When killing a pig, Valdis's cousin said, you never let its legs hit the ground. If they do, it might bolt, and the blood gets everywhere then.
Waiting, standing at the gate, Shelby looked at the tulips.
Three of them had opened into a thick violet color; three were still curled and pale green, shaped like the hands of infants. She'd brought him flowers. Last year, she remembered, Valdis had come home with a hundred bulbs—individually wrapped in paper towels—and it had struck her as an unusually thoughtful gift. He'd brought the other things, too, the cheap gifts he always gave himself—the salmon roe caviar, the Soviet novelty cigarettes, the bottles of balsam liqueur. But also the tulips. Shelby had planted them in April. Twelve months later, none of them had bloomed.
In his Riga hotel room, the night before he boarded the plane to the United States, Valdis sat on the edge of the bed, watching state-run TV. It was a Russian-language soap opera, dubbed badly into Latvian. Men, it seemed, were speaking some of the women's roles, their voices straining in the higher registers, cracking over the elongated vowels.
Valdis was drinking vodka from tiny, chilled, hotel-refrigerator bottles. He closed his eyes and listened to the voices and reflected on the animal he'd killed. It had been an honor. A privilege. Something reserved, by his cousin, for the American guest. And large. About the size of a barcalounger. Bright pink, but with a thin, surprising coat of hair. Valdis had sucked in his breath, his skin pale as a crepe, waxen and pinched along the bones of his face. He hadn't known that the skin of pigs was coarse. Don't let its feet hit the ground, he had thought. Don't let it bolt.
Terminal N: International Arrivals. The customs check was quick for the American citizens; they were invariably the first through the hydraulic doors. Shelby waited groggily, caught herself whenever she started to fall asleep. The flight had been delayed, and the waiting room was full of nervous, tired people. Her flowers began to wilt. Shelby watched them wilting, watched them soften and sag toward the floor.
When killing a pig, his cousin said, the important thing to remember is not to drop the knife. And take these. He gave Valdis a handful of trout lily, their broad leaves covered with red blotches. Rub these on your hands, he said. Valdis looked at his cousin. Flowers? He asked. His cousin coughed apologetically. My wife, he said, she tells me these things. Valdis looked down at the two blooms, their stems crossed above his palms. Shelby loved these flowers, he remembered. But what did she call them? Didn't she call them something else? Dogtooth violet? Was that right? Valdis remembered always wanting to eat the flowers in his mother's garden, remembered yearning to fill his mouth with them, to roll their pulp over his tongue, to chew.
When loving an alcoholic, Shelby often thought, the important thing to remember is the hydrogen atom.
For the longest time, she told herself, scientists had believed it
indivisible, impregnable, a final category. Clever atomic jewelry, Shelby figured—jewelry based on the history of nuclear warfare—was yet to be manufactured. It would be a necklace, a long necklace of impossible, broken atoms, and they would be cased in the aftertexts of lost theories. A long, silvering chain of theories and atoms, bound together like the ghosts of dead lovers.
As he held the rough wooden handle of his uncle's hunting knife, he thought: It has more hair than me. The animal's eyes swiveled in their sockets. The blade scalloped through the flesh—softly at first—and the pig whined and tried to bite its own neck. Valdis severed the vocal chords quickly, shocked by the blood. Bile was in his throat, and the pig blood was spattered on his light blue, cotton sleeves. It was part of the pig, and then it was a part of his clothes, of the ground, of the sour, late November air.
Valdis walked unsteadily toward her. He'd brought her flowers. They'd wilted too, though, in the stagnant air of the plane. They'd been quite beautiful, Shelby thought, as Valdis walked toward her. You could see that they'd been quite beautiful. A rose, it looked like, and a few
carnations. But how had he managed to get them through customs?
Valdis coughed when he hugged her. He smiled only slightly. He didn't kiss her. His hair was greasy and he squinted at the light. He carried his notebooks under his arm, stained and crumpled and disorganized.
Within a few seconds, the pig was dead. Its legs buckled and it made a pregnant small sound as it toppled. The pig was dead and he was standing in the cold air and his cousin was laughing, a sound that was shocking in its fullness.
Afterwards, the hand that had held the knife wouldn't stop shaking. What if it never stops? Valdis thought to himself as he looped his fingers through the jaw of the pig, lifted its carcass by the sinuses. What if this is permanent?
Rain scattered across the windshield of their blue Volvo.
Valdis and his cousin carried the pig across the field and back to the house. Recently privatized, the farm seemed vacant, desolate, ghostly. The previous tenants—fifty of them, mostly Russian—had gone. Only Valdis's cousin lived here, now. He had populated the kolhoze with his small family, as a new pioneer.
Once they neared the house, Valdis handed the animal to his cousin. The other man carried it, still dripping, toward the kitchen door.
—We don't drain blood when we eat, he said in English, stressing the second we with a roughness in his voice, a certain, precise disdain. He stood on the threshold of the house, one hand on the doorknob.
Valdis blanched but said nothing. His cousin disappeared into the kitchen. Valdis stayed outside and lit a cigarette.
In the driveway, now, and the car doors rattled shut. Valdis' suitcase hadn't shown up. He couldn't remember if he'd even checked it. Could he have left it at the hotel? His head throbbed. He didn't have his keys. Shelby went hastily through her purse. Where were the keys? Why wasn't the lightbulb on the porch working? Where were the goddamn keys?
That night they had pork chops, salty and crusted with fried flour.
—You honor us, his cousin said, by eating here. You love this, yes? So delicious.
Valdis smiled and choked the food down. He drank whiskey in a juice glass, drank it quickly, with vigor. When honoring a relative, Valdis thought to himself, the important thing to remember is not to swallow the cork. He ate and drank and tried to forget the pig, tried to ignore the tremor in his hands.
They kissed. Shelby tasted the alcohol immediately, tasted the way it soured along the fat of his tongue.
—I'm a marked man, Valdis told the driver, the alcohol spiraling through his head, back to front. You know, last year, 96 of us were killed, worldwide. Being a freelance journalist is worse than being a soldier. This is fine, right here.
The little green Lada pulled to a stop outside the Hotel Riga. Valdis's cousin had called the cab after dinner, and had instructed the driver to take Valdis from the farm to downtown, a fifty-minute ride. Valdis fished for the money in his pocket, looked through the little window. A prostitute was leaning against a patch of graffiti on the hotel wall. Shit on the floor, it advised in Latvian. Ruin it for the rest of them.
—You're drunk, Shelby said, even though she'd known since she first saw him. Damnit, you're drunk. Even on the plane.
—I know, he said. Honey, I know. Don't worry.
—Don't worry? Valdi, you promised me.
—I know. Don't worry, honey. I know.
—Six lati, sir.
—Here's ten, Valdis said. Keep the change.
The driver shook his head as Valdis clambered out of the Soviet-made car. These Americans, he thought. These damn, rude Americans. The four latu tip was almost three days' salary.
When loving an alcoholic, Shelby often told herself, the important question is not: Why? Instead, the important question is: What color of rhododendron would work best in this flowerbed, this one here, the one near the driveway? Would a yellow show up against the concrete? Or would it be washed out, faded by the gray? Maybe red? Something more vibrant? Something maroon? And should I trim these hedges? Are they too unruly? The lawn could use a little fertilizer, don't you think?
If you wanted to be truthful about it, he rationalized, I've been drinking all day. He drank while he packed his clothes in his suitcase. No need to sleep now, he thought. I'll get a jump on my flight and go right to the airport.
Valdis was unconscious, sprawled on his side of the bed, his head burrowed sideways into the pillow. Shelby watched him from the doorway to the bedroom, tired, queasy, unsteady. He began to snore.
She walked down the hallway, down the stairs to the living room, stood near the bay window that overlooked the yard. Light came through it, a casement of light, a soft polish. The skin of her face was stiff from crying. Her eyes skimmed around the room, touched on the couch, the extinguished lamp, the table, bare except for its copy of Organic Gardener. Increase your sugar beet yield, she read, and she imagined the beet, dividing and subdividing beneath the loam of the soil.
Valdis stopped at the duty free store to buy flowers and a bottle of black balsam. No matter what he drank, the greasy, acrid taste of the pig was still in his mouth.
Shelby looked at the magazine, dissolving it all into particles, into a panel of sight that dimmed gradually away. She thought of the day behind her, and of tomorrow's obstinate hangover.
Standing at the airport, waiting for Valdis' plane to arrive, Shelby had been fascinated by the color of the late evening sky. The clouds had been partial, and some of the last sunlight had managed to scissor its way through, seaming the sky with faint lines of orange and blue. Shelby had imagined ascending into those clouds, rising into them in the body of a plane, and had imagined how their light would envelop her, saturate her vision. I'd be blinded, sure, Shelby had thought, but at least I'd be blinded by color. •
Pauls Toutonghi received a Pushcart Prize in 2000 for his story, "Regeneration," which originally appeared in Boston Review. He is a graduate student at Cornell University.