Fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan

Graphic by Alex Wisowaty

A halal butcher severs the jugular to drain the blood quickly and minimize the sheep’s pain. A sharp knife, a quick slash, a rush of red seeping into the dirt. I remember the clear blue of the sky but I don’t remember the scream the sheep made when it died. Perhaps it didn’t scream at all.

I was in fourth grade and my mom, sibling, and I had followed my dad to Kyrgyzstan where he had been for the past few months on anthropology fieldwork. That week, my family had moved our suitcases out of a Soviet-era apartment building in Bishkek and into a compound in a village by Lake Issyk-Kul, the only major body of water in a mountainous and landlocked country. I don’t remember the name of the village, but I remember the stray tufts of grass growing in the dust of its roads where they met the cracked plaster of the walls encircling the village houses.  

It might have been a holiday. It might have just been butchering day. My mom says I stopped eating meat afterward, but I don’t remember if that’s true. I had never been on a farm before and what I remember best is the smell, warm and sharp, almost rude.

People from the family and the village gathered in the gravel-filled farmyard behind the house, their bodies forming an arena for the slaughter. A man tugged the reluctant sheep into the center on a frayed rope, its matted black wool full of burrs and hanging in rags. My mom pulled on my arm to lead me away, and I let her do so slowly. I don’t know if I was truly out of sight when the man drew his long sharp blade across the sheep’s neck. I know I saw the body of the sheep later, skinned. The red and white of its flesh was smooth as marble. The only meat I had seen before was in slabs on yellow styrofoam trays that my mom brought home from grocery stores in the United States.

My memories of that village and that country rise lightly in my mind, and when I try to force them into focus they nearly escape me. One: a kitchen with robin-egg walls where women stuffed sausages, using sheep intestines for casing. Their hands were slick with grease and moved with patterned efficiency, braiding the long ropes of meat as they finished them. Another: the piles of velour cushions in brilliant quilted patterns that we slept on at night, our hosts and my family together, all in one big room. During the day, the pillows were kept stacked neatly against a wall.  

I remember the family’s son rinsing out the stomach of the sheep. The village had no running water, but the stream, used for everything but drinking, was nearby. He had fetched the water in the stomach itself and carried it back as though it were a tin pail. His limbs were long and brown and lanky, and his toes hung over the edges of his cracked rubber sandals. He folded at the knees and poured the water out of the stomach and into the earth. My dad came up behind me as I watched and put his hand on my shoulder. The stomach lining has rennet in it, he told me. They save it because rennet is used to make cheese, cheese from the milk of other sheep.

These are some of the last days that I remember seeing my parents together. I imagine my dad standing with his head inclined toward my mom’s during the slaughter, worried about what Sam and I might think. We returned to that cold concrete apartment in the middle of Bishkek two weeks later.One night we threw a party, I don’t remember what for. A young woman, one of my dad’s students, was there, and something happened. I had never seen my mom drink before. That night, she was drunk. That night my mom shouted at my dad, and my sibling and I stayed in our room and read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The next morning we went to the market with my mom. She bought a bouquet of red roses and left it on his pillow in their bedroom in the apartment. Soon we returned to the U.S.. He stayed behind.

I don’t remember the faces of the people we stayed with in the village, but I remember my mom, as the honored guest that night at dinner, being offered the fatty tail of the sheep. They presented it in a chunk, grease and broth pooling beneath it on a chipped white plate. She told me she was only barely able to taste it.

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