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To Pieces

Story by Abby Feden (Read author interview) August 10, 2020

Art by Paul Bilger

The Sauders are almost prepared for winter. Silo shuttered, woodpile tarped, perennial bed snipped of spent blooms. Mrs. Sauder is canning in the kitchen, she leaves the radio loud to listen for bad weather. The girl is upstairs stitching. Mr. Sauder kills a pig in the barn.

Mr. Sauder slaughters to celebrate winter’s first snow. He’s past the hard part, bolt gun and leg binds, the thing is now meat and exsanguinates above a bucket in the barn. He walks the barnyard as it drips; he likes empty acres in the cold. Behind, the home looms. His daughter wilts in her room. His wife is an opaque haunt within the windows. Dead corn rattles. Lucky sows snuffle wet muck in their pen. Mr. Sauder’s father taught him young to need such things more than anything else in the world.

The girl can barely stitch straight; she’s crying her eyes gummy above a rip in her sweetheart’s jacket. The shoulder and the sleeve have parted ways, sleeve cap gaping wide, fraying lips. His last name sweeps across the yoke like a long groan. Some lonely tune echoes up from the kitchen, her mother’s whine adds to all this sad. She kicks up the pace of the pedal, shouts foul words when the thread gets caught.

Mrs. Sauder hears the sharp cut of a Singer going slack and sighs as her daughter spits. Her daughter never used language like that until her father spit it all right into her mouth. Just last week she’d seen a pale blue stain on the jugular of her daughter’s throat and felt the ache that accompanies the loss of something loved. Out the kitchen window, Mr. Sauder paces the barnyard and she tries to remember the first time she thought she loved him. Green eyes smile up at her from the neck of a glass jar. Hulling soy is hard work. Behind her, the pressure canner whistles and she is comforted by bottles of beans kept still in water and salt. I fall the radio hums to pieces. Mrs. Sauder joins the verse.

The hard part of slaughtering a grower pig is knowing where to place the bolt gun. Despite his father’s teachings, he cannot bring himself to use a blunt-bolt gun for fear the pig might wake as he is ripping through its jugular. The pointed-bolt feels good, the tinny click of a spring release and the crack of the skull are final sounds. Never mind the maybe of brain matter leaking to the ribs, the tongue, the feet—he’ll put the meat in a trough. He puts a hand to his ribs. He’ll rinse until it’s all clean.

Mrs. Sauder plunges her hands into un-hulled soybeans. Her daughter weeps in tune with the whistle of the pressure canner and she sighs. Some sweet-talking thing has eaten into her daughter’s heart. She remembers everything and nothing from days spent just like that—the taste of lust memory only to her mouth. Never mind that now, she runs her fingers along the lids of canned beans and relishes the eternality of a tinny pop! New beans in the canner. Immortal ones on shelves. The whir of a Singer needle resumes. She feels the sudden urge to drown in salt water.

Mr. Sauder slaughters a pig to celebrate winter’s first snow because his father taught him this. As the grower pig exsanguinates above a bucket in the barn Mr. Sauder tends to lucky sows. He fills their trough and filters swill from their water. He cannot meet their eyes. As they nose their way through potato clippings and soy shells, metal rings in his mind. He wonders if they understand the sound of a pointed-bolt splitting up the skull.

The girl is crying so hard her stitches skew uneven through the sleeve cap. The shoulder yawns away in a loosening of thread, downstairs her mother is popping the lids of canned beans and singing along wrong to some sad tune. She wasn’t supposed to be wearing it but he liked the look of his name stitched down her back. Slam of a door like the blow of a bolt gun—this is not the first hurt she has known. A bit of blood would make the seam stick, she pushes her finger and the Singer eats.

It’s starting to snow and Mr. Sauder is eviscerating a pig. He’s ticked the list, penetrating bolt-gun, bucket for blood, corpse bath, bristle shave, inedible organs on the floor. His father taught him how to skin a pig quick but this ordeal drags in an unusual way. Mrs. Sauder pickles grower pig feet and nibbles them down in the spring. His daughter chokes against the taste. Quick swipe of a folding knife and the pig is missing his chest. Mr. Sauder has it in his hand. He feels sick and slides the bones back into the pig. Mr. Sauder considers swallowing the bolt gun. The pig is whole again.

In the kitchen Mrs. Sauder cranks the radio to drown her daughter’s upstairs ache. I fall to pieces she sings and realizes the song has changed. Same tune, sadder story, it’s not her favorite but it will do against the silence of the house. It’s snowing outside. Cold glass goes for a soak in hot water; she is appreciating the way the bottle prepares itself to entomb green eyes when one shatters in the sink. Someone is singing pieces each time and she guts her thumb on a sneaky shard lost within suds. Pressure canner whistles, the girl upstairs screams, the barnyard sounds like cracked bone. The sink is full of blood. She can’t bear it. The lids won’t pop.

From the barn a bolt-gun blows, blood drips tinny in a bucket. The sleeve gapes as the girl cries, cradling all her hurt. The radio sings and Mrs. Sauder hums the wrong tune. Pressure canner steams. Something breaks—glass, bone, baby. The prairie is swallowed by snow.

_____________________

“To Pieces” placed first in the 2020 SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction Competition.

About the Author

Abby Feden is a writer hailing from the Great Plains of Nebraska. She is currently a graduate student in Western Washington University’s MFA Program.

About the Artist

Paul Bilger’s photography has appeared at Qarrtsiluni, Brevity, and Kompresja. His work has also been featured on music releases by Dead Voices on Air and Autistici. When not taking pictures, he is a lecturer in philosophy and film theory at Chatham University. He is the art director at SmokeLong Quarterly. 

This story appeared in Issue Sixty-Eight — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction 2020 of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Eight — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction 2020
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Important

The SmokeLong Quarterly Comedy Prize 2021!

This competition is no longer accepting entries. Watch for the long list coming soon! The four winners of the competition will be featured in Issue 74 of SmokeLong Quarterly coming out near the end of December.