There are many descriptions of brutality in this book, inflicted on humans and their equine companions. But however brutal, there is often great beauty and simplicity in the prose. There is a formal elegance to the text, a rhythmic beat to the language. In this part Eli’s poor horse, Tub, has his eye removed in the macabre way that was the norm for the time.
“The hand gathered the tools for the operation and placed these atop a quilt he had lain on the ground bedside Tub. He brought out a ceramic bowl filled with water and laudanum; as Tub drank this the hand called me to his side. As if in secret, he whispered, ‘When his legs begin to buckle I want you to push with me. The idea is that he falls directly onto the blanket, understand?’ I said that I did, and we stood together, waiting for the drug to take hold. This did not take long at all and in fact happened so quickly it caught us off guard: Tub’s head dropped and swayed and he stumbled heavily toward the hand and myself, pinning us against the slatted sides of the stable. The hand became frantic under the weight; his face grew red as clay and his eyes bulged as he pushed and cursed. He was scared for his life, and I found myself laughing at him, squirming around with not the slightest sense of dignity, something like a fly in honey……
Tub lay dozing and breathing, and the hand went to fetch a spoon that had been sitting in a pot of boiling water in his kitchen. Returning to the stable, he tossed the steaming utensil back and forth to avoid burning himself. His hands, I noticed, were filthy, though our alliance was so tentative I dared not comment. Blowing on the spoon to cool it, he instructed me, ‘Stay away from the rear of this animal. If he comes to the way that heifer did, he’ll kick a hole right through you.’ He pushed the spoon into the socket, and with a single jerk of his wrist, popped the eye out of its chamber. It lay on the bridge of Tub’s nose, huge, nude, glistening, and ridiculous. The hand picked up the globe and pulled it to stretch the tendon taut; he cut this with a pair of rusted scissors and the remainder darted into the black socket. Holding the eye in his palm now, he cast around for a place to put it. He asked if I would take it and I declined. He went away with the eye and came back without it. He did not tell me what he had done with the thing and I did not ask.
He took up a brown glass bottle and uncorked it, glugging the contents into Tub’s eye socket until the alcohol spilled over, levelling to meet the rim. Four or five pregnant seconds passed when Tub’s head shot back, arching stiffly, and he made a shrill raspy noise, “Heeee!’ and his hind legs punched through the rear wall of the stable. Seesawing on his spine, he regained his footing and stood, panting, woozy, and less an eye. The hand said, ‘Must sting like the devil, the way it wakes them up. I gave him one hell of a lot of laudanum too!’
By this time Charlie had entered and was standing quietly behind us. He had bought a bag of peanuts and was cracking their shells and eating them.
‘What’s the matter with Tub?’
‘We have taken his eye out,’ I told him. ‘Or this man has.’
My brother squinted, and started. He offered me his peanut bag and I fished out a handful. He offered the bag to the hand, then noticed the man’s outstretched fingers were slick, and pulled it away, saying,’How about I pour you some?’ The hand opened his palm to receive his share. Now we were three men eating peanuts standing in a triangle. The hand, I noticed, ate the nuts whole, shell and all. Tub stood to the side, shivering, the alcohol draining down his face. He began urinating and the hand, crunching loudly turned to face me. ‘If you could pay that five dollars tonight it would be a help to me.’ I gave him a five-dollar piece and he dropped it into a purse pinned to the inside of his coveralls. Charlie moved closer to Tub and peered into the empty socket. ‘This should be filled with something.’
‘No,’ said the hand. ‘Fresh air and rinses with alcohol are what’s best.’
‘It’s a hell of a thing to look at.’
‘Then you should not look at it.’