Note: As part of a new project, and to keep myself from dying of boredom, I’m going to start using this newsletter to publish occasional bits of short horror fiction. For Valentine’s Day, here is a nice story about a man who wants to cook dinner for his lady!
Nathan told me about the service the weekend we killed the pig. We’d driven out in a van together, Nathan and me and a few guys we knew from college, heading out of the city to the kill farm upstate. It was November then, and bitter, and we were standing around in a muddy field which was slowly hardening in the frost, hands in our pockets and windbreaker collars pulled up high to shield us from the cold. None of us were looking at each other. It was taking forever for the farmers to lead us into the kill pen, and all of us were realizing, as the wait dragged out into a space that allowed for thinking, that slaughtering a pig — even like this, all together — was going to be more difficult than we’d thought.
“It’s an ethical thing,” Nathan said. “Taking responsibility for your consumption.”
“Oh, sure,” I said. “Yeah, for sure.”
That was about the level of conversation I was up to. We’d packed a cooler full of IPAs, to shield us from the cold supposedly, and I had been dipping into them in our very well-heated rental van all afternoon. I was thinking about whether the pig would fight us. I’d seen movies where pigs ate people, so they had to be some kind of threat. Thinking about it made me want to drink more, and drinking gave me a better imagination, and now, I wasn’t cold, but I was lightheaded, and I had a horrible premonition that when we did it I was going to puke.
“If you’re going to eat meat you should know where it comes from,” Nathan said. “You’ve got to own up to ending a life. Morally speaking. You know?”
“No doubt, no doubt,” I said.
Privately, I thought I could understand where meat came from without killing any. I could just think about it really hard, or Google pictures of teacup pigs. Still, this was a thing, it had been in the Times and everything. Guys like us did this, killed a meal, to remind us that we were still hunter-gatherers at heart. Still animals, even in Brooklyn.
“Wild-sourced protein is good for you, too,” Nathan said, dutifully making conversation. “Connects your body to the life force. Helps regenerate cells. Boosts fertility levels. It could actually help you and Carol.”
Carol and I were trying to conceive. I mean, “trying” was one way to put it. Another was that we had been trying, when we got married two years ago, and we had kept the routine up long after we realized it wasn’t going to work. There were other things we could do, medical interventions. We could look into adoption, which was always open to people with our resources. We weren’t doing any of that, though. We were just “trying,” the same way we always had, hoping Carol’s body would suddenly change its mind.
“When Julisa and I were trying,” Nathan said, “we got hooked up with a co-op that delivers really fresh proteins. Kind of illicit, some of the animals aren’t strictly approved by Fish and Wildlife, you know? It’s an underground deal, like raw milk. But I got to tell you, it really turned things around. Dylan wouldn’t be here without it.”
I looked up at Nathan, squinting against the wind. Something in his voice had shifted, opened up, like he was beckoning me into the room where he hid the Christmas presents. Nathan and I didn’t sob all over each other, we handled our problems like men, but I knew it had been hard for him and Julisa. Lots of miscarriages, one of them late. Six or seven months in, when they say you’re out of the woods.
They hadn’t seemed likely to try again, after that. Then, about a year later, there was Dylan.
“Protein, huh?” I said.
“Like I say, they’re underground,” Nathan said. “You have to prove you want it. Make a sacrifice of certain female organs.”
My head was swimming, and everything sounded weird to me, but I knew that last bit sounded objectively weirder. I looked to his eyes and saw only myself, floating in the oil-slick reflection of his sunglasses.
“That’s why I mention it now,” Nathan said. “We could arrange something. Spare you the right parts of the pig.”
“Oh,” I said, relieved. “Of the pig, you mean.”
Nathan laughed, and I laughed back, and a couple of hours later, I was riding home with a plastic-wrapped pig uterus in a paper bag under my seat. It looked ridiculous, like a pink scalloped pillow with an elephant’s trunk sticking out of it. I put it out on the stoop, before we went to bed, and in the morning, when I got up, there was a different bag on the front doorstep.
The meat looked bloodier, pulpier. It was badly butchered. Still, it did look alive, oozing with fresh, red blood. It was funny. The day before I got that package, I couldn’t tell how freshly dead something was. Now, I’d killed a pig.
They do fight you, by the way. But they don’t win. They’re trussed up, and outnumbered, and they can’t fight for long.
I didn’t know what to do with the delivery. It wasn’t a steak, or any recognizable cut of meat, just a raggedy chunk of something that had once been an animal. I just plopped it in a frying pan with some butter and gave it to Carol once it looked brown. I did a bad job, but she enjoyed herself, bits of juice from the probably too-rare cut trickling undaintily down her chin, and the next week, when the next bag arrived, I did it again.
“It’s got a weird taste,” Carol said. “Not bad, but kind of smoky, maybe.”
“It’s wild-sourced,” I said. “Nathan’s in a co-op.”
That was it for the question and answer portion. I didn’t mention children, because the topic of children between us was an ache, a cry-it-out conversation, and over time, as the crying felt less useful, it felt less and less wise to start the conversation at all.
You have to understand that I wanted kids. Some guys get roped into it, pulled along by the insistent urge of their wife’s body, and even more guys claim they got roped in, because it’s easier than admitting they wanted to hold their baby. I wanted the baby. I wanted to be a Dad. I wasn’t sure what I would do once I was one. I sometimes tried to imagine having conversations with my adorably precocious critter, and I would realize I was just imagining Haley Joel Osment, or the little kid in Jerry Maguire. I had no idea what kids were like outside of movies. But I knew I needed one. If it meant serving my wife what was probably dog meat, well, she seemed down with it, and our future son would thank her, so who was I to stand in their way?
The packages kept coming, and the awkward chunk-of-steak dinners happened once a week, and one week, I looked up to realize I hadn’t heard Carol complain about cramps or seen tampons in the bathroom wastebasket for quite a while. She ate that week’s meat solemnly, and I could see — how had I not been able to see? — that something in her was blooming. It was shining through her skin. The “glow” thing is usually just bullshit you tell a pregnant woman to make her feel better, but it wasn’t this time, not with Carol. She looked tired, but the air around her was supercharged, vibrating with some magic from the beginning of time.
When she told me, I’m not ashamed to say I cried. Partly from fear, I mean, but I did cry, and I was happy, and for that, if for nothing else, I’m grateful to Nathan.
In the prior week’s package, I’d found a wedding ring. Normally that’s just bad hygiene, or you worry for the person who’s lost it, but this was worse. I’d found the finger, too.
“How do I stop the delivery?” I asked Nathan.
We were at a bar in Chinatown that I was pretty certain was a cop bar. I felt bad supporting it, politically I mean, the bathroom graffiti really made you understand some of the problems in our city, but the drinks were dead cheap, and it was a place for men to go. Nothing fancy or nice about it, the bartender treated you like shit, you just got your three-dollar beer and you drank it under a neon sign in silence.
“Why would you want to stop?” Nathan said, furrowing his brow at me.
Nathan was my best-looking friend, if I thought about it, not that I thought about it that often. He had a really deep voice. He had two-day stubble every day; he looked handsomely disheveled until you realized he must be using clippers. He wore a suit everywhere, even to the cop bar, which raised the question of whether the bartender was actually crusty or just thought Nathan was an asshole.
The point is, people were inclined to listen to Nathan. If he had a certain reaction, that seemed like the reasonable one to have. Nathan was cool, Nathan had it together, and if you disagreed with him, which I rarely did, that felt like a sign that you had failed to be sufficiently Nathan-like in your own thinking. So, even though I’d come to the bar prepared with a long list of reasons — unsanitary conditions; don’t know what the meat is; found a human finger, and so on, and so forth — they all suddenly seemed like bad ones. Nathan ate this stuff, presumably every week, and he wasn’t worried. What was my problem?
“Carol’s pregnant,” I said. “So we don’t need it any more.”
“All the more reason to stay on the program,” Nathan said. “Trust me. A pregnancy is hard to carry over the finish line, especially at Carol’s age.”
I looked into my beer, watching the red-white-and-blue of the Budweiser sign float and blur along its pissy surface.
“Look,” Nathan said, “I don’t tell this story often. But you know Julisa’s last miscarriage? It wasn’t a miscarriage. It was an abortion.”
I looked up at him, startled. It was such a private thing to say. Nathan was cagey with his private life, even when he was drinking.
“We were already in the co-op. We stopped as soon as we had a healthy pregnancy,” Nathan said. “It makes sense, right? But somewhere in that second trimester, they can start to detect things. Anomalies. When we went in for one ultrasound appointment, they told us the kid could be born, if we wanted, but he wouldn’t have a brain. It just didn’t develop. The whole top of his skull was missing.”
“Jesus,” I said.
I could still technically feel my body located in the bar. I felt the cheap, tattered pleather of the barstool, and its chrome rungs under my feet. I could hear Guns n’ Roses playing on the jukebox. But the core of me was floating in a void. I’d thought about how hard it would be to spark a life in Carol’s body, but I hadn’t thought about the rest of it — how hard it would be to put a human being together from scratch. How helpless I was, how helpless we both were, to determine the shape of what she made in there.
“Well. Next one, we got deliveries all the way through,” Nathan said. “And you’ve seen Dylan. He’s great. But losing a pregnancy that late… it changes you. I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy what Julisa went through.”
I nodded. Saying anything more would damage the trust he’d shown me. Or I’d just start screaming.
“You really want every advantage for Carol,” Nathan said. “She deserves the best.”
It happened again, after that talk. Sometimes there was a little skin still attached to the meat. Sometimes I could identify the articulation of a calf muscle or a bicep. I paid no mind. I was making a human body. Or Carol was. So maybe some other bodies had to be sacrificed to the task. So what? They always are, one way or another.
Carol ate the meat in deeper and deeper silence each week, her appetite slowing into reverence. It was spiritual, the way she bent her head to the task. It was like she didn’t even know I was there. I could see the glow of the life in her, flickering wilder and brighter as she swallowed, and I knew I was doing a good thing. I was a hunter-gatherer, a Neanderthal dragging a fresh kill back to the cave mouth, and that’s why I never told her. A provider doesn’t complain about what he has to do. He just gives his family what they need.
He does, until he can’t. One Sunday, when I poked my head out the door checking for that week’s delivery, the paper bag wasn’t there. I made some excuse to Carol, but we argued, she was teary and angry, she shut herself in the bedroom and slammed the door. I spent all that week waiting for the next Sunday, and when that Sunday came, the doorstep was empty again. This time, there was a note taped to my door.
INTRODUCTORY PERIOD EXCEEDED, the note read. FIRST SHIFT OWED.
“Ah,” Nathan said, nodding wisely at the note in my hand. “They’re going to put you on the harvest floor.”
“Harvest?” I squeaked.
We were back in the cop bar, Nathan perfect in his suit, me sweating and clutching my beer so hard I nearly folded the plastic cup in half. “Harvest” was not a word I wanted to hear at that moment. It sounded too much like a euphemism. You harvest plants. What you do with an animal is kill it.
“It’s a co-op,” Nathan said. “You’ve got to start co-operating sooner or later.”
“I won’t be able to do that,” I said.
My tongue was thick in my mouth. I sounded stupid, or drunk; I knew I was both. I didn’t even ask what the “that” was, because I knew that, whatever it was, I couldn’t do it.
“Have you asked Carol if she wants to stop?” Nathan said.
I shook my head.
“I think you should ask her,” Nathan said. “I mean, it’s her body. Suit yourself, though.”
I waited for him to yell at me or threaten me. He just ordered another beer and changed the subject. That’s what made me feel the smallest. I didn’t pose a threat to Nathan. He wasn’t worried about what might happen if he let me go.
He didn’t have to be. As I stumbled out of the bar and to the subway, my phone rang. It was Carol, calling from the hospital — “it’s nothing, it’s nothing,” she said, over and over, “I just had some symptoms they thought might be pre-eclampsia, it’s nothing” — and the second she hung up the phone, I was pulling up my messages and frantically texting Nathan.
You’re a good father, he texted back. The next night, we were on the harvest floor.
Nathan drove me to the harvest at midnight, using a worn-out undershirt as a blindfold. I mean, of course he did; there’s always a blindfold and a midnight drive in these stories. They don’t mention the smell, the way I was left sucking in Nathan’s rank pit sweat and the stale lavender ghost of his cologne. The whole way there, I kept imagining myself hunting some homeless person down in an alley, yanking college girls off the street as they stumbled out of bars. I didn’t know what kind of weapon they’d make me use. A gun, if I was lucky, or maybe a hammer or a blade, like you did with livestock. How had we killed the pig?
I could barely remember killing the pig, I realized. It was supposed to be a defining experience; it was supposed to make a man out of me, turn me into a person who took responsibility. Yet so many other experiences had come between that one and this one, each one washing away and dimming what was supposed to be some superlative moment, that it didn’t matter any more. Death had become just another thing I’d tried on a weekend.
Nathan stopped the car and pulled my blindfold off. I braced, waiting for him to hand me the weapon. What I realized, as light flooded my eyes and made me blink, was that we were indoors — some kind of factory, with a wide door for loading and unloading. I sniffed, involuntarily, trying to clear my nose of Nathan. That’s when I recognized it. Not a factory. A slaughterhouse.
The bodies were stacked at the far front of the room. There were at least twenty of them, a pile high enough that a tall man had to pull them down from the top for processing. They were dead already, with holes punched in foreheads, or throats slit. Humane methods. I tried to feel relieved by that, and by the fact that all the corpses were men. They were old, young, their clothes were often nice and sometimes tattered or outdated in a way that spelled poverty, but they were guys, people who had at least theoretically been powerful. We were murderers, I told myself, but we probably weren’t rapists, which ought to make a difference.
It didn’t. Next to the bodies was the conveyor belt, and in front of the conveyor belt were men, heads bent, doing the work I’d been sent to do. I had gotten so used to receiving the chunks of meat, inexpertly hacked-up and ragged, that I thought I was immune to the sight of death. What I had not considered — what I ought to have considered, every time I saw it — was that someone had to do the hacking, and that each chunk belonged to a man who had once been whole.
As I watched, a man wearing an apron and rubber gloves dived into a bearded old man’s slit abdominal cavity and removed the intestines, scooping them out with both hands. He slipped, and grabbed them too hard, and he ripped one right in half, spilling shit all over the conveyor belt. I could smell it from across the floor, even though that floor smelled like a thousand other things.
I told myself not to throw up. I told myself not to pass out. I only listened to one of those orders, and my dinner came out, fluid and hot, from the same slick pink cavity in me that the workers were steadily ripping out of the other bodies. I stood bent over, hands on my knees, dizzied by the sudden unwelcome awareness that my body had an inside.
Nathan nodded and patted me on the shoulder as I choked it up.
“That’s right,” he said. “Better to get it out now. It’ll happen a few times on the first shift, it does for all of us, but you don’t want it coming out on the conveyor.”
I could have screamed. I could have pleaded. I could have made a spectacle of myself. Would you like me more if I had? But I already felt weak, puking in front of everybody. I already felt myself to be visibly not in control, and I knew that the other workers’ reaction was probably worse than pity. So I just wiped my mouth and let Nathan lead me to the pile of aprons and rubber gloves.
“Will I have to kill anyone?” I asked, in the levelest voice I could.
“Not your shift,” Nathan said.
We were closer to the bodies, now. One of them was looking at me. He was a young guy, athletic, with an expensive watch and thick, golden-brown hair. It poked out from his shirt collar, stood stiff along his arms. Something grey and viscous like egg white dripped from the hole between his eyes.
“What if I tell the cops?” I said. “What if I don’t show up to the next shift, just tell you I won’t do it any more?”
“Buddy,” Nathan said, grinning down at me, “who do you think these guys are?”
It does get easier. That first night, I just hacked through any piece of the body that was available, barreling through stink and blood spatter, keeping my eyes open only after I’d hurt myself with a misaimed blade. I eventually used the saw with purpose. I dry-heaved more than I vomited, and when I did vomit, I knew where to aim. I had to harvest every night that week, then I got a week off, then two weeks on; I never got a fixed schedule, but it was considerate, as far as it could be. The bosses like to ramp up slowly, in terms of the work they make you do.
The slaughter floor is worse than processing, but only a little. Like I told you, they fight, but not for long, and they don’t win. Not when it’s a bunch of guys against one trussed-up animal.
It’s about ethics, that’s what Nathan told me. If you’re going to eat this stuff, you have a duty to know where it comes from. I processed Nathan about two weeks ago. I don’t know what happened. He always seemed so all-in. I was glad I got to do his processing, though. He would have wanted someone who took it seriously, someone who understood the responsibility involved.
I want to tell you that getting the meat back fixed things between me and Carol, but you know I can’t tell you that. She’s been in that bedroom for weeks now. If you can call what’s in there “her.” What struck me, after we butchered Nathan, was that I hadn’t actually seen Julisa since before Dylan. Not in person, I mean. It struck me that Dylan didn’t look much like Nathan, or like Julisa either, that I had no real proof he’d come from either of their bodies. He just looked like a kid; he looked like a photo of someone’s kid. You could take one anywhere. It sounds paranoid, but when I look up from the sidewalk late at night and see the shadows moving in our bedroom, it seems like a question worth asking. What I see is enormous. It breathes heavy in the dark when I get home from work. A sacrifice of certain female organs, Nathan said. I guess I should have known he didn’t mean the pig.
What we’re sacrificing for, what it wants, I may never know. My son will be born soon. He has been fed from the beginning on the flesh of weaker men. When he arrives, he will be hungry. He will reach for his father.
Well! That’s over now. Next issue will return to reviewing movies. As always, if there’s something you want me to cover, reply to this e-mail or Tweet at me.