Half of a bloody pig crashed down on the smooth copper carving table, bowed and caved in from years of butchering. The front leg of the table creaked like a shrieking old lady under the force of his father’s hands as he jerked the hairless skin off of the best, revealing pink, purple, and white.
“Today son, you begin.”
He was four or maybe three, standing atop giant books that his father never read, watching the large man carve apart pork carcasses, the rickety table leg groaning and crying out with effort. The noise had become a meter of his father’s work, telling him how hard to slice the knife into the meat, skinning off filets, shoulders, and ribs from their skeleton and tendons.
“Now, it’s your turn.” His father handed him a knife. “Be careful, it’s very sharp.” The boy tried to lift the knife and his father held up a piece of skin.
“First you learn how to skin.” His father held the knife in his small hands, his grip teaching the way for his small son. Lift the skin, pull, and separate with the knife. Tear when necessary. His young fingers could hardly grip the knife, let alone the skin, but his father held his hands the entire time.
He learned how to cut out, around, rip. Force the knife in, down, follow the skin. Cut with this part of the knife. Stab there. Practice. Do it again. Nothing was so solid that it couldn’t be broken. Even bones were nothing but temporary brittle under the devastating force of the crunching cleaver. His young, chubby hands were permanently stained a pinkish hue from the daily blood.
The butcher shop storefront was a horrid yellow, something dated and ancient like an unimportant parchment forgotten in an attic. The color was purposeful. His father had chosen it because yellow was the color that felt the most alive. He wanted his shop to be inviting, and he prided himself on the quality of his cuts. He wanted his sons to imitate his techniques exactly. To know which knife to use for which meat and cut, how to hold it, how to make sure it was sharp. Cut only once, and cutting poorly meant more loss. Patience, he preached. His father lived by this principle, never rushing anything, working until midnight if need be, and always up before the sun’s first light.
The yellow color, if it was meant to live, had clearly died long before the young boy was born, a discarded bone that was thrown to the two patchy street dogs who hobbled on infected paws. The paint peeled in the corners and the combination of rain and strong sunlight had faded the sheen into a spotted beige, the sun reclaiming its brightness.
The first true responsibility in his career of meat was taking the ground chucks and measuring them into 100 gram balls to be sold in the long case. His spheres were rough at the beginning – asteroids of beef – his five-year-old hands struggling with keeping bits of meat and fat from falling onto the stack of books. He cupped and pressed like his father showed him. Soon, with constant repetition, his young fingers could make almost perfect globes pressing the cold meat into his small palms. It felt good to get better at something.
The pride in his ability rapidly faded. After one year of making meatballs every day and he became repulsed by the shapes, the rounded monotony of daily business. He hated the endless repetition, his small soul couldn’t bear it. He was nothing but a small part in his father’s machine.
Creativity found a niche one morning when the five-year-old butcher’s boy decided to make pyramids out of ground chuck instead. Carefully forming the square of the bottom, and the four slopes of the sides, he weighed each piece on the balance to the proper amount. He set them aside. The cold meat was soft and limp but his little fingers worked diligently and soon he had filled the display tray with the first level. The triangle terrain delighted him, a tiny pharaoh. His younger brother waddled over to see, and squealed with delight.
For the second level, he was unable to continue stacking pyramids on the tray without squishing the first layer, so he began putting the pyramids upside down, to fit into the negative spaces of the first level of pyramids. He increased his pace and felt good about how clever he was, surely people would be intrigued by this level of finesse that he had applied to something as basic as ground meat.
His father’s hand came down on his shoulder, and the young boy awaited the forthcoming praise. There were no words, just another hand on his other shoulder, and his father was turning him around to face his tray of pyramids.
There were no pyramids anymore, just a slab of ground beef that had re-congealed into its original form. Shame tugged his small head down. His father patted him on the shoulder and pointed to the pyramid in progress.
“That’s why we make them into balls, not triangles.” He hoisted the tray up and got to work crafting the balls of ground meat while his son wiped the slimy animal fat from his little hands on his pink apron, frustrated by the form of meat, how temporary it was. All of that creativity, for nothing.
Carcasses surrounded him, the inner layers of animals, animals he had seen on farms and in the park. While he was too young to understand death, he understood that everything was temporary, those fuzzy, baby ducks that he had watched with such intrigue would become big ducks and then probably a magret, in a restaurant if it was “lucky.”
As soon as those animals were cut up, sold, and eaten, new ones were brought in. The cycle continued every day: snouts chopped off, ribs separated, skin discarded. He spent so much time working that the few times that he did manage to wander in the fields next to his town he would see animals eating, a pig grazing on feed, a cow munching grass. His eyes followed the contours of their muscles, seeing not a living thing but a conglomerate of steaks and chucks. He couldn’t get close to the animals, and he kept his distance — a small boy at the beginning of life dealing already in death.
On more than one occasion he pinched at his skin and flab and look at it alongside the leg of a pig. He felt how similar the meats were, he saw the skin being removed and wondered if that would be the same under his skin. After all, when he cut his finger on the knife, he bled too.