Cleaver, Meat, and Block
by Maria Haskins
The first thing Hannah learned when she came to live with her grandparents after the Plague, was how to wield the meat cleaver. Grandma taught her, guiding her hands in the backroom of the old butcher shop on Main Street. Showing her how to wrap her fingers around the handle, how to put her thumb on the spine of the handle for extra power and precision, how to let her wrist pivot when she cuts.
“You don’t need to be strong,” Grandma said. “The weight of the blade, the sharpness of the edge, is enough.”
This past Christmas, Grandma and Grandpa gave Hannah a cleaver of her own. When she unwrapped it, Grandpa was already apologizing for not getting her new clothes or makeup or jewelry, even though such things are hard to come by these days. Hannah didn’t know how to tell him she’d never received a better gift in all her fourteen years.
The cleaver is real and useful in a way few other objects in Hannah’s life have ever been, and she loves everything about it. She loves the dark, smooth wooden handle; the solid thunk of the wide, rectangular blade when it shears through meat and bone and hits the wooden chopping block; the way the steel edge glistens beneath the lights.
Sometimes, when Hannah works in the butcher shop, she thinks about her parents and baby Daniel. They’ve been gone for three years, and she knows it’s better not to dwell on the past, yet she cannot help it. Sometimes she thinks about Meg, their old dog, too. About Meg’s silvered muzzle and silky, pointy ears. About the way Meg would sigh when she lay down on Hannah’s bed every night. About Meg’s pink and bloody guts torn out all over the driveway when the raveners fed on her.
Sometimes, though rarely, Hannah thinks about a stifling attic space above a hall closet, wooden beams digging into her back and legs, a trapdoor barred with a garden rake, and the sounds that came from the house below.
More often, though she tries not to, she thinks about Pete from school, and the way he looks at her.
Every day after school, Pete follows Hannah home. He trails behind her along the paths and streets, regardless of which way she chooses to go. When she enters her grandparents’ house, two blocks away from the butcher shop, he lingers across the street, staring at the living room window as if he knows she’s watching him from behind the heavy yellow drapes.
Every day, Hannah stands behind those drapes, waiting for Pete to skive off down the lane to his parents’ house. She waits with Rosko, her grandparents’ spaniel, beside her; her hands stroking the dog’s silky, caramel-coloured fur until Pete is out of sight.
Rosko sleeps in Hannah’s bed. That’s the way it’s been since she first got here. Every night he curls up beside her, so close she feels each quiver of fragile life beneath his ribs. She lays there beneath the pink and white quilt Grandma picked out for this room back when it was still the guest room rather than Hannah’s room, and whenever Rosko whimpers in his sleep, she puts her arm around him.
Hannah doesn’t want to love Rosko, and yet she cannot help it.
Before the Plague and the raveners, Pete and Hannah lived in the same neighbourhood in the same city. It’s not like they were friends, but they went to the same school, though he was a grade ahead of her. Now, they both live in this run-down sawmill town full of old pickup trucks, faded strip malls, and resettled Plague-survivors, but they never speak to each other. Hannah rarely speaks to anyone at all, but she knows the silence between her and Pete is different. It’s more than an absence of words. It’s like the steel blade of the cleaver, bright and hard and sharp enough to cut.
Pete’s family moved to town two months after Hannah arrived with the other Plague orphans. First time she saw him, he rode his red bike with a group of friends past the butcher shop, on their way to buy homemade candy from the repurposed Tim Hortons down the street. She shouldn’t have been surprised. Lots of survivors end up in this town because it’s one of the few in the region that survived the Plague with most of its infrastructure intact. On days when the electricity works, residents can almost pretend the world is functional again.
Her grandparents have lived in this town all their lives, running the same butcher shop on Main Street since before Hannah’s mom was born. Even though the government-run supply store opened down the block last year, selling dry and canned goods, hygiene products, medicines, and second-hand clothes, people still come to the butcher shop to buy meat. They stand at the shiny glass counter, chatting with Grandpa about the weather and the rationing and the freight trains that have just started moving through a couple of times per week. Hannah stays in the backroom with the cleaver, trying not to listen, trying not to think of which customers were raveners during the Plague, and which were not.
When Hannah wields the cleaver exactly right, when her grip is firm and her wrist pivots the way it is supposed to, then, all her memories are sheared away until nothing exists except the meat and the cleaver and the thunk of steel against the block.
In those rare moments, Hannah can almost forget. She can almost forget the Plague. She can almost forget that her dog and her parents and Daniel were killed and eaten by Pete and his parents. Almost. But not quite.
Hannah hides beneath the fir trees at recess while Pete and his friends play tag in the schoolyard. They call it tag but it’s really a game of chase, and no matter how it starts, it always ends with the kids who were raveners chasing those who weren’t.
Crouched beneath the drooping branches, knees and hands touching wet dirt and roots, Hannah watches as Pete knocks Alexa to the ground under the swings. Alexa doesn’t try to fight once she’s down. She doesn’t scream even though her face is a mask of terror. Pete grabs her arms, pushes one knee into her midriff, opens his mouth and leans close to her face, jaws snapping. Hannah’s heart thuds hard and fast in her chest, watching as Pete leans in to rip Alexa’s throat open, as his fingers curl into claws.
Then he laughs and shouts, “Gotcha!” before he lets Alexa go and runs after someone else.
Alexa stays down. Hannah can’t see her face, but she knows Alexa’s crying.
Pete and the others chase Oscar next. Oscar is tall and fast, and it takes a big group of them to bring him down, all of them falling on top of him, clawing at his back, screeching and hollering, tearing at his clothes.
Hannah picks up a rock and holds it in her right hand, knuckles gone white.
That day in the city when the raveners came loping up the driveway, that day when baby Daniel wouldn’t stop screaming, that day when Dad hoisted her up into the attic as the back door was pushed off its hinges, and the front door bent and shivered, that day, she held a pair of scissors in her hand. Huddled in the gloom beneath the rafters, she wasn’t sure what she’d do if the trapdoor opened from below. Would she fight? Or would she let them kill her? Holding the scissors, she listened as baby Daniel went silent, as the raveners tore and swallowed.
Under the fir trees, Hannah holds on to the rock until the bell rings.
It’s been two years since Hannah was found in the woods by a rescue and retrieval team, eighteen months since she came to stay with her grandparents.
She’s learned a lot in eighteen months.
How to sharpen knives, how to mop the butcher shop’s black and white tile floor, how to skim the fat and foam off Grandma’s stock pot, how to put scraps and lard into the meat grinder, pushing the pieces down the hopper, turning the crank until everything is pushed out through the grinding plate, pale pink curls of sausage meat dropping into the stainless steel bowl below.
But nothing holds her interest like the cleaver.
Working at the counter in the backroom, she grips the cleaver in her right hand while she holds the meat in place with her left. Grandma taught her how to wield the cleaver, but Grandpa taught her how to cut. How to turn a loin of pork into chops and roasts and stew meat. How to turn a slab of beef into steaks and brisket, blade roast, sirloin. How to separate a chicken into all its parts.
Before the Plague, Hannah would have never thought she’d end up working in her grandparents’ butcher shop. Mom and Dad only brought her here for visits at Christmas, sometimes for a week in summer. Back then, Hannah dreamt of traveling the world and becoming a dog groomer or maybe a cartoonist.
These days, the butcher shop seems as good a place as any to make a life. There is nowhere to go, nothing to become. The world beyond the highway, beyond the train tracks, beyond the ocean, is broken, rent asunder by the Plague and the raveners and the riots and disasters that followed in their wake. Even now, no one knows how many died, how many lived, how many turned ravener, how many turned to meat.
Hannah knows it’s best to look ahead. There’s a vaccine now and a cure. People will never turn into raveners again. It was a virus that crept into people’s brains, made the infected crave living flesh and blood, made them gather in hordes, made them break down doors and windows to get to the living people hiding inside, made them rip through ribs and skin and skulls with their teeth and fingers.
Look ahead. Make the best of things. That’s what people say.
What they mean is, forget.
It’s Saturday, and Hannah has been working in the butcher shop since breakfast.
She helps out every weekend and most weekday evenings after homework. Her grandparents worry about how much she works and her lack of friends, but it doesn’t bother her.
Hannah works, cleaver in hand. The meat on the block is cold and slippery. It’s been bled already, the carcass gutted and skinned, made ready for eating.
She is not thinking about school. Not about Pete. Not about waking in the night with Rosko beside her, listening for furtive noises outside. She is not thinking about Mom and Dad and Daniel. Not thinking about raveners, clawing at the scraps of plywood covering the windows. Not thinking about the stifling dusk that engulfed her, once the trapdoor closed. The smell of blood and offal wafting up from below, hours after the raveners had left the house. The wet gleam of blood on asphalt once she got outside. Moonlight on the pavement where the last bits of Meg had been ground into the pitted surface. Ragged taste of salt and bile in her mouth as she ran from the city, folding herself into the darkness of the woods beyond the highway.
Her vision blurs, making it hard to see, but the cleaver knows enough for both of them. It keeps cutting through bone and gristle and slippery meat while Hannah remembers.
She remembers everything. That is the curse of those who did not turn into raveners, to remember.
The raveners don’t remember being raveners. Once the cure burned the virus out of them, they had no memory of what they’d done, they could not recall their hunger, guts and brains ripped out, limbs cracked, flesh chewed and swallowed.
The vaccine absolved them. There is no blame or guilt, no justice either.
But Hannah can’t forget. Can’t look ahead, can’t make the best of things.
That’s her secret, the one she dare not speak out loud to anyone.
Pete and the others who were raveners mostly look like ordinary people now. Except, when she catches sight of them at the edges of her vision, their faces slip like melting rubber masks, revealing other faces, leering and snarling, teeth and gullets.
She isn’t sure how to tell masks from faces. Maybe there is no difference. Maybe no one, no matter who they are or what they did, have real faces. Maybe there are only masks, and nothing but the hollow darkness beneath.
Hannah looks down at the hand holding the meat, and for a moment it doesn’t seem as if it belongs to her. The pale skin, the veins beneath, the bones covered in flesh and sinew. It’s just another piece of meat for the cleaver to sort out on the block.
“Hannah, come have some lunch.”
Grandma’s voice stops the descending cleaver, the steely blade quivering above the wrist where the bones and joints hold it in place. Hannah puts the cleaver away and takes off her apron, hanging it on the hook beside the stove. She washes her hands and sits down with Grandma.
“You work too much,” Grandma says as they dig into the flaky crust of the homemade chicken pie. Hannah watches the pale, creamy filling spilling out—chunks of chicken, green peas and golden carrots from the garden, flecks of fragrant thyme that Grandma dries in bunches in her kitchen.
“I like working,” Hannah says.
Grandma doesn’t say anything else and neither does Hannah, but the unspoken words—the words they both might say if they could find voices strong and gentle enough to hold them without shattering—are there in the warmth between them when Grandma touches her arm.
You do what you need to, that’s what Grandma said that first night when Hannah couldn’t fall asleep in the guest room. I’m not going to tell you how to deal with it, because I don’t know either.
The house where Hannah’s grandparents live is small and square, with a black tar-papered roof and white stucco walls. In the front garden, fading daisies and catmint peek out between sage and thyme, peas and beans. Like the backyard garden, it’s ready for the last harvest. In summer, zucchini and onion, carrots and potatoes, tomatoes and beets, crowd together where the flower beds and the lawn used to be before the Plague, but it’s autumn now, and everything will soon turn brown.
Inside, the house is all flowery wallpaper, chintz, and polished wood. It smells of firewood and lavender sachets. The back of the house looks out over the greenbelt and the gravel road beside the creek, and from her window on the second floor Hannah sees the river, the highway, and the train tracks.
Sometimes, when she stands in the window, breath catching on the glass, Hannah sees Pete down by the river, walking or riding his bike on the trails through the old scrapyards and abandoned buildings. Sometimes, he’s with his friends, usually he’s alone. She’d recognize him anywhere. That lopsided slope of his shoulders. The swing of his arms. The way he cocks his head when he looks around.
Along the river, there’s a warren of run-down industrial properties, an old sawmill and a cement factory, a heap of rusted car remains and a scrapyard. From her vantage point, Hannah sees the tangled rolls of barbed wire and debris heaped up in that scrapyard. It was part of the barricade around the town during the Plague, when guards patrolled the perimeter 24/7, armed and ready.
The Plague never reached this town. Not one single ravener ever roamed its streets, though other communities along the highway were wiped out. No one knows why some places were spared. Maybe it was God’s will, like the priest tells them in church. Maybe it’s because there’s no airport or harbour nearby, like their teacher says. Maybe it was just dumb luck, like Grandma thinks.
No one had time to build barricades around the city where Hannah lived. By the time people realized there was a Plague, it was already on the inside, inside the suburbs and the downtown core, inside the houses and trains and subway stations, inside hospitals and schools and preschools. One Tuesday, everything was fine with school and lasagna and Mom going to a yoga class at the rec-center. Next Tuesday Dad was boarding up the windows, and most of the neighbourhood had turned ravener. The Tuesday after that, Hannah was all alone, in the woods.
Grandpa and Grandma only ever saw the Plague on TV, until the TV broadcasts stopped, the internet went down, and that big winter storm hit in the midst of everything, knocking out the electricity. After that, “everything went bonkers”, like Grandpa says, for about a year.
They know what happened, everyone does, but knowing is not remembering. They don’t lie awake at night, listening to the wind but hearing the raveners breathing outside the door, scratching at the walls and windows. They don’t hear Daniel shrieking even though Mom is trying, trying, trying to make him shut the hell up, they don’t hear the heavy thud when Dad falls to the floor. They don’t know what it sounds like when raveners eat someone.
Hannah remembers, but cannot speak of it. Her memories are like a thousand thousand thousand screaming, bleeding mouths, and if she were to reveal them in the daylight, if she were to lay them bare in this house, she fears the horror of it might devour not just her, but Grandma and Grandpa and the street and the river and the entire world.
Hannah is chopping pork in the backroom, setting aside the scraps for a batch of Grandma’s sage and onion sausage, when she hears the entry bell jingling.
“How’s business?” someone asks Grandpa in the shop.
Hannah knows that voice. It’s Pete’s mom. She doesn’t need to look to know what the woman looks like, neat hair, neat clothes, red lipstick and a smile. Her face so clean and polished you’d never know she ever tore raw meat off the bones.
“Can’t complain,” Grandpa answers. “People always need to eat.”
Pete’s mom laughs. In the backroom, the cleaver stops.
Grandma is standing next to Hannah at the counter, turning the crank on the meat grinder, and for a moment the grinder too goes silent. Hannah glances at Grandma, and before they both look away, Hannah catches a gleam of the cleaver’s steel in Grandma’s eyes. It’s so brief that afterward she is not sure whether it was real, or whether she imagined it.
Then, the bell jingles again and Pete’s mom leaves, carrying the meat she bought in a brown paper bag. In the backroom, Hannah closes her eyes, but the cleaver keeps working, moving with more speed and accuracy than she could ever manage on her own.
One October day, after school, Pete follows Hannah all the way to her door. He comes right up to the house behind her. The key slips between her fingers when she tries to get inside, away from Pete, and then Rosko is out on the porch before she can stop him. He’s too happy, too wiggly, to contain. Same as Meg was, once.
“I like your new dog.” Hannah turns and looks at Pete, really looks. His face is pale and smooth around the wet cave of his mouth, and she catches the glint of his teeth and tongue. He stares back at her, blue eyes shiny and blank. “I remember you,” he says, and puts his hand on Rosko’s head. It’s just a brief touch, fingers curling into Rosko’s caramel coloured fur. “We went to the same school, remember?”
Rosko backs away from Pete, a growl lurking in his throat. Hannah feels the weight of her empty hands. If she had a rock, or a pair of scissors, she’d know what to do with her hands. But they are empty.
Looking at Pete, Hannah sees her fist go through his face, breaking it, smashing it to pieces, until she reveals the true face beneath. But instead she grips Rosko’s collar and drags him inside, pulling the door shut behind her, locking it with the deadbolt and chain. The dog wiggles around her and she holds onto him, sitting there in the hallway, back braced against the door, waiting for the raveners to come.
She waits for a long time.
Once, and only once, Grandpa asked Hannah how she survived. She told him the truth. She hid. She hid when she could and ran when she had to. That’s all. She wasn’t smart or brave or strong, just lucky.
Grandpa didn’t ask for details, but Hannah remembers the details. She remembers Dad telling Mom the army would surely come and get them out. She remembers how the raveners mostly roamed the cities and towns at first, so the woods and fields were safer. But eventually, the hordes headed out to hunt elsewhere. She remembers the places where it’s harder for the raveners to find you. Narrow concrete pipes half-filled with fetid water and dead things. Root cellars barred from inside. Garages with metal doors. Shipping containers at the dock. She remembers what to eat to keep yourself alive even when you think you want to die.
Hannah remembers being found, too. She remembers the army truck and the smell of biodiesel and disinfectant and hot chocolate, the people in hazmat suits swabbing her arm, drawing blood, testing her for infection, telling her she was “clean” before they administered the vaccine. She remembers the months of boredom and half-decent meals at the quarantine camp, watching raveners be brought in each day on trucks, howling and scratching at each other, before they were penned, swabbed, cured, and put into a separate section of the camp.
Hannah dreams of the past every night. Sometimes, she’s in the camp. Sometimes, she’s in the woods. Sometimes, she’s huddled beneath the roof, listening to Dad moaning below.
Every time she wakes up in her grandparents’ house and sees the pink and white quilt, the world seems more unreal than what she left behind. Maybe she only dreamed that she was saved. Maybe she is still curled up in a concrete pipe by the river, gnawing on raw fish and worse.
Yet every day she gets out of bed, puts on her clothes, and acts as if she believes this is real. Every day she wraps the shreds of what is left of the old Hannah around the emptiness that is Hannah now, and no one seems to notice that there’s nothing left of her beneath the rags.
The day when Pete finds her hiding beneath the trees at recess, Hannah doesn’t have a rock. Her second mistake is to run. She should have just stood still and let him knock her down, get it over with, but when he comes for her, she bolts. Pete knocks her off her feet, pins her down, his breath warm and wet on her face and neck.
Hannah doesn’t scream. Screaming will only bring more of them, she’s seen it happen enough times. She knows she is going to die, knows she is already dead, that she died in that gloomy attic, that whatever came out of there, whatever hid in the woods for all those months, was not really Hannah, but someone, something, else.
But Pete does not rip her throat out. Instead he leans close and whispers in her ear, words as slippery as meat.
“I remember,” he whispers. “I remember what they tasted like.”
Then he’s up and running again, chasing someone else. Hannah doesn’t move. She looks up at the blue sky that is so thin and worn it might be ripped asunder by a gust of wind, or a scream, and reveal the black cold void beyond.
After work in the butcher shop that evening, Hannah cleans the meat cleaver and the knives and the chopping block. She scrubs the counters and mops the floor. It’s the first time she brings the meat cleaver home with her. She wraps it in a towel and tucks it into her backpack.
That night, with the steel beneath her pillow, it’s easier to sleep.
She knows it’s the truth, because it’s sharp and it hurts and it cuts through every lie she has been told—about the Plague, about the cure, about the raveners. It reveals the world as it is, as it always was: a place where everyone is meat.
Rosko sometimes whines at night, wanting Hannah to let him out in the backyard, but she keeps him inside as much as she can after dark. Pets disappear all the time in this town. Cats. Dogs. Caged rabbits and chickens.
“It’s coyotes,” people say, “they’re everywhere these days.”
But Hannah hasn’t seen any coyotes from her window or on the way home from school. Not a single one moving in the greenbelt, or by the river. She has just seen Pete, and his friends, riding or walking through the tall grass and scrub, sometimes venturing into the woods beyond.
One night in late October when Rosko wakes her, he’s growling rather than whining. Hannah pulls the cleaver from beneath the pillow and when they get downstairs, Rosko stands stiff and trembling, staring at the back door, hackles raised.
There are voices outside, low and muffled. Close.
Outside the kitchen window, the night is moonlit and frosty. Hannah shivers in her blue flannel pyjamas. She sees a thousand shadows in the yard, crouched and looming, hunched and menacing, fanged and clawed. She stands very still, listening, with the cleaver in her hand.
The cleaver is still warm from being in her bed, and when she raises it slightly, it feels light and quick in her hand, almost happy. Hannah understands. It’s eager. Eager to cut, to chop, to slice. The weight and heft of it settles her heart and breathing, allows anger to come through, burning away the fear.
She opens the door a crack, keeping Rosko behind her.
“Go away,” she shouts, and her voice sounds deeper and stronger when she holds the cleaver. “Go away, you fuckers!”
It’s the cleaver that makes her swear. She never has before. But now she wants to.
There is rustling, there is wind, the creak of the fence. Maybe something scrambles over it. Maybe there are footsteps, disappearing down the narrow path along the greenbelt.
Coyotes, that’s what people will say, but the cleaver knows the truth and so does Hannah.
Afterward, Hannah lies awake, holding Rosko. He’s smaller than Meg was when she slipped out while Dad tried to reinforce their front door. He weighs only a little more than Daniel did the last time she held him.
Mom wouldn’t let Hannah take Daniel with her in the attic when she hid. “There’s no time, and he might cry,” Mom shouted at Dad as the raveners pounded on the doors. It was true, maybe he would have cried, but he was a good baby, and Hannah tried so hard to make him understand how important it was to be quiet. Maybe she could have saved him.
Hannah lies awake with the cleaver underneath her pillow until jaundiced morning light filters through the pink and yellow curtains.
Of course Pete remembers. They all do, and everyone knows it, even if they pretend otherwise. It’s easier to pretend. Because so many of the survivors were raveners. Because no one knows what else to do. Because it’s over now, and everyone should get on with their lives.
Hannah wraps the cleaver in a towel and puts it in her backpack.
She’s tired. Tired of being scared. Tired of wrapping the shreds of old Hannah around the emptiness. Tired of not screaming.
She knows what she must do, and so does the cleaver.
The rest of the week, Hannah walks a different way home from school every day. It takes longer, because she avoids the roads and streets, staying closer to the river and the woods, but for two days Pete does not find her. On the third day, he’s back, following her through a copse of trees by the train tracks, past the old sawmill, through the mess of wrecked cars near the greenbelt. The clouds hang low, fat with rain, and Hannah runs the last bit home, cleaver bouncing in her pack, heart thumping in her chest until she is safe inside with Rosko.
She walks new routes every day after that, knowing Pete will follow.
It’s October, then November, and the sun goes down earlier every evening. There is only a slip of light left after school, and dusk lurks all around while Pete follows her. Hannah stretches out the walks home until there is barely enough light to see by. Some days, she doesn’t make it to work in the butcher shop at all. Other days, she hides from Pete in the wreckage of old buildings or the hulks of rusted cars, watching as he searches for her, waiting to see what he will do. Those days, she gets home so late that Grandma and Grandpa have already gone to bed.
She knows they’re worried, but they don’t ask where she’s been.
Hannah wonders if they’re scared that she would lie, or if they’re scared she’d tell the truth.
It’s late November. The air smells like frost and snow and Hannah’s breath hangs in the air in ragged tufts on the way home from school. She chooses the longest route, and Pete follows about a hundred meters behind. Whenever Hannah turns and looks at him, she shivers—a bit from the cold, not so much from fear.
Near the river, she starts to run. Not fast enough to really get away. Just fast enough to make Pete follow, but once they’ve left the houses and the streets behind, the chase is real. It’s like the day she fled the city with a pack of raveners at her back. That time, the raveners found an old woman hiding in a car and dragged her out, giving Hannah enough time to escape.
Pete chases and Hannah runs, heading for the scrapyard. It’s a jumble of old machinery, rusting metal, sagging storage sheds, busted cars, and no one is watching except the broken eyes of the buildings.
Even though Hannah has it all planned out—where to hide, where to wait for him if he falls behind—Pete catches her unaware, jumping out from a pile of old tires and knocking her to the ground. In the gathering dusk, Hannah fights silently, but Pete is strong, and there’s no other meat here to divert his attention. His hands grip tight, pinning her down, her right arm trapped underneath her at a painful angle. Panting, Pete leans close.
“Not so tough now, are you.” His breath smells sour and sickly and Hannah tries to knee him in the groin, but he holds her down. “Don’t you think I see the way you look at me? Like you’re better than me. Like you didn’t hide in the mud and eat bugs and worms and roadkill to survive. Like that makes you better than me.”
Hannah tries to buck him off, but he’s too heavy. She wriggles her right arm halfway free and feels around for the backpack stuck underneath her legs, its zipper half open.
“You should be scared of me.” Pete’s voice is harsher now. “All of you should be. You shouldn’t have made it out of that house. I looked for you after we ate your dog and your brother. I looked and looked, and I knew I smelled you but then…” His voice wavers, his face crumples. “I remember it. Every day. Every night. All the time. What do you think that’s like? Mom says I can’t talk about it, not even to her, but…I…”
Hannah stares at his pale, flushed face. There are tears in his eyes, snot dribbling from his nose. As if he has anything to mourn. As if he has lost anything. Then Pete sees her looking and he growls, slipping a grin back on his face before grabbing her by the throat. His mouth flaps open, wet and pink and full of teeth, and the memories ignite in Hannah’s head, burning through her, a conflagration consuming doubt and fear, consuming the girl she was before, consuming everything but meat and steel.
The backpack is pinned below her thighs. She reaches into it for the cleaver, and the cleaver does not hesitate. It’s sharp and efficient. It’s useful and reliable even when Hannah is not, and Pete doesn’t see it, doesn’t know the blade is coming, doesn’t realize it’s there, until the steel bites into his face.
You don’t need to be strong. The weight of the blade, the sharpness of the edge, is enough.
Closing her eyes, Hannah folds herself into emptiness that has grown inside her since she hid in that attic. The cleaver doesn’t need her help. It knows what to do. It knows what to do with every piece of slippery wet meat held down on the block, and here in the scrapyard, the cleaver does its work while the world inside and around Hannah screams, a thousand thousand thousand mouths yawning wide, shrieking in terror and despair, wrath and ruin, grief and devastation. So many mouths: her own, Mom’s, Dad’s, Daniel’s, Meg’s, all of them, the whole world, crying out in agony and triumph while the cleaver goes about its business.
Afterward, it’s quiet, and for a single, razor-thin sliver of time—a sliver so thin and fine Hannah can see both past and future through it—no one is screaming. Not in Hannah’s head, not elsewhere either. The world’s gone mute, watching Pete in the gravel. Hannah watches as the last of the bruised daylight fades. She watches closely, hoping to see the moment when he turns into meat, but it doesn’t happen. It already happened. He was always meat. Just like Mom and Meg. Just like Dad and Daniel. Just like she is.
There’s a culvert of corrugated steel nearby where the creek spills into the river, its tarnished vault high enough to stand inside and she drags the body there. If Hannah were alone, she might have left it in the open, to be found. But the cleaver knows best. It knows how to sort out the meat beneath the blade, and it knows what they can do, together.
Grandma finds her in the backroom of the butcher shop early next morning. Worry and relief chase across her face as she looks at Hannah’s bloody shirt and torn jeans, her dirty shoes, her heavy, wet backpack.
Hannah holds Grandma’s gaze and Grandma does not look away.
“Pete told me he remembered,” Hannah whispers while the cleaver keeps working. “Maybe they all do.”
Even then, Grandma does not look away. She sees. She sees the meat on the block, and the meat on the floor, she sees it for what it is, sees the world as it is, and Hannah, in turn, sees the exact moment when Grandma understands, when she understands everything—cleaver, meat, and block.
Maybe her old hands tremble. Maybe not.
“Right,” Grandma says, fumbling with her apron. “Pies and sausages it is. But they’re not for everyone,” she adds sharply, and there’s a glint of steel behind her glasses when she gets the meat grinder ready. “Only for those that might remember and appreciate the taste.”
Hannah nods and wraps her hand around the handle as the cleaver goes back to work.
About the Author
Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and translator. She writes speculative fiction, and debuted as a writer in Sweden in the far-off era known as “the 1980s”. In 1992, she moved to Canada and she currently lives outside Vancouver with a husband, two kids, and a very large black dog. Her fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Escape Pod, Aliterate, Kaleidotrope, Shimmer, Cast of Wonders, Bracken, and elsewhere.
About the Narrator
Larissa is a Vancouver-based voice actor and producer, most recognized for her work on The Centropic Oracle, a science fiction and fantasy short story audio magazine available on YouTube, The Sojourn, an original science fiction audio drama & motion comic, and is the co-founder of the YouTube channel The Templin Institute.