Fettered steps. Whirl of dust around dangling front legs embedded in dirt pushed by tiny trembling back ones. Flat trails leading back to themselves like a thought cut short, never reaching a destination, never having a destination at all. The calf was repulsive, Donnie thought. Not repulsive—he was struck with guilt and sadness—the contempt was merely a deflection. Pathetic, the calf was pathetic. Donnie rose every morning before dawn and fed the animals, collected the eggs, milked the cows, and cleaned the stalls. Finally, as the cinnabar sky dripped black, he tossed hay into the calf’s pen as he returned quickly to the house.
Donnie’s mother was an efficient butcher and a fine cook and Sundays were the days for that cooking.
“Momma’s favorite was veal. She loved the brains the most.” Donnie’s squinted his eyes shut tight on the word ‘loved’ as his voice shot up high. The wrinkles on his forehead testified to the depth of his memory.
“We all liked tripe and offal, you see, but no one else, no one else would touch the brains. She said it felt like butter and tasted like roast chestnuts.” Donnie’s hoarse laugh accented his last words with a deep staccato.
That Sunday Donnie swallowed hard a knowing, wrestled with it in his stomach, pushed it deeper down before he was even to the cattle barn. He could not think of it, the absent referent, as he passed the barn, hands empty of hay, on the way back to the house. The knowing couldn’t stay down for long. Donnie approached the table to find what he knew was there, referent restored: veal, Mother’s favorite meal. He stared at the plate of veal covered in the viscous brown gravy. All he could see was shaking limbs pushed in dirt creating circles in the ground like the pepper-flaked gravy on the plate. He couldn’t eat it. He pulled hard at the pins transfixing his gaze to the plate to see his mother’s too was absent of veal
Donnie never once saw her not eat, especially not with the Depression so close behind them. She was resolute, the foundation upon which the 13-person family rested. He knew she saw the shaking. Touched, but not wanting to draw attention to it, he passed her the green beans in silence and started in on his potatoes, careful to avoid the gravy.
Brown cotton twine scratching butcher paper. Efficient hands moving with speed tying bows around slabs of pork carefully wrapped. Slabs stacked neatly into rows in the cooler.
“If you take the time to make bows you don’t have to cut the twine and you can reuse it. No sense in buying more” Elaine informed me.
She just brought two of her pigs in for slaughter, the meat from which would provide her four-person family with enough food for winter. Elaine had raised animals for food since she was a girl. There was no hesitation in her thoughts, no trepidation in her movements when tending to and killing them.
When her son was around eight she bought him a small black pig. He’d raise the pig for show, and when the time came take her for slaughter. This was a life lesson, the food chain, the Circle of Life, living with and from the flesh of animals. Folk knowledges instilled; livelihood passed on. He took her to 4-H competitions and to county fairs and she won many blue ribbons as expected. But he named her and grew close to her. Elaine did too. When the time came to take the pig to slaughter she couldn’t do it. And so Miss Piggy became the center of stories told at holiday gatherings for another decade.
In the country there exists a deeply rooted folk wisdom regarding animals that is rarely questioned. Animals who are injured or are beyond their economic usefulness are mercy killed. This wisdom also contains a hierarchy of creatures that extends from pets at the pinnacle to birds and rodents at its bases.
Growing up this wisdom made it that so when confronted with my own suffering, my attention quickly turned to what could be killed off or placed on a hierarchy of importance. Killing off was easier than affirming. Those things at the bottom of the ladder were easiest to ignore. Maybe this was living the transgender life, a life of leaving behind family, friends, names, a body once thought impermeable. Maybe it was the toll of struggling through a social climate that felt inevitable, ubiquitous. Killing ethically became a mission that was soon conflated with comfort.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) provides guidelines for mercy killings. I turned to them instinctually:
- Will the medical condition result in a lifetime of continued individual confinement?
- Does the immediate medical condition have a hopeless prognosis for life?
- Is the animal a hazard to itself or its handlers?
- Is the medical condition chronic and incurable?
- Will the animal require continuous medication for the relief of pain for the remainder of its life?
These conditions were all before me. Gender dysphoria hovered thick, clinging to me no matter how far down the hierarchy I tried to force it. I thought too, I would die if I stayed or become a medicated spectre, a pathetic thing. So escape was the first task, to get away from these things I thought were stifling me. I saw them lurking in the phantom fields that led to the city, in the red of brake lights on the dark rain pavement, in the black diesel plume ghosts waiting for someone to become entrapped in their suffocating embrace.
Refuge in the city was sought but never found. The many hiding holes between the towering steel giants or many faceless houses in grids like poorly planned fields provided not anonymity but erasure. Paths were laid out and I followed them. How to dress, how to carry myself, how to blend in. These paths crossed back onto themselves forming gossamer circles on the concrete of sidewalks unable to hold the traces of my movements. The infinite walls closed off possibility as the body inside their confines longed for it. My transness was being constructed in alien assemblages. I was too quaint to know better for myself. I learned of another list that exists in the city regarding transgender life that is rarely questioned. It was a list not unlike the one I learned before. I memorized and internalized it until it became another piece folk knowledge:
The World Professional Association on Transgender Health (WPATH) provides guidelines for transgender individuals to follow when transitioning:
- Changes in gender expression and role (which may involve living part time or full time in another gender role, consistent with one’s gender identity)
- Hormone therapy to feminize or masculinize the body; Surgery to change primary and/or secondary sex characteristics (e.g. breasts/chest, external and/or internal genitalia, facial features, body contouring)
- Psychotherapy (individual, couple, family, or group) for purposes such as exploring gender identity, role, and expression; addressing the negative impact of gender dysphoria and stigma on mental health; alleviating internalized transphobia; enhancing social and peer support; improving body image; or promoting resilience.
I unlearned the long-held expressions that marked me as the bumpkin other. I took pills to reshape my biology. I went to therapy to confirm what the wind had told me on October evenings through the trees on the hillside behind my barn: that I exist, that I am not alone. But the city told me I needed an ever increasing collection of others like me be to be well. I had been well before, just different. There wasn’t room for difference anymore.
I was lost. I had killed off so many parts of myself I could find no home save a fleeting feeling of belonging that nothing could be attached to, no foundation that could support the weighted necessity of the tenderness I craved. And it was tenderness I craved, the ability to experience a full range of emotion not previously available to me. I had hoped to find it in the city but found only privation, rupture, suffocation.
I longed to patch the seams of my split worlds into a quilt of my own design. What seemed the inevitable starting point of my search was genealogy, a way to trace back the lines to construct a haunted continuity. I collected stories from women relatives I admired hoping to find that tenderness. But I could only find moments of memories, fleeting fragments too fast to capture. I could not inhabit the world of these memories nor the confines of the metropolis. I needed space in which I could live as unencumbered as I could in any field, protected by trees, away from the prying eyes of the city. I wanted a space to resist, for healing, for renewal, a place I could be whole.
The volunteer at the sanctuary gates greets me with a wave. He hastily tries to wipe some of the mud and grass from his hand before outstretching them. It is not necessary. Something there in the transfer of soil, of sweat, of work, is powerful and comforting. The gate gives off a ringing creak as it opens; the chain that holds it shut breaks away and bounces muffled on its weathered post. Smooth Aster and Purple Coneflower have overtaken the space around the post obscuring the sign with the name of the sanctuary: Sunrise. It is almost noon and already stiflingly hot. The humid air sticks to every surface encountering it and carries with it the smell of dirt and hay, wildflower and field. I approach the first row of weathered bank barns to see some of the animals living here.
Fettered steps. Whirl of dust around dangling back legs embedded in dirt pulled by tiny trembling front ones. Flat trails leading back to themselves like a thought cut short, never reaching a destination, never having a destination at all. The goat pup pulls itself quickly to the gate to greet me. The rough hairs around his eyes feel like boot brushes and his tiny curlicue horns are as smooth as a polished railing. From behind a potbelly pig brushes against my knees making them buckle. I turn and stand to survey the property. This place defies conventional wisdom. The animals have names, they are free from hierarchies of worth and consumption. Most have outlived their economic usefulness and many have sustained injuries worthy of mercy killings. Yet the mercy here derives not from pity but dignity, a tender acknowledgement. There are no walls to close off possibility, no inherited knowledge or lists to outline paths for behavior. The ground holds the traces of movement. The shelter allows for space to resist, to heal, to renew, to be whole.
The day passes on but the heat sustains. Most of the animals have crowded the barns to rest under the fans in the shade. I’m in the largest barn wetting towels to put on the backs of the steer to keep them cool under the fans. The largest one is seven feet at his rear haunches. Trying to get the towel spread out without it falling off feels like a challenging game of tag, one at which I repeatedly lose. I take a break to get water and rest my shoulders. In the grass-specked water of the cattle tub I see my reflection. I have changed. The way I dress, the way I carry myself, the manner in which I speak are different from when I fled a place similar to this. But I don’t look out of place. My body fills the ruptured space left by killing and leaving behind.
The steer licks my face shaking me from my contemplation. I lean in, place a freshly wet towel on his tall shoulders, and rub his neck under his chin making him shake his head and snort. I step away and wipe the saliva from my face with my forearm, creating a swirl of dirt on my face. I see my reflection again. The dirt accentuates the unique contours of my face, tracing its way over the edges of my lips, up through the bridge of my nose, and past my forehead to my hairline before stopping like a thought cut short, never reaching its destination, never having a destination at all.
Stacy Jane Grover is a nonbinary trans* writer and translator from Ohio. Her essays on trans* pedagogy and activism have appeared in 1870 Magazine and InsideHigherEd. She translates feminist/queer/trans* writing from Chinese to English. Her first translation is forthcoming from McFarland Press. She is currently an MA student in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Cincinnati focusing on trans* Appalachian folklore. Find Stacy here and on Twitter at @groverstacyjane
*gender, sexual, feminine, sexual, masculine, nonbinary, 2spirit, etc.