A bloody ‘Welcome!’ mat, stained with fresh and bygone red boot prints: a messy entrance to a clean-cut, clinically white butcher’s just down the street. Beyond the blood-soaked mat and grubby gutters, it’s a quiet place with sore white-tiled floors, a slightly old air conditioner humming in the corner, from which the cool wind mixes uncomfortably with the hot, stagnating air, suffocating with the dull scent of slaughter. In a busy world that brims with a flurry of people, constant bustle of life, the sighing silence of the butcher’s is another, eerie world that hides in plain sight.
“Hard at work as always, I see,” I say, the bells frightfully shuddering as the door closes behind me. “James, you’re doing the Lord’s work, really.”
“Eh, you know me.” He waves his hand, both welcoming me in and dismissing me. “I’m just doing what I ought to do.”
His cleaver winks before it slashes through the air–a guillotine–cleanly severing the meat’s head from her body. A chop! A chop, a slash, hacking, hacking, the gurgle as the guts spill, tug, tug, tugging the intestines out, scraping it out, the babbling and bubbling trickle of blood. And I think, James is the best at preparing meat.
“Where’s this one from? Mexico City, like always?” I wipe my palms, the digits at the end feeling alien, sundered from the stump of my hand.
He doesn’t look up from his work, offering just a nod before continuing to chop. A steady pattern of heavy, heart-pounding thuds resumes in silent uneasiness.
“What did he do?” I ask, a casual remark over the thud, thud, and thumps.
“Can’t say, poor thing probably stole some bread, or water, or something. And you know how things are these days…”
“Yeah, we got too many of them, overpopulation and all that, one mistake and that’s it I guess.” My fingers flit around the counter, conscious of the sticky air and distant mechanical hum. The thumps, the thumps echo in my ears–is it my heart, or the cleaver?
In that laden silence, the cleaver plunging into the meaty flesh, the stifled crack meeting the chopping board, everything feels slightly wrong. My fingers tap, tap, tap as his cleaver chops and chops and chops. Caught between the percussive noises, I stutter out lamely, “But at this point, what else can we do? I say, an honourable sacrifice, that’s what this is. Honestly James, you really should be paid more for your good work.”
“Right, can I have 2 kg of arms, ribs, maybe, and head?”
Roughly slapping the raw flesh with the flat side of his cleaver, he asks, “This one here? Fresh?”
“That one. Yes. Fresh.”
“Coming right up.”
Time crawls slowly, and my body strangely aches for the door, aches as the contorted meat on the chopping board does. A few skilful splits, and James hands me a shameful, red plastic bag.
As always, James mutters out, “Arms, ribs, head–right? Check.”
It’s one brave peek, one peek inside the bag. An angular set of ribs, stitched together with bleeding flesh, poking out curiously; a well-manicured hand, now scrubbed away at the edges, with a faintly imprinted trace of a wedding ring, a woman’s hand; a gasping head, shaved to be cooked, gaping and blank grey eyes that once blinked, filled with joy, tears, cheap washed-out lipsticks on her mouth, pale bloodless expanse of skin stretched over her skull.
“Yeah, you got it right.” I gulp, I swallow, willing the thuds in my ears to stop. “Thanks, as always.”
“No worries, enjoy your dinner.”
The red plastic bag hangs heavy, an extension of my hand, shoulder, and self. It is done, and all that is left is to leave the shop, return to the assured safety of a world too busy to think. One step, two, three… so close, one more step and out the door, away from this place of being strangely, rudely conscious of it all. The bag, the red bag! It hangs onto the tips of my fingers, slipping and clinging, heavy with blood and life, wrong but right in all other ways. But then the bells chime, the door opens, swishes, and closes behind me.
I breathe in, the autumn breeze a chilling reminder of reality. A numbing breeze sweeps past me, and as I find my way home for dinner, once more safely lost in the swarm of the crowd and people, the red plastic bag is only one amongst many. Outside, the air is cold, the night is nearing, my limbs are tired: the only thing on my mind is a warm, long pig1 stew.
And, outside, the bag stops feeling so heavy anymore.
- Long pig: a translation of a term formerly used in some Pacific islands for human flesh as food. ↩︎
Gyuyeon Victoria (Viki) Park