Before you read any further, read this first paragraph! Most of you who understand how to read should have no trouble with this, however, if there are any among you who prefer skipping paragraphs and reading things disjointedly, please read this paragraph first! This post contains some graphic images in response to last post’s question: “What does this cows head look like without any skin?” In short, I will be telling you about the time Marissa and I participated in the slaughtering of a young bull. If you don’t enjoy such macabre subject matters, then I recommend you go watch a Pixar movie or read some Victorian Novels. (Not knocking Pixar or Victorian Novels, I just figured those would be safe bets in the non-slaughtered-cow department).
Now, on to the goods!
First and foremost, I want to answer what was hiding behind this dragon. You will be most pleased to find that the answer is…
On the Friday before Halloween, I lent Marissa a hand in school. Her children were pretty OK and they seemed to at least tolerate the Music Video Lessons we prepared for them. Marissa’s family intended on taking us to the village that afternoon so we tried to get some errands done in the marketplace after school and before leaving.
We rushed to get home in time to go to the village only to find that we’d be leaving on Saturday morning at seven instead. How very Georgian of her family to change the plans at the last minute and not tell us! (I say this with nothing but respect and affection for Marissa’s generous host family!) So we got drinks with friends and retired early to watch some of The Office and kill mosquitoes.
The next morning we woke up quite sober but tired and not terribly enthused about the village. Upon my arrival in Zugdidi Thursday night, Zviadi repeatedly told me that in the Village we were going to kill a cow. I didn’t know how I felt about that. On the one hand, it seemed like quite an opportunity to do something new and different! How many people do I know who have killed cows in Georgia?? Not many.
It was pouring rain that morning and quite cold, too. I had no long-sleeves with me (Curse my unpreparedness!) so I was forced to wear my blazer to the village. Not a big deal–in fact, I think it was quite stylish and classy!
We arrived at the village after driving for only about 20-30 minutes across many rivers and flooded roads. It was a pretty intense short ride. Marissa’s family unloaded the car and we walked around helplessly chasing kittens and watching the ducks escape their crate.
Hunched-over Bebia (grandma) had been cooking for 24 hours and kept pushing us out of the way when we tried to do something in the kitchen. The downpour encouraged us to stay indoors and so we watched as Mimi set the table for a light lunch.
We drank several shots of wine and ate up so that we could go kill the cow afterwards. Zviadi told me that I would be the one to club the cow, or so his pantomiming led me to believe. He said, “You” and then pretended to bash his own head in. Having never seen a cow slaughtered before, I didn’t know what to expect. I know that there’s this odd air-gun device used in the states to drive a spike through cows’ heads and it was prominently featured in No Country for Old Men, but who knows what Georgian villages use!
We headed outside, properly liquored up (Just kidding! We only had a little wine!) and moved the cow in to position. Marissa and I were not expected to actually brain the poor animal, which was a relief. We stood under the shelter of one of the lofted barns across the path from the slaughter site as Zviadi held the cows rope taut and the neighbor prepared to bring down the ax on the cow’s neck.
He swung hard with the heavy ax and connected with a thump. The cow flinched and jerked away from Zviadi a bit. The ax was completely dull. The cow just got whacked. I don’t think the ax even broke the skin. Babua (Grandpa) was ready to solve the situation using his Soviet ax-grinder.
Freshly-sharpened ax in hand, the neighbor (Wish I could remember his name! Let’s call him Levani) stepped up as Zviadi wrangled the cow in to position. He raised the ax, carefully aiming for just the right spot on the back of the cow’s head. We braced, and Levani swung. This time he didn’t miss.
With a wet thwack the cow went down. Chunks of flesh and pulp scattered as its legs went out from under it. Levani had hit the cow right behind the horns, at the base of the brain. I tell myself that the cow was essentially dead from that moment on: incapable of feeling anything. After all, it didn’t make the slightest sound when it got hit.
It’s blinking eyes and lolling tongue gave away the fact that it was still living as we tied a rope to its hind leg. This rope had been strung up over a pulley in the loft and we proceeded to use the rope to hoist the still-living cow by its leg. Finally, Marissa and I got to participate.
This is your last chance to avoid seeing bloody, scarring images. If you are sensitive to gore, love cows, or just plain don’t want to see it, please stop here.
In the above photo, the cow is still alive, blinking, and occasionally licking its lips. Blood was pouring out of its headwound. The cow weighed a ton (Well, technically probably about…damn, no idea. Once it was skinned, gutted, and prepared, the meat weighed 75 kilograms. So…add guts and blood and such then convert to pounds. Good luck!) and every heave ho felt like two steps forward, one step back. Marissa and her eldest host brother Mamuka had to help out as well. The six of us finally lifted it high enough for skinning and tied off the rope to one of the loft’s posts.
As soon as the cow was secured, Levani ran over to it with a machete-sized knife. Marissa and I stepped back across to the shelter from the rain and watched as he hacked off the living cow’s head. It was pretty gruesome, but fascinating. We watched the pumping esophagus flop out and stop and with several good twists the cow’s head came off it’s body. (Levani probably rotated the head 560 degrees after sawing to the vertebrate before the neck snapped and the head fully separated from the body.)
Zviadi took the head over to a wheelbarrow while Levani sharpened some skinning knives for the carcass. Blood was everywhere and ran down the pathway into the garden. The heavy raindrops splashed in the blood puddles in such a way that it looked almost like it was raining blood. By the event’s end, the blood river reached a good 200 feet into the garden, and probably kept flowing beyond that after we left.
Once the cow was dead, Marissa went immediately into Anatomy mode. She was fascinatedly watching as Zviadi skinned the head of the poor bull and Levani began cutting away the hide of the carcass. He first cut the ligaments and tendons in the cows legs, visibly relaxing the feet of the animal, which had apparently tensed up at death.
Zviadi was taking care to remove the head’s skin in the wheelbarrow. It was a bit freaky, but really interesting to watch the mix of care/force he used to skin it. For example, he slashed the nose in half and tore it off, but very delicately trimmed the flesh around the eyeballs.
Zviadi finished skinning the head, and held up his handiwork for us to admire.
Of course, we couldn’t miss out on this opportunity!
The head was surprisingly heavy. I mean, I guess there’s a lot of stuff rattling around in there, but still, hefting it took more effort than we anticipated. This is also probably the moment when I got those odd stains on my blazer. Can’t be sure though….
Naturally, Marissa wanted to show some Texas A&M pride at this glorious moment. We had just hoisted a cow to its death and watched her dad skin its head. This was a complete first for me and, though I know she’s skinned and dressed a deer she shot before, the intimacy of this type of killing was a new thing for Marissa as well. Marissa taught her brothers how to do “Down Horns” (Is that what they’re called?), which is the A&M hand signal for awesomeness. But this was probably the first time she got an actual cow to do Down Horns with her.
By this point the rain was coming down so hard and so horizontally that no shelter could be had outdoors. We retired with Mamuka and Dato to the safety of the house to kill time until we went back to Zugdidi. While Marissa and I sat and chatted, Babua came in complaining in Russian that he hadn’t eaten anything because he was so busy.
He sat down and started helping himself to lunch leftovers. Of course, this meant that Marissa and I had to partake as well and we had to keep up with him as he toasted us.
Babua was a great conversationalist! When I told him my name he nodded, knowingly, and said, “Ah yes, I’ve seen you on TV!” After a pause he pointed at Marissa and said, “I’ve seen her on TV, too!” then he made a wine-drinking motion to mimic Marissa’s TV appearance in Mtskheta drinking wine. We are superstars.
He asked me how old I was and if I was married. When I replied, “Twenty three” and “No” he grinned and pointed at Marissa. “She’s twenty three and she doesn’t have a husband!” Then he brought his index fingers together, parallel, smiled, and gave us a double thumbs up.
In turn, we asked him, “How long have you and Bebia been married?”
“Well, when I was young I drove my car all over Turkey, Ukraine, and Greece. I had many, many girlfriends. Then I got married in 1935.” Babua was such a player! He continued to charm us for a few more minutes before heading back out into the rain with a wave goodbye, “Back to work!”
After a few hours, Mimi, Zviadi, and Levani brought in a few steaming plates of meat. These plates of meat had been a living cow not two hours prior. We had helped kill these plates of meat and now we were sitting down to enjoy some of the more delicate parts of the cow.
The way that village-slaughter works is that Zviadi & co. kill the cow and prepare it for market. Levani and Zviadi loaded the halves of skinned, cleaned cow into the back of the station wagon. I asked Zviadi what they would do with the meat. I know there’s no industrial freezer in their apartment and I can’t imagine where they’d keep all that meat.
As it turns out, they don’t. They sell the carcass to the butcher who then sells it probably within a few days. This cow was about 75 kilos of meat (once you cut away the not-for-sale parts) and so the Butcher would give Zviadi a voucher for 75 kilos of any meat he wants. He can get pork or chicken or whatever! It’s really an ingenious system! He also gets to keep the really good stuff: The guts!
We were served tongue and liver. When the tongue came out it, well, looked like a tongue. Mimi sliced it into small pieces and we had paprika to season it with. It tasted great! It was kind of tough and chewy, and it still had tastebuds, but it was really quite good.
The liver was a bit crumbly or…hmmm…I’m not sure how to describe it. Mushy doesn’t work, neither does soft. It was livery, maybe? But not livery, like livery stables. I mean liver-y. Again, tasty, but awkward. It had been removing toxins from a cows blood about two hours before we ate it. So odd.
After enjoying the freshest possible meat, we hopped in the car for a wet drive home. The rain was ceaselessly pounding down and the roads were increasingly washed out. Zviadi worried that he would get stranded at the village that night. When we got back we took naps (awesome!) and then began getting ready for our rocking Halloween party that night. As a sample, I will now share with you a photo of Marissa partially wearing my costume and doing a Cossack Dance.