The Butcher


August 28, 2023

He moved along the outside of the building, walking slowly along the concrete walls, alone and head bent to the ground. The short frayed pants clung to his sweaty thighs and he saw his belly stretch with his low shallow breaths. He recalled his mother’s wide face, curled at the lips and bright near the crown of her head—she warned him again now, furious in his imagination. But he kept walking, slowly, methodically always keeping the wall about two feet distant and his head down, bent to the task at hand. Against the building he could see the rivulets of waste water moving down hill from his approach; an outside spigot left to run out the blood and animal shit after a butchering. He smelled the blood where it dried against the grey concrete, strong like rotted wine.

Suddenly he stopped, pushed a hand against the building and reached into a crevice in the concrete block and brought out the remains of a discarded apple— the flesh was already brown, leathery around the edges like it was sun dried and saved intentionally for later. He remembered his grandfather cutting fresh apples into thin oblong circles, long ago and he remembered how he had helped to lay out the cut pieces on old newspaper sheets in front of the window to dry in the full sun—and he would sit to watch the flesh brown and keep away the flies with a swatter. And his belly had been full, he'd always been sleepy and he had not minded the afternoon naps in between the soft bodies of his grandparents because the room had always smelled like boiling sugar and his brown fingers had smelled of apple skins.

He squatted, and pressed his back against the building; it was smooth and cool against his skin like the surface of a large waveless lake. He examined his find longingly and he bit into the rotted core to first dig out the worms with his teeth and spit them out. He pressed them with his bare heel to a smudge. He did not move, he chewed the remains and closed his eyes and leaned all his weight against the building letting it drain the heat from his belly through the ribs, through the blood, and the flesh of his back. He knew it was not a good thing, this constant ache and heat that roiled in his belly and he knew that it was because he would eat the food already eaten and that his mother had beaten him because he would not stop. He knew that he might collapse again, be overcome by it again—looking down now at the remains of the relatives of worms that grew and fed in his belly, taking away the food that he only temporarily denied them.

He shifted his weight forward and stood up; his hands on his belly, gently rubbing the flesh attempting to soothe the insides of it. He moved forward searching desperately, hungry— a gaunt and writhing thing. Although he could feel his determination waning quietly inside, still, he was hungrier now somehow and his pace quickened and pulled him forward. His head bent down stubbornly, searching the surface of the ground and as he walked on, his gaze dug deeper into the fecund earth, beyond the smells and sounds that were familiar to him and parting into the overwhelming darkness beyond the heat, the aching, the hunger— beyond the worms, even.

She woke him up. She lifted his knees off the grass and cupped his knee caps in her palms and seem to pour all around him. She giggled softly when he noticed her and reached for his belly with her cool fingers to soothe him, and she pressed her lips against his forehead like she had seen her mother do when she was searching for what was wrong in the body. She was beautiful to him, he coveted her jealously but never said so out-loud. He was feverish now he could tell, but he smiled at her and he felt her cool fingers pressed against his flesh and he let the moment hang and extend, subdued by her attention and unwilling to move afraid to disrupt it. She put her arms around his waist and stuck her thin shoulders into his chest to lift him up—she didn't speak to him just softly sighed under his weight and moved nervously around his belly already knowing she would not be able to get him home. At last, he was ashamed. Her fervent straining only sharpened his sickness and he was weakened by his lameness— he longed for all sensation to cease—he looked up and the sky spiraled, he welcomed the enveloping darkness.

The butcher is a much better friend to the animal he kills than the owner of the animal. The butchers he knew were kind to the beasts they were paid to kill. They would speak softly to the twitching bulls and the whining hogs while stroking them, their voices cooing like a mother putting a babe into bed. They would gossip inattentively about the insufferable neighbors to the ducks to calm their nervous congregations. From all their mannerism the beasts and the butchers were friends, old comrades unaware of others stuck in a frozen moment of time and pouring out their hearts in solidarity. Some butchers could be heard singing songs until the very last moment—old love songs which were strangely apologetic and beatific. But often they weren't honest with the animals and with themselves, and with the act itself. They saw it as a matter of mercy, and therefore lied like you would to a child before he feels the doctor’s needle for the first time, before the fear materializes and betrayal sets in. The boy’s father however was a butcher by design and habit not by trade; the act came easily because it was practiced. He committed to the task earnestly without much ceremony. Once decided it was a quick and silent affair which only accentuated the life affirming violence of the death struggle that followed. Yet, it honored it somehow, by not interfering with the theft of life, there was never any false pretense to mercy or any delusions about the cruelty of it.

The boy awoke tethered like a cork puppet, translucent tubes snaking away to the peripheral and out of sight but he could feel their weight of sugary water that hung precariously by his veins. His limbs looked frail to him, he lowered his chin and lifted his knees weakly to look at his belly—it was the color of candle wax. He felt sorry for himself in his helplessness, he knew that his body was showing him whole regions unexplored, unfelt that had been hidden up until now. But the sickness was rearranging the reception of it and it was the precision and clarity at which the pain came, that was unbearable. Weeks passed and soon he would begin to notice the slow butchering of the worms and the chase would proceed aided by chemical concoctions sipped through his bruised veins. There were days when in a stream of bright yellow shit he could make out the shapes of the slaughter, he could see them tangled like stitching thread and speckled with blood from his strenuous efforts. In time he felt like a butcher, like his father, all silent and solemn, hunched over the pit his weight forcing the violent death of a thing that lived inside of him that did not want to die. Something he had given birth to in the folds of his belly and carried around with him hotly in his flesh, that caused him suffering to let go of too. He had seen that it was like that with living things, none acquiesced their lives easily to the butcher no matter how miserable.

He couldn't remember exactly, but he was sure at least two months had passed. It was now that the sunlight had overcome the restraints of the day and it was almost too late before the last of the light faded away. He laid in the little flat cot that faced the open window and smelled the straining of the life outside. He watched the shafts of light pierce the flour dust and heard his mother exhale as she thrust the wooden pin against the little balls of dough and smoothed out layers of the pie. Mostly the days were spent with the same inaction, he was an observer in the world that continued on without him. And even though he seemed to be in the center of the movement, he could only stare outwardly, mostly without speaking.

The day the doctor announced that his body had healed, without looking at him but addressing his mother only, he did not feel the immediate relief he was expecting from his release. He was kept in the house another week on his mother's demand, free from the grip of the needles and the daze of inactive stupor but feeling restrained still. He was allowed visitors now and began to see his closest friends often but she never visited, even though he knew she lived only two floors above. He thought of her often and with every visitor that was not her, he became unwittingly mean and petty and his willingness to obey his mother dissolved and then one day he walked out the front door and then he ran.

He flew up the four sets of stairs to her apartment and put his face against the metal door, his body flushed with heat and his breath shallow with exertion, he lifted his arm and knocked on the door with the length of his forearm. Her mother swung open the metal door and he almost fell inside; but she caught him with an outstretched arm and pulled his body into hers and she laughed and laughed while her whole body shook and his body shook against hers. He could only mutter into her flesh, and he thought she had not heard him but she had and she laughed still, without letting go of him. It was a familiar greeting, he felt enveloped and comforted—it made the compulsory embrace of one mother transform suddenly into the embrace of all mothers, all into one mother. But as suddenly, in the moment extended, he felt calloused fingers grip his neck and pull him away from her and he heard his fathers voice boom above him in surprised agitation and still he could feel her body shake with laughter even at a distance. He felt his fathers broad hands lift him into the air, he smelled the stale cigarette stains and moonshine on them as his body twisted in mid air and he was thrown legs spread onto the powerful neck and he wrapped his arms around his fathers chin. Sitting on his fathers broad shoulders he could see down the concrete hallway into the bathroom, caged in by twisted wire—a duck, a couple of noisy chickens and the swollen plumes of brooding turkeys. His father and her mother spoke for a few moments but he did not understand, he listened to the noise coming from the little room enclosed, and he became aware of the smell that enveloped the space now. He could not describe it, but it was very familiar to him, it was a smell that he had know all his life.

His father had not said so aloud but the boy knew, as he was carried forward, towards the smell and noise; something was being demanded from him. He was placed down and over the wire and at once his body shot up rigid as the birds moved their bodies in a mass of feathers and began to group together to posture collectively. The massing, the colors blending, the voices rising in warning and in protest against and the smell stronger now, he could almost see it fog the little room. His father lit a cigarette behind him, and walked away from him and leaving him in the little room. The boy could see now that the birds were tied together and that their feet were bound with the twine too and they leapt unbalanced into the air away from him and when they landed they squawked and never rested. After a few moments he could make out their features more clearly and what he had first seen as a swarm of color became ordered rows in shades of blues and greens of throats and subtle shifts from orange to brown that he had only seen in motion, on a sunset sky. He was awed by them, he watched as the colors shifted in the light as they rose up like smoke into the air and floated down erratically with their underbellies of fire. He thought that she would like that very much; the way the birds danced up in the air, and the vibrant immediacy of their presence—the whole room swallowed up by them demanding to be dealt with. He wished he could give that to her—like a live bouquet of twitching electric color but he also was beginning to understand why she was not there. And why the noise outside was subdued and her mother spoke to his father in a soft voice and touched his arm approvingly but did not look up and answer when he asked about her daughter.

He only remembered the smell again when his father brought in the metal tub with the steaming hot water and he saw the thin sharp knife flash against the metal and his father stepped over into the room which became even smaller now. It was the same smell of the worms that he killed inside himself, the smell he knew in the rot of food, and it was the same smell in the blood and shit during the butchering of animals. It was the first time he was being included, so his father did try to explain, to talk through it even though the boy could tell the talking was not easy. He showed his son how to hold the bird between the vice of the knees to press against the feathers until the throat stretches outward and then the knife flashed quickly and he could see his father bare his teeth. And at once the noise stopped, the little room was enveloped in silence. The boy saw the violent seizure, saw the blood pour from the pulsing wound and his father showing him how to fight against the struggle of the dying bird. The father showed him how to keep still and to wait until the bird gave up its spirit. Once the blood ran-out sufficiently and the tremors stopped, the little body was handed to the boy and he took it gently into the metal tub and softly pulled the feathers until the goose flesh remained. He stayed until all the little bodies were lined against the wall, a row of sad purple flesh bruised by human hands; no longer curious just strangely unassuming in the little room.

He did not go home that night. Her mother pulled out a cot into the hallway and while the father cleaned up the blood meticulously off the tiles, the boy laid into the green fabric and pulled his knees to his chest; felt the familiar ache inside his belly. His mother came up to him after, brushed his forehead with her cool lips and he could smell the coffee and he could could hear faint laughter way behind him. He closed his eyes tight, but still, a wet stain grew around his head and encircled his disheveled hair and flew out from his face like a halo of ink against the green fabric. He felt his body pull apart slowly and a space grew in his belly and that space filled with a slow numbness; like the ghost of a mushroom stem growing from the decay of something that was once alive. He curled his body into it, fighting against the pull, the dissociation from the pain and all he could see was colors. Plumes of colors molded and massed into a thing that danced erratically in front of him and enveloped him, that moved like birds into and out of him and changed within him. And this kaleidoscopic mass shaded his view even though he forced his eyes to open wide, he could not understand what hurt him.

He woke up and felt her against him in the dark. The hallway was empty except for the small cot, the apartment was silent and the front door was left open to allow the breeze of the night to ebb into room. This was the second time she had saved him he thought. He felt the weight of her arm around him, like a cold wave pulling him closer to her. He could hear her breathe behind him in the dark and felt her hair on his neck and her knees curled into the insides of his and her bony hip digging into his back and her bare feet entwined with his in the silent dark. Her body so unlike his, so thin and cool—had encased his so completely that it was hard to tell where his own flesh began and hers ended.