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'The Butcher's Hands'

Second-place winner

By Dana De Greff, Fri., Feb. 10, 2012

1935, the month of July: while the rest of Spain suffered through a buttery heat, Galicia woke and dreamt in a cool mist, the days spent in knits and the nights in scarves and fur-trimmed gloves. On one particular gloved night, a young Guardia Civil strode into a bar in the modest pueblo of Santa Eugelia, dressed in a pair of pressed pants, jacket buttoned to the neck, his mustache small and clean like a streak of shoe polish. He sat down at the oak bar and ordered a bottle of sidra without glancing at the trio of hand carved witches hanging over his head. Nobody looked the man in the eye, fearing the Guardia's shady reputation with respect to campesinos and gitanos. Cornelia, the bartender and owner, served him in silence. Galicia was still an autonomous state, but rumors had been spreading about disappearances, about torture, about Franco, himself a gallego from Ferrol.

What the people in the bar didn't know was that the Guardia's appearance in Santa Eugelia was an accident – he was lost, on his way to Santiago de Compostela for the first time in his life, unaccustomed to the rolling hills and valleys of northern Spain. He spooned the fabada asturiana con chorizo into his mouth, chewing slowly on white beans and cured meat. Afterwards, he chain smoked until he was the last customer, until Cornelia finished rinsing, wiping and sweeping the bar. Only when she lingered by the door did he finally speak:

"I am Major Almendra. I have nowhere to stay."

"I have a sofa," Cornelia responded.

"That is fine," he said.

"It isn't very big."

"That is fine," he repeated.

The Major slept on Cornelia's sofa with his clothes and shoes on, and in the morning he left, placing a piece of paper on the stove that read only:

Y el agua se pone fría

Para que nadie la toque.

Agua loca y descubierta

Por el monte, monte, monte.

The idea of a Guardia Civil with a taste for Lorca left an itch all over Cornelia's skin. For the first time in her adult life, there was a sliding, slightly glacial motion behind the ribs, a push towards the chest. He came and went, always in the same pressed pants and jacket, always smoking excessively, always leaving under the red sky of a Galician dawn, leaving behind only a quote. It seemed to be his code, the bridge between their hearts, constructed from words he could never think of himself yet felt deeply attached to, as if Lorca had been a brother or a childhood friend.

The first time they made love, they were both a little drunk off of an expensive Rioja, pressed together in a room saturated with the aroma of butterwort and fennel. Cornelia allowed the Major to take off her blouse and skirt, but pulled back when his fingers moved up her thighs.

"Do you want me to stop?" he asked.

"No and yes at the same time."

He nodded and moved his hands to her knees. "Oye," he said, "whatever happens tonight, I know I will see you tomorrow, and the next day, and the next." The folds above his eyes were swollen and pink, his palms cracked.

"Come with me," she said and led him to her bedroom. She opened a drawer where she kept all of the bits and pieces of paper, bits and pieces of Lorca, which the Major had written in meticulous curving script.

"There's no more space in my drawer," she said, and climbed into bed.

The Major removed his shirt and pants and wrapped his arms around her. They told stories from their very different but very similar childhoods: He was from Barcelona. His grandmother still slept in the bed where he had been born. When she was a child, her mother used to give her apples to make her stop crying. His father wouldn't talk to him unless his clothes were perfectly ironed. Once, a gypsy woman told her that she would die in a fire, burn black as coal, until she was just a lump of buttons and bones. He didn't mind that Lorca was a homosexual. At the end of the night, he allowed her to shave off his mustache. Cornelia kissed the space between his nose and upper lip again and again and again.

Fall came, Cornelia's stomach swelled and the Major took more trips to Santiago de Compostela. They held off on marriage, and Cornelia wandered more, preferring the streets and country roads to her kitchen or bedroom. Before pregnancy she hardly ate meat, but now her cravings pulled her into the butcher's shop where she stared at the hanging legs and feet, the headcheese behind the glass. She waited patiently in line and watched the butcher work, his jaw clenched as he held the knife by the handle as if it was the hilt of a sword, slicing through muscle and membrane, dissecting veins, trimming excess fat. Her orders were always accompanied by a bunch of bay leaves and before she left the shop, he would wave with a blood stained hand.

When the Major returned from his most recent trip, he looked tired. The skin under his eyes was streaked with blue veins, his lips pale.

"Why is it so cold?" he muttered and went to light the fireplace.

In the half light of the crackling fire he hunched over and signaled for her to sit. Cornelia settled herself next to his large frame, rested her cheek against his shoulder, the wool jacket wet from the familiar night drizzle that shrouded everything in a slick sheen.

"Much better," he said and she nodded though her eyes smarted against the smoke. Only his hands moved, at first clasped together, then around her shoulders, then on her knees, then picking at her hem.

"I thought this would be temporary," he said, breaking the silence. "I thought by now I would be back in Barcelona, cutting my feet on oyster shells, shoveling seaweed into trucks."

"Are you unhappy here?" she asked, surprised at his sadness.

"No, no. I am in love with you." He combed her long hair with his fingers as he spoke. "I meant the job. Being in the Guardia."

"Can't you stop? Find something else to do? You can work with me in the bar."

"I would," he said, leaning to whisper into her ear. "But Galicia will fall soon to the Nationalists. General Franco is going to take us into a civil war."

The pot on the iron stove boiled, a curtain of steam rising upwards, the shh, shh, shh of water escaping the lip and falling on the iron burner.

"The meat," she said and went into the kitchen. She stirred the contents, the steam forming a caul-like cover across her brow, nose and chin. Cornelia moved the shoulder around, bones and bits of fat surfacing. She came back with two plates of stew, standing above the Major, the steam rising, the flames crackling.

"I am going to Zaragoza. To the trenches." He stayed on the floor. "I don't know how long I will be gone for."

"Months?" she asked.

"Hopefully not longer."

"How did you not tell me sooner?"

"I don't know," he said. With his shoulders hunched and his uniform disheveled and stained, he looked like a little boy. "I didn't want to worry you, with the baby."

"Worry." she repeated. "When do you have to leave?"

"In a week."

Cornelia felt her fingers go slack and the bowls slipped and landed on the wood floor, bits of meat and vegetables and stock splattering everywhere, a great brown mud color, a dried blood color. The Major stood to touch her and she lifted her hand to strike him, to see red come from his face, to hear pain come from his lips instead of the terrible silence between them. But when the Major's hands touched her waist and then his warm body indented into hers, she collapsed.

"You will miss the chestnut harvest. You will miss visiting my parent's graves on Día de los Santos," she said.

"You can send them my love for me."

Mornings in Santa Eugelia normally began with a flat calm, and the day the Major left was no exception. To the west the jagged mountains sat passively, unaware and unmoved by human separation; when the bus drove away from the station, Cornelia was blue in the face from the cold. When the air became warm and the fog lifted, revealing rocks crusted with green moss and roofs scabbed with rust, she turned to leave.

"I am not the only woman in Spain to lose a man to the war," she said out loud. "I am not the only one," she repeated.

Her stomach growled and she walked to the butcher shop; once inside, she was pleased to see that she was the only customer.

"Half a kilo of ears and the best shoulder you have," she said to the butcher.

"Vale," he said and brought out his sharpening stone. Cornelia experienced a jolt of fear and excitement when he sliced her order of meat, to think that the tip of a finger might come off. But nothing happened, all ten fingers remained in place, tugging and peeling the skin away from animals with nonchalance. As he pursed his lips in concentration, slicing away ears from heads, Cornelia felt a desire to stuff his mouth with something thick, smoked and tender.

"Could I see where you work?" she asked.

The butcher looked up at her in surprise. "But you are seeing it."

"No, I want to see what is in the back."

He finished wrapping her orders and handed her the parcels. He washed his hands and looked behind her at the door.

"Vamanos," he said and motioned her to walk around the glass display.

"This is the first workstation," he said. It was covered in several layers of muslin. On a side table were a wide array of knives, sharpeners, cleavers, hammers and meat saws. In a corner lay a curled hose and a bathtub.

"A bathtub?" Cornelia asked.

"That's for the de-hairing," he said.

"I see."

"They don't suffer. They're usually dead at that point, anyway."

"I see." She turned away. "Can we move to the second station?"

"Of course, of course," he said and steered her to another room, where the temperature was colder. Here there were empty buckets, sponges, steel brushes and bleach solution.

"This is the gutting area," he explained. "They hang from that pulley, see," he pointed at the ceiling, "for a few minutes, then we collect the blood to make morcilla."

"I never liked morcilla," Cornelia muttered. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed another room, shut tight with a steel door. "And that room?"

"The cold room," the butcher responded and pushed the door open, revealing darkness and the smell of brine, bleach and freshly drawn blood. Cornelia followed him inside and the door shut fast, plunging them into black. The butcher felt along the wall for a light switch while Cornelia stayed still, afraid to step on a knife or run into a slaughtered animal.

"Here it is," the butcher said and he flicked on a switch.

Before that moment, Cornelia had never seen a dead pig in its desecrated, ravished entirety. Live, yes; she had seen many live pigs. Slaughtered pigs, yes, but always in pieces, behind a glass or on a plate. Never, until now, had she seen a dead pig hanging by its ankles. The walls of the room were, in the light, bluish white, immaculately clean. The rope threaded through the pulley was robust, the axel recently oiled. Bowls of collected blood dark as pressed cherries encircled the animal like candles. "It is the process of bleeding that kills them," she recalled the Major saying, before he went to battle. "Not my bullet or my knife."

Already the pig had been de-haired, so it was smooth and waxy; the belly was slit from the throat to the genitals with the heart, liver and lungs wrapped and stored away. The slit revealed scraped insides, scarlet and bowelless, the dried blood around the neck brown and flaky.

Cornelia let her naked fingers float up to the face to rest on the cool, rubbery cheeks. Two dark holes stared at her and there were a few hairs left on its wrinkled snout. She brought her fingers over the slit, so, so deep, getting as close as she would dare, as close as one would to an angry flame.

"Pobresito," she murmured, "you didn't deserve this, did you?"

"That was Begonia," he said. "She was one of the easy ones."

"It seems crueler up close," Cornelia said, shivering.

"What is cruel is to come to a man's farm and steal his pigs. What is cruel is to threaten to close down my shop."

"Who is threatening you?"

The butcher shrugged. "Politicians," he said and moved closer.

"This is all wrong," Cornelia said, unable to look away.

"By the time I come back here, I forget all about their quirks and charms," he said. "I only see them for what they really are – raw materials for me to do with as I please." He kissed her ear. "I imagine that is how Franco views us."

He kissed her again, and then he unbuttoned her blouse and slipped it from her shoulders.

"¿Embarazada?" He pointed at her belly.

"Why are you asking a question that you already know the answer to?"

"Who is the father?"

"He is fighting. And I don't know if he will ever come back." With those words, Cornelia kissed the butcher, bit his lips and face as if she hadn't eaten in days, as if she had forgotten the taste of skin and tongue. In the cold room, Cornelia did not have a missing lover, a future child, or the paranoia of civil war – she had her body, and she had someone else inside her body, and for a few brief moments, minutes if she was lucky, she would think of nothing else.

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