I had the blood lust of a boy. On Christmas vacation, when I was up visiting the farm, I asked to be the one to stick the knife in the hog’s throat when they were butchering it. They agreed because they needed me. There were two men on the farm, Walt and Orrie, and two neighbors. It took four men to catch the hog, to turn it on its back and hold it there, each man hanging on to a leg. Then I took a knife, slimmed to a stiletto by years of sharpening, and as Walt directed, I felt along the underthroat for the hard spot, then for the soft spot just below it. I slit the skin gently. Then, with my left hand, I sunk to the hilt, round and round. I loved it. Then I pulled it out and we all ran for the fence. The hog got up quickly, furious, charged about the pigpen leaking sloshes of blood all over the mud, grew tipsy, then wildly drunk, then fell on its side, twitched, shit, and died. The men hung it up in the barn by the hind legs to dress it, and I helped scoop out the yards and yards of slippery red and yellow tubing.
So the following summer when Walt’s old dog had to be killed, I volunteered. Trixie was lame, smelly, and useless, but what settled it was that she could no longer eat. Her teeth were almost gone, her gums were sore, she just moped and stank and could hardly walk. Walt said he couldn’t do it himself. He had raised her from a pup, she had licked the milk from his fingers. When he had been out late, she had waited for him by the road in any weather. Tears welled in his crossed eyes. He couldn’t do it, but it had to be done. I said that if he wanted, I would do it for him.
He gave me an old can of chloroform that was left over from some earlier dispatch, and I took it, a rag, and Trixie into the cow barn. I slid the big door shut. She and I were alone. She was too tired to be suspicious, and she sat still when I approached. I doused the rag as Walt had instructed and held it over her patient muzzle for minutes. Nothing happened. She blinked at me. I took the rag away. She whimpered and licked my hand. I doused the rag again and smothered her again for minutes. Again she just blinked and lay there, stinking and breathing. I went out and reported to Walt, who was sitting under a tree, pale. He sniffed the can and said he guessed the stuff had got weak. He was gentle with me, which wasn’t usual when I bumbled a job. He went into the cow barn and brought Trixie out and patted her. Then he and I went off to some other chore.
A few nights later after supper, I suddenly noticed that Walt was not sitting around with us in the kitchen. Trixie was gone. Just about the time I noticed this, I heard a shot. I looked at the others in the room. They were not surprised. I knew at once that I was not supposed to say anything about it or go outside. Some time later, in the gloom, I saw Walt coming back across the lower pasture toward the barn carry his shotgun and a spade. He looked immense in the faint light.
Ten or twelve years later, one of the neighbors stopped by to see me on a trip to New York for a ball game. We took out some past experiences, like photographs, and looked at them together. Then I asked about Walt. He told me that one night a few years before, Walt had gone down below the barn with his shotgun and blown his head off. He had some incurable disease.
I suddenly saw him crossing the pasture, this time smaller.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann