The first time Jonah slit a pig’s throat, he threw up. It was the Saturday before his thirteenth birthday, and he was embarrassed because he’d helped his father and his uncles slaughter pigs before. Jonah had never been upset by it, never even felt queasy, but this time, something got to him. It wasn’t the way the body swung upside down on the hook or the sheets of blood that fell from its new gaping jaw. Those things didn’t bother him, and he didn’t mind hitting the animal with a stun gun before they hoisted it up. If anything, that was humane. That’s what his father had taught him.
What bothered Jonah was the way the blood pooled in the basin. It was oddly dirty, little swirls of white and gray in the surprisingly bright red liquid. It was thick, too, and flies descended from all sides. Jonah had never looked in the basin before, not really, and now he couldn’t look away.
He was okay for a few seconds, then it felt like a cat jumped up inside his stomach, clawed its way through his throat, and came out his mouth. When Jonah saw his vomit mixing with the blood in the basin, a second, smaller cat chased the first out of his body.
“Get some air, son,” his father said. “We’ll handle this.” Jonah couldn’t bring himself to move, so his father gave him a little push on the shoulder, away from the hog.
He could hear his uncles laughing and the flies buzzing in the blood, and that made Jonah think he might be sick again. He kept his eyes on the ground and stayed hunched over as he walked to the fence line. Jonah left one hand on his belly, but he extended the other out behind him, waving to let the men know he was alright.
In the field, there were two horses—Chestnut and Ames—grazing. The grass was tall, and the trees behind the paddock were impossibly full and green. It was fall, but not a single leaf had changed. The sun was bright, and the air was cold, and Jonah thought that it must be the most beautiful day in the history of the world, even as another wave of nausea came over him.
He was doubled over again, his hands on his knees, a string of spit hanging like a pendulum from his lip, when his father patted him on the back and said, “Don’t worry about it. It gets to the best of them. Especially the first time.”
“Okay,” he said. “Okay. Thanks.” He tried to keep himself from vomiting again.
In school, he’d seen a video about the ice age, how these giant glaciers and enormous rivers rolled right through the state, carving out the valley his family had lived in for five generations. He could picture it, too. It made sense. After the video, during lunch, he’d told Amanda Walker how beautiful he thought it was, how pretty, and she’d said, “Yes, yes!”
She looked around the cafeteria, then she kissed him, slipping her tongue between his lips, which caught him off guard. Amanda turned red and ran out of the cafeteria before Jonah knew the kiss was over. His eyes were still shut and his mouth was still open, but she was gone and everyone at the table was laughing.
Jonah had been doing push-ups every morning since, adding five more each day, and trying to figure out how to ask Amanda out. He had thought that he might marry her one day and take over the farm from his father, and they would live here in the valley, the sixth generation.
Now, it all struck him as temporary, like his home was a place he would outgrow. He felt dizzy and aged, as though he’d traveled through time only to arrive back in the same place, decades later, as an old man. That made him think that maybe he would leave for fifty or sixty years, then come back before he died. Just to say goodbye. That’s all.
He’d see Amanda, of course. She’d be married and have kids, but she’d still be beautiful. Jonah knew he’d be jealous of her husband, but not too jealous. A man would have to be born and raised in the valley, and never leave the valley, if he were to marry Amanda. Because of that, Jonah knew that when he met the fellow, all those years down the line, he’d have trouble not feeling a bit sorry for him.
When he finally recovered—finally caught his breath and stood up straight—Jonah noticed that the horses in the pasture had disappeared. They’d vanished, as though they’d already died and been buried where they fell over. That’s what you did for a good horse. Out of respect, you buried him where he dropped. That’s another thing Jonah’s father had taught him.
He scanned the paddocks again, just to make sure, but the horses were nowhere to be found. And for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out where they’d gone.