John had insisted that he be the one to shoot the hog. When the big animal dropped limp and flaccid, twitching in response to neurons that hadn't yet quite gotten the news of death, Sarah took the gun and handed him the knife.
Then Dieter shackled one of its legs with a chain and hoisted it up so that its snout dangled two feet above the ground. Then he held it steady while John neatly made a short cut just above the breastbone; it was a tricky move, but he did it well. Using the breastbone as a fulcrum, he sliced down toward the backbone, severing the carotid arteries.
Sarah caught the rush of blood in a bucket, still surprised at how hot it was; the salt-iron-copper smell was strong over that of the pines and cold damp earth. Of course they only slaughtered one hog a year, but still, you'd think she'd get used to it. The smell of the blood made her stomach tighten, but it was hardly the worst thing she'd smell today.
In the background the classic radio station played the
Overture; it seemed somehow appropriate.
Once the beast was sufficiently drained, John put a hook into its underjaw, and it being a smallish hog, he and Dieter dragged it to the edge of the butchering platform, where a stock tank full of boiling water waited. They submerged the animal, bobbing it up and down for about five minutes to keep it from cooking, then dragged it out again, having loosened the pig's bristles sufficiently for the scrapers to work.
Sarah helped the men hoist the steaming animal onto the sturdy board table. Then they went to work with scrapers while she removed hair from its feet with her hands. The bristly texture was oddly unorganic, like a brush—come to that, pig bristles had been used for brushes, back before synthetics.
They worked silently except for the music or an occasional grunt of effort, Sarah doing the prep work while the men did the heavy lifting. Working methodically, they reduced the animal to individual cuts of meat that, for the most part, bore no resemblance to a once living animal.
She knew John felt sorry for the pigs. They were just smart enough, some of them, to know what was coming.
The silence that had grown among them worried Sarah. It had taken her a long time to really notice it. One of the first disciplines she'd imposed on herself was to become a woman of few words; it was safer that way. But in Paraguay she and John had bantered and laughed all the time; they never did that now.
She and Dieter had once talked a lot, too. Now they spent their time reading or working quietly, moving in concert from long experience.
Sarah wondered if it meant that they'd run out of things to say to one another. Was Dieter bored? Was it time for them to move on? She thought about it, testing herself by imagining her life going on without him.
She sensed its origin in John. He'd grown so distant. It was grief, she knew, and she respected that. She just didn't know how to handle it. Sarah had raised him in the
As she loaded the basket with cuts of meat to take to the smokehouse, she looked at him. He'd topped out at just under six feet, and though he'd filled out some, his was a wiry build. At least, it was compared to Dieter, who was as glorious a slab of muscle as any woman could desire. John was strong, though. He still lost to Dieter when they arm-wrestled, but not every time, not even most of the time.
He wore his dark hair on the longer side, the bangs still obscuring his brown eyes. The beard was the biggest difference.
She didn't think she'd ever get used to that. It was a full-faced beard, but trimmed, not ZZ Top-style, thank God. She gave a mental shrug. This was Alaska. Men wore beards. There'd even been a few especially bitter days when she'd wished she could grow one herself. Someday, she supposed, she'd get used to the way he looked.
He looked up and caught her eye, raising a brow inquiringly.
'Just thinking,' she said.
'The beard,' she said, and walked away.
* * *
John watched her go, then went back to work.
Later he sent Dieter in for the solar shower he knew the big man lusted for. Dieter hated hog butchering, despite being raised in a little rural village in Austria, though he never complained about it.
He'd just about finished cleaning up the butchering site when his mother came toward him holding a printout.
'Listen to this,' she said, and began to read.
MILITARY PUTS UNPRECEDENTED POWER IN THE
HANDS OF A COMPUTER
A jolt of fear chilled his stomach for an instant. Their eyes met. He forced himself to give his mother a crooked smile.
'That's badly phrased, isn't it? Computers don't have hands.'
Sarah frowned at him, then continued reading:
''Dateline Washington, D.C' She cleared her throat. ''The Joint Chiefs of Staff are enthusiastically supporting a new computer program named Skynet, which was designed to control all of the nation's nuclear weapons.
' 'It's highly unusual for all of the branches of the service to be in such complete agreement,'' said General Ho, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. ' 'That alone ought to tell you what we think of this program.'
' 'During a lengthy testing period, now drawing to a close, the Skynet program was reported to have outthought and outperformed humans every time.
' 'This is as close to an AI [artificial intelligence] as we're likely to get for some time,' General Ho enthused. ' 'We are standing at the dawn of a new age of military technology. We would be foolish not to grasp this opportunity with both hands.'
' 'His comment was made, apparently, in answer to objections from some Luddite senators who had protested that placing the fate of the nation in the hands of a machine was the height of foolishness.' '
'Mom,' John said, 'you've made your point. No more, huh?'
Sarah let out an exasperated breath and stared at him. He looked away and went back to sweeping up hog bristles.