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art by Melissa Mead

The Butcher's First

Seth DeHaan lives to read and write, and experiences a kind of gnawing guilt when he neglects either responsibility. A recent college graduate, he walks the streets of Grand Rapids, Michigan, dazed and in search of suitable work. You can follow his ongoing development at thudd.wordpress.com or @sethdehaan.
Our home always smelled like blood.
My father spent his days among meat and his nights ensconced in the aromatic mist of it. We lived above the shop--he and me, Mother and my sister Fennel--in three small rooms built of knotted pine, boards stained in the colors of our livelihood.
I was apprenticed at nine and a competent butcher at thirteen, handling flanks, shanks and the various tender parts of our animals with ease. The day the first ships crashed, spiraling down into the towers and alleys of London, I was up to my elbows in a pig's innards, grasping after the choice cuts. Fennel came home from the mill holding a pocked and pitted chunk of metal, "sheared clear off against the street outside Standfast's estate," she said.
Wiping hands against his apron, my father brought the weight of it up to his nose, inhaled deeply. His thick eyebrows furrowed. "Out of the sky?"
"Yes, sir. All over the city, like big metal boats washed ashore."
He shrugged, let the otherworldly plating fall to thud against the counter. "King George'll see to it. We have sides to rack."
Two weeks later, drenched in the rain outside York Park, I met my first hog. Fennel had told me about them, how the King described them--a nuisance, vile rodents from the sky, but no threat to the nation--and I was fiercely curious to examine one for myself.
Its belly hung low to the ground, sagged and scratched against the cobblestones in fatty segments, and the ticking of squat, pointed legs was muffled by the rain. The skull sloped forward into a set of wispy, damp-looking fibers. Bewildered, bovine eyes looked up and met my own.
My father tried the traditional methods, first.
With the head removed, the animal stood still and complacent. A long, deep cut up the midsection produced no blood, just a quick blast of hot, putrid air before the skin resealed itself. Frustrated, he used a saw to sever the links between segments, and the beast deflated.
He took the meat and hung it in the window, slick gray sacs we later sliced, and separated, and wrapped in coarse brown paper. It diluted the blood smell, colored the air with a new language of spent cinders and wet sand, but the taste was divine.
Fennel tried it first. Mother had prepared it with potatoes, a heavy sauce in stew to mask the flavor--she glared in anticipation of disappointment. Fennel smiled, pronounced it good with a glance, and my father nodded. "Put a sign out," he told me.
I started away, turned back. "What do I call it?"
We named it after him: HAMNER'S HOG, 15pnc/pnd. Our regular customers came, questioned, sampled, and left with a tale of the flavor on their lips. At mid-day, the line stretched down to the church. He sent Fennel and me out to find more, to herd the hogs back to the shop. I eviscerated and slung them up on the hooks--the heads we collected in a barrel, ignoring their plaintive, blinking eyes and quiet chattering.
King George sent for my father and he worked with the royal cook, crafting new cuts and recipes with the soft meat. Other butchers caught hogs of their own, sent boys out into the city to hunt them, herd them, and in six days they were finished.
No one thought about how they fell, ignored the ships lying stoic in the city. The hogs were cargo--livestock for other shepherds--and when the lights spilled down from the vast, impossible vessels, looking for their lost sheep, they turned to us for sustenance.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

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