Queer Hams Rising
Graham Tugwell

Bleed, o sun, o body bleed, and lend heart redness to the soil!
Have us with your heart of home!
Hold us held with wood and stone!
And harvest with the blood of bone!
Bleed, o sun, our bodies bleed, your redness lends heart to our toil!

Ruby, low and heavy, melts in lines along a layer of pink-veined cream; a spot of blood in milk: sullen dawn is smudging the stomach of sky, stains the shoulders rising, adding jagged corners to the crop-creased hills.

Dismal rain drops itching mist from towering sky, adds a honey bulb of moisture to the end of every hair, damply sticks to skin like sweat.

Stillness: no breath of air is parting grass, no breeze is rolling under hedge or tree and it is not the wind that breaks the brooding silence with its sighs.

Time has come for reaping. Time to take the harvest in.

They have sung their song of benediction, now silently they stand. Moss-patient, plant-silent, turning to face the sun like flowers.

The family of oak.

Something older than meat and bone runs through them, older, slow to pain, and slow to forget. The sun has hardened their skin to bark.

Across the damp and airless bogs rolls out that sighing sound again, calling now to the coral blush of warming sun: Tluuuu… Tluuuuu… Hoch!

The family of oak moves out, silent, singly down the ash path and out into the long grey grass rising from the bog in rills.

Their hands and arms are knotted like roots, used to delving into stones and cracks, fingers broad and whorled like stumps. Clothes hang from them, like cloth from branches.

Their hands are holding tools dulled by years and use; broad soft-toothed rakes, meading knives, dibbers, spades, and brashing jools.

The grey grass parts in brittle shards and there is found the first of this morning’s mounds. Massive rising from the muck: the suntanned hump, gross and gluttonous mud-gorged, blackened flanks mire-sunk swallowed, and there, the broad back curving, cleft spine leads from the dug-down neck to the coccyx knob between the flaccid droop of dimpled, bird-pecked buttocks.

A scythe haft soft insistent jabs the gap between the ribfold flesh; a tremor sends the fatpleats rippling and there come muffled movements, there come sounds beneath the soil.

Tluuuu… Tluuuu…

And something deep is coughing hard upon a clod of clay: Hoch! Hoch!

The family of oak turn to nod and slowly nod a slow agreement. This one is ripe and heavy for the harvest.

First the fat mound must be turned: on one side work the blunt-end dibber between the strong-smelled plumpness and the yielding peatmuck of the bog, on the other, press the blunt teeth of the rake deep into the pliant adipose.

Hard ground found: Lift, pull, and roll.

Turn the pale skin to the sky, reveal the underwrong; silt squalid, clamouring thick and black with tuber roots, heavy oiled with slough-brine crumbs.

The rain hisses, slanting, slowly weeps away the filth at its worst.

Reveal: the eyes, deep-set and milkblind, rolling from the sunglare sore; the face, wan and wretched, redmouth retching gobbets black; the bulbous flattened head, a mess of lank hair clogged with lumps of brackish dirt.

The hidden belly looms a gibbous moon, pale as frogflesh, juicy fat with tender meat.

Grossly lying newborn on its back, arm and leg stumps wrench the feeding flesh roots from their runnels in the earth; some are thick as necks or thighs, some are childhair fine.

Sluggish tongue-end slaps the dirty stone-abraded teeth; its throat beats out the doleful ululation: Tluuuuu…Tluuuuu… Tluuuu… And smothered voices ground-masked rumble in reply.

A barrow fleet is coming, rolling from the hidden home; the family feel it through their feet as wheels come rolling by the ditches, along the hedge in lines. Now the harvest may begin.

They wield their tools as if they’re wielding thinking limbs, wielded as one; lifting, falling, slashing brightly against the rising sun.

Humming softly the family of oak circle the freshly bog plucked belly, rocking feebly now, exposed, defenceless, plump.

The youngest is given this first to kill; a rite of passage as old as the family of oak. No-one smiles, their shadowed brown faces adamant, as the child steps forward: they simply want to see this done right and well.

The rain wets the thin limbs of the child, plasters the white vest to his chest. The dirty water of the bog phlegms up and flows across his bare feet.

The first swing of the hook shies from the pulpish squalor of the stretched white neck, sticks with a sudden shock in the reeking mire.

The family of oak watch unmoving; calm and ancient as moss on stone. The child will try again: the hook is slithered slurping from the sucking bog; cleaned; made ready.

The second swing obliquely severs the neckfront; opening the throat unceremoniously, like an unfurling flower, like an opening palm of potatoflesh—soft, wet, flavourless.

A smell comes heavy in the air, a sticking stench rolling from rotting wounds.

A face gasps incomprehension for a frozen moment—stumps rise vainly to refold the stricken slices— and then the crimson rush of blood pumps out unceasing, a scarlet delta slicks the bellyrolls, clouds the bogbrine deep.

Tluuuu… croaks the dying thing: Tluuuu… until it chokes upon an inward flap of its butchered neck: Hoch! Hoch—

The frothing fluid bubbling pink and foul, flows into the patching pans, square and deep, one filling fast on either side.

Satisfied; the job is done and done well; the family of oak step forward, harvest tools oiled, ready.

Blunt-toothed rakes hold the thrashing belly down: one upon the wounded neck; one each pressing firm the armstumps and the legstumps; a final two to heave taut the pearl-translucent stomach skin.

On this yielding mass the meading knives work assured, two swift cuts slash transverse, and one across the lowest ribs, weeping wounds that pucker mouth-like where they meet.

Into these weeping incisions hooks are secured, pulled; skin tears loud like stiff-starched calico, spilling coils of steaming links upon the grass, a kedgeree of offal, gas and half-assimilated dirt: pink, purple, brown and blue, suspended heavy in a net of stretching gauze.

Still-living flesh is tender, tastes sweetest, sells for more.

The family of oak work to separate out this fibrous stew; gutcurls are slowly twisted around smooth wooden staves; heavy nodes are clipped of tubes and stored in straw; shining damp slivers are gathered in pairs to cool upon the wooden barrow.

Not a part is wasted: every organ gathered, every blunt-ended bone, each plastic piece of cartilage and each gritty muscle has their use, has their own consumers.

(Soon: Odd meats arrayed on odd plates.)

Humming, crouching, wine-bloodied to the elbows, face and neck blotched with rain-diluted red, the family of oak butcher and cut and carve and joint and harvest.

Soon the belly cavity is void of meat, the hulk an empty dead-eyed shell, levered heaving from its squalid hollow, turned upon a pallet: pigfood; later.

Now: the harvest done, the planting comes.

Across the mire in low-brimmed carts the belly-young are driven; white and hairless, squatting gnome-like, eyes wide and not yet soilblind, little budstumps red and stillsore from the lopping of the docking knife.

The plum-headed dibber plucks an oozing hollow in the bog and in this dip the new crop is softly lain, facedown, rear-cocked, mewling, maggot-curling.

And then the soft pressure of a foot between the shoulders, a tender yet insistent squash, a squeak, and the planted flesh is readied for the season after next.

With a shrill grumbling noise the tiny mouth opens, begins to fatten itself open the soil, stump roots curling, searching for water.

And so, as the sun slouches redly up the sky, bloodying the drumhead clouds, the family of oak move on, roaming through the brittle grey grass and the stagnant rills, harvesting the swollen alabaster bellies of meat, ripe and ready with the juicy goodness sweet.

And in the dips vacated by their fathers a new crop is slowly thrust into the stagnant dirt.

Again and again and again, the keening cry of the bellies can be heard: Tluuu… Tluuuu… And again and again and again they choke upon the dirt they were never meant to chew: Hoch! Hoch! Hoch!

Day turns its back on light and warmth. Night opens its mouth, black in prayer, a silent thing. The varied meats, collected, cool in silos, cure in salt. A good, kind harvest; now: the warmth of heart and home.

Wind stirs the brittle bog grass, tickles the rumps of babies freshly biting soil. Wind in the reeds, wind in the trees.

And the voices of the family of oak, raised in thanks, raised in song:

Bleed, o sun, o body bleed, and lend heart redness to the soil!
Bleed, o sun, our bodies bleed, your redness lends heart to our toil!

Graham Tugwell is a writer and performer of Irish distraction. The recipient of the College Green Literary Prize 2010, his work has appeared in over forty journals, including Anobium, The Quotable, Pyrta, THIS Literary Magazine and L’Allure Des Mots. He has lived his whole life in the village where his stories take place. He loves it with a very special kind of hate. He has a website here.