Boxing Day by Amanda Nowlin
You don’t know what Boxing Day in England is all about but guess it has something to do with knocking out your mother-in-law because she’s been in your house six days and there’s nothing left to do but throw down.
At the Split Creek Ranch, December 26th is a day of figurative boxing. It’s the day your family makes sausage. That means you, your husband, Jay, his mama and daddy. You’ve got kiddos now to add to the merriment; four-year-old Grace, who can move a shovel like a ditch digger and the baby who stares and makes snot. Neither are help with the sausage, but you love them, and they keep you from diving onto your mother-in-law, limbs flapping like an endangered bird chewing off a tracking band.
Your flock is plentiful and healthy and eats lots of meat. During deer season, Jay tries to kill a buck and usually gets a doe. His daddy will kill one and occasionally his mama. You don’t hunt deer, just dove, and you believe in eating everything you kill. When you were dove hunting once, Jay’s mama shot you. Shot at a bird sort of low and directly above you. The bbs put welts on you like Alaskan mosquitoes. She acted like it was an accident. It wasn’t.
You’ve shot a deer only once and it was brutal enough that you decided never to do it again. Your mother-in-law disagrees with this avoidance. She thinks Grace ought to watch as the deer are gutted. You assume Jay’s mama is out of her mind about nearly everything, this most of all. You don’t want Grace exposed to guts yet. She’ll have to see it all one day. You are ranchers. Meat is your life. But Grace is four. Her life is Tom & Jerry and asking for candy.
Strange that people say they dress a deer to mean they are taking it apart, when the very thing they’re doing is undressing the animal. You think Jay looks like an EMT cutting away the deer’s clothes after an accident, and with the blood, it does seem like something fit for an ambulance. None of this to say you don’t want your family to kill deer. It’s the only thing grass-fed you can afford. Two hundred pounds of meat will feed his parents and your family for a solid year. To eat your own grass-fed cows means a two thousand dollar profit loss on a margin already too skinny.
So the day after Christmas, you cover up the wood floors in the ranch kitchen with feed sacks and clamp the grinder to the dinner table and try not to kill Jay’s mama. You’re not genuinely at risk of killing her (or fighting her—she could whoop your ass), you just need to think less about what her head would look like vacuumed up in one of those save-n-seal bags. You see it clearly, her frosted hairsprayed curls flattened under the plastic, her furious face giving you the what for. The beauty is you can’t hear her; the bag is sealed. A person can only live with so much scrutiny before she starts imagining a vacuum-sealed head. She disregards your wishes for your children, tells you your career is a mistake, and would lay down her life to keep you from inheriting her land. It will bypass her only child and go straight to your children, so as not to risk you stealing it in a divorce. If Jay’s mama hasn’t made you leave him, it’s unlikely anything will.
Three deer are thawing in washtubs on the porch in the December sunshine. The weather in Texas at Christmas is usually a gift in itself. The redbirds are talking and the sun is bouncing off the pond in the morning angle that says “It’s okay to get out of bed today, you’re even gonna like it.” The berries on the wild youpon bushes are glossy, firm and red, and though they are inedible, their abundance reassures you again. You can make it in these woods without giving up hope that you’ll one day lead the kind of life that comes with a subscription to Smithsonian.
The deer were taken out of the freezers yesterday after everyone was stuffed with ham and chocolate and fruit salad. They’d been quartered and frozen since last month. Jay is cubing the quarters into small pieces for the grinder. You’re cutting up fatty briskets into similar-sized chunks. Venison is too lean to make hamburger meat without adding fat. You may live in the woods, but the math and precision with which Jay conducts this operation is the stuff of academia. You want your sausage to be 75/15 and your hamburger leaner than that, 90/10. And Jay loves you and does things how you like them, and you love him back not just for these small kindnesses, but because he’s the gentlest human being you know. You want to be a better person but think it’s a lost cause.. Thank God the kids have Jay as a role model because you’re still picturing his mama’s face behind plastic.
The grinding begins. The baby is eating dirt out of the carpet and Grace is on the swing set. There is no one else around for miles. You wish you were on the swings with Grace. With the berries and the pond, you can relax. You peek out the screen door to check on her and to look at her face. If there’s any hope for you, it’s in the face of that child and her sister on the carpet with mud running down her chin. You know without Jay’s mama, he and your girls wouldn’t exist. You want to be thankful for all that you have, especially this time of year
You put on your latex gloves and begin to bag the meat coming out of the grinder, one to two pounds per sack. It’s bright red and maroon, the colors of the girls’ velvet dresses Jay’s mama made. She tells you she likes hers on the heavy side. She says it every year and every year you bag them close to two pounds. She will say it next year, too, and you will bag them heavy again.
When you have a tray sacked, you take them to Jay’s mama who sits at the dining room table with the vacuum-sealing machine, and she sucks out all the air (she’s excellent at this) and seals them then smashes them thin to an inch with her hands. The thinner, the faster it thaws. She taught you this and she is right, but probably only about this one thing. You smash them flat with a frying pan because it is more uniform, and because you’re still imagining her head inside.
Grace walks in. The door is open to keep the meat cool. She says it smells funny.
Jay’s mama says, “Don’t you know why?”
Grace shakes her head, “Can I turn on Disney?”
“No,” You say, sitting to run the second vacuum packer. “It’s beautiful. Play.” You want to play. There’s no Disney out here anyway.
“This is what meat smells like.” His mother is unfazed.
“My mama’s meat smells good.”
You smile. You grilled two strip steaks late last night because you couldn’t eat any more ham. They did smell good. You are an accomplished steak griller. Your neighbor thinks it’s because you are a rancher, but you owe it to a meat thermometer.
“Your mother cooks all the blood out. What you’re smelling is the blood.”
What Jay’s mama’s saying is partially true, but you want her to shut up. Grace will dream every night next week of blood. You start to say something but wait to see if Grace will go outside, and you can save the boxing match for a more substantial conflict. By the way, you don’t cook all the blood out. You go to exactly 140 degrees, which is medium rare, thank you very much.
Grace stops and turns back to you both. Her blond hair strays in every direction because she won’t wear a ponytail. It flutters like the wings of the tan grasshoppers that take over the hay field each summer. Their undersides are bright orange, but you’d never know it if you didn’t get on the ground with Grace to watch them. From the top, they are a flying beige mass.
“The blood that goes through its body?”
“Yes,” you say before Jay’s mama offers to string up a squirrel for a lesson. You firmly believe meat eaters ought to know how the animal lived and died. You want Grace to know that you kill cows in order to eat them. You just don’t want her to know it today. “Like when you cut yourself, Gracie.” You remember something that might help her think about blood as a source of life not death. “Remember, you bit your tongue last week? You said you could taste it. Well it has a smell, too.” You add, “It’s what makes your muscles move.”
She shows you her muscles then remembers she had a point. “No, it didn’t. It didn’t smell.” Grace knows what she knows.
“It was such a small amount, you probably couldn’t smell it.”
“Is this a lot?” she nods and waves around the room like a hostess on a game show. You don’t know where she picks up these grandiose gestures.
“After Papi killed the deer, he hung it in the barn, and drained all the blood out.” Jay’s mama says, smiling, sincerely believing she is doing Grace a favor. Like if North Korea nuked Texas tomorrow and only Grace survived, this detail would feed her.
Jay and his daddy are pretending the grinder is too loud to hear your talk.
Jay’s mama continues, “So there’s not a lot here now, but you still smell it because it’s all in the meat. We’ll cook most of it away.”
That wasn’t as bad as you were expecting, and Grace pops out the door towards the swings.
“If you’d let her see one dressed, she wouldn’t have so many questions. You can’t keep death away forever.”
You’re thinking, When you die, we’ll bring Grace to the funeral home so she can see your blood drained out. Obviously, you can’t keep death away forever any more than you’ll be able to stop her from wanting Barbies or grinding Play-Doh into your rugs. Like her animated movements, some things have nothing to do with you. “Not forever.”
“When I was a girl and my daddy shot a deer, I was right there helping him.”
Everyone already knows how you think Jay’s mama turned out. You place the open end of a bag into the vacuum channel and press the start button. The noise of it combined with the grinder means you don’t have to answer. It sucks and sucks but doesn’t seal. Jay’s mama looks at you like you broke it. You wipe the bag off because sometimes the grease keeps it from sealing, and try it again, this time watching all the moisture draw toward the vacuum source as the bottom corners pull in tight and wrinkly. Success.
You still do not respond to her statement. Silence drives her bananas. While she does have the physical size and muscle to kick your ass, she does not have the strength to endure quiet.
A new smell fills the room, like chemical sewage. Jay is washing his hands to get ready for stuffing the sausage. Before you can ask, he picks up the baby to change her diaper. Her plump bare legs hang below his arm and her feet dig into his waistband. When he brings her back, he sets her on her mat, but she cries. Jay’s mama cuts her eyes at you.
Grace runs in screaming, “Mama! Gammie! Daddy! Papi!” She covers her bases to ensure someone will answer. The baby stops crying to watch her sister. “I saw a rabbit!” Grace is near hyperventilation. In parts of the country where rabbits are ubiquitous as squirrels are here, spotting one in the winter is no big thing. Here it’s like finding a democrat outside of Austin. Possible but rare.
Papi doesn’t stop the grinder, but his tone says he’s all ears and excited on her behalf. “Was it a cotton tail?”
“It was! And it had babies!”
Now this you don’t believe. If wild rabbits have babies this time of year, you’ve never, ever seen them here.
“Gracie?” You draw out her name to question her claim. She has taken to bullshitting. Last week she told her teacher that she drove herself to school while you slept in the backseat.
“It did!” She knows exactly how to cross her arms over her chest. “Come see um.”
You snap off your gloves. Her eagerness means she might be telling the truth. “Show me.”
“Okay!” She is happy again. “Right here by the swing.”
And there they are at the base of one of the swingset’s legs in a shallow nest, out in the open: A brown rabbit with a full, white tail and three pale bunnies curled under the edge of her body. You make Grace step back to give them some room. It’s too late. The rabbit darts away leaving the bunnies behind. The sight of them gives you an immediate feeling of unease. Rabbits’ reproduction frequency is a genetic compensation for their ridiculous nesting choices. In the open, predators easily find their young. It’s too cold for snakes, but a coyote or hawk would love to make them a snack. You don’t know what to do, but you don’t want Grace to see you panic. She does anyway.
“Let’s show Gammie. She’ll know what to do.” And she races inside before you can protest.
“So it’s true,” Jay’s mama says when she comes out. “Well, what do you know?”
“Why do you think she had them this time of year?” you ask.
“Oh, why does anything happen?” You wonder if this has always been her philosophy or if it came with age. It’s a good question. Why does anything happen? Why does she hate you? Why does it feel so good to be right?
“Grace, go grab me the wire freezer box in the shop.”
“I can’t know how to do that.” She doesn’t want to leave the rabbits.
“You can know, and you do know. It’s the green one you put rocks in.”
“But I’m too tired.”
Generally, you do want Grace to obey her grandmother, but you don’t know what Jay’s mama is going to do with the wire basket. Relocate them? Sift them? Rather than hearing Grace whine for five minutes, you go get it. It’s a holiday, after all. Everyone needs a break, you think, and then you wonder if this includes Jay’s mama. It doesn’t.
You return with the basket and Jay’s mama flips it over on the nest. She came up with a large rock while you were gone, and you wonder if she’s trapping them just long enough to bash their brains in. Last summer, she found a nest of baby mice inside a spool of hay string. As soon as she got them out, she crushed them in her gloved hand. She sets the rock on top of the basket. “The mother only nurses at night, so we’ll uncover them before we go home.”
“What about tomorrow?” you ask before she can finish.
She widens her eyes at you. “I was going to say, I’ll come out in the morning and cover it back up.”
“How long will you have to do that?” you ask, half afraid she might still skip them across the pond.
“Until the mother moves them. How bout that, Grace?”
Grace doesn’t know what to think.
You all three back away from the nest and return to the ranch kitchen. The smell you’d grown used to, the blood, hits you in the face. It isn’t unpleasant, but it is strong. No one says anything until you sit down and resume vacuuming packages of sausage. Jay has been stacking them up.
Grace is on her knees leaning over the table with one of her toy animals, a cow, and you are nervous she’ll get raw meat on it then put it in her mouth. She turns the cow in the air, rump up. “When the deer’s blood runs out, does it all come out his nose?” she asks.
“No, Dear. Papi cuts off their heads and the blood drains out their necks.”
This is when you would normally, hostilely ask, “Why are you set on making everything gruesome?!?”
But you don’t because you are busy thinking of the food chain and how the hawks kill the rabbits and people kill the deer. And you’re thinking about the senselessness of mother on mother violence. You and Jay could leave town. His mama isn’t going to turn over control of the ranch anytime soon. You could leave but then your girls wouldn’t have this place to explore, and everyone would suffer the pains of being without the land. So you stay. Everyday you wake and make the decision to stay.
And you don’t say anything because Jay’s mama’s description is accurate. You could pretty it up for Grace, but next year she’ll probably see a deer hanging. Or maybe the year after that, and she’ll know Gammie was telling her the truth.
Today is different somehow. It might be that it’s the day after Christmas or that the sun thinks it’s March. It could be the bunnies under their sturdy wire box. When the mother moves them, it will likely be to a home as unsafe as this one was.
In this moment, they are safe, though.
Jay is coiling cased sausage onto the table, ring within ring. He will put it on the smoker before y’all go home. This is the final step. His mama will uncover the bunnies, and nature will determine the rest.
© Amanda Nowlin 2012
Amanda is a writer living in rural East Texas. Her prose has appeared in such journals and anthologies as Callaloo, Gulf Coast, Vandal, and Literary Cash. She is the writer-instructor for the National Book Foundation's program, BookUpTX, in Walker County, and a winner of the Barbara Deming Award. Amanda has an MFA in fiction from NYU and a Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Houston. She teaches at Sam Houston State University.
Boxing Day was read by Maggie Lacey on December 5th 2012