I stand and watch as the procession of the corpse passes by, his body laying lifeless on the metal trolley. He must be at least 6 feet tall, his muscular physique a shining mark of a life lived in health. I wonder what he was like in his prime.
His eyes have clouded over and apart from the small puncture wound in his neck, he looks perfect.
Death would have been swift. The poison took our tribe generations to perfect, but now it provides us a feast in seconds, leaving no residue that may harm us. We like to leave their eyes open, so we are reminded of the soul that once traversed their veins. The same soul that will fill our bellies and become one with us.
I smell the fire, the smoke filling the air. I close my eyes and allow myself to be transported. This ritual has deep roots, and with it deep meaning. I imagine his flesh transforming from the lightly tanned taut shell that covers his body to the smoky protein that will be masticated and digested to give us life. His sacrifice is our spiritual nirvana. I draw the smoke deeper into my lungs.
Without warning, bile spews into my mouth. I clutch my stomach as it convulses. My eyes snap open. Dante looks at me, confused. I look at him and shake my head. I back away slowly, watching the corpse as he turns the corner.
In two hours I will be expected to sit at the table and eat this man. His eyes will still be open. His skull will be sawn exposing the brain. The brain is the best part. The brain, the epicentre of the soul, along with the heart. My stomach convulses at the thought.
I imagine the spirit of the man, as I let his flesh slide down my throat and into my stomach. I imagine all of his life experience, and life lessons, seep into my own DNA. DNA that one day will be passed onto my own children. A sum of all the experiences of all the men we have ever ingested, along with our own. I cling to the tradition that has been with us for generations, has united us and driven us.
How do I tell? How do I tell my people that I can no longer do this? How do I tell them that human flesh is something I can no longer eat?
My brain screams at me. I will be banished. My tribe will not understand. It will be assumed that I am insane. I will be cast out, and I will have no option than to join the mindless throng of the 21st century. I will become a faceless soul, a nameless soul, a disconnected soul.
This cannot be happening to me.
I am on my knees, vomit spewing from my mouth when Dante finally finds me. He immediately kneels besides me, assuming I am terribly ill. He tells me that he will call his father, a doctor, who can get me some antibiotics. I look at him, frightened. I cannot speak. He rushes off to call him.
I allow myself to fall to the ground, curled up into a ball. I try to force myself to think of eating meat, but I cannot. My body won’t allow it. I think of laying in the forest instead, looking up, the dappled sunlight glinting through the branches of the tree. I imagine the clean, crisp air filling my lungs and the babbling waters of the pure stream cleansing my belly. I breathe in. I breathe out. The nausea starts to subside.
Dante’s father arrives. They help me to my feet and place me on the bed in his surgery. He examines me, asking me questions as he does so. I know he suspects I am not ill in the conventional sense. He asks me if something has upset me recently. I look into his kind, deep blue eyes and for a second I am tempted to tell him the truth. I don’t. I lie and simply say that I am unable to eat anything. I tell him that apart from the lack of appetite I am perfectly fine. I do not tell him that for weeks now, I have been gorging myself on fruit and vegetables, but that everytime I imagine the charred flesh we eat, my stomach revolts.
He looks at me sceptically. His eyes narrow. He knows something is not quite right. Still, he hands me the anti nausea medication. I ask if I may be excused from the feast. He nods, eyes still narrowed.
In my room, I carefully lift the floor boards to reveal my hoard. Carefully, quietly, I unwrap the bananas. Everyone is at the feast now so I should be okay. Still, I make sure to cover the rest of the food in case anyone should walk past. Food is forbidden in our rooms. We eat only when we feast, once a day. A shared meal with the man at the centre of the table, where we can all pick at his flesh, much like a pig or a cow on a spit.
This ritual has been going on for hundreds of years. It builds our strength as a tribe, our connectedness. We feast together, and by doing so we are joined as one. We see no wrong in what we do. We simply choose to eat human flesh, instead of animal. We like to eat flesh that is intelligent, sentient, though of course, they do not know that they will be our next meal. We believe in cell memory, that their experiences are passed onto us. We try to choose men – always men – who we believe, as far as we can tell, have lived good lives, kind lives, lives that have enriched others. That way our lives can be enriched, kind and good by association.
As I devour the banana, I contemplate all this. I think about the countless men and their souls that I have eaten. I wonder if we use the deep spirituality of it all to simply justify a macabre thirst to murder. Are we as a tribe merely murderers? We live in an enlightened age, where, apart from the sanctioned murder of war, we do not murder one another. Killing another human is a crime, punishable by life imprisonment or death, depending on where you live.
Our sect is small, but we have never considered ourselves murderers. What we do is far deeper than simply taking a life for the sake of it. Our meals are always carefully chosen. We watch them and observe them. We make sure that the qualities they hold will be good for our tribe, especially the children. When we poison them, in the seconds before they die, we are always there, holding their hand, thanking them for their gift to us. Their body is then treated with care as they are prepared for the roasting. As children, we were chastised if we laughed at how they looked, or the size of their feet, or the colour of their hair. We are taught to respect the human form, to revere the human and to treat him with humanity.
Even as they are laid on the table, now a charred version of the person they once were, we are not allowed to simply dig in to eat. We hold hands, we close our eyes and give thanks for this soul. We give thanks for the life they have led. As we eat, we continue to give thanks, reminding ourselves of what a wonderful person they once were. He is not simply a meal, he is a human. He is not less than us, ever.
The banana is finished and my stomach is feeling much better. Dante knocks on my door. I allow him to enter and he asks me what is going on. Dante is my oldest and dearest friend. I trust him implicitly, but I wonder if I trust him enough with something this big. If I am no longer to partake in the feasting, I can no longer be a part of the tribe. It is likely the tribe will banish me, though I have never witnessed this. As far as I know, I am the first to have this affliction.
I hesitate. He looks at me. We have been through so much together. I was there for him when he made his first kill and it was the wrong man. We are very careful about who we choose. We do not kill for the sake of it. Killing the wrong man is considered bad. Very bad. We cannot eat him, and therefore the evidence. I stood next to him as he took the man in his arms drawing his last breath, realising it was the wrong kill. I stood with him as he told the elders, the dead man still in the hearse. Plans had to be made, contingencies brought into play. Dante was made to correct his mistake. He was to be observed and mentored to ensure it would not happen again. He felt awful. I was there for him. We got through it together.
This is nothing like that.
I look at him. What do I do? Do I continue to live the lie or do I risk banishment, and become a vegetarian on the outside? How would I survive on the outside? This tribe and the parlour is all I have ever known. A family business, a family lifestyle.
We are not alone in our sect. Gene strength is important and so we are forbidden to marry within the sect, just as we are forbidden to eat from within the sect. We do not kill our own. We attend conventions. Funeral conventions, with a strict membership. There are more of us than you might imagine. Our gene pool is strong. Yet, we are all family, through our lifestyle, with a firmly held spirituality and connectedness through that spirituality.
Dante waits and listens patiently as I tell him what is happening to me. Tears stream down my face as I recall the first time I felt sick at the thought of human flesh. I sob as I recall the fear of buying fruit and vegetables, smuggling them into my room and eating them with relish, the guilt overwhelming me as I tell him the story.
Dante holds my hand. He nods. He tells me he understands but I know this is not true. Human feasting has been part of our tribe for millennia. This isn’t something we simply cast aside. He urges me to speak to the elders. They will know what to do he says. I shake my head. Shame and fear surge through my body. I don’t want to lose my family, bring them shame, lose my friends. What will I do? How will I live in a world that does not know me nor I it? Dante reassures me the elders will understand.
I am unsure of how to proceed when I am with the elders. Dante is next to me, showing solidarity for the outcast. The elders ask me to simply be honest. They want me to know that no matter how grave the situation, they are sure they can help. I don’t believe them. They listen to my story. They listen how I have been unable to partake in the feast, or perform a kill. They listen to how I have been eating only fruit and vegetables for months and they witness the shame I feel as I tell them. They do not move. I have shocked them into silence. I wait as my fate is delivered. My body shakes with pure unadulterated fear.
The elders begin to laugh.
I look at them confused. They laugh so loudly and for so long that tears begin to stream down their faces. This is no laughing matter I tell them. I am about to be banished and they are laughing. I do not understand this behaviour. We, who are so reverent for the human condition, are now happy, gleeful even, to cast out one who does not fit into our lifestyle, even though they have been born into it? Tears flow freely from my cheeks. I am confused, angry, hurt, frightened.
One of the elders gets up. He walks around the table and sits next to me. He puts his arm around me. I sit and listen as the elder tells me that I am not going to be banished. He strokes my arm as he tells me that I have a developed a rare condition of human intolerance, a condition for which there is a cure. A simple digestive enzyme that settles the stomach.
I look at the elder, then at Dante. I don’t understand. I have never heard of this condition. It is very rare, I am told, but most curable. I find myself questioning if I want to be cured. I had started to question the reasoning behind our tribe, the reason for its very existence. I mention this to the elders. They tell me that the brain is a very powerful, but unreliable thing. It will convince us of reasons not to do something in much the same way it will convince us to do something that is not good for us. They urge me to take the medication and see how I feel in a few weeks. In the meantime, I am excused from feasts until I am ready to eat human again.
I am sitting at the table with Dante. A man is processed into the room. His lean, cooked body fills the room with a smoky aroma. He was a clean kill. As he lay in my arms, I looked into his eyes and thanked him for his gift. I felt his body convulse and I held him close, continuing to whisper thanks. Dante hands me the carving knife. The one who makes the kill gets to slice the first piece. As I say the prayer of thanks, I carefully take a piece of his thigh and place it onto the plate. I take it to the elder who takes it from me, a glint in his eye. I look squarely at him, smiling. “Feast On.”
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