It’s the first snowfall of the season, which means as soon as I get out of bed and eat breakfast, I head over to Mrs. Perkins’s house across the road to shovel snow. Mrs. Perkins is a widow who lives all alone and one of the oldest ladies in town. Every year I shovel a path from her front door to the street so that she can leave her house. I do it before I even do my own house, although that is next on the list.
Then I plan to go over to Mary Eckley’s house and see if I can do some shoveling for her.
My boots are soggy before I even walk ten feet in the snow. I’m wearing the gloves my mother knitted for me, but my fingers gripping the shovel still feel frozen. Hopefully, Mrs. Perkins will invite me in for a hot tea when I finish the job—usually she does. She is a nice lady who often comes to our house with cakes she’d baked that she has no one else to share with.
Except when I get to Mrs. Perkins’s house, I see that a path has already been cleared leading to her front door. I stare at the shoveled ice for a moment, baffled. I’m so perplexed that I don’t see the flash of white flying at my head until the snowball hits me square in the face.
“Oh no!” a voice giggles. “I’m sorry, Tom! I meant to hit you in the chest!”
I wipe snow from my eyes and focus them up at the girl standing before me. Mary Eckley, wrapped in a worn wool coat with the sleeves fraying at the edges, gripping a shovel in her left hand and covering her mouth with her right.
“I always shovel for Mrs. Perkins,” I say dumbly.
“Yes, well.” Mary shrugs. “You got here too late, didn’t you? I’ve already done the job.”
I gaze at the clear path with amazement. “You does this?”
She clucks her tongue at me. “I keep telling you I’m not helpless.”
I have no doubt about that. I started bringing a satchel with me to school so that I could carry Mary’s books home while still carrying my own, leaving one hand free for the growingly common privilege of holding her hand, yet it’s clear that she’s very capable of fending for herself. I’ve walked by Mary’s house and seen her chopping firewood—something my father would never allow my mother to do. It’s not women’s work.
“Now,” Mary says, “I just need to work on my aim.”
With those words, she scoops up some snow in her gloves and hurls another snowball in my direction. This one hits me in the chest. I hesitate, not sure if it is proper to throw a snowball at a young woman, especially one I have intentions with. But after the third snowball hits me again in the face, I decide I’ll take a chance.
Mary screams with delight when my first snowball hits her in the shoulder. Before long, we have hurled dozens of snowballs at each other. I’m tossing overhand, but Mary is going for blood. Her umpteenth snowball hits me in the shoulder and I lose my balance, slipping and falling in over a foot of white powder.
“Are you okay, Tom?” Still giggling, Mary rushes to my side, although the snow is so deep and slippery that she falls too, only inches away from me. She laughs as the snow grinds into her red curls, her nose pink from the cold. “Oh no.”
I struggle to sit up in the snow, but it occurs to me then that Mary is lying next to me. Despite the cold, I can feel the heat radiating from her slim body. She is so beautiful—her deep red hair laced with icicles, her cheeks flushed, her green eyes clear and full of joy. Her laughter dies and I realize we are both staring at each other. As much as I know it would be improper, I want more than anything in the world to lean forward and…
I want to…
“Tom,” Mary whispers urgently. “Kiss me now. Nobody will know.”
Something is troubling me. The urge I feel tugging at my chest is something I can’t identify. It isn’t that I want to kiss Mary. I want to kiss her, of course, but there is something else. Something more powerful.
“Tom?” she whispers again.
I lean forward until my lips are an inch from her face. The craving has intensified so that I can feel it down to my bones. Kissing her will not satisfy me. Even lying with her as man and wife will not satisfy what I want from her. I want something else. Something I can’t identify.
Or something I don’t want to identify.
This time I hear the shrill voice of Mrs. Eckley ringing out through the frigid winter air. I thank God she didn’t catch me kissing her daughter. The both of us sit up in the snow, exchanging guilty looks.
“What are the two of you doing down there?” Mrs. Eckley demands to know.
I scramble to my feet before offering Mary my hand to help her stand next to me. I glance at Mary and see that she is stifling a laugh. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” I mumble.
“We were just shoveling snow, Mama,” Mary says. “For old Widow Perkins.”
“Shoveling snow,” Mrs. Eckley repeats. She shakes her head at us. “I think this snow has been shoveled quite enough now.” She looks me up and down. “Tom, if you’re so keen on shoveling snow, you can come over to our house and shovel our path.”
I’m relieved to get off that easy. “Yes, ma’am.”
Mary winks at me and starts off in the direction of her house. I go to follow the Eckley women, but before I do, I hear something. A voice. A voice speaking in my ear even though I can’t see another soul on the street aside from the three of us:
Take her, Tom. Devour her.
Before it gets dark tonight, I chop firewood out back—enough to hopefully get us through the week. It’s grown so cold that we’ll have to keep the fire going all the time. Ma is worried about it going out and not being able to start it up again.
After I finish, I return to the house, carrying a load of wood and also the axe. I can hear the sound of my father’s voice from the parlor. He is shouting, but I can’t make out the words. Then I hear a crash.
I drop the logs I’ve been carrying, but for some reason, I hold onto the axe. I grip it in my callused hand, rushing in the direction of the noise. It has grown dark and the room is lit only by the oil lamp. The first thing I see is my father standing in the middle of the parlor, his right hand balled into a fist, his neck red. The second thing I see is my mother sprawled out on the floor, a vase shattered beside her, the flowers and water it had contained spilled out onto the floor next to her.
“Ma,” I murmur.
Pa whirls around when he hears me, and I can tell from his bloodshot eyes that he is drunk. I don’t know why he hit her, but the truth is he doesn’t need a reason. Not a real reason. One night he hit her because she didn’t ask him how his day at the shop had gone and didn’t she care? Another night he hit her because she asked him about his day at the shop and it wasn’t any of her goddamn business.
“What the hell are you doing here, boy?” Pa snaps at me. “Aren’t you supposed to be chopping firewood?”
“I finished,” I say, keeping my eyes trained on my mother. Her golden hair is disheveled and she is trying to brush it from her face. “Ma, are you all right?”
“I’m fine, Tom,” she says quickly. Her voice sounds dry and crackly. “Just… go to your room.”
I don’t move.
“This is none of your business, boy.” My father’s voice is slurred. “If you’re done making yourself useful, you can go on upstairs.” He snorts. “Don’t be a big shot. Unless you want some of what she got…”
I look down at my right hand, still clutching the axe. I can see my next move. I can see myself lifting the axe…
“You hear me, boy?” Pa growls. “I tol’ you to get on upstairs…”
Lifting the axe. Swinging it against my father’s neck.
Blood spraying everywhere. Bright red blood. Pooling on the floor.
It would smell just like the fresh beef in Mr. Sullivan’s cooler.
“Tom!” My mother’s voice jars me out of the scene unfolding before my eyes. I’m so startled that I drop the axe. It clatters to the floor and I step back, horrified by what I’d been contemplating.
“I’m going,” I manage. I race up the stairs as fast as I can, leaving the axe behind.
If my mother hadn’t shouted my name, I would have done it. I would have swung that axe at my father’s head.
Or would I?
I’ve never even been in a fistfight with another boy. The thought that I could do something like that… well, it’s unthinkable. That’s all there is to it. And although I hate what my father does to us, he’s still my father. I would never…
I can’t think about this anymore.
On Sunday afternoons, I call on Mary. We generally sit on the porch together and talk or sometimes hold hands. Her mother can see us from the window, so there’s no funny business. And of course, I live in fear of Sheriff Eckley coming home and seeing me doing something to his daughter that he doesn’t like.
What will the sheriff do to me if he catches me kissing his daughter? I don’t want to know. Depriving me of the privilege of marrying her would be punishment enough.
Today Mary is in a foul mood. Usually she’s bubbling over with conversation, but today she simply sits there, glaring at the road. I try to take her hand, but she yanks it away. I wonder what I have done to upset her.
“Is everything all right?” I finally venture.
Mary swivels her head to look at me. “Papa has informed me that I will not be returning to school in the fall.”
I blink in surprise. “Why not?”
“He says I’ve had enough schooling for a girl,” she snorts. “They need my help with chores and with the little ones. Can’t spare me anymore.”
I know how much Mary loves school. She is passionate about learning, and truth be told, one of the best students in the class. But it’s no surprise that she won’t be finishing high school. Only a small number in our town do. She is one of the few girls left in our class—many quit after eighth grade and still more leave every year to get married.
“I’m sorry, Mary,” I say. “I wish you could go instead of me. I don’t have much use for another year of school—not in my line of work.”
Mary looks at me curiously. “And what line of work is that?”
“Well…” I shrug. “You know I’ve been apprenticing with Mr. Sullivan.”
She cocks her head at me. “You really want to be a butcher?”
I frown. “Yes. I do.”
Her cheeks redden and she touches my hand. “I’m sorry, Tom. I didn’t mean it like that. I just… you are the smartest boy in the whole town. You think I don’t notice? You could be… you could be mayor, you know? Or… or governor.”
I raise my eyebrows, trying not to seem as skeptical as I feel. “Can I really?”
“Sure.” Mary nods vigorously. “Why, if you had the right help, I bet you could be President!”
This time, I have to laugh. “I think President Roosevelt is doing just fine, thank you very much.”
“Well, I’m not talking about now.” She clucks her tongue. “But someday, after you finish high school. And then go to college, of course…”
“Well, why not?” Her green eyes are full of fiery determination. She never looks so beautiful as when she believes in me in a way that nobody else can. “Why can’t you be President? You’re smart enough. I know from class that you’re a good speaker. You’re the handsomest boy in the whole town…”
My cheeks burn. “Mary…”
“Well, you are,” she insists. She gives my hand a squeeze. “Now all you need is the right woman by your side. And then you’ll be all set.”
I shake my head at her. “You think a little too much of me.”
“You don’t think enough of yourself.” She looks up at me, and I can see there is nothing teasing in those green eyes. “Think about it—President Thomas Blake. Has a good ring to it, doesn’t it?”
I won’t lie. Mary’s faith in me is more than flattering—it is exciting. Maybe she’s right. Maybe I really can be more than just the town butcher. Maybe I can go to college. With a woman like Mary by my side, it sometimes feels like anything is possible for me.
Except I know in my heart it isn’t really possible. I can’t do all the wonderful things Mary is saying. Because there are things about me that Mary doesn’t know.
She doesn’t know that the only place I ever feel truly happy is inside Mr. Sullivan’s butcher shop.
She doesn’t know that at least once or twice a week, I whirl around as fast as I can, trying to catch a glimpse of the man I’m certain has been following me.
She doesn’t know I’ve been having dreams where I swing the blade of an axe into my father’s chest, then wake up covered in cold sweat.
“Kiss me, Tom,” Mary whispers urgently. “Mama’s gone to the kitchen and she can’t see. Nobody can see us. Kiss me.”
She doesn’t know that when I kiss her tonight for the first time, I get that same sick feeling there is something else I want to do to her.
She doesn’t know anything.
And I don’t intend for her to find out.
I’ve been working for Mr. Sullivan long enough that he trusts me to cure meat on my own. Curing meat is a necessity, as we can’t keep it cold enough in his cooler to store it for long periods, especially now that it’s summer. Mr. Sullivan tells me rumors of refrigerated train cars that can bring fresh meat more regularly, but for now, this is the way we do things.
Mr. Sullivan had to take off early today and he left me with two fresh whole pigs that were slaughtered very recently. He once explained to me that water is what causes meat to spoil—if you want a piece of meat to last without decaying, all the water has to be drawn out of it. We execute this task with a mixture of salt and saltpeter. The salt draws out the moisture from the meat, and the saltpeter preserves it, allowing it to retain its pink color. Sometimes brown sugar is added as well to give the meat more sweetness.
The back room has a bucket of salt and saltpeter—enough to coat every inch of these two pigs. I’ll likely need at least twenty-five pounds of the mixture. It’s a difficult job that must be done in a bucket with a hole at the bottom so the liquor of unusable liquid drawn from the meat can flow to the floor. To do it right takes me an hour per animal, but I’m up for the task.
After the animal is properly salted, it sits for six weeks in the salting tub for all the liquid to be drawn out. We already have many animals in various stages of salting—Mr. Sullivan tags them so we can keep track. If the salting is not done for long enough, we risk decay.
After the salting is finished, we bring the meat to the smoking house. This is a shed out back where we hang the meat over a fire made of green wood or apple wood—Mr. Sullivan prefers apple wood because it gives the meat a sweeter taste. The point of the fire is to smoke the meat rather than cook it, so we let it burn low at all times. Sometimes it goes out, but that’s no bother. I just get the fire going again and resume the smoking process.
Meat sits in the smoking house for about two weeks. After that, we bring it into the store to hang and sell. Meat that’s been salt-cured can last for years and stay just as pink as the day it was slaughtered.
However, before starting the salting process, I have to bleed these pigs dry best I can. I tied them by their feet from the hooks attached to the ceiling, one hanging over each bucket. I take a butcher knife and slit the first pig’s throat from ear to ear.
It has likely been dead for at least an hour, but the flow of blood is still considerable and nearly knocks me off my feet. I’m sure that fresh blood of an animal must have some smell to other people, but to me, it’s nearly overwhelming. I wish I could describe it but I can’t. It makes me want to… to claw at the dead pig and rip through the skin with my teeth.
Yes, I know that sounds crazy. I would, of course, never do such a thing. I’m in my right mind. But as I look up at the first pig, still dripping blood from its neck, I know that I have to do something to quiet this strange craving I’m having.
Before I can think twice about it, I grab an empty glass from the shelf. I position it below the pig where most of the blood seemed to be dripping. I watch in fascination as the cup gradually fills with dark red liquid. My right hand holding the glass won’t stop shaking.
When the flow slows to a halt a minute later, I’m left with a glass nearly filled with pig’s blood. I slosh it around the edges of the glass. It feels warm in my hand. Mr. Sullivan doesn’t generally save the blood of animals—he says nobody buys it frequently enough and it always spoils in the cooler. That means if the blood disappears, he’ll never know or care.
I want this blood.
I lift the cup to my lips, my hand shaking so much that I nearly hit my nose instead. I tilt the cup back, and a second later, the warm liquid hits my throat. And it is…
Every cell in my body is suddenly at attention. I feel like I can hoist both the pigs off their hooks at once and juggle them in the air. I feel like I can run a hundred miles. Faster than any train. I feel like I can do absolutely anything.
“Hello? Is anyone back there?”
The voice startles me so much that my hand jerks, spilling the remains of the blood on my white apron. For a moment, I feel a flash of anger so intense that I nearly hurl the glass across the room, where it would have shattered into a million pieces. But then I remember myself. I’m in Mr. Sullivan’s shop. He is gone for the day and he left me in charge. If I do anything wrong, I’ll lose this job.
I can’t lose this job.
“Coming!” I call out.
I wipe my hands on my apron and hurry out to the front. My heart quickens when I see who my customer is: Sheriff William Eckley. Mary’s father.
“Tom!” He sounds surprised to see me, but not entirely displeased. “I heard you were working here. Fred isn’t around?”
“Mr. Sullivan’s gone for the rest of the day,” I explain. “He left me in charge. What can I get for you?”
Sheriff Eckley hesitates. He has a strange look on his face that makes me uneasy.
“Tom,” he finally says, “you’ve got blood on you.”
“Right.” I wipe my hands again on my blood-splattered apron. “I was just butchering a pig in the back.”
He frowns. “It’s on your face.”
My heart leaps into my throat. I touch my face, wishing there were a mirror in the shop. I do my best attempt to wipe the blood off my skin. “I’ll be honest, sir. I’m a beginner.”
“I’ll say,” the sheriff comments.
“I’ll take one of the chickens you got back there,” Sheriff Eckley finally says.
I nod and turn to pull down one of the preserved chickens that is hanging from a hook behind me. My hands are shaking so badly that it takes three tries for me to get it down. I nearly drop the bird while trying to get it on the scale.
“Mrs. Eckley wanted me to invite you to dinner if I see you,” the sheriff says as I shakily wrap up the chicken for him. He doesn’t sound sure of himself as he extends the invitation, like he is doing it because he has to, but he’d really rather not invite me. I can’t blame him. “This Friday night.”
“Okay,” I agree.
“Mary will be glad to see you,” he adds. “I know she misses you when school is out.”
“I miss her too,” I say, then look away as my cheeks grow warm. “I guess I won’t be seeing her much next year.”
“Oh? Why not?”
“Because…” The paper crinkles beneath my fingers. “Mary says she’s leaving school.”
“No, she’s not.”
“She’s not? But she told me she was.”
For the first time since Sheriff Eckley walked into the butcher shop, a smile touches his lips. “Yes, well, you try to argue with Mary about something like this. She went on and on… said she’d take off for the capitol if we didn’t let her finish school.”
I stare at him. “The capitol?”
The sheriff waves his hand. “Some nonsense about petitioning for women to get the vote. She talks about it nearly every day. Something about wanting to suffer? Doesn’t sound like such a good deal to me.”
I finally allow myself to smile as well. “Women’s suffrage, it’s called. Mary speaks about it all the time in class.”
The sheriff chuckles. “I say to her, ‘Mary, you keep going on about this, you’ll scare poor Tom away.’” He cocks his head at me. “But I get the feeling you don’t scare too easily, do you, Tom?”
“That’s good.” He nods in approval. “Because my Mary—she’s a handful.”
I want to tell the sheriff that I already know that. And it is part of what I love about her.
I ring up the sale of the chicken on the cash register, Sheriff Eckley pays me, and then he goes on his way. I feel good about the entire interaction. It is a feeling that lasts exactly sixty seconds, until I examine my reflection in the blade of a butcher knife and see that my lips and chin are stained with pig’s blood.