The Butcher by Tuuve Aro English translation: Donna M. Roberts The inner court surrounded by pastel apartment buildings was glowing with warmth although the clock would soon strike eight. The sun had painted the chimneys orange, and finally disappeared behind them. At the edge of the yard, under the big linden trees, stood a well-set table, and around it a group of people grilling vegetables. Martin sat on a wooden deck-chair, eating tofu he had brought to the party, as was his fresh spouse, Ariane, who was originally from Switzerland and very pretty. They were both landscape architects, recently devoted vegans, and happy with the red peppers filled with dairy-free halloumi and the lacy soy-crépes their hostess Heidi was serving up. The large sizzling crépe-pan was a housewarming gift from Joel and Kasper, who sat close to each other in a flowery swing seat they had dragged next to the table. “I remember Mother having these glasses.” Joel held up a delicate wine glass, studying it. “She kept polishing and polishing, the glasses could never be clean enough. That ice-cold, scornful snob.” He put the glass down and sneered. “Well, tell us how you really feel!” Kasper ruffled his fiancé’s hair, and everyone laughed. “Joel has such difficulties expressing his feelings.” The two men had met at a graphic design competition, along with Heidi. They had moved into the building next to her in Töölö, and got themselves three hilarious Jack Russells right away. Next, they wanted a child. “She sounds like an interesting case, your mother”, Peter remarked with his deep voice that never failed to impress his audience. Peter spoke rarely, but always with reason. His practice was fully booked by both the city’s well-known and unknown alike: a chronically distressed rock-star transformed with new inspiration, a politician struck by burnout who had briskly returned to Parliament, and an alcoholic celebrity writer who didn’t entirely quit drinking but still praised Peter’s unique methods all over town. “That’s how it is”, Joel declared. “The moment I left Mother, I truly began to live.” “To life!” They all toasted. Heidi felt that the evening would be a success. Peter thought that tonight Heidi would finally yield to him; the time was right. Red wine flowed in abundance, and the organic cloudberry liqueur Martin had brought, what an exquisite flavor. “I will never drink anything else in my life”, Ariane sighed in her almost perfect Finnish. She leaned against Martin’s angular shoulder and felt extremely happy. Ariane closed her eyes for a moment, and when she opened them gave a little shriek. “What’s wrong?” The others followed Ariane’s gaze to where, behind a linden tree, stood a man. The man was unusually pale, in his mid-thirties so about their age, but with something oddly exhausted about him as if he were in fact ancient. He stood inertly, his arms hanging by his sides, studying the group. Heidi quickly tried to think where she’d seen him before, but couldn’t recall. She stood up and cleared her throat. “Can we help?”
The man offered Heidi a joyless smile. “You know me.” They remained silent. “And you do, too.” He nodded stiffly at Joel and Kasper. They stared at him clueless. “You use my supermarket.” The man wasn’t wearing his usual apron covered with blood and fish stains. Instead he wore a faded gray jacket and trousers, and... green socks. Heidi startled. The man stood in his socks on the damp, evening lawn and looked at them with his flat, cold gaze. “I’m the Butcher”, he said emphatically. “That’s right!” Heidi exclaimed. “But of course. Your name is Elmo, isn’t it?” She remembered the name badge on his apron. “This is Elmo from our meat section, and this is, well, everyone.” She gave a nervous laugh. Elmo stepped forward and shook their hands. Now the others could also see his half-wet socks. “I live in this building too”, he said with his tired voice, pointing at the upper floor windows. “On the fourth floor.” “So we’re almost neighbors!” Joel flashed a smile. “Our pad is over there by the square.” “I know.” “Would you care for some wine?” Heidi handed him a glass, and he took it without thanking. He looked each one of them in the eye as if he was about to announce something important. “I moved here from the countryside. I live by myself. Before, I used to live with my Aunt, but she died.” Silence. “Sorry to hear that”, Ariane offered just to say something. A shiver ran down her spine. The man inflicted a sensation obscurely connected to shame, like so many carefully hidden childhood memories. Heidi was fanning the sooty grill with a kitchen towel. “I hope the smoke doesn’t bother you, we so love to sit out here”, she said to the Butcher. “I know.” No one offered Elmo a chair, although everyone thought about it. He hovered around the table, mute. “This salsa is great”, Joel noted. “Goes well with the baby potatoes.” “Thanks. It has chili and coriander...” “I’m a total coriander freak these days!” Kasper exclaimed. “Ever since I travelled in western India and met those wonderful spice gurus. There was something almost spiritual to it, you know. In India, I became a regular foodie. “Foodie with a fantastic body”, Joel confirmed, stroking Kasper’s thigh. Heidi glanced at the lingering Butcher. “Would you like some? Nothing fancy, just some grilled stuff...” “Yes”, Elmo replied. “Just a moment.” He quickly turned, loped to the back door and vanished. They looked at each other. Ariane sniggered. “Did you see the socks?” “I’m Elmo, the Butcher”, Kasper mimicked. “Interesting case”, Peter pondered. “No kidding! What else might you say about such a character, Peter?” Peter clicked his tongue pensively. “Hmm... Well I wouldn’t diagnose impulsively. But he’s clearly on the upper end of the spectrum. And something else...” He rubbed his neatly bearded chin, looking very handsome in the soft evening light. “He’s nice enough”, Heidi tried. “Just a bit lonely, I guess.” “Yeah right, the Auntie died”, Joel giggled. “I wonder how?” “All you need is Elmo, a meat cleaver and, um, a bathtub!” Kasper waved his
hands excitedly. “Now, now.” Martin scratched his prematurely balding head. His tone was light, but he felt a vague irritation, as if those around him had just become less familiar to him. Or younger. Ariane’s response when she saw the neighbor... Martin didn’t like it, although he couldn’t quite work out why. “In Switzerland, I knew this family where everybody had some form of diagnosis”, Ariane said in a strangely shrill voice. “The father and the eldest son had Asperger’s, and they really were like robots...” she went on more moderately. “The mother was bipolar, she used to throw eggs in the supermarket and would be sent to the loony bin every January. I don’t know why January. But the little sister in my class, she was the worst.” “What did she do?” asked Joel, who was clearly getting drunk. “She’d have these fits, and bend into totally weird positions. Suddenly, in the middle of a technical drawing class, Charlotte drops down on the floor and her arms are twisting and her legs are twisting and her head is turning all topsy-turvy. But she stays completely silent. Not a peep!” “Jesus”, said Heidi. “She would stay in such a twisted position for several minutes as if she was filled with... demons or something.” “And what did you do?” asked Kasper. “I stayed as far away from her as I possibly could!” Ariane laughed harder than she meant to. “Good old hysteria”, Peter sighed and retrieved a pipe from his pocket. Not any common electric pipe but an old cherry-wooden beauty he started to fill with strong fragrant tobacco. “That’s what they used to call it a hundred years ago. Oh, I wish I’d been there!” Martin looked at his enthusiastically glowing, beautiful girlfriend flirting with the famous psychotherapist. And a pipe on top of it. His aversion was not so much a clear sensation as a passing hue that would grow stronger by the years. The others started to talk over each other about cases they knew or had heard of; bubbling laughter, bemoaning and clinking of glasses, Kasper organized music on his phone. “Piazzolla or Chydenius?” “Chydenius!” A moment of communal singing, vibrant and melodious; Kasper in particular had a wonderful tenor voice. And then, just as they ended the song with a beautiful triad and moved on to the next topics – mortgages, the scandalous play at the National Theatre, the culinary differences between Rome and Florence – and the wine and music had made everything cozy, the Butcher stood beside them as if he’d fallen from the sky, and they flinched again. Elmo was holding a heavy-looking package. If Heidi could see correctly, there was blood dribbling through the paper wrapping. Elmo was still shoeless. Unexpectedly, his pale face was brightened with a smile. He placed the package on the table with a ceremonial gesture. “I brought meat.” The linden tree above them sighed. “Oh, right”, Heidi said. “That is very kind. Thank you, Elmo.” Joel snorted, trying to mask it as a sneeze. Elmo directed his smile toward him. “It is quality meat.” His voice was so full of open pride that everyone blinked widely. “We’ve no doubt of that.” Heidi turned her back for a moment to take the stuffed tomatoes from the grill. “It’s just...” She cut more bread, while the others sat silently staring at the bloody parcel. “Umm, we don’t eat it. I mean, ethical principles. Massproduction and everything. We don’t judge, obviously...” She fell silent and blushed. The smile died on Elmo’s face. He looked old and droopy again.
“What do you mean ‘we don't judge’?” Martin asked, looking at Heidi and the Butcher in turn. “Don’t”, Ariane muttered and patted her spouse on the shoulder. Martin winced. “But of course we judge!” He said abruptly. “As we judge any torture and murder!” Peter sucked his pipe and shifted his crossed legs from one to the other. He looked very interested in the matter. “I eat fish every now and then”, Heidi mumbled and stared at her shoes. “So you do”, said the Butcher. “Vendaces.” “Right. Vendaces.” The sound of the linden trees grew louder as the evening wind picked up. The stony walls that earlier had radiated such warmth were now cold. The lights came on in the surrounding windows one by one. “There we are”, said Joel. They glanced at each other. The butcher stood in a slumped position, his murky gaze on the blood-dribbling gift. He looked utterly crestfallen. “But thanks anyway!” Heidi repeated. Elmo was breathing heavily. Then he sniffed. Joel punched Kasper’s side unnoticed; there was a teardrop in the Butcher’s eye. Everybody looked away, and began to busy themselves with something. Ariane was rifling through her handbag, still feeling the unpleasant shivers down her back. Peter focused on cleaning his pipe. Finally, Elmo started to retreat from the table. “It is quality meat...” His socks were quietly squelching. No one asked him to stay. They watched, swallowing, how Elmo turned and shuffled away like a disheartened grandpa. “How about that!” Joel said after a while. “I’m not a doctor but a host of diagnoses comes to mind!” Kasper added. The table was filled with food, the grilled tomatoes and tofu pies looked delicious. But for some reason no one took anything. Peter poured wine. “Please do eat, there’s some crépe batter left as well”, Heidi mumbled, wringing her hands nervously. “First class service.” Peter lit his pipe, smiled at Heidi and wondered if it was time to make a move. “You’ve got talent.” Was that a wink? Heidi couldn’t be sure. As usual, Peter had been sitting quietly for most of the evening (something only a man could do without coming across as arrogant), but then again, he’d complemented her cooking. Peter was maybe just a hint too old for her; but on the other hand, quite youthful indeed. And if one wanted kids – oh how passionately Heidi wanted them! – one couldn’t wait forever. They sat and admired the stars appearing in the sky, while the paper-wrapped mass of meat rested in the middle of the table. It seemed to dominate everything; one’s gaze would be drawn to it involuntarily. And even though its smell had started to bother Martin in particular, no one made an effort to move it. “More singing?” “To the Rocks by the Mountains!” But the polyphonic singing didn’t take off. It turned into a cacophony and faded. Peter kept his wooden pipe puffing quietly. Ariane put on a stylish woollen poncho, and Martin rubbed her back to warm her up. The inner court was now filled with the moving shadows of trees, and the windows reflected light squares onto the ground. A circle of violets and white perennials glowed dimly. Someone lit Muurladesigned candles to see in the dark. The flames flickered, distorting their faces a little. Peter’s deep, trustworthy voice broke the silence. He began a meandering story about a challenging anti-social case made better by understanding the original cause of the symptoms. “It is extremely important...” “What do you think, is he watching us?”
Instinctively everyone glanced in the direction of the fourth floor. The windows looked dark. “I’m sure he is!” Joel emptied his glass. “Standing up there and watching.” “Eww, don’t say that.” Ariane shivered in her poncho. “What if he has a gun?” Kasper added fire to the flame. “The kind of sniper’s thing with a red beam, you know.” “Uhh, that’s just childish.” Ariane’s voice broke. Joel’s smile revealed straight white teeth that sparkled in the dark. “Here we sit cozily, laughing at that wacko... Until a red spot starts to flicker on one of our chests.” He broke down with a hysterical laugh that echoed around the yard. The two men held each other’s shoulders giggling, collapsing on the swing seat as if they’d been shot. “Aaaaahhahaaa... One by one they dropped, pof! Pof! Pof! “Stop it!” Ariane shouted. “Pof!” said Kasper and threw himself on top of his lover. “As I was explaining...” Peter interrupted and smiled patiently. From somewhere above came a slam. They all froze and looked up. One of the fourth-floor windows had been open. The Butcher’s pale face could be clearly seen. He stood still, watching them, with something in his hand that glinted in the dark. Heidi screamed. Ariane jumped up, knocking over her chair. The others stood up as well, not knowing what to do. Joel dived under the table, Kasper followed him. Peter dropped his pipe, gave a peculiar moan and stumbled toward the currant bushes. The women sprinted across the lawn, and Heidi tripped in the middle of the white perennial bed. She stood up, and tripped again. The Butcher watched the neighbors squirreling around the yard with funny little noises, shrieks and sighs and puffs. They reminded him of the little muddy piggies bouncing and squealing in their stalls at Father’s pig farm. He watched calmly, holding a heavy black object in his right hand. That was from Father, too: together they’d wandered through the woods, stalking deer and moose. This memory brought a smile to his face. Martin was awoken by a screeching sound. It came somewhere from the gloomy apartment. He tried to move but his hands and legs were leashed with cable ties. His temples were aching. He was lying on a lumpy mattress in a room covered with posters of livestock anatomy. One of the posters showed the different ways of butchering a carcass in various countries. The most tender parts are the back cutlet and the femur, which give you the rumps. The less tender parts are the back and frontal shank, the shoulder (also known as the picnic rump), the frontside back, the flank, the loins and the neck, which are used for soups, stews, and brawns. The metallic screeching paused. Soon the Butcher stood above him. His pale face was calm, his posture straightened. “Please don’t kill me”, Martin uttered and felt his eyes water. “Ahh...” the Butcher made a dismissive gesture. “I’m going to serve you a feast.” He wiped his hands on his stained apron. “This is a treat you’ve never tasted before.” Martin tried to comment but only managed a wet yelp. Elmo walked out of sight. The meat saw continued its screeching. It was dark behind the window. Martin saw a couple of stars glinting in the sky. Where was Ariane? His beautiful vegan girlfriend who’d mastered Bach’s clavier sonnets with perfection. He could hear monotonous whistling from the kitchen (Tiritomba?), dishes
clattering. Martin closed his eyes for an undefined length of time. At some point the Butcher came carrying a dish covered with a large copper cloche. “Wakey wakey!” He started to set an unsteady wooden table. Martin tried to rise on the mattress. “You need help?” Elmo gave him a boyish smile. “I’m not that dumb.” After setting the table – two plates with serviettes, the shiny cloche and a bottle of red – Elmo stepped over to Martin and briskly grabbed him under the arms. Martin tiptoed with his tied legs to the table. “There.” The Butcher helped Martin onto a chair. “Care for some Chateau Margaux?” Elmo had taken off his apron, wearing a neat mint shirt and an oldfashioned bow tie. “This here used to be my Aunt’s favorite.” He tapped the cloche with his fingernail, it chinked. Martin almost yelped again, but the Butcher’s face made him clam up. “Ta-da!” In the middle of the baked tomatoes and rosy Brussels sprouts sat the roast. Its gold-brown crust was sizzling, and much to his embarrassment Martin felt his mouth water. The meat smelled great. “Rare tenderloin”, said Elmo. “Freshly killed. Originally, this meat is relatively mild, even flavorless, but with some slow cooking and appropriate spices it’s the culinary tops. The gravy’s very important, naturally.” “I’m a fan of sage myself...” he went on while cutting thin slices and setting them on Martin’s plate. “But rosemary, too, has its pluses.” After serving them both he put the wine glass to Martin’s lips. “To great food!” Martin took a sip. The wine was good. Elmo skewered a piece of meat with his fork, moistened it in the dark gravy and offered it. Martin turned away. “Don’t!” he squeaked. “Please!” “What now.” The Butcher frowned. “This is truly delicious.” “I’ve got kids”, Martin muttered quickly, “or I don’t, not just yet, but I could have, I mean I’ve discussed it with Ariane.” “So, you have kids or you don’t?” Elmo sneered and yawned. “Eat when you’re served.” “I...” Martin started, but the sliver of roast was pushed into his mouth. For the first time in nearly ten years he felt this sensation, juicy, delicious, meaty. He chewed carefully, and the taste awoke a quick series of memories: flashes from the times he’d been the happiest. “Pretty name, Ariane”, Elmo noted and took a bite. “She looked very fit... Toned I mean. No extra fat.” Martin looked at Elmo’s wide smile and almost choked on the meat. “You look pale. Have some wine.” Martin took a sip. It felt good to flush the taste of the meat. Elmo’s smoothly-shaven jaw ground the food slowly and thoroughly. “You said something about judging... At the table, remember?” He patted his mouth with a serviette. “I think you called me a murderer.” “No!” Martin whined and gulped. “I didn’t mean you. I spoke on a general level. I mean, ethically considering and...” He felt giddy. “On a general level”, Elmo repeated and was no longer smiling. “Ethically considering.” Martin imagined a row of rusty meat hooks, one of them with Ariane’s bleeding remains.
“Name-calling isn’t very nice”, Elmo said earnestly. “Bah... But let’s not be petty!” His face softened. “More? Please have some.” He offered another forkful, and Martin forced himself to eat. For a moment, the silence was broken only by the chinks of fork and knife and a blackbird’s warbling in the back-yard. Martin chewed and swallowed, chewed and swallowed. The reddish juice from the meat’s medium-cooked core formed a small puddle on his plate. His hands and feet were tingling, until at some point he couldn’t feel his limbs anymore. He couldn’t move even if he wanted to. He couldn’t... but did he want to? His stomach was full. He fell into a kind of a hazy slumber that he hadn’t felt in years. He realized he was relaxed and free. The Butcher leaned back and burped slightly. “Not bad. Not bad at all, or what do you say, Martin?” He started to clean his teeth with a tooth pick. Martin glanced around the dusky room. The wallpaper was yellowish brown and curled up in many places. For a while he’d been aware of a hardly noticeable, rustling sound; the old wallpaper glue was slowly giving up. In the biggest of the meat-related posters sat a pinkish pig with an elf hat. The speech bubble said: THE BUTCHER’S CHRISTMAS JINGLES, get the album now! Elmo smiled. “Meat is just one of my callings. I also make music. You want to hear?” Without waiting Elmo hurried to a box full of CDs. He took one and placed it carefully in the stereo. The room was filled with the tinkle of an acoustic guitar. Then the Butcher’s delicate voice, a melancholic minor key melody and Christmassy lyrics. They sat quietly and listened. Martin felt more and more relaxed. He almost felt like falling asleep, which for a chronic insomniac was a rare and pleasant sensation. “This is the best part.” Elmo lifted his finger to a modulation. “What do you think, Martin?” Martin cleared his throat. “I really like it. It’s very... sensitive.” “Exactly”, Elmo admitted. “There’s that side to me, too.” He moved to a guitar lying in the corner, grabbed it and started to pluck along with the music. “This one I composed for my Aunt”, he said quietly, staring at the floor. “You know... she was the only person who really got me.” Elmo’s fingers moved across the strings. When he looked up, his eyes were glittering. “Your Aunt was a wise person”, Martin said without thinking. “You slimy slipper, you know nothing about my Aunt.” Elmo stopped playing, a cold stare in his eyes. In the dim light, he was like a plaster statue. Then he sighed, looked absently out of the window. He seemed terribly tired. “Nothing what so ever.” “But of course not...” “Shut up or I’ll eat you next!” The Butcher flashed a sly smile. “How would you like that, Martin, now that we’ve ingested the lovely bride?” He laughed quietly at his humor, still looking out of the window. He was tapping his knee, humming the melody he’d just played. Martin looked out, too. The darkest hour of the night, soon it would be dawn. Myriads of stars glinted in the sky that opened above the silent city. At the edge of the yard, under the big linden trees, stood a decorated table with a package of meat on it. Shimmering in the flicker of candles, it gave off a powerful smell of life and death.
copyright Donna Roberts