This is For the Common Good

Meat is everywhere, once you start looking.

Alix Hawley studied English literature and creative writing at Oxford University, the University of East Anglia and the University of British...
 

They were vegetarians, but here was a rabbit. It had been gambolling around the backyard for about a week. They felt it was some token of smiling fortune, although it had probably been drive-by-dumped in the neighbourhood. Rabbits were unusual on the grimy lip of suburbia. But Danny and Ron believed in fortune, in smiling, didn’t they? 

The rabbit was unsmiling, hunched in the trap Danny had set after it had begun to dig at the foundations of the house and look shadily plump, as though thinking about gestating. The trap was not designed to kill or maim. Just to keep. They went out to look.

The rabbit had one eye. In the absence of the other was a stained, puckered socket. Some kind of augury, maybe.

Ron, the older brother, whistled softly and crouched, his white gut lazing down over his thighs. Hey, it likes us, he said. The rabbit did seem relieved to see them with its extant eye. It sniffed at Ron’s hand through the cage. 

Danny, the younger one, was pleasantly drunk. He turned his head to stare back with one eye only. Unlike the rest of the family’s, his eyes were golden, like owls’ or wolves’, or like coins. He squinted. Tough to see like that. He reached out for the rabbit’s ear and said, Damaged goods. He pressed his fingertip into the empty hole where the eye had been. So soft. 

Ron yanked Danny’s hand back. Danny punched his neck, not very hard. Ron shook it off with his usual placidity and said, Look at it. Life has been hard for it. It’s still goods.

Ron meant good. He only meant good. Danny got up and went inside to put macaroni on for dinner. He poured some of Ron’s forsaken beer into a saucer for the rabbit. 

They kept it in the trap. It ate matted grass through the wired floor, and every evening after work, Ron moved it around the lawn for fresh pickings. He gave it chunks of vegan carrot cake from their café. Danny occasionally kept the dregs of his beer or coffee for it. As children, they’d never had real pets. Their parents said animals belonged to nature. They hadn’t had the energy to deal with the shedding, the excrement, the need. See the father smiling out the window at the flaring crocus, the mother brushing out her long hair and leaving loops of it on the kitchen floor. They hadn’t gone out much, working half-heartedly at their small café on weekdays, making just enough to get by. They had tried to be mainly self-sufficient on their acreage until they’d retired to a 50-plus commune in Arizona.

When they were still young, the brothers had eventually been permitted a small gecko in a glass tank in their shared bedroom, but that hadn’t lasted. They had to keep finding crickets, live ones, to feed it, and this had pained Ron. The gecko escaped into a heating vent before they’d resolved the ethics. For a time they’d heard its reptilian scuttle through the ducts at night, and Ron, who was always gentle like their parents, had cringed and wept. No more pets allowed. Danny had sent a few live crickets in after the gecko, but of course all scuttling eventually ceased.

But this rabbit had come to them. Ron started calling it One-Eye: obvious, but also mystical. He and Danny sat in the grass with their beers as the sun set, watching the animal nosing the cage. Ron hummed blandly and clicked his tongue at it.

You speak its language, eh, Danny said.

Ron laughed, but not for long. He obviously did feel some kinship with the animal. He had always wanted to attach himself to something. No such luck. And Danny had always felt responsible. Always that weight.

Maybe we should take it up into the hills or somewhere, Ron said, before coughing overtook him. The lawn got to his lungs. Their seedy yard was wild-ish, but not the real wild. The stucco of the house, once California pink, had the look of dirty flesh. Road to Paradise was on the sign Ron had made for it with his wood-burning kit. This was not the name of their road.

Danny leaned back on his thin elbows. Dandelion fluff blew into his mouth. He swallowed it with his beer. He’d always been the more practical one. He’d always wanted to punch Ron, eternally to punch him, though acknowledging this desire pained him, and he tried not to think about it. When they were kids, he’d devised a business plan to sell that gecko’s putative offspring, with a chart showing the proliferating generations, but that had come to nothing, and he’d hidden it at the back of a drawer. Afterwards he’d had a dream about eating Ron and hiding his remains in the heating duct.

Now he looked again at the fat rabbit, which hadn’t yet produced any offspring either. He thought of his lady friend, who had filled out over the time he’d known her, as though someone had poured her full of pudding. She was married and psychic, and carried pictures of her kids everywhere. He was weary of her pictures, of her seeing spirits at his back, and of her guilt. Who needs that? He bared his teeth for a moment, picked out a dandelion seed, and said, Coyotes, man. And hunters around the reservoir up there.

They debated nature, naturalness. Coyotes were rabbits’ natural predators, weren’t they. And animals are our brothers. Ron lumped onto his side, his blondish hair blanketing his face like aging snow.

A thought came, light as a bubble. Danny watched as One-Eye lifted its tail. The dark little pellets shining.

*

It was the only way. Yes. Was it? Yes. One-Eye was the sign.

Danny introduced the thought one morning. Let’s do it. Clap. The sound of his palms echoing in his skull.

Ron stood rounded, his belly out, then pulled himself up, only to slope again. Well, he kept saying. But the sentences trailed off. His mind wandering, wading in.

It wasn’t that the café was doing poorly. They had a fair clientele, some holdouts from the days when their parents had run the place. They were busy enough at mealtimes, steady enough most of the remaining hours. The location wasn’t bad, an old brick building, on a side street downtown, which used to be the pervert doctor’s office when the town was dragging itself up. Now there were other vegetarian cafés popping up. Like rabbits.

They were getting older every day. There was something more; there must be. Danny had felt this for some time. He had felt a black desperation stalking him like an animate tar pond.

He dragged his knuckles lightly up Ron’s side. It would only have to be sandwiches, he said. You wouldn’t have to touch any of it yourself. You wouldn’t have to see anything. Stand up straight.

Ron made a fish face and said, uncertainly, Well, if we could find a good butcher. An ethical butcher. Ron had been a startlingly beautiful child, but it had all fallen away. Only the look in the eyes sometimes resurfaced: shadowy lashes and deep holy pupils. He turned these on Danny now through his faded hair.

Of course we could, Danny said. His voice as soft as a hand on the rabbit’s back. 

*

The D was scarlet and had a closed quality, like a mouth print. Danny loved it. His letter, all his. The café was now a delicatessen, with all the word implies. He painted the brick walls clinic- white and brought in round steel tables and steel chairs with thick rubber hooves. He had Ron, who was taller, hang hooks from the ceiling, though these were smallish and intended for curtains. 

And why meat? Why. The question remained for a time. Some vegetarian perversion, some kink in his system? There ought to be related porn. The Way of All Flesh: a magazine. Or All Flesh, All the Time. But a virtue was in it as well, a display of their own virtue, dishing up the meat from behind the counter. We are too good for this, but you aren’t.

Wouldn’t people be horrified by the idea of meat, once they saw it being served in the formerly vegan café, and once they began to think, really to think, about what it is, what meat really is? Its structure, its source.

But meat is everywhere, once you start looking. It’s already there. This was the original line of logic, anyway. It was what brought Ron around.

After hushed inquiries, Danny found a butcher who was pleased to supply them with organic rabbit, bison, ostrich. Exotics, he called them. He worked a small farm off the highway north of town, and had a quasi-Eastern-bloc accent that sounded fake. About him, though, was a hint of nobility lost, some duke caught in the far reaches of the family tree. He spoke in poetry of cuts and grades and flayings: Chops. Chuck. Flank. Quarters. Gorgeous muscle, stretching tendons, the proliferation of carcass. All good, he said. All good.

Danny put them on a corner of the menu board above the counter, under Fresh-Made Sandwiches. Marinated rabbit. Roast bison. Cured ostrich.

One of their regulars was the first to notice. Does that say ostrich, she said. A tense female, always wanting bagels cut into three thin slices, and soy cream cheese on the side, not touching the bagel. Not touching, she would say.

Ron, working the till, forced himself to speak. New product line. Yes. All organic, yes, he said. And local, if you’re a locavore. Are you? He tumbled on in the marketing-speak Danny had been trying to teach him. Danny had been studying, working at his distance-education business courses ruthlessly, getting all As. He envisioned ostriches roaming the streets in packs, taking bites out of each other. Astonished at their own palatability, at what they’d been missing. He made charts.

He watched Ron staring at the woman, waiting for one of them to erupt.

Did you notice the refreshed décor in our dining environment, Ron said, waving a weak arm. Light knifed off a steel table into his eyes.

The woman looked through her small glasses as if down a tunnel. Could I get that on a bagel, though, she said.

It was ostrich she wanted. Danny offered the plate, not without a flourish. The pale meat nosing from inside the bagel. He and Ron stood behind the counter and watched her sit and eat it. The chewing, the ways of the mouth.

She likes it, Danny said. He grinned. He picked up two quarters from the till and balanced them against Ron’s eyes. Don’t look if you don’t want to.

 *

The butcher roamed further once the clientele became accustomed to the presence of meats on the menu. Pheasant. Venison. Elk. Ox. Then more: Rattlesnake. Alpaca. Donkey. Orca. Muskrat. Just rat. Ape. What were the origins? They didn’t ask. The butcher beamed and spread his white candling fingers. All good. And people loved it. There was never enough; they were always running out. They were written up in newspapers: “Beef Broth and Beyond,” and “Inappropriate Meats Spice Up Local Café.” One said, “Here be Dragons.” A good review, though. Danny inquired about dragons. The butcher said perhaps Komodo dragons, though these would be expensive and hard to find. They’d have to fly them in privately, he said, as the border could prove difficult. Perhaps to try farming them here, perhaps to try? A light in his noble eye.

The delicatessen counter had an increasing thrill. Flesh colours, bright or pale, all enticing. The meat scents proliferating. Queues growing. Please take a number. Please. And the martyrs’ buzz: wallowing in the stuff of sin, but not getting it on themselves. This was huge for Danny, and he felt it coursing through Ron’s thick self as they worked. Ron’s tuneless humming was more energetic than usual. Danny hired more staff, young women, to do the real wallowing, the cooking and slicing, the sampling. It wasn’t unacceptable, what he had done. It was acceptable, and accepted. Some of the old hippie vegans slunk away, but more and more customers came in for their fix, some of them twice a day. Don’t you have anything different? What else have you got?

*

When Danny closed his eyes, he saw a dark shape, vaguely animal. Tall. Perhaps human. He would call the butcher later. From out front came customer laughter, staff chatter, dishes clanking, the rotisserie turning. The numbers were better and better; Danny tracked them across the spreadsheet on his screen and highlighted them in fierce yellow.

The undertow of his brother’s hum was missing. The lack was irritating, once he noticed it.

He pulled his head out of the laptop and went out behind the counter. Ron was standing beside the sink, the sprayer in his hand, gaping over at one of the tables. A small boy gorging on a seal-rib bun, his face smeary with sauce. His mother doing the same, eyes daintily closed, to her beaver wrap. Sighing together in the generous afternoon sun. Mmm.

It was like advertising. Even the lighting was perfect. Danny slapped Ron’s back, but Ron was weeping into the sink, his mouth open, his eyes pinched. It’s murder, he said. All of this—murder. It hasn’t changed. It isn’t better. You said it would be okay. He set down the sprayer and covered his mouth.

Danny tugged his eyes from the family scene. Irritation ran up his spine. He said, Murder? Come on, Ron. You’re not Mum or Dad on the hobby farm. You’re not them. You’re you, we’re us. He pressed Ron’s shoulder, feeling the collarbone. The animals have already been harvested, he said. Harvested: a gentle word, gently chosen. He went on: It’s a form of recycling, isn’t it? Ron.

Ron had always been a recycling enthusiast like their parents, but the tears only poured forth faster. There is no us now, he said. He slouched to the office and fell into a chair.

Danny stood over him. He knew Ron was crying for childhood, for every loss there had ever been. He bent close to Ron’s face and said, We all have to eat. Come on, even you would eat meat if you were starving. Eating is a kind of love. Eating is love! Love. Think of that.

But we’re not starving. And I wouldn’t, Ron said.

Yes, you would. Think of the Donner Party. Remember that from school? They ate each other. They were starving in the wilderness, man. Anyone would. Danny’s hands made fists of themselves and stayed like that. He saw himself in the classroom, staring at the teacher’s blackboard map of the pioneers’ ill-fated journey across America. He’d had a sharp interest in the history lesson about the people trapped in the snow, dying. He’d written a report with several illustrations.

No, Ron said, dubiously.

* 

Some of the new customers were converts, proud to announce it as they bought their sandwiches. One of them had made a button that said Ex-Veg. The delicatessen had even done some of the converting. We never used to eat meat, but now.

Vegetarianism is for life, not for fun, Ron said, but they weren’t listening, only asking for barbecue sauce or extra toothpicks.

Danny, at the desk in the back, thought, What is supposed to be fun? About anything? But he was having fun. He loved the delicatessen smell, the smudged counter, the line-ups, the grand hilarious success.

The next morning, Ron didn’t leave his darkened bedroom. Fine, stay there, Danny said, flicking on the light. At work, he was busy with orders all day. When he got back, he found Ron kneeling in the grass before One-Eye’s backyard trap, apparently praying: Oh, my brother, oh, my brother.

I’m right here, Danny said.

Not you, Ron said, and went on droning wordlessly, like an insect stuck in a flower, a carrot limp in one hand.

Oh, so now he’s your kind? Your real brother?

Ron didn’t reply. Everybody needs to eat, Danny said again. Look at One-Eye, he said. One-Eye was scarfing grass, directing its eye towards the carrot.

Ron stopped eating. At mealtimes he stared, and developed a habit of chewing although there was nothing in his mouth.

Danny suffered this behaviour. He was visited by a memory of Ron’s one girlfriend, the small plump girl of his youth, who had faded away. Ron’s life, sad and small as the one-eyed rabbit.

At work, Danny ate sprout sandwiches by the truckload, and rounds of vegan carrot cake, and at home he made root-vegetable stews in the slow cooker. The smell permeated the furniture. He tried to tempt Ron, Mm mmm, but no luck. Ron just kept up the doleful stare, champing his jaws. He bit his tongue one evening, and gave an animal shriek.

Light dreams came to Danny. Bone and flesh. A slight savour of smoke, of blood, of fur. He speculated. He had never eaten meat in his life. He was proud of that, he’d always been proud.

And here was the truth looming. He would have to partake. A heady onrush, fresh lust and melting tenderness combined. He would have to participate in life, really participate in the round of predation and seizure and consumption. It was life, after all. It was a chain, a circle. It was recycling. All good.

He brought home a to-go rabbit sandwich, an R scrawled on the wrapper, and put it in the fridge. Tomorrow he would try it. First, he would wait. In bed, he imagined it cool on the wire fridge rack, just like One-Eye in his wire cage. The link made it all seem right. All good.

*

Half of it was gone in the morning. A clean cut.

He went up to the Ron’s room, but the bed was smooth, the curtains wide open. The air was hazy with stale anger and smelled like potatoes.

Ron was outside, kneeling again before the trap, passing something through the wire mesh. Of course it was the sandwich, in pieces.

Are you eating that? Irritation again, but a flicker of joy leapt in Danny’s heart. Perhaps Ron too had hankered to join the meat-eaters. Perhaps they were both going to join the living.

But Ron didn’t look. He only said, No. One-Eye ate it. He pronounced it et, Jane Austen-like. One-Eye et it. The crisp finality.

Danny contained himself. He said, Why?

Ron turned then, and began to speak quickly, hard, with his teeth close together. He said, He just et it. He et his own kind.

Ron, Danny said.

But Ron was still talking, his underchin quaking: What if it was us stranded in a blizzard, and I died first? Or, or, what if we were on some South Sea cannibal island, and the locals served me up to you? And they had spears? Would you eat me?

Danny’s golden eyes narrowed. What to say to this? He knew what it meant. Love, its needling, its need.

His brother’s questions were not born out of disgust, not a jab at him for his sneaking desire. It was a questioning of another kind: not Would you eat me, but Why wouldn’t you eat me. Why wouldn’t you.

The thought of doing it wasn’t even theoretically interesting to Danny. It was neutral. His boyhood dream about eating Ron hadn’t been a particularly memorable one; there had been plenty of others about hurting him. And this was the problem. The same old love in its same old jar. The leftovers, the shortfall. Not enough. He didn’t even want to punch Ron anymore.

The half-sandwich remained in the fridge for days, its edges crisping and curling. One-Eye could have eaten it, having evidently relished the first half. Ron was always sitting out there by the cage. His hostile back, the forsaken slumping.

Seeing him, Danny’s own back prickled. The thought crawled up to him again. The Donner party, travelling out to settle the new California territory in the 1800s, trapped in the mountains all the long winter. The starvation, the cannibalism, the horror of the good rescuers. The gaunt survivors: their measureless desires for meat, for safety, all strung together. The rank scent of hides boiled up for food. Dreams of dead cattle, ten feet below the snow. Dreams of California, of a better life still unseen.

He saw, as if in a pencil sketch, himself sitting beside an aged Ron in a hospital ward, still indifferent, still unable to make him see. Ron’s pouched eyes accusing him from far in their pits. Was this what would come? He knew that one of the Donner survivors wrote later about the terrible ordeals of the dying. He had drawn a picture of the scene for his report. The woman had said that one of the party, near death, implored someone to place a piece of flesh in his mouth, just a small piece of anyone, just so he would know it was there, so he wouldn’t be entirely alone. The survivor wrote, I do not think the meat was given to him, but he gave up the ghost, and was no more.

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