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Ham by Robert Boucheron

CW: Animal Slaughter

Swinetown lay in a fold of the mountains where a road crossed a creek. A handful of shacks slapped together from pine lumber, that’s all it was. One of the shacks was the general store, and another was the church. Around the church, gravestones leaned at all angles. Garden plots of cabbage and potatoes clung to the slopes. Not one square foot on the level could be found. The only pretty thing was a wildflower.

The people raised pigs and made pork products—sausage, bacon, butt, ribs, knuckles, loin, and pulled pork for barbecue. Above all, they made ham. Greedy middlemen ate all the profit, but Swinetown ham was equal to any imported from Denmark, Spain, or Italy. What was the secret of the marvelous flavor, the rose color, and the firm flesh?

The pigs roamed freely in the woods. Instead of slops, they fed on mast in the fallen leaves. They rooted for grubs and truffles. Weather and wolves claimed a few runts, but the natural lifestyle kept disease at bay. The pigs retreated to log shelters in winter, and they farrowed in spring. In fall, Swinetowners gathered their herds with the help of the swinehound, a special breed of dog. They whistled certain notes and called ancient calls. Each owner picked a few pigs whose time had come.

The November slaughter was a raucous riot of boiling cauldrons, flashing knives, and raw carcasses. Men splashed to the white eyeballs with gore hacked at flesh and sawed on bones, while women were busy with yards of intestines, which they cleaned, stuffed, and tied. Children fetched firewood and water from the creek. They poked at the flames with sticks. Babies slung in pouches from branches watched.

Nadine took no part. She called it a bloodbath. She called her neighbors barbarians. She was from another village and a widow to boot, thin as a stick, dressed in dark jeans and tops, with gray hair under a ratty scarf. Bitter comments flew from her mouth like black flies.

Pastor Brown chided Nadine. She answered with more of the same. This saddened the good man, loath to abandon a soul to hell. And the mother-daughter quarrels wore him out.

The daughter, Opal, had children of her own to raise. She had married into a pig-raising family. Everyone was more or less kin, they pitched in as needed, and they shared because they had to. Like her neighbors, Opal consumed lesser cuts that could not be sold, which is why she never lost weight. Movie stars in magazines and doctors on television were no help. What did they know about Opal’s hard life? She did what she had to do, and her body was what it was.

As a girl, Opal loved her father, a hunter and forester, what folks called a woodchuck. Mild-tempered and shiftless, he died in a chainsaw accident. The shock to Nadine and the mourning that followed had turned her wits, Opal believed, the way bad weather spoils milk.

Never to her face, Opal called her mother a poor thing and her cross to bear. Others called Nadine a hag and a witch. Pastor Brown demurred. A true heart had no room for hate. This message got nowhere.

One year, owing to plentiful rainfall and mild temperatures, the forest was so abundant, the pigs were so fat, and their number so numerous, Swinetown overflowed with pork. Instead of mean scowls, people wore wan smiles. They indulged in cautious optimism.

Opal and her husband shared in the prosperity. At the end of the year, Mundy showed his wife one of the new hams.

“We could give it to Nadine, your poor mother.”

“Such a beautiful pink,” she sighed. “Smell that aroma!”

Opal wrapped the ham in a clean cloth, tied a ribbon on the shank, and carried it in her arms like a babe to the saddest shack in Swinetown.

Nadine was surprised. She wasn’t fond of ham, but a gift could not be turned down flat. Short on groceries and money for food, she accepted it in silence. A thank-you was too much to expect. Her good deed done, Opal walked home in righteous glory.

Nadine cut a slice of ham for dinner that night, and the next, and the night after that. She made ham sandwiches, ham biscuits, ham and eggs, and scalloped ham and potatoes.

“It’s good ham,” she said to Pastor Brown. “But no matter how much I cut, when I unwrap the ham again, it’s the same size.”

“It’s a miracle!” he said.

“A change of pace would be nice. How about chicken or fried fish?”

“You have been blessed.”

“For the rest of my life?”


Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Christian Science Monitor, Fiction International, Louisville Review, and Saturday Evening Post.

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