The parade of Silverados and four-wheelers arrived in a cloud of white dust that briefly, for the small herd gathered in the corral, obscured a sky that was as blue as the reservoir they had been led past earlier that day. The men in their white hats got out and leaned against the top rails of the fence as their wives and children mingled near the stone wall fiddling with cameras and throwing rocks. The men examined the herd. The larger of the two bulls was nervously trying to mount one of the cows. Several were pregnant. Gradually, a consensus formed –– the three-year-old heifer with the undeveloped teats and full, soft flanks.
The owner of the cattle, the father of the woman who was to be married two days later in Apaseo el Alto, stepped into the corral and walked through the center of the herd, hooking the rope around the heifer’s horns with a turn of his hand and drawing it tight. The heifer sat back against the tug of the rope, but the man held fast and, aided by two men who rushed in and surrounded her, wrested her out of the corral and into the grassy plot between the trucks and the stone wall. The onlookers chattered and snapped photos. The man handed the rope off and went to his truck. He came back holding the pistol.
The heifer, disoriented by the number of people around her and by the air that blew freely along her sides in the absence of the herd, became still. She lowered her head as the man approached, blowing loudly and steadily. She felt the touch of the small metal circle against her forehead. It was cool and hard, and she knew the hand that held it there. It smelled of sweat and dust and it had fed her grass once, ripped wet and green from a high pasture.
The man pulled the trigger, and the heifer dropped like a marionette. Men rushed in and rolled her onto her side. Two of them lashed her hind legs together while another knelt on her forelegs. The convulsions did not last long. The cuchillero approached. He was a man in his late 60s who owned a small herd but no land of his own, and so he grazed them in the afternoons along the road to La Ventana. He set the point of his knife to the hollow of her throat just above the breastbone and drove it in. A gout of blood followed the blade as he drew it out, and he watched as one of the younger men crouched on her ribs to drain the blood. When it stopped coming and when the danger of reflex had passed, the men unbound her legs and rolled her onto her back. The cuchillero made an incision in the skin below her lower lip and tugged the blade down the length of her body, opening the skin with his left hand as he went until a red line ran from mouth to vulva. Another man cut circles in the skin above her hooves. The tail was removed. The man who was to be married climbed the stone wall and ran over the little hill to fill a ten-gallon bucket at the pond on the other side, carrying it back and passing it to another man who poured it into a blue plastic tank. He would have to repeat this process many times as the cuchillero worked.
Now came the flaying.
Working with a stroking motion, the cuchillero began to separate her hide from the flesh beneath. It came away from ribs and flanks, showing white fat, yellow tendons and red muscle. He peeled it away from her face. There was very little blood. When he was done, the hide lay like a blanket beneath the heifer, more like a robe she had taken off than an organ of her body. The cuchillero cut the windpipe and then very carefully severed the esophagus, tying it into a knot. Taking up a hatchet, he broke the horns from her head with several heavy blows of the flat end and commenced to cutting down between the vertebrae through the nerve cord. He sat back and breathed as one of the younger men lifted the head away, her large eyes, still with their lashes, staring unlidded at the people around her. He placed it on the stone wall, out of the reach of the children.
A plastic sheet was spread out beside the heifer, its edge tucked beneath the hide. The cuchillero split her ribcage and the other men helped him open it wide. Then they turned her on her side and rolled the white mass of her organs onto the sheet. With the water in the tank the men washed the heifer’s body, cleaning it of blood and windblown grass. They collected the admixture in pails and poured it out at the base of the wall. The valuable organs were lifted out of the body, cupped in two hands like precious things –– the heart, the lungs, the liver, the kidneys –– and arrayed on the wall beside the head.
Using the hatchet, the cuchillero quartered the body, separating each leg with its haunch from the spine and the sections of the back from the vast scallop shells of the ribcage, and each time he dealt the severing blow, another man came and carried the cut to the tank, which the groom by this time had filled, and submerged it and after it had soaked for a minute hauled it out and carried it to the covered bed of the groom’s truck where another man lifted it into a large plastic tub ordinarily used for bathing. When all the muscle and bone had been added to the tub, the hide and organs remained. The stomachs were carefully split and the grass, fresh and half-digested, turned out by the wall. The cuchillero claimed the empty stomachs as partial payment for his work, planning to fry some that night and make menudo of the rest. The hide was washed and handed over to a man from the next town who would salt and tan it and use it as a blanket for his daughter’s bed.
The groom drove away from the corral slowly so the heifer would not be jostled as it rode in the bed of his truck. He ate and drank that night with his father- and brothers-to-be, talking about work and the journey ahead and thinking about his bride who sat in the kitchen with her mother and aunts drinking apple soda and turning to look at him every so often through the doorway. All night the heifer rested silently in the bed of the pickup, the brain behind her wide eyes receiving nothing and contemplating nothing. In the morning, the groom drove with his bride down through the mountains into the brigand town of San Luis de la Paz and out across the scrub desert into Querétaro State where the city sprawled for miles in the shallow saucer of the basin and into Guanajuato to the village of Paredones, ten miles from Apaseo where the wedding would be held. The heifer was given a cool place to rest that night in his eldest brother’s garage, and the flies that crawled over her, sucking her flesh and seeking out hollow places to lay their eggs, did not concern her.
She was washed again the following morning by other hands and her body divided into smaller pieces and rubbed with salt. A fire of mesquite branches was started in the field where the wedding celebration would be held and long spears of maguey roasted over it. Charred and malleable, they were draped along the inside of a large oil drum and into this drum, her shoulders and flanks and ribs and back were placed. A lid was fitted over her. The sun set and the air became cool as men drank and talked over the rancheras that poured from the truck radio.
At three in the morning, a new fire was kindled beneath the oil drum and the water in the drum began to warm slowly until it boiled. The heifer’s flesh began to sweat and her fat to soften. Even the cores of her bones became hot. One man tended the fire all night, keeping himself warm with a jug of pulque and awake with Delicados lit with sticks taken from the fire. The heifer’s flesh darkened and loosened along its grain as the bride and the groom rose in the morning and put on their clothes. Her fat turned to caramel-colored jelly as the priest broke the bread and poured the wine in the Templo del Sagrado Corazón. The juice of her flesh ran down through the grate into the water and rose up again in vapor as the vows were exchanged and the photos taken and the caravan to Paredones begun. She was lifted out of the drum with a spoon as the caravan arrived and shredded on a circle of wood and placed in Styrofoam boxes and dispersed among the guests under the blue tent –– hundreds of them –– to the cousin with the broken arm, to the great aunt with the infected tooth, to the nephew with the split lip, to the niece on the cusp of womanhood, to the bride and groom themselves –– and eaten with frijoles and arroz and salsa roja.
Then, as the sun set and the music and the dancing began, something happened to the heifer that in all her life of sunlight and water and grass and cool metal circles laid against brows she never could have imagined: She experienced a transubstantiation. Broken in the teeth of the wedding guests, hydrolyzed in their stomachs, and absorbed into their blood, she became part of them, the bone that was healing, the cells that killed the infection, the blood that scabbed the lip, the metamorphosis of uterus and breasts, the seed and the egg that in several weeks would combine in the bride’s body and begin to split and multiply, forming a thing that had never existed before. And while the heifer’s body was even then being transformed, the herd from which she had been taken grazed in the pastures of La Mesa de Jesús, thinking only of grass.
Andrew Steiner lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is a full-time food bank employee and a part-time farmer. His work has appeared in Grain Magazine, Bridge Magazine, and the Minnetonka Review.