Storyglossia Issue 40, October 2010.


by Robert Miltner


Old Marston walked through the morning heat along the outside of the fence until he stood near the hog. A two hundred pounder, it had stopped squealing when it leaned against the fence about half way down the animal chute. Old Marston studied its glazed eyes, observed how its breathing was labored, how saliva dripped from its mouth and nose. He poked it with the long handle of his axe, more to test the firmness of its flesh than to flush the hog farther down the run.

Geoffrey, Old Marston's hunchbacked brother, waited near the end of the chute where it led into a larger holding pen. He would lift a fence slat to halt the hog near the entrance to the next pen. Before it could back up or turn, another slat would drop behind it. Then Geoffrey would work one slat under the hog's chin before another fence slat dropped over its neck, securing the animal like it was in a stock or a guillotine. Then it would be the old man's axe's turn.

From the small sun-bleached fisherman's shack built in the partial shade of the palms between the men and the white sand that led to the Caribbean shore, a thin boy emerged. In his hand he held upright a piece of stove kindling that burned at the top end. His short hair was tight curls, his lips thin, his eyes gray as the clouds that bring a storm. He wore neither shirt nor shoes, only an old pair of faded brown trousers held up with a piece of rope tied through the belt loops at his waist.

Bring it here, and hurry son, Old Marston said to the boy.

The boy walked over to where Old Marston stood. As the boy handed the flaming stick to his father he looked toward his face but the old man did not look him in the eyes. Instead he turned and waved the flaming stick near the hog. It didn't budge. So he pressed the flame against the nearest hip of the hog.

The boy could feel the heat, could see where the flame burned the animal. He smelled both burning wood and scorched meat.

The hog ran squealing down the chute to where Geoffrey caught and pinned it. Old Marston laughed.

Then he touched his son on the shoulder and pointed to the hog.

It's time son, he said, handing the axe to the boy. I've sharpened the edge but you strike the blow.

The boy took the axe in his hands. Felt its heft as he stepped away from his father and swung it around his body like a weft through the fabric of the air around him. He was amazed at how the axe that felt so heavy in being picked up could split a log as wide as a bucket with a single blow, yet could fly through the air as easily as if it was a broom or cricket bat. He felt its power in his hand, felt the potential of the strange magic it held.

Come, Old Marston said as he and the boy walked down along the chute to where Geoffrey had secured the hog. The boy could see where the whites of the hog's eyes showed fear. In its eyes he could see every wild creature ever caught, every live thing ready to barter for its survival.

Right here, Old Marston said, pointing to the place where the animal's head connected with the spine. One good cut there and it is done, his father said. He spoke not with the expectation of the father for the son but more with the deliberation of a master imparting the secrets of his craft to his apprentice. And swing as hard as you can, he added, you want a clean cut done once.

The boy grasped the axe in his hand. He climbed over the fence until he stood next to the hog. He'd watched his father do this a dozen times. Then he focused his eyes on its neck, at the place where his father had directed him to strike.

As he swung the axe up into the air, he felt the momentum of its weight lift his upper body, raising him to the balls of his feet. For a second he paused in the hot morning sun, listening to the sound of the breakers crashing against the shore, his body stretched taut, the axe held above him as if for an instant it was not a killing tool but a physical extension of his person.

He let the axe head lean the few necessary inches it needed to feel the pull of gravity. Then he slid his right hand down to join with his left hand where it waited at the end of the handle as he put the full force of his body into the downward swing.

Copyright©2010 Robert Miltner

Robert Miltner teaches creative writing at Kent State University Stark and is on the poetry faculty of the Northeast Ohio MFA in Creative Writing program. Miltner edits The Raymond Carver Review. His collection of prose poems, Hotel Utopia, was selected by Tim Seibles as the winner of the New Rivers Press book prize and will be published in October of 2011 by the Minnesota State University Moorhead. Miltner's stories have appeared in Istanbul Literary Review, Perigee, Apple Valley Review, Ophelia Street, Hamilton Stone Review, and Christmas Stories from Ohio. His story "Rain" appeared in Storyglossia issue 31. He is working on a novel, The Tempest.