no company except his son, who drove two hours every other weekend from Alexandria to haul his father to specialists in New Orleans, another hour away. But the house did not feel clean. Dust coated the furniture, evidence of a life in stasis, like gangrene in an occluded limb. Slug’s house had always been neat, thanks to his fastidious wife, but a fishing magazine might be left here, or an empty glass there. Alvin saw nothing to indicate that Slug did more than mope from room to room, or sit contemplative, or brooding, or resentful, in his armchair. The only thing not coated in dust was the TV remote control. There was a sour-and-bitter odor hanging around Slug, of clothes left too long in the washing machine then scorched in the dryer. Alvin noticed wetness on the bulge of bandages over his ear. He tried to focus on Slug’s speckled blue eye, yolk-yellow all around like a crushed robin’s egg. “You doing everything them doctors tell you to?”
“Ca connaisse pas rien, those fool doctors.” Slug’s look dared Alvin or Claude to say otherwise.
“Okay,” Alvin said. Slug would know about doctors.
“Y’all want that cow or not? She’s in those Indians’ backyard,” Slug slurred. “The boy didn’t see her and he shut the gate.”
On the way to the back door, Slug tied a lasso out of a ten-foot rope that was waiting on the kitchen table. When Claude turned on his flashlight, Slug swatted at it, nearly knocked it out of his hand. “You gonna scare that little lady,” he said.
The men crossed Slug’s dark, tangled lawn with their flashlights off. Something wild and quick jetted back to its den in the hedgerow at the rear end of Slug’s property, and in answer, from beyond Fatima’s chain-link fence, came a snort. Alvin felt the heavy presence of the animal all of a sudden. It was startling and near—all the more real for being unseen. He remembered: cows have horns, hooves, heads, tails, and they are so damned big. Ever so slowly, a very large and pale silhouette developed against the darkness like a photonegative. Grabbing up a wad of grass, Slug clucked and cooed, and the silhouette trudged closer. The big white head swung up and took the grass from Slug’s open hand. He rubbed the wide space between her eyes, pinpointed one spot with his thumb, just right of center. The cow shook her head and puffed out a wet breath.
Each holding a handful of grass, the three men edged down the fence toward the gate, and the cow followed. The lights in the Nasraddin house were still on, and shadows moved against the curtains, the two little girls jumping on the sofa. Once the men were nearer the gate, Slug widened the lasso and slipped it around the cow’s neck. Alvin lifted the gate latch, but the gate hung badly on its hinges and as Alvin dragged it open, it scraped against the driveway. The cow stomped her feet. Slug bent his knees and held on to the end of the slack rope as the cow backed away. Alvin could only see the blank side of Slug’s face, impassive as the moon. The rope tightened. “Grab it!” Claude yelled. The cow swung her head from side to side. Pulling against them, she let out a loud and awful moo.
The little girls in the house stopped jumping and poked their heads between the curtains. The men dropped the rope. The cow retreated to the back yard.
With her boy behind her, Fatima stepped out of her front door waving a baseball bat. “Who’s that?” she said. “I will call the police!”
Alvin turned a flashlight on his own face. “It’s Alvin Guilbeau.” He presented himself to her in the light of the open door. “You got a surprise in your back yard.”
She let the bat drop to her side and said something in her language to the boy, who then disappeared into the house. Tonight, instead of a long sheet, she wore a maroon fast-food uniform with yellow stripes on the sleeves. There was a turquoise shawl wrapped around her shoulders. Her feet were bare. In the air, Alvin smelled spices he’d never heard names for and remembered, for the first time in many years, the Indian markets he’d seen during the war, the cyclone of dark people in bright colors.
“Chère, you seen the news report tonight? You got one of them cows in your backyard,” Alvin said. Fatima shook her head slightly. “A cow,” Alvin said. He gestured at the back yard. There was, to Alvin, a shroud about the faces of people who spoke languages other than his. Even when silent, they wore a vagueness about the eyes; their body language spoke in impossible accents. “Cow,” Alvin said again. “Cow. Cow.” Fatima readjusted her shawl, and seemed to teeter between frustration and understanding.
When Slug and Claude rounded the corner, tempting the animal with grass and leading it by the rope, all at once, the vagueness lifted from Fatima. With the baseball bat hanging to one side on her hips like a billy club, she swaggered down her front steps. The little girls watched from the window.
“I saw on the television!” she said.
The boy appeared again, his arms crossed over his chest, trying very hard to fill his doorway, to be the man of his doorway. “She wants you to have some tea.” His voice had entirely changed. Alvin and Fatima both pointed at once, and the boy gasped.
“We should call the police?” Fatima walked boldly up to the animal and motioned for her boy to do the same. Alvin watched the mother and son as they patted the cow’s haunches. While the boy whispered to the creature, Alvin wondered if the Nasraddins could be trusted.
“Come inside, use the phone,” Fatima said. She gestured toward the door with her baseball bat.
“You don’t want to call the cops,” Claude said. He sounded, Alvin thought, absurdly menacing. The boy pushed between his mother and Claude, and his smooth, brown face radiated outrage as clearly as any man’s. Fatima only looked from Claude to her son and made pensive birdish noises between her lips, unable to decode the language of a threat, or maybe just not threatened.
“I don’t think we should call the police,” Alvin said, “tonight.”
Slug said, “Let’s wait and see.”
“What should we wait to see?” the boy said. He glared at Claude. “We will call the police.”
“Khalid!” Fatima wrapped an arm around her boy’s waist and drew him close to her. She spoke to him in their language, and Alvin saw a mother like any he had known, who could calm her son, and entreat, and explain, and who was confident in her own wisdom. “We will not call tonight,” she said to the men.
“So she’ll call tomorrow?” Claude said. “The cow can’t stay here.”
“It can stay in the yard. We can close the gate,” Fatima said, “until tomorrow.”
“No, ma’am,” said Alvin. “We need to take it to my garage.”
“Why take it? I don’t mind.”
Slug emerged from the shadows. He tugged at his mouth. “Ma’am,” he said, “Ma’am. We don’t want to call the cops at all.” He spoke very slowly, took care to make each word clear. “Miss Fatima, one cow is a lot of meat.”
Khalid yelped. “You’re going to eat this cow!”
“Y’all welcome to some of it,” said Slug.
The boy bubbled over with Arabic. He flung his hands around, pressing closer and closer to his mother, and trailed off into English. “They’re crazy!” he said to her. “They want to eat it!”
The woman said, “If you want to share, my son must kill her with a knife.” Even her laughter rippled with foreignness; the men could not translate it. By way of explanation, she only said, “Khalid is a big boy,” and laughed again. The boy seemed both astonished and very embarrassed. She patted his arm.
In the humans’ confused silence, the cow tore at grass and swished her tail.
Fatima poked the bandage around Slug’s ear not so gently with three fingers. “You need to change this,” she instructed.
“Maybe so, yeah.”
“You are not listening to the doctor.” She addressed Alvin next. “Will you come tomorrow for tea? Will you bring your wife?”
Before he meant to, he said, “Yes, ma’am.” Fatima turned back to her house. Khalid started to follow, but Fatima threw out the baseball bat to stop him. “Help them, Khalid,” she said. She gave him the bat, and went in to her little girls.
The boy walked along the animal’s right shoulder and stroked her swaying neck. Her hooves thudded on the grass, clopped on the pavement as they passed through yards, across driveways, and behind houses. On the cow’s left side, Slug and Claude each sulked in his own way, for his own reasons, as Alvin walked ahead, leading the cow by the rope and listening for cars.
Claude said, “You got your daddy over there in India?”
The boy didn’t answer.
“Ain’t none of your business,” Slug said.
In one back yard, the cow took control of the men. She dragged them over to a garden of mustard greens and devoured half of a row before haunch-swatting and rope-tugging finally coaxed her on. The boy dropped far behind. He took swings with the bat, at dirt, trees, and telephone poles.
“I got to see India,” Alvin said. “During the war. They let the cows roam the streets.”
“I seen on TV,” Claude said, “how they make the women walk behind the men.”
“I don’t know about that, but I seen the cows for myself,” Alvin looked around for the boy. “I guess his momma’s used to having cows all over the place.”
“I’m telling you, they don’t even let them show their faces, those women.”
“We aren’t from India,” Khalid shouted from the darkness behind them. “We’re from Sudan!”
By the time they came to Alvin’s house, the boy had disappeared. They led the cow into the garage and tied her to one of the beams overhead. She lifted her tail and dumped a heap onto the concrete floor. With a shovel that he took down from the rafters where it balanced along with rakes and fishing poles, Alvin shoveled the crap into a paper bag so that he could use it later to fertilize the muscadine vines that crawled up a lattice at the back of the garage and covered the only windows.
“She’s crazy,” Claude said. “We ain’t gonna let a boy kill that cow.”
“Aw, she was pulling our leg. Don’t get all worked up,” Alvin said.
“You don’t know what she’s joking about or not. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was dialing 911 right now.”
“Bouche ta gueule! She won’t call no cops!” Slug was at the garage door, his one eye peeping through a crack for any sight of the boy. “You know that little lady,” he whispered, “she went to school for law in her country.”
“Is that right,” said Alvin.
“And her husband. He was some kind of politician. They didn’t like what he had to say over there. They shot him dead.”
“So don’t you ask that boy about his daddy no more.”
Slug slipped out of the garage, into the darkness, and crept homeward like a possum, along walls and fences and hedges.
Della, in bed and asleep by eight o’clock, long before Alvin came in, and awake again at dawn, long before Alvin awoke, had no idea when she went out to the deep-freezers in her housedress and slippers for a package of boudin to boil for breakfast that she would find a cow in her garage. When she saw it there, smelling like a circus and totally composed, she turned immediately back toward the house and just as she opened her mouth to yell, Alvin rounded the corner, still in his pajamas. He started at her in French before she could argue. He told her about Slug and the Sudanese, and he made her see that it would be just like at Pepere’s farm on autumn Saturdays, when their children were still babies. God knew what He was doing, sending that trailer-truck flying in November instead of July. The flies had slacked off. The air was light and thin, perfect weather for slaughter. The neighbors would come and ask for this or that part, the brisket, the ribs, the sweetbreads or the brains, and there would be no fights about it, only merry hacking and sawing and yanking at skin. She would stuff her red sausages. Pearl would make liver gravy. Inside, their house would be close, wet with the boiling of sausages and the heat of a crowd sweating from homemade wine. “Besides,” he said, “if we don’t slaughter it ourselves, they just going to haul it off, cut it up, and send it right back to us at three dollars a pound. That cow came to us. She’s ours.” He made it sound like a good idea.
By noon, thanks to Della and the Catholic sisters of the prayer line, word got around that God had delivered unto the neighborhood a fat, unblemished cow, and they planned, sure enough, to eat it. Although some of the ladies had concerns, they had to admit the price of beef had gone up, and their little bit of social security certainly did not allow for steak and brisket every night of the week, and furthermore, if so-and-so down the block was in for a piece of the cow, then they should be too. Della passed along all her prayers, for Slug, for her children and her grandchildren, who never called or wrote or prayed for themselves, and for Fatima, her little ones, and that angry young man of hers. “And pray,” she said finally, “pray tonight we don’t get caught.”
It took little for Alvin to convince Della to visit Fatima with him in the very early afternoon. Della did her hair and powdered her face, Alvin tucked in his shirt. They found a jar of fig preserves in the back of a cabinet, dusted it off, and wondered if the Nasraddins would say they could not eat figs.
The boy answered the door, slouching in his jeans and sweatshirt. He said nothing, only stepped aside to let them in. The little girls played dominoes on the carpet. The littler one said, “Hi.” She looked like she wanted to say more, but the bigger one shushed her and started to pick up the dominoes. The boy led them into a tiny green kitchen, where Fatima stood before the stove stirring milk in a saucepan.
“You are Mrs. Guilbeau?” Fatima smiled. Della and Alvin smiled back. “Sit down,” Fatima said, and gestured to the kitchen table. Della and Alvin sat.
“Your house is very nice,” Della said. She searched the walls and countertops for anything unique to a Sudanese woman’s kitchen, but saw only the usual things: clock, potholder, sugar bowl, flyswatter. Della wondered what strange foods had been cooked on that stove and stored in that refrigerator. She wondered especially what might be in the freezer.
“Do y’all like figs?” She had been holding the preserves all along.
“What is figs?”
Della held up the jar for Fatima to see.
“Yes,” she said. “Thank you.” She said something to the boy in her language, and he went to the pantry and took out some bread. Meanwhile, an itch grew in Della to talk about the cow, cows, any cow; it seemed frivolous to talk about anything else.
Alvin said, “We weren’t sure if y’all could eat figs.”
“Just meat sometimes we can’t eat,” the boy said.
“You can eat beef?” Della asked.
“Sometimes.” The boy started to leave the kitchen, but his mother spoke again, and he sat down at the table across from Della and Alvin. Fatima set four cups and saucers on the counter. To Della’s surprise, five ordinary little tea-flags dangled by strings from the lip of the saucepan from which Fatima poured. Fatima served the tea then sat down next to her son.
She smiled at her guests and sipped from her cup. They smiled back and sipped from theirs. The boy kept adding sugar to his. He frowned and sighed.
“My father had cattle in Sudan,” Fatima said.
“Is that right,” said Alvin. “For milk?”
“Some for milk, some for eating. We always had food.”
“You were blessed,” Della said. “All those people starving.” She did not know for sure if there were people starving in Sudan, but she thought it was a good guess. “When I was a little girl, we didn’t have nothing for a long time. No cows. No chickens. Nothing. That was the Depression.”
Alvin said, “No, ma’am, we didn’t have much.”
Della held the cup close to her mouth and blew at the surface of the tea, wrinkling the milk skin which she then dabbed with a forefinger, lifted out of the cup, and deposited on her saucer. Fatima graciously handed her a napkin.
“We wish you and your children would join us tonight,” Alvin said. “There’s going to be plenty.” He sounded to Della like the door-to-door peddlers of peculiar religions who would show up every spring to invite them to revivals.
Fatima looked to her son, who had not drunk his tea but was staring down into it. “You see?” she said.
“I thought you were joking.”
“Khalid does not know where meat comes from.”
“I know where meat comes from.”
“He’s a good boy,” she said, “But he does not remember Sudan.”
The boy pushed his chair away from the table and left the kitchen. A moment later, a door slammed somewhere in the house.
As best she could, Fatima explained about meat, what Muslims could and could not eat, and also about something she called ummah. She kept using that word to describe the people among whom she now lived, and this word sounded more lovely, and because of its newness to their ears more important than the words they might have used to describe themselves and their gentle loyalty to each other. Behind her halting English was a persuasive warmth and insistence, a tenor that made every word seem lawful and good. She had been a lawyer, Della could see, and what a shame, she thought, that in this great country such a gifted woman had to wrap hamburgers.
In the World Book Encyclopedia, copyright 1955, that they’d bought for the children, volume by volume per ten-dollar purchase from the grocery store, Alvin read that Sudan is the largest of all African countries, and its capital, a town called Khartoum, sits on the banks of the Nile like Baton Rouge sits on the Mississippi. There is a North and there is a South. The North has cities and deserts. The South has swamps and mosquitoes, and months of nothing but rain. These people are poor. Poor, poor. Some parts of the year, they starve, even though certain tribes horde millions of cattle, sheep, goats, and camels, for social prestige, and because there just aren’t enough trucks to haul them anywhere.
The name “Sudan” comes from the Arabic expression “bilad as-Sudan,” “Land of the Blacks,” which seemed to Alvin to mean that the Sudanese are as likely to look like your run-of-the-mill African American down at the Wal-Mart as they are to look Indian, that is, from-India Indian. They are Muslim. There are some Christians, in the South, who have been Christians longer than the French have been Christians, longer than the French have been French. How about that. There are some who believe in spirits, water spirits, tree spirits. The Muslims are moving in on them. When boys become men in Sudan, Alvin read, when they kill an enemy, their backs and arms and faces are cut in stripes of scars. A picture showed a young man in a white gown and turban with three dark hatch marks across his cheeks. Cicatrization, it was called. Ci-ca-tri-za-tion.
Alvin’s eyes gave out just before the section on the History of Ancient Nubia. He closed the encyclopedia, he closed his eyes, and saw Fatima and her little girls with distended naked bellies, propped up by walking sticks. Sand spun around them like sleet. Or maybe there was no sand. Maybe their bare feet were sinking into an island of mud and swamp grass. Mosquitoes and deerflies swirled around them like slow sand. They were part of a circle of many people Arabs and Africans and some lean-looking and dusty white people. In the center of the circle, a black man, shriveled, desiccated—by sand or by mosquitoes—held Fatima’s boy by the shoulders. The boy, Khalid, faced his mother and sisters. Alvin saw Khalid’s wide back bisected by the skinny and dark line of the old black man. The man withdrew a straight-bladed knife from the toolbelt-thong that hung cockeyed on his hips. One smooth stroke across Khalid’s shoulders, and blood swelled and overflowed. While the circle of men and women and children hooted and laughed and raised fists over heads, Khalid was perfectly still. Alvin wished he could see the boy’s face. He seemed so very young.
Alvin went to the garage and opened the long, flat wooden case where he kept his butchering tackle. He surveyed the contents: fillet knife, boning knife, a cleaver as heavy as a hatchet, a carver, a simple and gently curved butcher knife. None of these would slice through a cow’s thick neck, not neatly, not painlessly. The cut would have to be smooth, straight, decisive. The boy’s hand would have to be steady. Not one of them could handle a thrashing cow.
Then he thought of the thirty-inch blade from his riding lawnmower, and spent the rest of the afternoon sharpening it, in the back yard so as not to upset the cow. Round and round, on one side and then the other, Alvin honed the blade against the whetstone. There could be no nicks or dull spots. He knew from cutting his own hands so many times that the dull knives hurt worse, while he never felt the nick of a sharp one at all. So he sharpened and sharpened, took a break for a glass of wine, and sharpened some more.
The boy came early in the afternoon. “Mama sent this,” he said. He had an armful of old newspapers and a nearly empty roll of butcher paper. Before sending him home, Alvin took him out to the garage. With the garage light on, they both looked smaller, the boy and the cow, big but not quite fully grown. Maybe they could handle her. Maybe the boy could handle her. He had thick arms, and she really seemed to be a placid cow.
The cow pissed, loud as a rainstorm on the concrete floor, and Khalid jumped back from her. “She almost splashed me,” he said. Then he said, “Gross,” and the word sounded silly and even more American dressed up in the boy’s lilting accent. Alvin had heard his grandchildren say it hundreds of times, about ponce, and chicken livers, and the orange-yellow fat of crawfish tails, among other things. It was a silly word, in any case. “That’s gross, yeah,” Alvin said. “I’ll hose it off tomorrow. Come here, boy.”
He handed Khalid the lawnmower blade to make him understand. He said, “You remember that blood on my arms, huh? You think you can do that, what your mamma wants? You think you can, boy?”
Khalid balanced the blade on his flattened palms with his fingers stretched back, away from the edge. He looked incredulously at Alvin. “You know she was joking,” the boy said. “They don’t do this in Sudan.”
At eight in the evening, the neighborhood began to gather in Della’s kitchen where she sat steadfast on a stool by the stove, stirring hot praline goo with one hand and doling out wine with the other. Claude and Pearl came first, with a loaded shotgun and the A-frame gibbet, which the men quickly installed in the garage. When Alvin saw the shotgun, he motioned for Claude to follow him to the back yard. He pointed to the long, sharp blade lying across an old sycamore stump. Claude said, “For them Indians, you’d do that?”
“They’re from Sudan,” Alvin said. “She’ll call the cops if we don’t let the boy do it.” This was a lie, of course, and Alvin hated to tell it, but he knew that no diplomatic somersaults in French or English, no Arabic invocation of community could justify such a strange decision to Claude. Claude picked up the blade and strummed it with his thumb. “Be careful,” said Alvin. “It’s sharp, sharp.”
“It better be sharp,” Claude said.
There was a small crowd gathered in the driveway when the neighborhood policeman pulled over to the curb and rolled down his window. “How y’all?” he called, and cracked good-natured jokes about drunken old Cajuns until his own grandmother came out of the house and pressed a bottle of homemade wine and a tin of pralines, still warm, into his hands. “Go bring that to your wife,” she said, and then, without a twitch, “Y’all still looking for them cows?”
“They still can’t find some of ’em,” her grandson said.
“They done got ate, I bet you.”
The policeman drove away and his grandmother came back to the group laughing from her rolling belly. “Us coonasses been stealing cows since the dawn of time,” she said. “That’s part of our culture, that.” Most of them laughed, but some, Claude especially, speculated in French that the brown woman had called that cop after all, that he was reconnoitering and most certainly would be back.
By nine o’clock, Alvin and Della’s house was teeming, the table crowded with food. Many had brought the Saturday paper, which featured on the front page a photograph of yesterday’s accident: a dead steer roped by the neck, dangling from an overpass. They would use this page, they decided with glee, to wrap up their takings this evening.
From time to time, Alvin checked on the cow. She had been quiet all day, but now with so much commotion just outside, she huffed and stomped her feet. Alvin, who could not stand to see an animal suffer, cooed at her in French and patted her flaring nose. He had not given her anything to eat or drink—she would clean easier that way—and wondered how thirsty she was, exactly. When he held a mixing bowl full of wine under her nose, she sniffed it, tested it with her tongue, then drank up every drop and flipped the bowl looking for more. Alvin gave her more.
At ten o’clock, the crowd, pressed elbow to elbow in the steamy kitchen, quieted down. The ominous booming from the students’ passing cars shook the windows and pulsed in the chests of the old people like tribal drums. There had been no word from Slug or the Sudanese. Della called Slug’s house but got no answer, and none of them could spell Nasraddin to find it in the phonebook.
Had they been in their own homes, rather than here in Della’s kitchen, those who lived across the street from the Nasraddins might have looked into Fatima’s brightly lit living room and seen her winding bold cloths around her daughters, combing out and braiding their long hair, before she finally took up a roll of bandages and, with blunt efficiency—as though grooming her children, packing groceries, slaughtering cows and disinfecting old men’s lesions were all the selfsame gesture—ministered to the ruined face of her neighbor as he sat on her couch and hid behind his hands to spare the little girls. The spies then might have pulled shut their drapes quickly, embarrassed, when they saw Fatima glance out of her own window, searching the shadows for her son, who had not returned from Mr. Guilbeau’s that afternoon.
And had the people all over this neighborhood been watching from their windows, as they were accustomed to do after nightfall, flipping on their porch lights and peering out at their street, hands cupped around eyes, they would have seen a figure moving in and out of the orange light of streetlamps and trespassing fearlessly into one yard after another. What a shock they’d have had when the face drew close to their windows, as close as they had ever imagined ominous faces in the night, and gazed at them; no, not at them—beyond them, into their homes, at their plain and barely valuable things. And the old couple who lived in the gray brick house on the corner—what would they have done, what would they have thought, when the expression on that face changed suddenly from curiosity to anger, when the young man at their window reared back the baseball bat he carried and swung it with a grown man’s strength into the glass?
Under the light of a single bald lightbulb dangling from a rafter, the neighborhood gathered into Alvin’s garage and formed a broad circle around the cow. They watched Alvin offer her another bowlful of wine. They watched Claude cross to the center of the circle, shotgun in hand.
It had gotten around, what the brown woman wanted. Everyone knew, and agreed to allow it. There was beef in this world, they reasoned, before there were guns; people must have killed cows somehow. As the night grew later, though, they began to believe that they had been fooled, not through spitefulness on Fatima’s part, but rather through their own provincial ignorance of foreign places and customs; they hadn’t gotten her joke. They had been propelled by momentum into this circle and this ritual that was at once familiar and very strange, but now as they saw Claude aiming the shotgun after all, their momentum flagged. Claude set the shotgun aside. He said to Alvin, “Somebody will hear it. If that cop comes by— What do you want to do?”
Alvin took the lawnmower blade from where it lay on top of a deep freezer. “If you hold her head up, I’ll do it. She won’t feel a thing.” One of the men suggested his teenage son hold the gun aimed at the cow, just in case, and this seemed like a reasonable compromise.
Claude held her gently but firmly by the jaws. Turning the blade this way and that, switching it from hand to hand, Alvin walked around to one side of the cow, and then the other. He draped one arm over the cow’s neck and poised the blade under her throat, but he could find no leverage. He stood back and considered, as Claude hummed and massaged her broad buttery jowls. The teenager stood poised with the shotgun on his shoulder. They all prayed he would not shoot Claude by accident.
“Hit her in the head with something,” the teenager said. From the dark perimeter of the circle, his father said, “Hush boy.”
“I can’t watch, me,” Della said. She cringed back with all her body.
Alvin stood further back. “Somebody look for that cop,” he said. Della rushed to the door and opened it just a crack. “Oh!” she squeaked. Hearts pounded and fluttered all around the circle. “Oh!” Della said again. “Oh chère! I didn’t know you at first. Come in!”
When they saw Slug, most of them for the first time in several years, the people of the neighborhood were less surprised by the bandages and deformity of Slug’s face than by the young man who came in right behind him, hanging onto Slug’s sagging belt.
It was Slug who had gone looking and heard the shattering glass, who had found Khalid in a dark house picking up and examining all the small, un-incriminating remnants of desk drawers and bookshelves. Somewhere in the circle now, the boy realized, were the old couple whose check stubs and prayer lists he had handled, whose refrigerator he had opened and closed, who would immediately believe it was the work of those college boys, drunk on a Saturday night, when they later found their window broken and things upset. Khalid let go Slug’s belt and stood up straight, seeing no one and nothing but the cow and the blade cocked under her throat.
Fatima followed, with her two little girls, all three draped in bright fabrics. A silk veil covered Fatima’s head and black hair. To the neighborhood, which had seen her only in uniforms—tired, bagging groceries—Fatima seemed in these foreign clothes strangely like the Virgin Mother.
Slug’s one eye winked at all of them as he looked around the circle. When his eye landed on them, they wondered, each in turn, why they had not knocked louder at his door, or longer, why no one had insisted on driving him to doctors, or cleaning his house, or helping him change his bandages.
Like an altar boy presenting the Bible, Alvin held the blade out to Khalid. “Take it,” Slug said, and Khalid picked up the blade.
Alvin lunged for a mop bucket near the door, and positioned it on the ground under the cow’s head. They all knew it would never contain the blood. Alvin took the shotgun from the teenager, who stepped back into the circle, pressed close to his father. Alvin aimed, just in case.
Claude cupped his hands around the cow’s jaws again. He pulled her head up so the skin on her neck stretched flat, taut. Slug and the boy stood by her side, on the right. The boy was losing his color. He held the blade feebly. It trembled in his hands.
The neighborhood watched the boy move his lips, but no words came out. The mother said, “Khalid—Bismillah Ar-Rahman.” The boy tried again. His face blanched.
Slug laid his hand over the boy’s. He hugged the boy against his chest, pressed him tightly to stop his quaking. The cow snorted. She stepped back and nearly broke free of Claude’s hold. They all heard the shuffle and click when Alvin set the shotgun.
Slug and the boy cocked the blade at the cow’s neck. She pounded one hoof and took a deep breath that swelled her, and as she started to moo, Slug and the boy leaned forward together. Slug said, “Y’all say a prayer.”
The blade wrenched across the tight white line of throat, like a bow on a silent fiddle. Claude stroked her cheeks while blood gushed from her neck, saturated his jeans, and pooled in the bucket at his feet. The bucket filled and spilled over, and the pool spread fast, outward and outward to Slug and the boy who had fainted in his arms, to Alvin, to Della, to the woman Fatima and her wide-eyed girls, to the circle’s perimeter, to the feet of the people who watched and remembered the country farms, the spoken French, the good of home-stuffed sausage. The blood spread out toward the garage doors, and under the doors, out to the driveway, into the street. Enough blood, they all thought, to flood the neighborhood.