She spoke but only a few words. The butcher’s apprentice. They were not poetry, simply Yes, No and Me. The story went that she was a distant relation of the butcher Talbot, or perhaps a charity case. Some muttered rumors of indentured servitude. No customers knew for sure, and old Talbot took pride in her uncertain provenance. “She was caught on the south side of a northbound mule,” was all he would observe, without humor, and even the most discreet patrons could not help but crane their necks to peer into the backroom and gawk at the bloodhound jowls, the hairy forehead moles and bovine stance.
“Good Lord,” they would gasp and cross themselves with a shudder, and old Talbot would solemnly nod, and then shrug.
In fact, it was Talbot’s uncle in Sault Ste. Marie who had years ago sent the apprentice his nephew’s way to change Talbot Meats’ flagging fortunes. She ain’t no looker, his uncle had let him know before she arrived, but she’s a cutting machine. Butchering is all she wants, won’t even take a wage.
And there was more. She was a caresser. The way she rubbed the products with her eyes closed when she thought no one was looking, She knows meat like her own skin, his uncle had cried. It’s bloody unnatural.
But unnatural in the best of ways, Talbot would now think to himself in the evenings as he patted his round, prosperous belly. She never went anywhere, the apprentice. Just went about her butchering day in and day out, slicing through sinew and muscle without hesitation. He recalled the slank of her blade against the strop, how she chewed her tongue in silence, awaiting the next beast to dress. Her strokes were economical. She could release a flat iron steak four moves faster than Talbot himself, and he was no slouch with the steel. Yet Talbot had seen it, the slide of her fingertips before she struck, soft atop membranes, reminiscing, even tender. A shiver ran through Talbot, then a faint smile. Business had indeed flourished with her talents.
On Tuesdays, the apprentice prepared hot weekend sausages, a house specialty that Talbot privately thought of as his spicy little peckers. With these sausages too the apprentice possessed high skills, though a gloom seemed to overtake her as she grounded a beautifully marbled shoulder into coarse pulp.
The seasonings were of course the key, and Talbot jealously guarded the exact proportions of his family’s recipe. The first time, Talbot had mixed the spices at home the night before and brought them in a plastic bag for the apprentice’s use.
No! she had declared, batting the pre-mix to the floor.
Her insolence rendered Talbot speechless while he debated between salvaging the prized concoction and backhanding her. But soon he watched with fascination as the apprentice embarked. She measured nothing, merely dug her fat digits into open containers of paprika and cumin, nutmeg and crushed fennel, grunting as she worked the mad alchemy of her this and that. She massaged the seasonings in, kneading with firm but gentle rolls of the wrist, and her doleful eyes sagged, finally closed. The ground meat squished deliciously; spiced sweet aromas wafted through the air. The apprentice pushed the filling through the casing machine. Her method was sound. Each link was the same as the one before, and as they piled up, they were truly a sight to behold.
A deep longing swelled within Talbot until he could not contain himself any longer. He snatched a handful of links into his palms, crying, Is that so? The apprentice’s head jerked up, and Talbot stepped close, boxed her into the counter. Is that so? he cried again, shaking the sausages in the air.
The apprentice’s lopsided lips trembled before barely parting. Yes, she lowed, and returned to her labors.
That evening, even before the flavors had had a chance to develop, Talbot sampled a link at home. After the first bite he groaned with appreciation. The recipe was exactly right and yet, he couldn’t say exactly why, much, much better. Yes, he thought, wiping the drizzle from his chin, much better. Let us keep this to ourselves.
And so the apprentice toiled for years and years without name while Talbot Meats prospered. She had apprenticed for as long as the butcher’s teenaged son Philip could remember, and was a daily reminder for the boy to swear, like his old man before him, to never become a butcher.
Then one Tuesday after school, as Philip absentmindedly swept the same patch of tiles in the shop, he heard the casing machine whir to life. He looked over the counter at the apprentice’s misshapen profile bent over her task. A fly buzzed around her toadstool ears, and she wagged her head haplessly back and forth. All the while, she stuffed the machine, twisting link after link in steady succession. Her upper lip disappeared in a deep suck, and her chin scrunched toward her snout in gloomy concentration. The sausage pile grew higher as the length of casing gradually filled.
Philip let his gaze move up to the cut chart of a dull-eyed steer above the display refrigerator, the one where cuts like rump cover still elicited Philip’s idle snickers. Suddenly, it struck Philip that he had seen the beast before, and he exploded with laughter.
“Aha!” Philip exclaimed triumphantly.
The apprentice looked up.
“You,” Philip laughed and pointed at the cut drawing.
The apprentice went back to her work without comment. Soon, the last batch of filling shot through the casing machine. She gathered up the links to put them away, but before she did she glared at Philip. Veins streaked across her forehead. She shook the string of sausages before her face.
“Me!” she bellowed, and placed the string into the display refrigerator. As always, each link was exactly the same as the one before, and they were, indeed, a sight to behold.
Hun Ohm is a writer and intellectual property attorney. He lives in western Massachusetts. His fiction has appeared in jmww, Necessary Fiction, The Citron Review, and other publications.
–Art by Magdalena Roeseler