Slaughtering the Shadow

When people tell me their earliest memories, I feel a flash of jealousy, because so much of my life seems like a faded blur. I remember things in sensory terms; the crunch of grass so dry and brittle that it shatters underfoot, the smell of fried octopus, the sight of sun glittering on white walls, so bright that it makes you blink if you are unwise enough to venture out in the heat of the day. I remember the feel of coarse stone and the taste of seawater on my lips, but I have difficulty pulling them together into a single, cohesive memory. They are more like brief flashes that cross my mind, and I am never sure if they are real or false, constructed out of a desire to idealise the world or dredged from real memory.

The mind is a fickle thing and its capacity for selective retention of information makes it inherently untrustworthy. It can wake you in the middle of the night with a vivid scene and then it will deceive you about what happened last week.

I do remember this, though. It is not my earliest memory but it is a memory.

We slaughtered on the equinox because it was an auspicious day to do it, and the fact that the butcher had time that day was an added bonus. I was sent up the hill with part of the flock because someone seemed to think that my tender sensibilities would be offended by the reality of slaughter, which can be a messy thing; hands slippery with blood and organ meats, bodies hanging from the trees, the swift passage of the butcher’s knife, the deft removal of skins. The air starts to tang with copper and the underlying scent of panic, and the warmth of the day adds a heavy musk to the proceedings.

The goats and I crowded around the gate on the upper pasture with curiousity, watching the scene with wide eyes. A stiff breeze from the ocean carried the sounds away from us so there was a strange silence about the activities below, which appeared distant and distorted through the waves of shimmering heat. It was broken sometimes by the sound of a bell as a goat shifted position or the rattling of birds settling on the fence and adding their commentary.

When the wind shifted and the smells traveled up toward us, the goats flared their nostrils and scattered across the pasture, but I felt drawn to what was going on below. I smelled earthiness, not death, and I slipped through the gate after casting a weather eye for watchful adults who might intervene. It was easy to slip quietly through the trenches woven in the dusty ground by the goats, to drift through the olives until I had a better vantage point, could hear the voices and the bleating and smell the sweat and copper, the tang of fresh, raw meat.

It wasn’t until they finished and started cleaning up that someone noticed me and rushed over to determine if I’d been permanently scarred by the experience. I remember this vividly, an adult swooping in to loom over me, but I don’t clearly remember what happened next; this is what the mind does, it cuts things off in the middle and then constructs artificial memories on the basis of what it has been told to remember. I want to tell you that I remember asking when dinner was, pointing toward the spitted goat being tended with care by one of the assistants of the day.

But that would be a lie; that part of the memory is false, created by what my father told me later. He likes to tell this story, of everyone convinced that I would be too delicate to handle the slaughter, too repulsed by what I’d seen to eat. He likes to follow up with a grin, explaining that I ate more than anyone else that night, fingers slick with oil as I cracked the bones open to get at the marrow. And this may well be what happened next; certainly there were enough people there to testify to the fact that I wasn’t traumatised and did indeed eat with the adults.

If it was like the meals I do remember, that equinox meal was probably eaten outside, with people perched on whatever seating was convenient, and everyone drinking wine and eating mezze and getting louder as the evening progressed. Someone might have thought to turn on the lights at one point so we weren’t sitting in a gathering darkness. Maybe the moon glittered on the water and reflected from the whitewashed walls of the buildings and walls. Maybe it wasn’t a moonlit night. Maybe people danced as the evening wore on and I fell asleep next to my father.

Over the next few days the adults would have begun the hard work of processing the meat, but that equinox would have been a night of celebration, task accomplished, butcher seated in the middle of the table with an expression of pride, his leather case of knives tucked away by the gate to take home with him at the end of the evening.

I do remember this about that night, though: I remember it was the equinox because my father explained the change of seasons to me and the reason for having an equal day and night. He traced the sun and the planets and their orbits in the bloodstained dirt, and traced over them as he illustrated axial tilt and the strange moment where everything aligns perfectly. I remember him telling me that on the equinox, people at the equator cast no shadow at noon.

I remember being captivated by the idea of escaping the everpresent tagalong and asking if someday we could go to the equator for the equinox.