MY MOTHER LED ME TO THE FRONT OF THE SANCTUARY, where we took our seats in the first pew. A church brother in a formal black suit arranged a microphone at my mouth. I was no longer crying. The other high school girls no longer circled around me, exclaiming at my sudden tears. Lulled into a semi-calm, I did not remember my body. The sanctuary rustled softly as the congregants shifted in the pews.
This evening, I would testify to the brothers and sisters of the church that I was at peace with God and with others, that I was clean. I had never attended a proving here—only members were welcome. I’d never heard a woman speak in the sanctuary.
Another convert and I had waited for nearly an hour in the block-walled basement. My turn came second. We were teenage girls who wanted to be saved from eternal destruction, and this was the road laid out before us, leading straight into the arms of the church. I’d tried to feel sorrow for my sins during the months leading up to that Saturday night. Repenting, they called it. I wrote letters to my sisters, tucked them under their bedroom doors: “I’m sorry if I’ve done anything to hurt you.” The worst of my failings: that an eighth-grade boy had French-kissed me on the last day of school two years before. His hands had done things I felt guilty about. I was terrified of myself, what I’d fall into next.
Joining the church meant I needed a change of clothes. Mom and I shopped at the Dillard’s in Topeka on a Wednesday afternoon in April. I chose long skirts, because it was what a freshman girl did if, the night before, she had said to her parents: “I want to repent.” I had already withdrawn from sports, stopped going to Friday-night football and basketball games. By the school year’s end, I would let marching band and concert band go too, deciding that first-chair trombone was not really so important. I’d stop trying out for plays and musicals. I knew there would be no more boyfriends, no dating.
My mother had fetched me from the basement room. We’d walked the aisle used for wedding processionals, the aisle where the congregants filed out after Sunday services, men emerging from the left and women from the right. She would say afterward what a difficult thing that Saturday night had been for her, in part because I, her youngest of five daughters, was being examined beneath the lens of the congregation, but also because she was being examined too. She felt eyes prying at her hair.
Just a few years before, plagued by constant headaches, Mom had asked my aunt Glenna to cut her hair, thinning and black, to just past her chin. The bobby pins that for decades had held her bun in place weighed upon her scalp. Her skin was sensitive. Every seam, every rough-textured garment pressed and cut into her flesh.
After the haircut Mom’s headaches relented some, but she said she felt shunned and criticized at church. One woman greeted an entire line of members with a handshake and a holy kiss, and then made a beeline in another direction just before she reached my mother. Men would make comments too, echoing my great-aunt Alma, who had once said of my mother’s newly shortened skirt: “I liked it better the other way.”
So when she walked me down the aisle in a ceremony that would determine my worthiness to become a member, she felt only condemnation lying in wait behind every gaze.
Sometimes Mom praised my hair. “If I could grow mine like that,” she would say. In my early teens I grew it long, perhaps longing to become what I thought of as a woman, perhaps in anticipation of the day I’d arrange it in buns and twists to hide away my loose strands.
This winter, I insist on watching the pigs die. Every year, my family has butchered hogs, stocked the freezer with cuts of meat wrapped in butcher paper to last all year. Growing up, I was accustomed to the packages thawing on the kitchen counter, emerging in the hours before a meal, a sign of the machinations of my mother’s mind. The type of cut initialed on the wrapper foretold the meal she would construct.
I won’t shoot the first gilt or stubborn barrow, even though I hunted a deer at seventeen. Now, at forty years old, I’m not trying to prove anything. Still, I want to be connected to the source and story of our food, to know at what cost we eat.
The men take turns putting the hogs down. “Imagine an X between the ears and eyes,” Dad says. “When the hog’s looking at you, shoot there.” At the first shot, a barrow falls on its side and convulses on the ground. Amid the thrashing, my determined nephew will stick ’em, plunging a sharp knife into the stunned animal’s throat to let its blood flow freely.
You want to hit a main artery quickly, while the heart is still pumping and the pig thrashing, to drain as much blood as possible. From two gashes in the neck, blood pours out.
“Some people drink that,” says my nephew to no one in particular.
It does seem a waste, all that rich red. There’s little to say as we watch the pig’s life rush onto the ground. Less than a year old, the hogs have been raised in the old style, as my dad calls it: outdoors and on dirt. Born the previous spring or summer, they now weigh over 250 pounds. One barrow pushes 350.
The blood makes me think of blutwurst, a German sausage. I’ve never tasted it, but I ask my mom about it. She grew up in a German village across the road from a butcher who hung inflated pig bladders at the lintel of his door on killing days.
“No, we don’t eat it,” she says. “The Bible says to abstain from things strangled, and from blood.”
“Isn’t that in the Old Testament?” I ask. According to Mosaic law, animals with cloven hooves—pigs, for instance—weren’t allowed as food either.
“It’s repeated in the New,” Dad says. I’ll look it up later. If something shows up in the New Testament, I know how easily it can become law. It’s why my parents still greet other church members with a kiss, why women cover their heads, why we kept our silence in the sanctuary.
“My grandpa liked blutwurst,” Mom says. “My mom used to buy it for him.”
I think of how her grandpa was an atheist, how his name was Adolf, how he threw a can of soup at his daughter, my Oma, on her wedding day. Among his many sins: eating food with pig blood in it.
I know my family’s stories because Mom tells them, almost as if accidentally. Memory becomes impulse. Her stories are like weeds springing up alongside intentional crops. They startle me with their starkness and occasionally their beauty.
From Mom’s stories, I know that Oma carried forward her father’s violence. When Mom’s elbow started aching several years ago, a doctor asked about past injuries. A shadow of memory takes shape around a distant kitchen table—a paddle, words, names battering her. “I think something in my elbow broke,” she said, trying to pull the strand of story into proper tension. Immigrating to the rural Midwest when she married my father at eighteen years old saved my mother from a home festering with untended wounds. “My mother did not miss me,” Mom said. “She skipped my wedding to cook food for the guests. She was glad when I left.”
Though his gentle tone never changed, Elder Brother Matthew’s gaze was becoming more direct. He stood in the pulpit, looking down at me.
“Carrie, is there anything about our traditions you would change?”
The question had heft, like a large bird hanging in air. Before the congregation, I had already recalled details of the story of Jesus, how I understood his crucifixion and resurrection. I had fumbled through an explanation of how, by reading the Bible, I’d tried to puzzle out a tentative new belief that God was no longer angry with me. I’d described what I’d done to change—I had not contemplated these changes so much as I had let my body receive them. I’d acknowledged my daily duties of prayer and Bible reading—these were all expected. Would I change anything? It was a question meant to determine whether my presence would disrupt this culture. I was sixteen years old, and I understood.
They say even a child can understand the gospel, that it is the easiest thing in the world to know you can be saved from sin.
I didn’t say I loved the traditions. Wearing a long skirt every day to my public high school, giving up trombone because I didn’t see how Friday-night marching band could mix with who I must become—I did these things because I didn’t know how else to become new. On Sunday, right after my baptism, my wet hair pinned back in a bun, I would receive quick kisses on the lips from hundreds of women, as they said to me for the first time: Greetings, sister. What would I change?
I could not change any of these things. They were inconvenient, awkward, even embarrassing for a teenager in the late 1990s, but they were bound up with my salvation. I could not unknit them any more than I could unknit myself from my mother’s womb. Which parts could I discard and still be safe?
I said, “If we changed one tradition, who knows where we would stop?”
I know now that this answer signaled my awareness of the threat. I used the measured tone of nonconfrontation that all members must learn to survive. I was assuring Brother Matthew that I was in agreement: the outside world could spin its dangers, and I would not make waves.
Though my answer wobbled on the edge of insincerity, I knew it was the right one. I have always known how to give the right answer. The cost of giving the wrong one was too great.
I knew it was the right answer because Brother Matthew savored it. His face relaxed into admiration, as if I were a young dog who had just accomplished a complex trick. He turned to the congregation with a soft smile. “I hope you all heard what she said. If we changed one tradition, who knows where we would stop?”
Something was completed in that moment—a trial, a dwelling in the space just outside a door. This was my proving. I had proved to be enough.
My dad instructs the younger men. He’s instructing me too, but I keep quiet. They lower the dead pig into a vat of hot water and lye, then lift it from the scalding bath with two ropes crossed beneath the carcass. When the men gather around the animal to scrape away its hair, I watch silently from the fringes. Grasping the wooden-handled scrapers, they work fast and hard. I want to be more meticulous when my turn comes, to keep from tearing the skin as they are.
When a space opens, I step up to the table where the carcass lies. I scrape carefully around its nipples, the delicate skin near the hind legs.
Amid violence, the flesh becomes most tender.
“Shall we ask the ministers and your family what they think?” Brother Matthew turned to the men around him. From their throne-shaped chairs they answered in their somber voices.
“Brother Gene?” I’m satisfied.
“Brother John?” I’m satisfied.
“Brother Roger?” I’m satisfied.
The answers were sought in order of hierarchy. Along the front pew, the elders and ministers gave their approval.
Then my father, across the aisle from me. I don’t remember what he said. Something like Yes, I can see she’s changed. Yes, I’m satisfied.
My mother was next, her voice shaken. My older sister saying, “I’m very thankful.” This was the only time women would speak in church, besides the nights of their own proving and the following day at their baptismal vows.
No one would say no. I knew I had done nothing to disrupt the worn ecosystem. I had been grafted into the old style—the arrangement of my hair, the length of my dress, the small piece of cloth upon my head. Covered, blanketed, a warp of hymns to see me into the fold and walk me to my burial. I had lived my life watching others—how it was done.
There was one thing more. Brother Matthew’s words tumbled forth. He had recited them a hundred times. “Now we’ll ask the congregation,” he said, turning to the hundreds of women on the right, men on the left. “If you believe Carrie has made a true conversion and believe she has found peace with God and man and should be baptized and welcomed as a sister, please show your approval by arising.”
I was not prepared. Can we prepare for inevitability? Behind me, I heard a thunder of bodies standing. No words, just a unanimous surge of movement. I did not look back at the pews lined with veiled women. I did not glance over at the throng of black-suited men. From the pews, I could feel a shadow of approval, a cloak cast over me. It was the only time, sitting in that front pew, that I wept. At earlier points my voice had trembled, but this was different. It was the sound of hundreds of people saying with their bodies that I had gotten it right.
At some weddings, witnesses are offered a chance to voice their opposition to the marriage. That was the final question posed to the congregation. “Does anyone have any reason why Carrie should not be welcomed as our sister?”
You may know something of silence, derived from a Swiss proverb, according to Thomas Carlyle: Sprechen ist silbern, Schweigen ist golden. In silence, we are asked to consider the room we’ve prepared, the space we’ve made for something more valuable than what we had before. The silver of speech set aside. We are left in the room, in our hands the gold we sought.
“Carrie, they all stood up,” Brother Matthew was saying. “How does that make you feel?”
Dad seems happy. Once the hogs are hung from singletrees and more blood has dripped onto the gravel yard, he starts gutting them. He starts at the top, between the back legs, slitting the skin in the median of the soft abdomen, careful to not nick the intestines and spill out feces. He loosens the guts to pull them from the front of the carcass, then moves around to the back, near the tail, to cut around the anus and, on the gilts, the vulva. He hands me a pair of pliers and tells me to hold the severed vulva taut so he can finish cutting around it, then pull the entire digestive system from the gash down the front.
Truly, I am happy too. The warm innards somehow satisfy me—to know the inner workings of the creature. This violence feels easy and natural in the quest for food.
Dad points out the spleen, stomach, lungs. The liver and heart, dark and red. He cuts these free to soak in a bucket of clean water.
A generation ago, the women would turn the intestines inside out and scrape them clean. Mom remembers seeing parasites in them before they were soaked in saltwater. Now we order packaged casings ready to fill.
I imagine my mother at a kitchen sink, surrounded by women whose bodies feel at home in this stark landscape. When she arrived in Kansas, a married teenage immigrant, it was Dad’s family who taught her to melt a spoonful of lard in cast iron to brown a cut of pork, to thicken fat drippings into a cream gravy. “Everyone was so kind to me,” she would say. She learned the ways of a farm wife, performed them with a precision she’d acquired in German primary school, shaping her perfect letters on a slate. Now as an adult, she molded her English into Midwestern speech, her accent nearly imperceptible by the time I was born.
When my parents began their church conversion, Mom changed her hair. In our early family photos, her long tresses are pinned gently back. I know she began thinking of the clothes she would need to alter. She may have bought new dresses from the local clothing store owned by Uncle Joe, considering how she would need to alter herself to wear them. Worn for only a few months, her wedding band, etched with my father’s name, is still tucked inside her bedroom drawer.
Cutting off the head, as he works his way around the pig’s broad neck, Dad’s hands run with blood. He asks another man to pull the body in the opposite direction until, with a snap, the spine breaks and the head comes free.
Later, after the blood has drained, they will skin the head, look for every bit of meat around the skull—jowls, for instance—and save it for sausage. The hooves and fetlocks too will be cut off and trimmed, the good parts saved.
Now the proving was over, the bodies returned to the pews.
I don’t remember what I said, how I felt. After my friend Jennifer’s proving, an elder asked her how she felt and she said rejoiceful. I snorted out loud and then tried to cover it up by rubbing my nose as if I had sneezed. After my proving, I did not feel rejoiceful. Perhaps relieved. A throng of witnesses had welcomed me in. My body had found a room filled with a fabric of language. I was told this fabric promised safety. But beneath a veil is another chamber, and within this chamber, listening.
On Saturday evenings when I was a girl, Mom would take a bath. I can hardly imagine her relaxing into the warm water, letting her eyes close. It is easier to imagine her busily washing herself, eyes wide open, her body only naked because it had to be, cleansed to be clothed again.
Clothed, however much the pins, fabrics, and seams chafed her skin.
Sometimes I would use Mom’s bathwater, always deeper and warmer than the baths she ran for me. Afterward she would sit in the armchair and trim her fingernails, or mine, while they were still soft, a metal file beside her on the arm of the chair. She moved from finger to finger, filing the nails smooth and round, not too blunt or too long.
Carrie Beyer is a poet and essayist whose writing has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Iron Horse Literary Review, Cream City Review, storySouth, and elsewhere. She grew up in rural Kansas and now lives with her family near Seattle on ancestral Suquamish land.
Image courtesy of Nick Fewings, via Unsplash.