You see it on the sidewalk. It’s a wad of fuzzy stuff and red stuff. It’s dry and flat and smashed into the concrete. Your brain registers it as an animal, but cannot figure out which one. You’re three years old.
“What is that?” you ask your mother, tugging at her hand.
She looks at it disapprovingly and tells you not to touch it. It’s a dead animal. They have diseases. You’ll get sick.
That doesn’t answer the question but you know better than to argue so you look at it one last time until your mom pulls you away by the arm and takes you into a Walgreens. She drags you around, buying things for her hair in bright plastic bottles and you just keep thinking about the dead animal outside.
She lets go for a minute and you wander away, but not too far. She’s looking at magazines as you wander to the aisle with dog treats and cat food. There’s toys here, but you understand they’re for animals so you don’t get too excited.
But you do look. And when you see a big stick with a piece of string attached to a cartoony, fuzzy mouse, the image of the dead animal outside collides with this one. A dead mouse, smashed by something, eyes and little paws distended and broken, tied to a string tied to a stick.
You reach out to touch it. It’s high up but you imagine the feeling of the fake fur on your fingers. You wonder what it will feel like, if it will feel old and dry like the thing outside. It’s high up but you reach harder, standing on your tip-toes, your hand opening and closing in its direction.
“There you are,” says your mother, grabbing you by the shoulder and pulling you away. “Those aren’t for kids, they’re for dogs and cats.”
You look back and she tugs on your arm harder, forcing you to look in her eyes.
“That’s exactly how John Walsh’s son got kidnapped,” she says to herself. Then to you: “Don’t run away from me in the store.”
These are your first memories.
You and your mom are at your mom’s friend Gwen’s house. Gwen and your mom are drinking wine and watching TV. You’re in the living room with them, sitting against the wall playing with a kitten.
Gwen’s cat Russell, who is a girl cat, ran away from home for a few days and came back with babies. Gwen was telling your mom about how she didn’t know what to do with them, how she was going to try to maybe put up some flyers and see if anyone wanted to adopt some kittens. She was worried she was going to get stuck with eight cats and be a crazy cat lady.
You don’t have any pets at home and this is the first time you’ve seen a cat up close. All of the kittens are sleeping but one started crawling around on the floor and you went over and picked it up with one hand and brought it over to the corner.
“Be careful!” said your mom sharply, but Gwen said it was okay, Russell just picks them up with her mouth by the neck anyway and so your mom relaxes and they go back to watching TV.
You’re sitting by the wall with the kitten and it’s crawling all over you. It climbs up your arm and tries to get on your shoulder but you’re both too small. Its claws hurt a little bit but you don’t mind because it’s the cutest thing you’ve ever seen and you want one of your own.
You throw a little ball with a bell inside and the kitten runs over to it and starts trying to bat it around with its paws. It’s still too small to do much and you’re not very good at physical activity yourself so you two are a perfect match. You pet its head hard and its head bobs up and down when your palm bops it between the ears.
The kitten bumps its head into your leg and mewls in the tiniest, highest pitch voice and you’re overcome by emotion and you pick it up again and hug it.
You can hear it meowing in your arms and you think that must mean it likes it so you hug it tighter and rock it back and forth, and its claws are digging into you but they already were before so you don’t mind. You hug it and hug it and hug it because you love it and you don’t notice when it stops meowing until you feel it go limp in your arms and you know something isn’t right. You let go hoping it will run off but instead it falls to your lap and there’s shit coming out of it and getting on your pants. You shake it with your hand and it still doesn’t move.
You start screaming and then Gwen and your mom come over to see what happened and then they both start screaming too.
Russell and the kittens make their way over to see what the commotion is about and they start meowing and Russell taps at the dead kitten with her paw and whines and it’s the worst sound you’ve ever heard and you cover your ears and scream as loud as you can. You say no no no no no no no over and over again and not only do you hate yourself for the first time but you wish that you were dead instead of the kitten.
Your mom stops going over to Gwen’s house.
The next morning it’s the first thing you think of upon waking.
It will be the first thing you think of every morning for the rest of your life.
“You weird little queer.”
It’s after school and almost everyone has been picked up by their parents except you, because your mom works until 4:30 on Tuesdays. You wait on the playground once they start locking up the school at 4:00. Most of the time you just read a book.
Today, Scott Tomlinson has his forearm pinning you across the chest to a chain link fence. You’re looking into each other’s eyes and he’s breathing heavy. His breath smells like ass and it stings like onions. He has a big underbite and breathes out of his mouth. The teacher assigned to monitoring the playground is gone for the day. It’s just you and Scott Tomlinson and his friend Daniel Stevens, who is standing behind Scott with his arms folded trying to look tough.
Scott Tomlinson doesn’t like you, and you don’t like him, but he’s bigger than you. He tells everyone about how his grandpa signed him up for the Young Marines and how he learns survival skills and how the second he finishes school he’s gonna join the real Marines and blow up Iraqis. You don’t like him because his breath is bad and he doesn’t like you because you’re a skinny little fag.
He’d been eyeing you all week like he wants to murder you and now is his chance. You don’t think he’s going to kill you but you understand that he probably could.
He asks you if you’re scared and you aren’t, you’re just excited. You’ve been watching him look at you and you’ve been waiting for this. So you say no and he slams his arm into your chest and bounces you off the fence and asks how about now. And you feel like he’s still not mad enough so you spit in his face.
He pauses, but just for a second. Then, without pausing to wipe the wetness from his face, he rages and rockets his fists into your nose and cheekbones. Daniel Stevens starts kicking you in the stomach and back. There is blood pouring out of your nose and you can feel your ribs creak like a door hinge deep in your brain. Things are chipping and snapping and flaking away just below your skin, which can itself be so easily taken away.
It is the most amazing feeling in the world.
Scott Tomlinson and Daniel Stevens see blood on their shoes and hands and look down at you worried. You’re crying and maybe even laughing a little. You’re interrupted by a tide of vomit and it pours out of your mouth and surrounds your head.
The teachers find you and you go to the hospital and you tell them what happened. Your mom presses charges against Scott Tomlinson and his dad pays your hospital bills. Daniel Stevens’ parents send him to a reform school somewhere upstate.
The next time you see Scott is two weeks later, on your first day back at school. He has twin black eyes that have faded to purple rings. He looks like a raccoon. You laugh at him and he ignores you. Sometimes you catch him looking at you from across the lunchroom. You never say another word to each other.
This will be the second thing you think about every day for the rest of your life.
A cesarean section. The surgeon and his team move with blinding efficiency. The initial incision, at the base of the stomach, splits the first several layers of skin. A second finds purchase, revealing the opaque uterus. Punctured, it bursts with a loud pop as the encased infant is bathed in light.
Low quality cell-phone footage, circa 2008. Grainy video shows what looks like a motorcycle accident. A man in leather stumbles around the site of the crash, holding his face. He turns, and the camera sees for the first time that his jaw is separated from his skull. Thick ribbons of flesh hang lazily from his cheekbones. He’s trying to say something.
Montage of shotgun suicides set to blast beats and tinny, distorted guitars.
A drunken Ukranian falls from a concrete building, landing directly on his head. His body ragdolls, crumpling in a heap.
A man desperately clings to the top of an electrical tower. A storm has lit his body on fire. He can’t decide whether to die falling or burning.
“We’ve already seen all of these.”
“And?” you ask, scrolling.
He types animal crush video into the search bar and hits enter. He scrolls and clicks and hits the “back” button and types some more. He knows you hate these and you don’t need to tell him so. He’s obsessed with watching them. You don’t like them because you don’t like watching anyone hurt anything, unless it’s themselves. You know what it’s like to get hurt and now all you think about, the thoughts that invade your head every morning right when you wake up, is what it would be like to go all the way. How it would feel to be completely pulverized. Ruined. Obliterated.
You scratch at the scabs on your thighs and feel some ooze a little. You want him to leave so you can make yourself feel better for a second.
He clicks on a video of a woman with big high heels on. There’s a puppy on a pedestal. You think about the kitten and a few seconds later your friend is on the ground and your knuckles are split open. A delicate bead of blood pools at the corner of his mouth and he looks at you more confused than angry.
He gets up and runs out of your room and you don’t stop him. You hear the front door slam and you’re picking at your legs and hating yourself harder than ever. You catch your breath and hear a quiet squelching sound from your computer’s speakers. You see what’s on the screen and rip the power cable from the outlet and pull your hair and pace in place back and forth.
Your mom doesn’t ask why he doesn’t come over anymore. She was unnerved by his presence. In eight years, he will be arrested on murder charges after a bank robbery gone bad and she will tell you she always thought there was something screwy with that kid.
You’ll scratch at your thighs and agree.
You get a job at a grocery store in the meat and seafood department. Your job is to grind beef and cut steaks. You weigh meats for the customers. You fillet fish.
There is no college in your future and you don’t like this job at all. You live in a studio in a decaying neighborhood. Your mom lives twenty miles away, in a trailer park. You don’t get out to see her anymore, but you do talk every day. Whenever you do, she says that you could get a job you like better if you lived somewhere like where she lives. It would be less money. You wouldn’t really have to work at all.
Sometimes, when your thoughts aren’t racing, it sounds nice. But you stick around at the grocery store for the way it smells. The aroma of cold tissue hangs thick in the air and you leave it on your skin long after you get home at night.
The customers are horrible. You don’t eat meat yourself. When they ask for recommendations and you tell them so, they look at you and ask:
“What is wrong with you?”
“Then why do you work in the fucking meat department?”
You say it’s because they were hiring, and they wave their hands at you. Sometimes they try to get you written up. But you’re an okay worker, and your manager just tells you to ignore them, that people are just rude sometimes. He’s the other reason you stay here, because he doesn’t give you any trouble.
Your coworkers don’t love you but they don’t hate you either. You don’t have much to talk about with them anyway. You’re the youngest person working here. All the nineteen year olds work as cashiers and stockers but in the meat and seafood department it’s you, a 40-year-old vet and a 60-year-old divorcee. The vet points out every woman wearing shorts or yoga pants and the divorcee complains about the vet doing this.
You listen to them argue and when one of them says something you just nod without listening. They both think you’re a space case, one of the only things they agree on. Sometimes they seem a little worried for you because you’re so nervous all the time, but you don’t care too much.
One day it’s just you and the vet and you’re working the counter and he’s at the back cubing up beef for stew chunks. You’re wrapping up steaks and salmon and fresh bacon and he’s talking to you about the war and you’re kind of listening. There are a lot of customers because it’s a Saturday and you’re trying to prevent a long line from forming. He just keeps slicing beef and talking about how one night Daesh suicide bombed their encampment and you’re not really sure if you believe him. He keeps talking and gets even more distracting and customers start yelling. That wet iron and tissue smell hangs thick in the air and you’re sweating and wrapping meat and he’s talking and talking until there’s a horrible sound from the machine that forces you to turn around.
The vet looks at you and you look at the vet. His red face is now white, and he repeats, “my my my my my my my my my” and you look from his eyes to his shoulder down to his elbow to his wrist, and then there is nothing else to look at. Big waves of red pour out of what is left, a cross-section of hand that starts from the base of his thumb and cuts cleanly to his rightmost knuckle.
He turns and starts toward you and you can’t take your eyes off it. You see the inside of his hand for just a moment and think about how it sort of looks like a rack of ribs.
He’s asking you for help now and you’re still paralyzed with fear. He’s asking you for a towel and you’re forgetting what that is. He sees your uselessness and walks from behind the counter in a daze, out into the aisle where horrified customers jump backward and give him a wide berth. You walk to the back counter and look at the sink next to the meat slicer and you see his hand lying there bloodless and dead. You pick it up and wrap it in plastic wrap and put it in the freezer. It doesn’t feel like his hand; it just feels like parts.
Someone is behind the counter with the stuttering vet trying to find a towel and asking you why you aren’t helping. You don’t really know.
The vet comes back to work a few weeks later. They have him as a cashier now. He still gets paid the same, and everybody feels sorry for him. You sometimes make eye contact when you’re leaving for the night and he’s counting down his register. You don’t say anything and he doesn’t either.
They keep you in the same department and for a few weeks after it happened the store manager comes back behind the counter to make sure everything is okay. You’re working the slicer now. They’re worried about you.
Sometimes, when you’re grinding beef or cubing it or slicing thin strips for stir frying, you worry too.
He’s leaving because you’re a fucking freak.
It’s your birthday and you just worked a long shift. You took a brief call from your mother on your lunch break and she says happy birthday, did you get your card? She says her words with great care, savoring them. A little plastered.
There is going to be no card, and both of you know this. It will get lost in the mail. You’re not worried. This is how things are now.
You text your boyfriend and he asks if he can come over later and you say sure, just give me a little while to get ready. I’ll text you. I have a few things to do first.
You get home from your shift and you don’t think twice about the big lump of blankets on your mattress. Your apartment is one room and a bathroom, and it’s mostly bare. You take off your shirt and pick your laptop off the floor.
You’ve been researching meat processing. You’ve been downloading schematics. You’ve been learning about parts. You’ve been analyzing the process from beginning to end, from when the chickens and cows and pigs are huddled into narrow lines and hung upside down by their feet and bled out and skinned and crushed and filleted and ground and made into thick pastes and pates.
A few months ago, a former classmate you didn’t know very well shared a video titled ‘THE HORRORS OF FACTORY FARMING’. It was a series of quick cuts of animals being slaughtered all around the world. It instructed you to have compassion for the animals that are murdered for your sustenance.
You have something more than compassion.
You haven’t watched any of those videos since that afternoon with your friend. You tried to forget the things you saw. But they force their way into your thoughts, just like the first two things you think about before you wake up.
You can’t stop thinking about it anyway. So you decide to learn.
You found one this morning that you couldn’t finish before work. You press play and carry the laptop to the kitchen to get a glass of water. You half-watch. This time it’s chickens, their necks broken, their bodies dunked in boiling water and their feathers plucked. Over and over again, down the line; alive, dead, alive, dead, alive, dead.
You think about the pressure of the neck-breaking device. You think about what it would be like, paralyzed but alive, to sink into the water and feel the flesh loosen from your bones, to feel the white hot intensity of the water as it blinds you.
You move to your floor mattress and lay down, video still playing. You feel a presence in the room with you. You were so engrossed you never felt it until it was right next to you. You throw off the blankets.
It’s your boyfriend.
“Happy birthday!” he says.
You’re startled and you throw your laptop aside and tell him he scared the shit out of you.
“What, did you have to jack off before I came over or something?”
He turns the laptop screen toward him. It’s too late to stop him.
Thirty minutes later he’s gone and you’re alone again. You start to draft a text but you stop halfway through.
There’s no point. He wouldn’t get it.
Your mother is dead.
Her kidneys failed. She didn’t tell you it was a problem.
You knew, though. The last time you saw each other you could smell a little decay on her. It came out of her pores like pheromones. She was a quiet drunk. She’d have beer and Cheerios in the morning and put whiskey into decaf coffee in the evening. She complained of heartburn. You’d only talk on the phone for ten minutes at a time before the long silences would force one of you to hang up.
She’s dead now, so there’s no one to call anymore.
It was just you and a few of her friends at the funeral. Gwen is there. She comes over and half heartedly offers her condolences. You say thank you and ask how she’s been. She says fine and that she has to go.
You don’t know what to do with her ashes so you toss handfuls into the river near her trailer. You’d never been to the park before. You were afraid to see what her life was like, but you were more afraid of her learning more about yours.
As you scoop the ashes from a plastic bag the wind blows and carries her away in wisps, but it also brings the smell of something rotten but familiar. The smell of emulsifying tissue, of offal and fat melting against the heat of machinery, of animal shit and blood.
You scatter the rest of her ashes and follow your nose. The smell is overpowering and you let it guide you away from the river and across the plains.
In the distance there is a building. You identify it as the source of the smell and you start to run toward it. As you get closer, you see a gravel parking lot and a fence. The smell burns your eyes until you’re right up against it, and you can smell the rot and blood and plasma and the heat beating down on this enormous metal structure.
You understand this is what you’ve read so much about. This is where bodies are broken down, their most fundamental components destroyed and reincorporated until it’s all the same paste. This is where the videos you now watch every night take place.
This is where animals, dying or dead, are pulverized.
This is where you want to spend the rest of your life.
Tonight, the drive to paradise is made shorter by the absence of Highway Patrol. You turn onto the dirt road at the mile marker with the dog-eared corner. You hear the sound of crunching gravel beneath your tires. You flick the headlights off. Before long, the dark blur of a chain link fence bleeds into view, encasing the factory.
You’ve made this drive so many times, waiting for the perfect night. You could do it blindfolded.
This is how you’ve spent all your time since you found this place. You stopped going to work. You stopped charging your phone. You have a project that demands all your focus now. You’re going to finish what started many years ago.
There’s no one else in the parking lot. You know this by now. You’ve never parked in it, opting to ditch your car miles away when you made excursions inside, long after the plant closed. With no flashlight to guide you, you place your hand on the outer wall and glide it across the exterior to find your way in.
You pick the padlock on a side door. You’ve been practicing. The door squeaks open.
Inside it’s pitch black. There’s no need for lights. You know what it’s like in here by now. You can get around through instinct. Fourteen big steps from the door, straight forward. One half-step to the right and you’re in front of it.
A complex maze of machinery. Hundreds of parts. Multiple ladders and steps. When you first started coming here, you assumed the equipment would be clean from the end of the day, but this isn’t like in the manufacturer’s videos. The smell is overwhelming, the putrid stench lighting up your nose and still, after all this time, forcing you to stifle bile.
Standing, waiting. Then, a deep breath.
You’re running your hands all along the edges, feeling the corners, pressing down on screws and sharp corners with your palms until it hurts. The cold alloy warms at your touch, soaking up your heat.
Tonight, you decide, will be the night.
You strip off your shirt and unbutton your pants. You scurry out of socks and underwear. You fold each item and place it in a pile, making note of where you left it by the first set of steps.
You stand at the base, admiring the dim outlines of components. Flip a few switches and this whole thing would roar to life. You know where they all are, but you aren’t ready.
You fumble toward the ladder, next to the elevator shaft. Hand over hand, all the way to the top, the smell growing stronger and stronger until at last, you reach the summit. This is the hard part, the one you haven’t tested yet: a drop, one which requires throwing both feet over the side of the elevator car and plunging directly into the container below. You savor the moment.
Then, you push off, hard. The second it takes to hit the bottom feels like a lifetime, but the impact is broken by the cold, wet pile at your feet. The pain radiates from your feet up your shins to your knees. You remember Scott Tomlinson and you remember your friend in your room. The smell almost knocks you out but you regain composure.
Examining your surroundings, now totally blinded by darkness, you feel the contents of the material buffer bin. Hooves. What feels like a paw. Feathers. Unidentifiable carcasses, crudely shredded in halves and quarters. Limbs. Grease. Organs.
You’re sucking in lungfuls of the reeking carrion aroma.
You planned to delay your gratification, but this is your one shot.
On your knees now, scraping the edges, scooping up as much liquid as possible with both hands, sacramentally. Rubbing it into your arms, legs, hair. Avoiding the retracted blades to your best ability but sometimes grazing your arm against them anyway, feeling little cuts open all over. Reaching down into the pipe that carries the five centimeter chunks down to the pre-crusher. Feeling what you know to be the grey remnants of untold amounts of meat; for pet food, for prisoner rations.
Praying to be rendered.
You lay in it, on your back, covering yourself with the fibrous slop like a blanket. You stay here for a long time, not thinking, barely breathing, until you start to feel the meat come alive. Just like you knew it would.
What you wouldn’t give for the switches to flip themselves.
Soon, you will make a choice. You will climb down from here, covered in it, and make the machine come to life. You will decide whether to become one with yourself or to walk away. You will decide very soon. But for now, you lay here, in the slop, arms resting against the edges of great blades that may soon put an end to you.
Your mind is clear as you pull the guts over your head.
You know what choice to make.
Maggie Siebert is a writer now based in Brooklyn. She co-edits HARSH. This text is an excerpt from her first book, ‘Bonding’, forthcoming from Expat Press.
*Image credit: Still from Nathan Schiff’s 1980 film ‘The Long Island Cannibal Massacre’.