Saturday, May 10, 2014

Fiction #51: Karen Resta

Lambchop
                  
As I twisted the very last Lifesaver from the silvery end of the pack the faux-cherry smell escaped the wrapper in such an overwhelming rush it made me feel I’d been full-body baptized, drenched with a faith polishing everything to the sheen of a golden apple. Patting my hair while stopping momentarily before a wide window, I gazed demurely into the wine bar on 23rd Street, then blinked and stared as if I were a snake in front of a charmer. Sun and shadow must have twisted things into strange shapes as heat and light skewed through the window to ricochet round the room. The man at the bar (or the lion?) was tall, very tall, and well built . . . sleek-looking in that rounded way some large gentle men have. But his face and his hands were those of a big cat. A white-blonde mane rose from his forehead in an exclamation of surprise.

I ran to the entrance and trotted in quickly without really thinking about it then walked directly toward him, alert for any trouble. The lion (or man?) growled slightly as I got close. Climbing up onto the bar stool next to him, I arranged my legs to be slightly provocative. This was a risky move, since I’m a lamb-woman and he was (apparently) a lion-man, but I simply had to meet him.

My tail started wagging a bit. It was making me uncomfortable. I can generally control my tail, so it must have been his scent. All I could do was to stare dumbly at his gorgeous mane. My mouth opened and closed, like I was chewing cud. How stupid!

He took a deep breath in then sighed. As I sighed in response, he turned his head to look directly at me. His eyes were a deep turquoise shot through with gold streaks.

"Hi," he said. "I'm Fez." He raised his glass up to the light. The wine was a perfect red, the color of berries, blood, or prize-winning roses. Closing his eyes, he took a small sip, tilting his head back slightly to reveal the full white-gold ruff of his mane. A white lion. "Drinking?” he asked, gesturing to the bartender.

"Cynar."I hoped I didn’t sound too precious, or even worse, out of style. He reached over to offer me wasabi peas from the crumpled pack held in his enormous paw.

"Anthropomorph, huh?” His voice sounded slightly choked, as if some part of it was crushed or stranded somewhere far away. “You’re the first I’ve met. Are your
parents happy with you? Mine are disappointed I didn’t become an orthodontist, like my Dad."

When I told him I was a chef he leaned in so close I thought for a second he might lick my cheek. His fur smelled of cloves and musk, with a stronger undertone of cat than man.

"That was my dream," he said, "to be a chef. But it didn't work out."

"What happened?" I asked, wondering how this perfect specimen of big jungle cat and man could have failed in the kitchen. “You look like you’d be perfect in any kitchen!”

“I lost my temper,” he said, and turned back to his wine. “Often. I’m vegan, and the kitchens always smelled of meat. More than I should have, I roared - the smell of the meat so disgusted me. It scared the customers, I was bad for business. Now I represent wineries, sell wine to places like this,” he waved his paw in an arc toward the room. A few people looked up, startled, about ready to jump from their seats. “And I write. Poetry, mostly.”

He reached out to touch the wool of my shoulder, his claws extending out from his paw, arcing through my perfectly snipped creamy locks. The sharp tips touched my 
skin as he scratched me lightly. I was stunned at first, but then I laughed.

“It tickles!” I couldn’t believe it. Lambs don’t generally feel tickled, as humans do, and I’d never even been tickled before – so this is what it felt like!

“Nice,” he said, in a voice half-guy half-purr. “I feel really comfortable with you.”

I’d never met another manimal in real life. We were extremely rare - the era we’d been bio-engineered in had been quickly cut short by legislation. We were the offspring created for people who wanted children carrying both human and animal traits. Most of us were part domestic pet . . . cat, dog, rabbit, a few snakes, lizards and ferrets . . . then there were others (like me) who were part livestock. But the rarest among us were those part wild animal.

That’s how Fez and I met. We exchanged emails at first and soon we were spending most weekends together. We’d travel around the city visiting markets and restaurants, wandering through neighborhoods where anise-scented Italian cookies of semolina flour were stacked high in neat wax-paper piles waiting their fates, where aromas of curry, garlic, and tomato sauce sailed from open windows and doors. We’d drink Persian lemonade with its hints of orange-flower water and mint and listened to the hiss of midnight black coffee decanted into heavy silver cups as big as your thumb.

Then one day Fez just disappeared. There was no explanation. No note, no e-mail, no phone call. He just wasn't around anymore. 

#

Three months passed. I waited to hear from him but he’d fallen completely off the map. I felt betrayed - but was also worried. I stopped in at the wine bar often.

 “Another?” the bartender asked with a professional smile. This had gone on long enough.

“Have you seen Fez at all? He’s disappeared,” I gathered up my courage to ask.

“Oh, the lion.” The bartender reached to lift a wine glass from the rack. “He's gotten a little strange. I heard he quit his job. Now he hangs out in Union Square harassing people, telling them they need to be vegan.”   

“Are you sure this is Fez we're talking about?” It didn’t sound right to me - that wasn’t like Fez at all. We shared a similar diet, of course . . . as a vegetarian I understood his veganism, though I didn’t go to the extremes he did in his choice of food.

“Yeah, it’s him. People around here do know the guy.” He nodded, giving a final polish to the glass with the burgundy-colored napkin. As he reached to fit the glass snugly back onto the rack a ray of sun struck the high window. The dust motes looked a bit like dancing angels, the kind that stand on the head of a pin - but then again angels probably don’t spend their days hanging out in the upper reaches of wine bars in lower Manhattan.

I’d invented a million reasons for Fez’s disappearance, but his becoming one of the freaks in Union Square certainly wasn’t one of them. I didn’t want the rest of my drink - it tasted bad. I paid quickly, over-tipping the bartender.

I made it crosstown in record time. As usual, Union Square was a zoo. I popped two Lifesavers to calm my nerves while dodging the humping dogs and bumping people and the bumping dogs and humping people. Then I saw Fez. The gorgeous mane I remembered so well was almost gone, sheared right off. What was left looked like seriously bad dreadlocks.

I sat down next to him on the bench and he turned to me, frowning. Moving closer, I leaned up against his shoulder lightly. There was nothing to say. A Lifesaver, maybe. I pulled out one from the stash in my purse, but he shook his head.

"No."

I opened my mouth to tell him off but that didn’t happen. Instead, I bleated.

“Baaaa, baaaaa!” How embarrassing! I had to get out of here! “Fez, Fez, let’s go!” His tail was trailing along the bench. I grabbed the end of it. “Let’s get out of here, let’s get something to eat, we’ll go to the best vegan place in the city, whatever you want! Come on, my treat!”

I put my hand on his shoulder. It looked scrawny. His fur was coarse and dry. Then I was really shocked, as his big blue eyes started to fill with tears. I baaaa’d some more. This was terrible, I never bleated in public! I stood up and pulled his tail. He growled, but not like he really meant it. Grabbing his elbow, I pulled him up. When we reached the street I hailed a taxi, waving the end of his tail in the air. I certainly wasn’t going to let go of it, now I’d found him. The noise of the traffic passing on the street almost covered what the guy with the porkpie hat sneered at me as he sauntered up the street, his angry face angled toward us.

“Gonna make him your bitch, bitch?” Nothing new there. I heard worse than that every day. Being a lamb-woman is no joke. It really felt like it was time to get out of the city. As a taxi squealed to a stop, I pushed Fez in first then fell in after him.

“Take us to St. Mark’s Place,” I said to the driver, who had an African name. He turned back to stare at Fez for one long second then took off with tires screeching, driving as if possessed.

#

“Fez, listen,” I said to him once we’d settled in to one of our favorite restaurants. The taxi ride had been odd – Fez had nodded off, his head falling onto my shoulder. When we got out of the taxi he refused to choose a place to eat so we’d ended up at the last one we hit as we walked along. 

Something had to be done, and the taxi driver’s name had given me an idea. The more I thought about it, it seemed the perfect solution. It would make who we were as friends just about perfect, and most important, would shake Fez out of whatever it was he was into.

“I have a lot of vacation time due,” I said. His eyes looked so tired. “Why don’t we take a trip together somewhere? Like maybe . . . have you ever been to Africa?”

“No,” he answered dully. “Why would I?”

“I don’t know . . . just ‘because’. Will you go with me, if I book it?”

And that’s how it happened. We set plans for a three-week vacation to the Congo.

#

On the one-night layover in Paris the trouble began. We were strolling through Chateau Rouge at dusk on a quiet side-street. Fez’s mood had been improving ever since we’d arrived.

“Lambchop . . . look!” He stopped at a small storefront. In the well-lit back room there was a man dressed in a white apron butchering a crocodile stretched out on top of the table. Behind him on another table was a pile of five or six dead monkeys stacked on top of each other.

“It’s bush meat.” I felt slightly sick, but no more than how I usually feel at the supermarket when passing the plastic-wrapped lamb shoulder roasts. I moved away from the shop and Fez followed, looking back over his shoulder. The tip of his tongue was hanging just a tiny bit out of his mouth, in the negligent way of some house cats. I’d not believed lions did this too, it seemed so incongruous but also quite endearing. I hugged him quickly then held his paw as we walked the darkened street.

In Congo-Kinshasa a few days later his behavior began to drastically change. He was odd and unpredictable. Every little thing sent him into a temper. He was so utterly aggravating I told him the heat was too much for me, my wool was bothering me, the dust in the streets made me itch, and I just didn’t want to go out, I didn’t feel well. He went his way, I went mine. On the day before our flight home, I found a note pushed under the door to my room.                                                  

Dear Lambchop,

I want to thank you for bringing me here - I’m happier than I’ve been my entire life.

I know now that we are most definitely what we eat. When I was vegan, I was myself a vegetable - without passion, half-alive for all purposes in any real way. Since discovering bush meat herein Africa, I’ve altered my diet completely. Now I only consume the wild meat of the jungle, the meat of animals vivid and sure in every moment of their lives that it could all end right now, in a snap second, simply from Nature's way.

Now I’m the blood pulsing in the veins of the antelope, the muscle of the gorilla tensing to jump. I’m the lithe little tongue of the porcupine and the pounding heartbeat of the ancient crocodile rising from a slow-moving river. I’m the fast-running feet of the great cane rat as well as the rich velvety liver of a wide-eyed lemur.

Without the spirit-body flesh of courageous animals (like me, King of Beasts, a lion however much bred a man) and without those sensibilities that become a part of eaters of meat, my own joyous roar had become a different sound. It was the white noise of 'No.' No, no, to everything, to everyone, to life.

I might not go back with you tomorrow. This place is where I’m meant to be.

The letter was signed with a big sprawling "F".
                                  
#

As the taxi pulled up to the almost-deserted airport early next morning, Fez was there, leaning against an incongruous-looking silver Jeep. He walked toward me as the taxi drove away.

We hadn’t slept together, ‘lion laying with lamb’ never seemed to be on the agenda, but now as he got close he moved in such a way that his mane almost touched my face. His breath was aimed into my ear and his paw slid over my tail in that way men have, hesitating then dropping while pretending the entire thing was somehow unintentional.

That didn’t entirely surprise me. I turned and looked up into his eyes. They’d lightened to a sky blue, their gold tone seemed to have flattened out, and they were bulging slightly. I smiled a tense little smile at him, the smile that’s my only defense when threatened by the sudden knowledge that really, I have no good defense against the physical strength of others larger than me.

“Fez,” I said slowly, in the calmest tone in the world, He’d become so unattractive, ugly-looking, could it be the harsh sun? “Are you staying?”

He cleared his throat but didn’t answer. His eyes turned down toward his feet. I started walking toward the bright yellow airport terminal across the tarmac, pulling my suitcase behind me. Then without a word he moved toward me from behind and wrapped his arms tightly around me. His claws extended, pinching the skin at my waist. A scent rose from his fur –bitter, feral. His arms tightened. One arm pulled in to enclose me. The other lifted to my neck. He pushed me around to face him. I couldn’t move or speak, could just barely take a breath as his paw crushed my neck.

With both paws now around my neck, he lifted me up to carry me like a rag doll across the deserted parking lot. I was dangling above the ground, kicking my feet, trying to move my arms. I kept thinking how very strange it was to be carried along like this! My throat hurt, it was hard to swallow.

“Sorry, Lambchop,” he whispered in my ear. “I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. Maybe you’ll understand, being the sweet little girl you are. The meal I’m going to make of you will be the most sumptuous one of my life.”

He half-dropped me against the side of that ludicrous silver Jeep. The burning heat of the metal against my wool seemed almost welcoming after being carried through the air. As he loosened his grip on my neck, I looked up. His head was bent over me, his mouth opened wide. How many teeth ranged along the expanse of that fat pink tongue? I focused in on his canines. He moved closer. The pressure from his long right tooth was at first tenuous, exploring, then in one motion he moved his head and struck. The canine sunk directly into my neck.

I was warm, horribly warm. The world beyond his mane closed in at the edges then darkened till all I could see was a central point of light dotted with spots of color.

“Fez,“ My voice was a light whistle. His head was heavy. “You’ve got the wrong lamb, wrong person! I drink Cynar. I eat candy. I’m not what you want . . . I won’t taste right . . .”

He lifted his head and the tooth pulled out of my neck. He was not as firm-bodied as he looked – it was like being smothered by a mattress with claws.

“I’m going to stuff you with truffles and wrap you in vine leaves then rub you with hazelnut oil and gild you,” he meowed and purred, “with saffron.” His enormous, rough feline tongue reached out from between black lips to lick the blood trickling down my neck and chest. “I’ll braise your little feet with tomatoes and cinnamon, and your ears, tail, and cheeks will be fricasseed with cream and wild mushrooms. Your rack! Roasted, rare, anchovy butter, mint, cippoline, medieval, distinctive! Your heart and tongue . . . left whole, baked together in a crust of pink sea salt, then laid out on a gingered seaweed salad as soft and sweet as a beckoning bed.” His voice was punctuated by my heartbeat pounding loudly inside my eardrums. “Poetry, baby, poetry . . .” he muttered.

He raised his head once more. I knew he’d struck again, but I felt nothing. Shock, I thought. It’s the shock. Blood trickled down my front, matting his fur and my wool together. I knew this was it, he was going to finish me off to make some ridiculous menu he’d planned.

I bleated. “Baaaaa. Baaaaaa, baaaaa!”

As he leaned in to me, a vision came to mind of being held like this at another time, in a pasture on a mountaintop. There was a large flock - many sheep, many lambs. Someone lifted me. The coarse hands were so capable, so inescapable, the fingers and opposable thumb tightly gripping what they had wanted to capture, which in this case was me. I reacted to the scene playing out in my mind by lifting my knee up and aiming it with strength I’d never imagined I possessed directly into Fez’s groin.

He yowled, and as he fell back he let go. I kicked him. My hoof was sharp - I always take good care of my hooves. It struck his knee. He tried to get up but couldn't. His desperate breathy roars blended with angry mews and he stunk, as if he’d marked himself.

“Things are going to be different now Fez,” I bleated, exhausted. Tears ran down my face. “I don’t care whether you’re manor you’re beast, things are going to be different. I’m not just a piece of wild meat you can hunt down and decide to cook! I’m human and I’m livestock. There are rules about these things and you’d better learn them!”

My legs were trembling so much I could barely move. I tried to trot away. He sat in the shadow of his Jeep, holding his leg, crying his big crocodile tears. I turned back and spit into his face as only a lamb can spit. A small plane took off from down the airfield close enough for me to feel its back draft. The sound of its engine covered Fez’s ineffectual meows.

“Don’t ever forget the power of racial memory,” I screamed out over the sound of the plane. Then I ran, I gamboled as if I was running through a beautiful grassy field covered in sweet rich pink-purple clover where other happy little lambs like me grazed and played, I leapt in bounds over the tarmac to get as far away from him as possible.

#

When I go to the wine bar - as I still do sometimes - my hooves are ready in case Fez appears, though he hasn’t, yet. I like to look at the sunlight spinning through that high window as it strikes the round gleaming bowls of the wineglasses just waiting to be filled. I know the dust motes dancing there aren’t angels, yet as I sip my Cynar I fall into a reverie at the twist of fate my life has taken. I am, after all, the powerful lamb-woman - the one whom the King of the Jungle lion-man couldn’t manage to roast for his twisted seven-course dinner. In my imagination I spin outward, held in the warmth of the scattered beam alongside all the infinitesimal glimmering specks of dust, and I know in each and every part of my human and animal self I’m exceptionally lucky to be who I am.

*

Karen Resta’s short stories and poetry can be found in a diverse selection of publications: the Best American Poetry Blog, The Christian Science Monitor, Red Rose Review, eGullet,  Serious Eats, One Million Stories, and more. Her blog ‘Postcards From the Dinner Table’ has over 1600 facebook fans and her other blog ‘foodgeekology’ harbors an immense collection of food art, history, and culture.

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