Disclaimer: Rereading this made me feel nauseous. Maybe it’s the memory. Anyway, I wouldn’t recommend with dinner! Also I apologise if anyone takes offence to my somewhat liberal use of tenses.
Last night I slept with a cow. I say with, I mean above. I say cow, I mean some bits of… Well, I guess I ought to start at the – this particular – beginning.
I heard the moos from our ger (tent). I had watched the men sharpening knives during dinner, after which they disappeared, but my mind had not gone to thoughts of slaughter. Well my host, in her few words of English, got the message across no problem: “Cow dead. You picture?”. Unwilling to pass up any experience I jacketed up and headed out. (Going outside without dressing suitably (in my case in everything I’ve got) is unthinkable. The cold is like nothing I’ve known. It stalks exposed skin like a ninja: silently and fatally.)
The beast lies in the night lit by car headlights. It is on its back, the long gash down its neck, I suppose, was the killing strike. It looks naked in death. I feel like a sick voyeur as I sneak glances at its head where the eyes are still bright and the tongue is visible through parted lips. Two men are working on it. They are (to my novice eyes, expertly) stripping it of its hide and skin. Peeling back its hide with almost no blood loss reveals translucent muscle and a bulging belly. I stand transfixed. It doesn’t make not want to eat meat, it just makes me not want to think about eating anything right now. Skin tears, bones crack; the work goes on. At one point I am called up by the man of the house and asked to hold a severed foreleg out of his way while he works at its underside. I tentatively complete the task with three fingers of my right hand (no gloves on) and let go at the first possible moment. Some hours and many handwashes later I still feel dirty. My hosts, they don’t seem to be bothered, and they are up to their elbows in it!
The skin is almost off now and I’ve lost my fingers to the night’s chill. I want to know what will happen next but I need to warm up. The cow is to be taken to UB to sell; I imagine the carcass will be loaded onto a cart soon and head off. Upon going inside I am given a cup of milk tea. This one, unfortunately, is salty. The drinks have ranged from fully UK-acceptable sweet milky tea to sweet tea with a bonus lump of curd (think very soft, oily pecorino) added. Pretty rough. What I’m served now is in between. Palatable, but saltier than common sense ought to suggest an drink should be (except I suppose margarita). It does nothing to help the faint nausea which lingers about me like a strange smell.
20 minutes and the return of my fingers later, I want to know where work on the ex-cow has got to, and I head back out. Things have certainly progressed on the ground, and the carcass as a whole is not (as I imagined) going anywhere. The ribcage is wrenched open and its contents removed. Everybody at hand is concentrating now upon the belly. Cows must be strong stomached (ha!) because it is pummelled and beaten in the effort to remove it but it shows no signs (thank god) of bursting. Eventually it is out. A division of sexes occurs: the men return to the carcass and the women set to work on the belly and everything that came out with it. I continue to watch, quite prepared to refuse (unusually for me) any further involvement. The carcass is bearable now: it looks more like joints of meat than cow, it is what is happening on my left that makes my stomach leap. Intestines are being drawn out, wiggling like snakes as they go. Bits are chopped and squeezed. I try not to look too closely. The cold has overcome me again and I am invited to sit in the car which lights this whole affair with the man of the house. Things are are being rounded up and taken off places. I watch the severed head being carried off. Eventually all has been cleared and we drive around back to the ger.
Upon opening the door I perform a strange twisting lurch as twin desires drive me in opposite directions. On the one hand I must get out of the cold. On the other, horrifyingly, the cow has invaded our living space! It’s funny how we adapt, bit by bit, as situations like this develop. I find myself just about comfortable with one stage (if only through familiarity) before it gets more strange, more wild, or in this case just more gross. I step gingerly over spread out hide and perch on the bed. The whole ger must be around 15 square metres; a quarter of this under cowskin, another quarter inhabited mainly by entrails. As much as I don’t want to watch the work, I can’t look away. Sausage shaped lumps are picked up, rolled out and their contents squeezed into buckets. I am amazed the smell isn’t worse, it is present, but mild. Like something in the fridge a couple days off. (Ah, I miss fridges.) I distract myself by flicking through photos of the day. It was a spectacularly bright winter sun, seemingly determined to make as much impact as it could in the short time it had. Terelj is beautiful, though the landscape isn’t wildly foreign. It could be Scottish, with a few more trees and a firmer sprinkling of snow. Though ox-carts where cars would be, and tents in place of houses, remind me that I’m far from home.
Still intestines are being emptied before me. The hide has been removed though, an buckets of … Stuff are also being taken out into the night. I’m hopefully that an end may be near. I can’t describe quite what I felt witnessing this squeezing of guts through hands like you might play with a water balloon. Fascination and repulsion. Glad for the experience whilst wishing it would end. When just three or four pots remained, and I thought I was almost in the clear, the head was brought in and placed looking at me! It was as if the family wanted to give me a last ‘oh geez there’s a dead cow in the house’ moment. Perhaps they did, but I don’t think so. After a short discussion the head was removed as it had arrived, by the horn. Finally the place was clear of cow but for one pot of fatty bits. It was placed – where else- underneath my bed close to the head. It was a fitting end to the evening. I carefully zipped my belongings into my bag and placed it securely two feet from the pot. I carefully climbed into my sleeping bag and covered myself with extra blankets. And I carefully laid my head down to sleep – to sleep on top of the last of the cow.