The low, wide living room table was piled high with plates of torte, baklava, dried fruit and nuts, sweets and flatbread. Sangza noodles twirled up into a rigid, foot-high tower of deep fried curls and spoke “festival” as sure as any date on the calendar. Amina used to make her own sangza but now she picks up trays of it readymade from the bakery. Why go to the trouble of doing it yourself when you have the money to buy it? And the bakery men knew what they were doing as well as any woman. Amina picked up a broken piece of deep-fried noodle that had fallen off the tower and replaced it high on the pile. There was to be no eating until after the sacrifice.
A wide tablecloth would be necessary today. She twisted a plate of apples to be more attractive to visitors sitting on the couch and the fruit knife clattered from the plate to the table. When she was a young mother she had taken in her sister Zahira’s children at lunchtimes. Her brother-in-law, Hessan, was unable to bring home enough food for three meals a day and the little ones were so hungry. There had been so little food to go around and as the eldest it was her responsibility to care for the young ones. In later years as the farmers came back to their land and food slowly became more plentiful she had been at her sister’s house with her own children and seen a plate of six apples on the sideboard. Her sister had moved quickly to cover them with a cloth, not offering even one to Amina’s children.
Amina replaced the fruit knife so its blade was propped up on the plate of apples and its handle was resting on the tablecloth. When Hessan comes around later she will move her wooden stool closer to his place on the lounge, cut up an apple and hand it to him, piece by piece. His children would have died if she hadn’t fed them every day.
Ibrahim’s phone rang to announce the arrival of the slaughtermen. This was a special year. His grandson was old enough to join him downstairs for the ceremony. Ibrahim rugged himself up and waited in the concrete stairwell, watching as Amina helped little Adiljan on with his jacket, woollen hat, gloves and boots. Laying his hand on his grandson’s head, he explained the ritual on the way down the two flights. He had walked his own precious Mehmet down this stairwell every year for two decades for this same reason. Nothing could bring his son back, but oh, had Adiljan brought brightness back into the home! As Amina liked to repeat, “A house without children is a graveyard, but a house with children is a bazaar.”
At the bottom of the stairs they held hands and walked around to the back of the building. Two young men were waiting for them, keeping warm in the front seat of a red sedan. Ibrahim waved and they hopped out into the cold and walked to the back of the car.
Adiljan peered into the sedan. No sheep.
“In the boot,” said the driver. He pushed in the button lock and the boot swung open with a creak to show a sheep dumped, woolly body first, into the trunk. Its legs were akimbo and it was bleating loudly. Together the two younger men manhandled it up and out, then wrestled it to the snowy pavement, tying three of its legs tightly with rope. One man took out a foot-long knife and dragged it back and forth along a leather strap. The sheep lay on the icy cement, bound and silent, head pulled back and neck exposed. Its eyes took in the human activity.
It was time to say the prayer. Ibrahim showed Adiljan where to lay his hands on the sheep’s head. The man with the knife positioned himself behind the sheep’s shoulders, one knee in the snow. The other kneeled lightly on the sheep’s rear. Once the young boy’s prayer was said, Ibrahim pulled him back a little from the scene. Then, with one hand on the animal’s chin, the slaughterman put his knife against the animal’s neck, recited an Arabic prayer and rocked his bodyweight forward to gain a better purchase.
There was a beeping noise and the knife was discarded into a snow drift as the slaughterman reached for his phone. Yes he was coming. He will kill this sheep here, and then pick up another and be over at their house by about 10am.
The driver took his weight off the sheep’s rear end and stood up. He reached into the inside pocket of his black leather jacket for a packet of cigarettes. Ibrahim brought his own packet out of his top pocket. Once the phone call was done the slaughter-man lit up one of his own.
“How many sheep have you done this morning?” asked Ibrahim.
“This is the fourth,” said the driver, rubbing the front of his thighs with his free hand.
“You must have started early.”
“Before dawn,” said the slaughterman, sucking in hard through his cigarette. “Mostly around this part of town, though.”
Upstairs in the kitchen, Amina was arranging mountains of chopped potato, sliced onion and cubed turnips along the stone bench. She had plates of fresh coriander sprigs, a dish of diced tomato, garlic shoots cut into inch lengths and bowls of chopped ginger, garlic and a small plate of roughly chopped, dry chilli. A large melamine tray sat beneath a red and white mountain of lamb on the bone. A large plastic bowl was soaking the dry sweet potato noodles back to life. Finally, her huge cast iron cooking pot with its round base and high sides was waiting on the gas burner, oiled, smoked clean then re-oiled ready to go. She had risen in the dark of the morning and was ready to spend the day serving bowls of lamb soup to each guest.
Wondering how the men were progressing with their task she leaned heavily out her kitchen window and peered past the collection of thick black electrical cables down into the white and grey courtyard. One live sheep, a young Adiljan dancing about for its entertainment, and the three grown men chatting and enjoying cigarettes. None of them showing any interest in the sacrifice of an animal.
Amina called down, “On such a holy day, during such a holy activity you men are standing around smoking!”
The shame was enough to have every cigarette stubbed out underfoot and the knife back at the sheep’s throat. The young slaughterman was adept at killing and the sheep travelled from alive to unconscious to dead within seconds, bleeding into the snow.
Adiljan stood next to his grandfather and watched the young men cut a hole in the forelock of the sheep and used their mouths to fill the space between the skin and flesh with air. They peeled away the woolly coat in one piece and threw it into the boot of the red sedan. Then they cut out the innards and washed them through with water. They sliced through the joints and separated the carcass into pieces. Everything was piled on plastic trays.
“You carry the head and feet,” said Ibrahim, handing Adiljan a plastic bag.