by Toban Barnes
The butcher glared at me from the corner of the funeral home. He was tall and pale and wore his wrinkled skin like a wet rag over protruding bones. Over a black suit and tie, he wore a spotless black apron. It was this attire that earned him the title of butcher.
The funeral home was full of family and friends all making their way in a line toward my father’s coffin. I got in line alone and tucked my hands in my pockets. It smelled like the smell you get when a swimming pool has just been cleaned, mixed with the sweet scent of perfume and cologne. The carpet was a flat, faded red.
“Oh, Harvey.” I heard my aunt before being wrapped in rolls of fat. “I was wondering when we’d see you.”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” I said in a tight breath, “I had some issues this morning.”
She loosened her grip and moved her hands to my shoulders. “That’s what your mother said.” Her neck fat flung like a chicken’s wattle as she looked toward the chapel.
I followed her gaze and saw my mother on a wooden pew talking with my Uncle Ken.
I felt my eyes pull to where the butcher stood. He was watching the crowd, but his eyes moved to mine. He gave me a slight nod.
“Hey,” Aunt Malissa grabbed my cheeks. “Don’t you worry about him. This is your father’s funeral. Don’t let him take your mind off what’s important.”
I nodded and felt some relief when my aunt went to bug some other family member. This relief soured into regret when I saw the butcher walking straight for me.
I looked for another family member. They could talk about dad, hug me, or grab my cheeks. Anything to avoid the man in the black apron. But everyone was aware of the butcher’s movements and avoided eye contact.
“Can I wait in line with you?” the butcher asked.
“Y-yeah, that’s fine.” Up close, I noticed his lips were the colour of frostbite and he reeked of a strong spice.
“Thank you.” He tucked himself next to me, so our shoulders brushed together. “I haven’t seen your father since the mortician got him all cleaned up.”
I couldn’t help but cringe in discomfort.
“That wasn’t appropriate,” he said, putting a skeletal hand to his lips, “I apologize.”
I looked at him; his dark green eyes locked onto mine. “It’s fine,” I said, “There’s no point in hiding what you did to him. Everyone here already knows.”
He scoffed, “I’m not trying to hide anything, Harvey. This just isn’t the place to talk about such things.”
When we reached my father’s coffin, I hoped that would signal the end of our conversation.
My father was cleaner than I had ever seen him. As my eyes examined his stiff corpse, I couldn’t help but look for an indent in his grey suit. “What piece did you take?”
“Harvey,” the butcher hissed in my ear, sending chills up the back of my neck, “don’t ask that now. Not yet.”
“Then when? When are we going to do it?”
“Your mother didn’t tell you? How strange.”
I glanced back to see people keeping their distance. “Well, it’s not something that comes up. Especially over dinner.”
The butcher chuckled. “But you have no issues bringing it up at your father’s coffin?”
He had a point; I didn’t know why I wanted to know. The suspense just felt so heavy. And I didn’t know what else to say.
“Your mother scheduled the transfer immediately after the service.” He rested his cold hand on my shoulder, and I felt ice bleed through my shirt. “I promise I’ll answer all of your questions then.”
I nodded and turned away, “Fine.”
I kept my eyes straight ahead, forcing myself not to look back. I went into the chapel and found my mom still sitting on a wooden pew, now talking with a small group.
The chapel walls were covered in panels of rustic wood and wooded beams held the roof at a point above us. My mother must have said something because once she saw me approaching, the group dispersed. She looked like a Victorian ghost in her white flowing dress.
I bent down and hugged her. Her body felt thin. “How are you feeling?”
She shrugged and her eyes became glassy. “How are you?”
“I’m fine.” I gritted my teeth and looked back toward the coffin. I didn’t see the man in the black apron. “It’s just hard to think about Dad when that butcher is glaring at me.”
“He’s not a butcher, Harv, he’s the funeral home’s memory transfer official.” Mom grabbed my hand and jerked it toward her. “You don’t have to do it, Harv, you know that, don’t you?”
“I don’t want to.” I teared up at this confession, “but it’s like what you said this morning, it’s a tradition.”
My mom’s eyes scanned my face.
I took a deep breath. “I know it’s important to you. It’ll be okay.”
She rubbed my hand with her soft fingers, “You’re brave, Harv.” Then she turned her head away, “In a way, it keeps your father alive. Thanks to you, we’ll always have a piece of him with us.”
I pulled my hand from my mom’s grip, “Yeah, I know.”
I sat with my mother, greeting family and friends until the services started.
The service was standard. Some of my dad’s friends told stories. One man spoke briefly about how “Dave will still be with us.” He looked right at me when he said it.
As the service approached its end, I felt anxiety build inside me. I was like a kid waiting in a doctor’s office for a shot.
I helped carry my father’s coffin into a hearse with crowds following behind. Family and friends moved to their cars, and I considered running to mine. But my mom grabbed the back of my sleeve like she knew what I was thinking.
“Listen, the burial isn’t for another hour. If you’re feeling okay, you can come. But please, if you have any side effects, just head home and get some sleep.”
“It won’t be very long, Miss Shepard.” It was the butcher; he was standing next to my mom. “While side effects vary, he’ll probably feel fine.” He gestured back toward the funeral home. “Are you ready?”
I swallowed the emotion that was crawling from my stomach. “Yeah, let’s go.”
The butcher led me back through the chapel and downstairs into a hallway. Lights hung from chains, leaving enough space between to create curtains of shadow across the hall. He stopped at a door with a silver plaque reading, IOBA Memory Transfer Office, Do Not Enter.
The butcher produced a key and fidgeted with the knob. The door cracked open to a room concealed in darkness.
“Go ahead, Harvey,” he said, waving his arm into the door.
As soon as I stepped in, the lights flashed on with a buzz. The room was cold. The walls and furniture were a smooth chrome that reflected light like a mirror. There was a table, two chairs, and a black door in the back. It smelt rusty, like the inside of an old metal lunchbox.
The butcher stepped in behind me and shut the door. “Please, take a seat.”
I obeyed, sliding into the smooth metal chair. I could hear him messing with his key in the lock before he joined me at the table.
He sighed in relief. “Well, Harvey, now is your chance to ask your questions. I promise I’ll do my best to answer them.”
“What’s with the room?”
“You don’t like it?” he said with a chuckle.
“No, it’s freaky. And it’s cold.”
The butcher nodded, his blue lips slipping into a smile, “It’s designed to show cleanliness.” He gestured a hand across the room, “The floors are shining white, you can see your reflection in the walls and furniture,” he leaned in closer, “and not a drop of blood in sight.”
I pushed myself back in my chair.
“I don’t mean to scare you, Harvey. But when people think about what we do, they imagine a butcher’s shop, which as you can see, is not the case.”
“But you don’t do your work in here, do you?”
“The most important part of the procedure is done here. I, of course, do the preparation elsewhere.” He glanced back at the door behind him.
“Does that room look like a butcher’s shop?” I asked, folding my arms.
“I’m afraid not,” he winked. “I’m quite clean.”
I stared at him, the sound of lightbulbs buzzing in my ear.
“Well,” the butcher stood, “if you have no more questions, I’ll go get to work.”
“Wait,” I said, “will I lose anything? Like a part of myself?”
He smiled softly and tilted his head. “No, Harvey, you will only gain from this procedure.”
“But what will I gain?” I asked. “What if I get something I don’t want?”
“I don’t know what you’ll gain. But almost everyone who undergoes the procedure has received good memories.” He approached the black door and cracked it open. “Besides, even bad memories can be beneficial.” He slipped through the door and shut it behind him.
Five minutes passed until the man in the black apron returned. In one hand, he carried a plate topped with a silver cloche, in the other, a white folded napkin.
He set the plate in front of me, and I could see my reflection on the silver cover. He took the white cloth and unwrapped it. Inside there was a silver fork, spoon, and knife. He removed the utensils one by one, then picked up the white cloth and held it up like a magician about to cover a birdcage. “May I?”
I nodded, keeping my hands in fists at my lap.
With his bony hands, he tucked the napkin’s corner down my shirt. He stepped back, admiring the scene, then returned to his seat.
In one quick jerk, he removed the cloche. “I’m sorry I can’t offer you water, but liquids seem to interfere with the transfer.”
The plate was the colour of cream and hosted a small filet of red meat and a clump of white potatoes. A small pool of red testified to the rawness of the meat.
I swallowed hard. “Where’s the meat from?” I asked. “What part of him?”
“I’m obligated to answer your question by the rules of my organization. But I must advise against it. I think it’s best not to think about such things.”
I could feel my brain twirling in my skull. “I still want to know.”
He sighed as he brushed his hands down his long black apron. “The cut is from your father’s left thigh, heated but not grilled. Grilling can damage the memory transfer.”
I picked up the fork and poked at the potatoes.
“You don’t have to eat those, but it may help you with the meat if you eat them together.”
I jabbed my fork into the meat. Blood bubbled out like juice from a grape. It rushed across the plate, turning the white potatoes pink.
I dropped the fork. I couldn’t cut it, not when it was this raw.
“Close your eyes,” the butcher said, reaching for my fork.
“Hey, wait,” I said, moving for the fork. But he beat me to it.
“The quicker we get this done, the better off you’ll be.” He spun the fork in his fingers.
I took a deep breath. He was right, and I knew I couldn’t do this alone. I closed my eyes and could hear the tinkle of metal and the scratching of glass.
“It’s just a steak,” the butcher said, nearly whispering. “It’s rare, but it’s just a steak.”
I could feel the presence of the fork at my lips but couldn’t open them.
“It’s alright, Harvey, it’s just a little potato.”
I loosened my lips to speak, and the fork was shoved into my mouth. It scratched against my teeth and was flicked out between my lips. It was done in an instant.
I let the chunk of meat sit on my tongue for a moment, but once I felt the crimson juices stir into my saliva, I chewed.
At first, I chomped it like a piece of gum, pushing the meat around my mouth. But once the first flecks of flesh made their way down my throat, I felt my body begin to tingle. I got goosebumps and my arm hairs pricked up.
I smelled my father’s cologne. I could see my dad talking to Mom on their front porch. It was cold, and Mom smiled in a way I’d never seen. It felt like warm water was being poured over my muscles and was pooling at my feet.
“How is it?” the butcher asked.
I opened my eyes. The fork was resting against my plate, the tips a slight translucent red. I reached for the utensils and cut into the flesh.
The feelings returned with each nibble. One bite, I saw my dad in rush hour traffic, the next, he was in a classroom—the knowledge he had gained was becoming mine. Another, and he had a bloody man pinned to a brick wall. I could smell copper and sweat. I could feel the excitement.
I shovelled in bite after bite, like someone desperately feeding a furnace. The meat was gone after a minute. I then went for the potatoes, focusing only on the parts soaked in blood, but they didn’t give me the memories, they didn’t do anything.
For an instant, I thought about asking for more, but I realized how wrong that would be.
The man watched with satisfaction on his face, “You did very well, Harvey.”
I could feel my father’s memories becoming blurrier, like a weakened signal. “Something’s wrong, I, I can’t remember. I’m losing them.”
“It’s all right,” the butcher reached for my plate. “They will return slowly, and more memories will come. Give it a couple of days to allow your body to fully absorb the flesh.” He lifted the plate and examined it with a smile. “Still some potato, but not a scrap of meat left.”