The young family walks together down to the neighborhood market. The boy scuffs his new Nikes on the pavement because later he will try to look cool in front of his friends, and when you are a 7-year-old boy brand new shoes are not cool. His younger sister skips along next to him in a pink sundress with matching ribbons in her hair.
This is not a regular trip to buy the week’s staples; the mother usually takes care of that alone. No, today the family goes together because they are going to kill a ram.
At the market hundreds of sheep are crowded into tiny pens, stinking up the air so bad the family began smelling it a mile away. The smell is foul, but it means the holidays have arrived. At the normally-empty lot next to the market the kids run up and down the rows of sheep, crying out, “Daddy, come look at this one,” and, “Mom, I like this one the best!”
The kids pick out a ram they like for some reason only they know. Maybe they like the consistency of the ram’s wool coat. Maybe they like the shape of its head or the unusual way its ears perk up. Regardless, they have decided this is the ram they want, much like children in the US pick out a Christmas tree when they go to a tree lot with their parents.
The father calls out to the lot owner and points to the ram the kids have chosen. He counts out what feels like a couple months’ wages and hands it over to the lot owner. The lot owner’s son wrestles the uncooperative ram unceremoniously into the back of a pickup truck, hops into the cab, starts up the truck, and drives away.
The family turns, leaves the market, and walks back home. By the time they turn onto the street where they live, the lot owner’s son and his pickup truck are waiting at the curb. The ram bleats and squirms as the children’s father and the lot owner’s son unload it from the back of the pickup, just as unceremoniously as the lot owner’s son loaded it into the truck back at the market. Feet on the ground now but held tight on a makeshift leash, the ram is unsure what to do with itself, and it takes a few tentative steps to and fro.
The father calls out for a rope, and his son runs into the house to grab one while the father walks the ram over to a nearby tree. The son comes running back out of the house with rope in hand. The father ties one end of the rope around the ram’s neck, the other end around the tree. The ram isn’t going to go running off anywhere, but the father is still thinking about how much money he paid for it, and he wants to make sure.
An elderly man with a long, gray beard and a knitted white skullcap emerges from the house. Perhaps he is a father-in-law or an uncle. In his right hand he carries a knife with a long blade and a knotted suede loop dangling from handle’s end. He walks over to the ram with a confidence that says he has done this many times before.
He steps up to the ram, puts his left hand on the ram’s head, and begins chanting a prayer to Allah. In mid-prayer, he grabs the ram’s nose, tilts its head back, and expertly slits its throat with a quick, smooth draw of the blade across its neck. Hot blood sprays everywhere. The ram gurgles, drops to its knees, sways from side to side, and then collapses to the ground. It kicks desperately a few times as its blood flows out across the hard-pack dirt of the courtyard.
[This is an excerpt from the introduction to A Tight Wide-open Space.]