The Butcher’s Daughter | Fiction
It wasn’t a butchering she had in mind, exactly, but a laying bare. The notion danced on her palate like the unexpected tang of coarse sea salt. Like the tip of a knife pressed to her tongue.
Her pork chops sizzled away on the front burner. Apples, she thought. Apples would go well with this. She couldn’t remember if he particularly liked apples or not, but it didn’t matter, there were none to be had anyway. The fruit bowl was empty save for a withering avocado; a quick scan of the cabinets revealed only a long-expired can of Barbie-pink strawberry frosting and a forgotten bag of Craisins, hunched pathetically over itself.
The meal was an offering and a question, the extension of a hand but with the fingers curled just so, in case they must be retracted. The pair of chops, nestled together in the pan in their cozy ying-yang shape, said I care about you but also What the fuck is going on with you?
A thin-lipped little smile tugged at the corners of Sophie’s mouth as she pulled her hair into an alligator clip. The Tao of dinner, the thought, glancing at the stovetop. It felt familiar, the way the push and pull of the sea reminds a body of the womb.
As a child, she had never known the otherworldly glow of a supermarket deli counter. That was for other people’s families. Hers had a butcher shop and a slaughterhouse, a place with a name so ordinarily violent that she was well into grade school before she learned that, oh, to slaughter is not good here. To slaughter is not reaping of things sown. To slaughter is to take, unbidden.
In the cold back room of the family shop, little Sophie liked watching her father work. When he held the knife or the saw, a new vibration was struck into the air somehow. There was a precision, an expertise in the way he cut that made the back of her brain fizz like soda bubbles.
And she liked watching her mother work, too. Standing vanguard behind a barricade of lovingly-Windexed glass and a platoon of T-bones. Staunchly arguing with a gaggle of housewives. This was her mother in her element, one of salt and marrow and fat.
Her mother treated the customers as though they were the meat, and Sophie liked that. She liked watching the sinew of her mother’s face melt into softness when her back was turned to weigh a steak or wrap a leg of lamb, the heat of rent-week worries on her brow. She liked that no matter what trouble they were in, there was always supper on the table after school.
Sure, her father may have selected the animal and butchered it finely, but it was her mother who squirreled away scraps to ensure there was enough for the family. It was her mother who stepped into the kitchen after a long day on her feet and performed the magic of transmuting flesh into fuel.
Is that what I learned from her? Sophie wondered. How to feed myself on less than nothing? How to take?
Regardless. A laying-bare is what she wanted. Nothing fancy, just a frank assessment. It would do nicely, she thought, flipping her chops to check the fat-brown sear, to have everything out on the table.
She used to love the ritual of weekend nights when the business was put aside, and all the housewives were bent over their brisket or their Bolognese. Her mother used to roll up her sleeves and pull a dishcloth taut across the countertop, assembling her mise, something she learned on television from Julia Child. At six or so, Sophie misheard her and called it a muse.
“True enough,” her mother said, exhaling a laugh. She’d scan her eyes across the leftover scraps and flaps and knuckles with the steely determination of a drill sergeant. She was listening, she’d tell Sophie. That was the thing about meat. It had a will of its own. It was a muscle, after all.
Once her mother felt she had heard all she needed to hear, she’d begin. A medium flame to start, always. Butter and onions and garlic. Rosemary, if they had it fresh. More garlic, if they didn’t. The meat went in with a satisfying shhh as cold met hot, past met future.
That was what Sophie longed for, now; a way to take a body and make sense of what was within. Maybe I should have been a surgeon, she’d joke to herself, after a glass or two of wine. Could’ve been a surgeon, if I’d had the mind for it. After all, could it be so hard, to cut a person open? To get to the damned meat of the thing? She figured it must be a little like cutting open a pig. That, she’d done a hundred times.
“It’s all the same,” her father would say, beaming proudly over a porterhouse. “Cattle, pork, lamb, whatever — they might be different models, Soph, but they’re all the same under the hood.”
She liked the idea of it. Slide a finger under the pimply chicken-skin of anyone, and you’d find the same stuff beneath. Fill a cavity with enough oil and bread and herbs, and you could make a fine meal.
It was a long time since she and her husband had shared a meal together, really shared in one the way Sophie’s family did. Her family seemed to know, instinctively, how to gather around a table and shrug off the day as they sat down to eat. That’s not to say there was no bitching or squabbling; there was plenty. But it never lasted. There were jokes to be made and butter to be passed. There was vanilla ice cream for dessert.
Now those days seemed as though they happened to someone else. Sophie ate quickly, usually standing at the kitchen island in the first fifteen minutes after getting home. Eggs scrambled harder than she’d like, for time’s sake. Leftover salmon flaked cold into a sad, wilting salad she had a week’s worth of intentions to eat. On nights she was feeling luxurious, it was seeded toast smeared with low-fat vegetable cream cheese and topped with late-summer tomatoes.
Then she’d put up her hair and cook again, a singular plate just for him. He was picky, and while he didn’t ask her to cook, necessarily, she felt she had to. A homemade meal softened his moods. Whatever was on his mind, whatever made him turn his back against her in bed and turn out the light without a kiss, it could be headed off with warm brown-butter cookies studded with Macadamia nuts or a chicken Parmesan blanketed in bubbling mozzarella. And she always made double what he’d eat in one sitting —behold, the second chop — because leftovers made him hum with pleasure when he opened the fridge.
But there had been more and more nights, lately, where nothing could sate his appetite for silence. It made Sophie want to scream. She wanted to overturn plates of eggs Benedict with gusto, to throw porcelain plates of creamed spinach at the walls. Wouldn’t it be nice, she shrieked inside her head, to make a little noise? A little friction?
Better yet, let’s have blood and viscera. Let’s have mess. She loved mess like a little sister, continually fucking up but always primed to be put back together. Sophie had learned from her mother’s muse, after all. Let’s carve each other up and see what’s left over when we’re done.
Sophie slid a final, fat pat of butter onto the chops, letting the sweet cream and salt meld with the tender meat and sizzle onto the crispy brown fond settled at the bottom of the pan. With one smooth movement, she transferred the chops to rest. A bit more butter, swirled around where the meat once was. A little white wine, a little pork stock — homemade, of course. Chopped parsley, mostly because it looked pretty. Some Dijon for piquancy, and minced garlic so thin it turned to near-nothing in the pan. Her mouth watered as the scent filled the air, her forearms warming as they hovered over her work.
She heard the lock turn in the door and felt the way the air changed when he entered. There was no hollered greeting over the dog’s eager barking, no glance into the kitchen to see what she might be up to. Something inside her shrink-wrapped itself tight.
“Good timing,” she called out. “Dinner’s done.”
Chop onto plate, sauce over chop, a sprinkle of salt. A hefty slab of scalloped potatoes pulled gurgling from the oven. Plate to table. Husband to table, in front of plate. Sophie to table. She smiled at him. He was looking at his plate, picking up his fork.
She closed her eyes and imagined the pleasure of slicing him from collarbone to navel. Yes, she thought, good. Like divining bones rolled from a witch’s palm. A great unburdening of guts. Let’s spread the entrails out on the kitchen floor. Let’s see what we have. Let’s make something.
Alyssa Zaczek is a fiction author. Her Kirkus-starred debut novel for middle grade readers, MARTIN MCLEAN, MIDDLE SCHOOL QUEEN will be published Jan. 7, 2020 by Sterling Children’s. Her work can also be found in Midwestern Gothic, Jet Fuel Review, Former Cactus, et al. Originally from Chicago, where she received her Bachelor’s in playwriting from Columbia College. She now lives and works in St. Cloud, Minnesota with her partner and their rambunctious animals