If there’s anything I regret, it’s that I hadn’t experienced this before now.
They had done it 2 times before, and from their tales I expected splashes of blood and post-kill grief. The first time they did it, they didn’t know what to feel; they were swinging between tears and laughter; it was an emotional gutting.
Before you’re carried away with awe or nerves or outrage, understand: it was natural, not nearly so frightful as had been described. But then, they were wise to it now, and they could guide me.
Several months ago – maybe a year into my Moldovan life – my friends killed a goat. Then they killed another. I decided that I, too, wanted to kill a goat. My friend’s host mother laughed when he told her his American comrades wanted to kill another goat. Slaughter is a chore for her, but we Americans seek novelty in its ceremony.
We had originally agreed to kill a baby, but he was born too late in the season. Irony smirked, though, and my friend woke up the morning of our arrival to the dead youngling strung up out back. The babe was hit by a car before he left his bed. We had kid that Friday night, curried. The next day, around 11, we slaughtered a mistress.
The horns curl behind their skulls, so unlike with other mammals, there is no way to stun a goat. I cut into her neck as the guys held her in place. The first knife was too dull – it only left a soft rut in her fur, and I doubted whether the goat understood the threat. The next knife, slim and long with a plastic white handle, was sharp enough. I didn’t cut the wind pipe, so she held on strong, straight, as the blood flowed. The only way was to wait for her to bleed.
Two of us had her horns; another was at her hips, so this may have helped keep her stable. This, mostly, was where the regret crested: those one, two screams, and waiting for her to fade. I tried to keep my hand on the back of her head and neck, comforting myself by imagining that I could comfort her. The yelps she gave were only as I cut; someone told me to go deeper, to speed things up, and this was the second scream. The only other noises were heavy pants, and then two gurgling sucks of air – that’s when the blood must have flowed through the throat, maybe I got the wind pipe on the second try – before she kneeled, front legs down first. It took maybe two minutes for her to collapse, and then she spasmed for another two.
The interesting thing, the brutal thing, was the absence of feeling. The goat was dead before it stopped moving, which unnerved. I desired an end. But as soon as it hushed, there was nothing. You could stroke it, and nothing. The weight of the head dragged more than when it had lived. My friend cut it away, and I wanted it – to examine the eye, see if the tongue had flopped like they had told me it would.They had said the flop of the tongue signaled death. This tongue had flopped, then resettled; but that heavy head looked just as alive as it had alive. The difference was an oppressive weight, all there with nothing else to hold it up.Another American woman, who arrived later, asked questions about the killing. It turned out that her Moldovan family killed a pig this year. Like with our goat, there was no attempt to stun the swine. Perhaps it simply wasn’t feasible; she screamed and struggled, and they cut her throat fast. Maybe they were desensitized, or there was never any sensitivity to begin with.
Our goat had been four years old, a healthy former mother who, every day, was lead to the field at the bottom of the house. She would sit with her companions, and her other hoofed neighbors, and munch and gnaw and rest. Nighttime, she was led with the other house goats to the chicken coop. Mammals and fowl shared the space. At most, a goat will live about ten years, but a meat goat generally gets one. Four years is the brink for a killing, usually – and even that young will yield a tough meat.
Preparing the body is the difficult part. After the stillness, my friend cut into the tendon on the hind legs and then strung the carcass up right under the hoof. Not having experienced something like this before, you might never imagine that you could, or would, milk a dead goat. But it’s there, that nourishment, and you can pull the thick milk through canvas-bag teats. They feel almost like paper between forefinger and thumb when the milk has run nearly dry. I also learned that the bulk of a goat’s weight rests in her offal. When she’s skilled and gutted, she’s slim like a rabbit.
My friends started to skin, but they were only working for a few moments before interruption. A village man came in through the gate from the street, leading his bicycle. He had seen us from the dirt road near the fields. He took the knife, and more quickly than my friends, he was cutting. “Only in Moldova!”
It turned out that he was related to my friend’s host mother, but his decision to help was spontaneous. My friend became suspicious, toward the end. This man was uninvited! He hoped there was no expectation of payment; the guy wasn’t getting any meat. But he was fast, he was clean (I cringed just a few times, when he cut into the meat of the leg and the torso; perhaps not so skilled). One of us handed him a glass of vodka. He did nearly all the work. And then he asked for a loan, in Russian, he swore he’d pay it back. My friend refused, of course, and the man wheeled off almost immediately.
I asked whether the goat would have made it to ten years had we not taken them. My friend said his host mother would have killed it anyway. It’s raised for food. She invests time and feed over the course of the beast’s life, and she takes back what is given.Before the killing, riding the mini-bus to my friend’s village, I had imagined the scene. I may have romanticized. My greatest concern was honoring the goat. I grew up with stories of Native Americans thanking the animal for its contribution, for its life. I wanted to do the same. After the killing, I was grateful. Before, I already had a problem, mostly with how I’ve lived separately, behind the blood curtain. I could pretend my Filet Mignon arrived on this earth in stretched cellophane. Now I can’t, and I’m grateful.
When we grilled in the afternoon, my friend’s host mother went to retrieve the remaining two goats from the field. Two days, and their numbers had been halved. A black-and-white Mama, teats hanging low, brayed at the gate and wouldn’t cross. The second goat, younger, trotted past and back toward the chicken coop. I wondered, as Mama passed the threshold, whether she was bleating for her baby, or for her older companion. I wondered whether it was just faint suspicion, a reminder of other deaths that had come before. I wondered whether goats grieve.
There was a large jar, at least two liters, of Mama’s unpasteurized milk that evening.
Photographs of Izbişte, the small Moldovan village where my friend lives:
Host mother’s home