Nodar Djin

My First Slaughter

(An excerpt from the novel "The Story Of My Suicide")




        In the very beginning of winter many years ago, an unprecedented number of bulls was driven into the Petkhain slaughter house. Unlike cows, the bulls were to be slaughtered because of lack of feed for the whole cattle. 
        During the day, the whole block where the slaughter house was located was wailing with the wail of the animals being slaughtered, and in the evenings a sweet smell of burning bull meat crawled along the whole street. For the first time as far as I could recall, the Petkhainers were feasting without any reason: the New Years holiday had already passed and there was still plenty of time left till the next ones. 
        Due to a lack of reason, the Petkhainers partied with special zeal, getting inebriated not so much from vodka as from the surplus of meat, and this made the expression on their faces more remote and wild. I was surprised that people who had just filled themselves with shish-kebobs can throat out melancholic songs about unrequited love and that the devourment of animals could cause such joy in man. 
        My grandfather Meir, being not only a rabbi but a slaughterer as well, the fact of which, by the way, my father Yakov, the prosecutor and a vegetarian, was very much ashamed of, remarked that God expects not saintliness from a man, but understanding, - that is, not the renunciation of killing animals, but a feeling of sympathy for them when they are being killed. Only Jews, he kept saying, kill with understanding - in a sympathetic way. 
        I started laughing, and that very night - in response - my grandfather took me to the slaughterhouse, where he was to kill another bull for a wedding, which at first, was scheduled for the beginning of spring, and then moved up sooner because of the availability of cheap cattle.
        On the way, he explained that people of other religions kill with a sharp-pointed knife: they target for the heart, but then missing, draw second and third stabs. But thats not the worst: even if the first stab happens to be on target, the animal dies slowly and is fully conscious of the act of violence being committed against it. In addition, he said, a knife tearing into flesh, rips instead of slashing the muscles, whereas when it is taken out, it shreds the flesh and causes the animal insulting pain...
        The slaughterhouse which served as a hospital during the war, was a long shed, dissected into parts. In the front, drowning into the earth, stood huge scales and upon them - a tall pile of dissected carcasses. In the next one, there was a vile, sour-sweet smell of half-dead meat and tripes. Despite the late hour this partition turned out to be packed with multitude of silent and unshaven men. Without glancing at each other they - a carcass jerked up on each hook - delighted in their work with axes and choppers. In between the short pauses of desperate wails of the cattle being slaughtered in the farther partition, there were heard mute hollow sounds of metal hitting against the bone and the crackle of the skin being stripped off.
        My grandfather dragged me by the hand across couple of more partitions, and, finally, hitting the door with his foot, took me inside a tiny partition, or a slaughter-room, to be precise, which, because of a lightbulb smeared with blood, illuminated a dim red light. There was a dense salty stench around - like in an animal house. The walls of the room were splattered with a dark gray lime, and on the floor, in the middle, gaped an oval hole for the puddle of blood. The ceiling was painted with the unexpected, silver-torqouise color, and right under it, in the farthest corner a radio of prewar times splashed with blood hung on a nail:
                If every loving thought and look 
                Became a lyric line,
                Thered be no bigger poetry book
                On themes of love than mine.
                But still the book is small - whats worse,
                Im writing nothing new:
                Whatever time I have for verse
                Id rather spend with you...
        Iethim Gurji! my grandfather nodded in the direction of the radio, and opening a leather bag, pulled out of it a familiar wooden box, where he kept his knives. 
        A hefty woman stood with her back to us under the radio. She had tall thin shins with unbelievably round calves. Shoulders like the wings of some unknown bird were drawn forward - towards the chest.
        Iethim? The poet? I asked, observing the woman and how, throwing the top of the wooden box aside, my grandfather cautiously took the handle of a wide knife and brought it close to his eyes.
        No, he is not a poet, because poets choose words, and then write them down on paper. Iethim did not do that, he was a Persian, an orphan and a vagabond, and so he never wrote anything - he only spoke in rhyme, and sliding his finger across the sharp razor of the knife, he added. Persians are very sensitive people! Say something, Silva!
        Silva did not say anything, but she turned around. Her face was also round - with the moist and sad eyes. The dark pupils pulsated and rocked to and fro in the white. 
        I promised you: everything will be all right, youll see! my grandfather said to her. Youre still young; youll find yourself another man, or youll wait till your Bakri does his time, and then youll both have a life together again, you understand? Youre both young, you still have thirty years of continuous living ahead of you, you hear? Youd better wipe your tears and bring the bull in! These days its better for you to work than listen to sad poems, you hear? Wait, time will pass, and youll be happy!
        I am not listening to these poems, Silva answered looking aside. I am crying because I am angry at life! and she let out a sob. Wait! And how can I wait when I have to live? I am not Jewish, I dont have the time to wait...
        Wipe your tears off, I told you! my grandfather mumbled.
        She nodded, pulled out a handkerchief from her rubber apron and padded her eyes. 
        Shes also a Persian, grandfather whispered. And also an orphan, like that poet Iethim. She has lots of relatives in Persia, but shes not allowed to go there. And yesterday... Well, she has a fiance - a Bukharian Jew, Galibov - yesterday they gave him ten years.
        For what? I felt sorry for her and her fiance, because, indeed, people live each and every instant and no one has time to wait for happiness. Why so long - ten years?
        Its a long story, grandfather shrugged it off. I told your father about it and he says: in Russia they would have given him more!
        Meir! exclaimed Silva and came towards us.
        I was surprised not so much by the familiarity with which she addressed my grandfather, whom even my grandmother called rabbi, but by the sudden transformation of the Persian woman: her shoulders straightened out, her chest came forward, and instead of sorrow, some frightening thought was showing through her eyes.
        Meir! she repeated and stepping right up to me touched my neck with her cool hand that suddenly smelled of lilac, the scent which did not correspond either with her image, or her surroundings. Whos this boy with you, Meir?
        I am not a boy! I interjected without taking her hand away.
        Thats my grandson, my grandfather mumbled once again, searching for something in his bag. He wants to see how Jews slaughter their cattle...
        Yeah? You look like a Persian: very smooth, Silva said to me and pulled my head to her leather apron on her spacious chest, which exuded not lilac, but blood.
        Wheres the sharpening stone? my grandfather asked her.
        I gave it back to Suren.
        Will you fetch it?
        Go yourself! ordered the woman.
        To my surprise, my grandfather nodded his head and left, handing the knife to Silva. Without letting me go, she brought the knife around my back, and pushing me closer to her, clasped my body in a tight ring of her fleshy hands. For the first time then, my face was scorched by the breath coming out of a strange, but close-standing female female flesh. The breath was spicy, a bit bittered with anise. I sensed weakness in my legs. It seemed that someone switched me.
        What are you doing? I was frightened.
        Dont be afraid! she grinned and unclasped the ring. Im checking the knife, - and imitating my grandfather, she slid her nail across the sharp edge. Your grandfather is right: there is a jag right here.. Try it!
        Taking one step back, I extended my hand for the knife and sliding the nail of the thumb across the sharp edge, cut the skin on the joint. Silva was happy, brought my finger to her eyes and pushed hard upon it. The joint was covered with blood. Bending her head and leaking the wound, she carefully placed the finger in her mouth. Then she raised her glance at me from under her brow, started ragefully sliding her tongue along the finger, and swallowed the bloody saliva on her lips. 
        What are you doing? I repeated in a whisper.
        She did not answer right away. Taking my finger out of her mouth, she carefully blew on a wounded joint, and muttered, leaking her lips:
        This knife, you see, has a jag... Thats bad blood, you have to suck it out...
        Bad blood? I asked her thoughtlessly, continuing to sense the elastic powers of her hot tongue on my finger.
        Jews dont use the meat if the knife has a jag... Thats not pure blood: bad knife causes pain to the animal...
        I was thinking about something else.
        The knife must be wide and strong, but smooth like words in a poem, so that the animal feels pleasure...
        Sharp? I asked.
        And the length should be twice the thickness of the neck... And it should not be pushed into the flesh: you slide forward once, and backward - once, like on a fiddle. And the blood will be soft...
        There was a pause. Again, I stopped sensing my own body. The Persian woman put her hand back on my neck and uttered:
        Youre not a boy, you say?
        No, I answered silently and lifted my eyes at her carefully.
        Give me your hand then, she blurted and grabbing my hand with hers, free of the knife, she pulled me towards her and squeezed me to her belly.  Slowly letting go of it, the Persian woman pulled out from under my hand the bottom of her apron and the dress, and my fist found itself against her naked flesh. Somewhere inside of me - in my throat, in my back under the shoulder-blades, in my hips, in my knees, even in the ankles - there suddenly arose a tormenting energy, obeying which the fingers crawled to the source of the heat. 
        Youre doing good! Silva whispered and covered her eyes with her shivering lids. Like a boy! Like a duck, even!
        What? I started. Like who?
        Dont stop! In Persia women pour corn kernels there and let a hungry goose peck them out... Its very good... But dont stop!
        I refused to think of the goose and, at last, reached the scorching inner flesh. When I touched it, I was overwhelmed by a hot wave, which reminded me of a dense cover made out of soap bubbles in our Turkish bath. I sensed how suddenly weakness started to grow inside of me, which, however, no longer frightened or tormented me, but, vice versa, seeped into some mysterious force. 
        The wounded finger tensed up and, squeezing its way further, came against the elastic, slippery hill. Climbing over it, it - all by itself - went sharply inside, into the tight depth, permeated with viscous moisture, which dripped along the finger towards the wrist. 
        The wound on the joint started to sting painfully and a moment later, I heard the hoarse coughing of my grandfather from behind the door. Jerking away from the Persian woman, as though I had just been stringed, I found myself under the radio:
                Its time, high time for me to go,
                No things I take along.
                I leave the winds that lightly blow,
                The thrushes early song.
                I leave the moonlight night, the trees,
                The flowers in the grass,
                The murmuring of distant seas,
                The torrents mighty bass...
        With my back to Silva and my grandfather, shocked and frightened, I was observing, accompanied by the voice on the radio, my finger covered with blood - not with my own, but with the dense blood of the Persian woman. The hairs on my wrist clung to the skin and were glued in knots enveloped by drying moisture that exuded a suffocating scent. As soon as I guessed - what kind of moisture it was, I was jerked by a hazy, deep shame for everyone in the world, for everything alive and stinking. For the fact, that everything in this world is probably horrible inside. 
        Then I was surprised that I did not know this earlier: I never read it anywhere, no one had told me about it. I was told different things, but never that everything is so horrible inside. Then why didnt anyone tell me about it? And could it be that no one knows it yet - only I? No, I decided, that can not be! But there could be something other: it is not so horrible at all, and it seems horrible to me only, because I know less than the rest! Perhaps it is that the world is not only not horrible without horrors but also miraculous without miracles...
        Turn the radio off! my grandfathers sharp voice interrupted me.
        Why? I grew cautious, hiding the smeared fist behind my back.
        Silvas going to bring in the bull, he answered, caressing the sharpening stone with the edge of the knife.
        I have a question, I said, not in a hurry to clean off the blood.
        My grandfather did not object and I added:
        Why is man afraid of blood?
        Thats a stupid question. Blood reminds of death.
        I thought for a while and nodded:
        No. Because a man is afraid of everything that he consists of.
        Turn off the radio, I told you! he blurted.
 

        The bull, that the Persian woman brought in to the slaughterhouse did not feel its close end. True, he was popping his eyes, but he was doing so either out of curiosity, or out of sleepiness and tiredness. 
        I had seen bulls before, but only now did I realize, that they are killed. All notions in our head are dissected and therefore, although we know that the world is one, we forget to see things in it as they really are - not separated from each other, not even closely intertwined, but in their union. A bull on a meadow in a village and a dish of beef for dinner were always two different things to me: a bull on a meadow is carelessness of summer holidays and freedom of time. 
        Beef was expensive, and we ate it only on Sabbath eves when our relatives poured in and my grandfather - in a lively manner, as though they were his own memories - told Agadic legends at supper, which filled me with illusory, but gay feeling of being a part of something incomparably more significant than my own life. And so these two disparate worlds merged together for the first time in front of my very eyes. 
        When Silva caringly pushed the bull closer to the hole for blood - I realized then that bulls, which I only saw on village meadows, exist in order to be converted into beef. 
        Killing, the ceasing of life, which I came across for the first time that night, united into one two different, seductive worlds - and this was not surprising, but shocking to me, and alienated me for a long time afterwards from the Sabbath eve feasts with its holiday smells and images of colorful legends. 
        It was that very night that I also for the first time felt hate for a person close to me, for my grandfather, with whom I made peace not three months later, when accidentally cutting his vein on his wrist he died from loss of blood, but much later - after I had once sensed in myself the readiness to kill a dog that had frightened me...
 

        Looking around with a skeptical glance, the bull stopped at the designated line and dropped his muzzle, sniffing the smell of blood at the edge of a dark opening in the ground. 
        The Persian woman and my grandfather did not exchange words - only exchanged mute signs. Silva threw tow rope nooses over the hoofs of the animal; one - over the front, the other - over the hind hoofs. Then she unhooked the tip of a rubber hose from the nail on the wall and lowered it into the ground. Then she returned to the wall and turned on the tap. Water shrilled in the ground, and it seemed to me that the bull liked the sound. My grandfather checked the knife with his nail once again and was left satisfied. Taking it away from my grandfather and also sliding her nail over it, Silva suddenly put her other palm to her throat and started caressing it, just like she did with me. 
        Neither she, nor my grandfather took any notice of me. The did not pay attention to the bull either who was standing between them. Silva came close to my grandfather and clenching the knife between her teeth rolled up his sleeves. In response, he brushed his beard against her fleshy cheek and whispered something in her ear. This scene stirred a sharp sensation of jealousy within me, although then, it was difficult for me to imagine that my grandfather could condescend to lusting after a woman. A more horrifying guess flashed in my head: the closeness of these two people is the closeness of accomplices in everyday murder.
        My grandfather slowly pulled the knife out of the Persian womans mouth, shoved it behind his aprons belt, and stepping to the bull from the front, grabbed a horn with his left hand. Silva rounded the animal from behind - and with her back to me - squatted, tearing her fingers into the knots. 
        Rabbi Meir raised the bulls muzzle by its horn, looked the animal in its confused eyes and moved his lips, assuring, probably, either God, or the bull itself to regard what is about to happen with certain indulgence. Then he swung his fist and hit the animal in the forehead with all his might. 
        The sound was hollow - the sound of a fatal blow against something alive - but, at first, the bull did not even budge. A few moments later, however, its feet grew weak and dropping its neck onto the chest, it sighed briefly and tumbled to the ground - with the hoofs towards me. This happened almost noiselessly: only the crackle of a shattered horn could be heard. 
        Silva tightened the knots and jerked the rope high - and the animals legs gathered around its belly as if it were getting ready to return to the womb. The woman threw herself against the ribs of the animal, and circling the free ends of the rope around the damaged horn pulled them upon herself. The bulls head was thrown back on the floor, towards its back, revealing a pale neck, and for a moment, an image of a silver-rimmed bulls horn flashed in my memory. On Sabbath eves my grandfather would drink wine from that horn for the longevity of Israel... 
        While the Persian woman was fussing with the fallen animal, her skirt had crawled up, to the very foundation of the naked legs. Their whiteness almost blinded me. The woman started to cling tighter to the animal, and her thighs, crowding each other, grew wider. From time to time, they shuddered: from under the deep thickness, sharp slices of muscles broke through to the surface, but shimmering for just a little bit, they immediately vanished in the massive fleshiness. 
        Muscular balls of the calves had nowhere to vanish: jumping, they slowly slithered down, reminding - a scene from a movie - a slithering of a ostrich egg inside the body of a snake. 
        When I finally tore my glance away from Silva and shifted it to the bull, the murder was already approaching the end: the knife in the bulls throat was slippering for an exit and smoking with hot vapors. Carefully, not to smear his beard, which he covered with his palm, my grandfather pulled it out of the gaping wound, put it in his mouth, and bent the bulls muzzle closer to the opening in the ground. The blood sprouting, and mixing with the stream coming out of the hose, bubbling and shimmering, splashed into the hole. 
        The animal flapped its eyes confusedly: the world in front of it, was probably losing its power and beginning to flicker - existing, and then suddenly, vanishing. Or perhaps, the animal was just amazed that it was unable to utter a single sound except a muffled snoring. Then, apparently guessing that its throat was already slashed, it settled down and in a hurry to hide into the nonexistence from the people that were murdering it, it shut its eyelids. 
        I was overwhelmed not by pity for it, but by the never-before-experienced curiosity. I attempted to guess its sensations, and it seemed to me that the creature had already picked out a shelter for itself and the thought of that shelter gives her spiritual pleasure and physical delight. The bull loosened up and submerged into the warm, soft, and inebriating cloud of steam, that exuded from a stream of blood sprouting from its throat. The animals belly - under the Persian womans naked thighs - shuddered lustfully...
        All of a sudden, I felt like stepping up to the woman and touching her. My flesh grew anxious, and I looked cautiously at my grandfather, who, it appeared to me, flew into a rage, noticing that I had caught the unusual expression of his bloodshot eyes. My grandfather, it seemed, was somehow frightened of my presence as well. I wanted to leave the premises, but he was ahead of me: pulling the bloody knife out of his teeth and placing it on the ground by the hole, he picked up the sharpening stone from a shelf and slammed the door behind him. 
        Silva would not turn to me. Slowly tearing herself away from the bulls belly, still on her knees, she crawled on all fours to the animals head and placed the knife under the soft stream coming out of the hose. The tender shrill of water and the lazy snorting of the dying victim brought rendered stillness to silence, against the background of which the anxiety within me became unbearable.
 

        Turn the radio on! the Persian finally uttered, without raising her glance. Happy at the idea, I carefully plugged in the cord into the socket:
                I leave with you whats mine from birth
                As much as flesh and bone - 
                The winding path, the scent of earth,
                Of hay thats newly mown.
                I leave the cooling rain, the baking
                Sun, the skies above...
                Instead, the greatest treasure taking
                On my way - your love...
        Lock the door! the Persian said, caressing the bleeding wound on the animals throat. 
        After locking the door with a hook, I returned to my previous place. 
        No, come here! ordered Silva, and when, holding my breath, I approached her, she jerked away from the bull and unzipped my pants with blood-smeared hands. I started back, but she pulled me to herself with a powerful movement of the hand. Come here! Lower!
        Obeying, I sat on the floor, touching the animal with my back, and a sweet stench of steaming blood hit my nostrils. The smell of death made my head swirl unexpectedly, and fearing that sensation, I buried my face in Persians wide chest, and felt out in it the salutary scent of lilac... 
        Silva clasped her fingers upon my neck and painfully pushed on my Adams apple, as if she were checking it out for the knife. Then, she moved me away from herself and put me with my back across the dying animals throat. My head fell back, onto the cold ground. With my back I felt the shudder of the weakening muscles on the animals neck, while my lower back became hot from the blood, that sprouted from the bulls throat under my weight. Amidst the hustle of unfamiliar sensations, I nevertheless, made out the touch of female hands against my neck, and the smooth sliding of naked, female thighs against my hips.
        Dont close your eyes! whispered Silva, and although I did not obey her, very soon, my flesh began to grow numb in the anticipation of that stupefying languor, the impatience for which is caused by a fear and pain of it ending; that very power, the invincibility of which is determined by the primal oneness of the beginning, that is of - love and death; the oneness of lechery and blood... 
        When, after some time, I sensed that the bull, having let out its last shudder, finally died, I opened my eyes wider, sat up, and in the dim light of a blood-smeared lamp discerned the Persians face above myself. It seemed that it existed separately from her cool flesh, which poured blood onto my belly from its gaping abyss. Her face frozen in the already familiar to me languor of pain and pleasure, looked like it was not alive - just like her mouth which seemed unable to utter a sound.
 

        Next time, I was to see this face quarter of a century later, in Central Asia, on a Jewish cemetery located in a Muslim district next to the Iranian border, where I was photographing the whimsical gravestones of the local Hebrews. 
        Many of them were exiled here from distant corners of the country, including my very Petkhain. They lived stingily here: saving money in case they were ever allowed to return to their native lands, for, as the former Petkhainers told me, only a melon is capable of getting used to central Asia after Georgia. No one, however, allowed them to return, and the money saved was mostly spent on gravestones. 
        I came to the cemetery at about noon and immediately started photographing a whimsical mausoleum made from Italian marble. Towards the evening, when the sun set to that height from which it penetrates the world with a sneaking light during the mornings, I returned to the vault in order to photograph now from inside. 
        Stepping under the arch and descending the stone stairs, I, as always, first started to look at the portraits of the deceased upon the oval China plates. The mausoleum belonged to a family and a sign shimmered above the portraits: The Galibov Family. Every man is like a letter in the alphabet: in order to form a word it must merge with the others. 
        The names of the deceased and phrases from Hebrew Holy Books were etched out under the portraits, made dim by time. A distich, written in bronze, flickered over one of the ovals:
                Dont curse your fortune, passerby!
                You are more fortunate than I.
        I raised my glance at the portrait: from the black wall there gazed at me a distorted-by-age face of the Persian, Silva, whom I would have recognize even if her name was not written there - by the expression of her eyes. Like before, they illuminated pain and pleasure simultaneously, and like before, pupils did not stay still inside them, but rocked. 
        From the text next to the distich, it became clear that the Tbilisi Persian woman, Silva Adjani, was taken to be married - in the zenith of her ruby life - by a Bukharian Jew, a civil engineer, a bridgemaker, Moshiakh-Bakri Galibov, who explained to the world the reason of her death with the phrase taken from the Talmud: A wise man was asked - why do people die? Wiseman answered - from life. 
        There arose a feeling within me that everything that I knew before about life, about love, and about death, became clearer; as though something very important, but that which had always existed beside me, had, finally, penetrated into my very heart... 
        Immediately, it became stifling, and coming out of the vault, I caught a scent of lilac, which, apparently was growing amidst the acacia trees that surrounded me from all sides.


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