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It was Sunday, and as usual, her father took her to the slaughterhouse to play.
      He'd come in to check on the livestock scheduled for the kill on Monday, seeing to it they had enough water and hay. He'd take the girl so they could spend his day off together.
      The slaughterhouse was a labyrinth she couldn't navigate without her father's help. Sometimes he'd leave her alone in an unfamiliar part and, losing track of time as he did, hours would pass before he returned to get her. For those long uncertain hours, she sat trembling on the floor, trying to concentrate on play. To go and find him was unthinkable. She'd been warned how simple it was to slip in a drainage ditch or get closed up in one of the smokehouse rooms to smother in the curing fumes. And even if she escaped all that, she knew that if she found him, he would strap her for disobeying. To distract herself from her fears, she played with the bones.
      The heavy steel barrels of cow bones were pushed up against the walls of the killing floor, like debutantes waiting to be asked to dance at the ball. She thought back on the fairy tale Cinderella; her mother's favorite. She picked her partner with great deliberation—one of the tall slender types, unique in the barrel filled with ox bones.
      "They'll be ground up for fertilizer or dog food," her father told her. "Not a single part of the animal goes to waste in my plant." His hand swept like a king's across the barrels filled to the brim with offal, orderly divided—hooves in one, stomach linings in another, testes in another, eyeballs in a separate, smaller one.
      She thrust her arms in the barrel, up to her elbows in bones thick and wet with scraps of flesh that the cutters didn't think worth scraping off for meat. She dug around to find the perfect shapes to make her people. She tugged one loose from the pile and held it out in the dank green light of the dressing room where carcasses of beef swung in the shadows and saws, and cleavers rested neatly on metal shelving. She held out the single bone to the bare bulbs shining above. "A rib!" she confided to her audience of barrels, "the most beautiful bone of them all!
      Light pierced the thin flap of flesh that hung down from curve of the bone like a movie projector screen. Through it, she could see the whole drab black and metallic packing house now tinged a pale red, and on it the child saw images growing.
      Resting her back against the barrel, she examined the pictures building bit by bit in the light reflected on the ragged flesh. It’s just like those illuminated manuscripts we saw on our field trip to the museum, she thought, as she watched a creature slowly emerge from the marrow. It had the wings of an angel, the body of a snake. It moved in slow motion. Suddenly, the angel-snake split in two and a spider crawled out and scurried up the wall.
      "My mother's an angel," whispered the girl to the barrels. "She came back for me as an angel except her body was a snake's. A snake with wings!" She pointed to the sky which was a black maze of pulleys and enormous hooks. "Well, after awhile she started flying up there, where a spider was spinning its web. She said ‘here spider, you can have some bits of my wings for your new web.’ And the spider took every last bit of my mother’s wings which is why she can’t fly anymore."
      Shutting her eyes, the girl unbuttoned her corduroys and brought down the rib bone and with a single push, poked it up inside her. It felt cold and raggedy but the flesh still upon it made it go in easily.
      "The angel is gone, and the spider, too," she said as she observed her jerking body.
      She could calculate the height of the ceiling of hooks and claws by the expansiveness of her breath. When each breath was spent, she let out another one and followed it up to the top, each new breath saving her from mourning the death of the last one. She was ready to make Her People. She stuck her hand back down into the barrel.
      Thigh bones were the best for this as they were long and graceful, smooth as ivory and thick with big, glowing knobs at both ends to represent the head and feet, but they were rare as the workers pulled them out to take home for a soup. Usually, she had to settle for the neck bones which were too light and delicate to be people at all. But she was lucky this time and fished out two femurs to go with her neck bone. She drew the outline of a house in the sawdust and placed her bone family inside. The wood shavings soaked in blood stuck to her hair.
      "Mama Bone says 'go to sleep now'" and the girl curled up on the sawdust and concrete. "Papa Bone says ‘do your homework’ and the girl obediently scribbled numbers in the dust. She loved her bone parents. They were very refined. They read Shakespeare, wore velvet, and took tea at four. Sometimes they would all sit in a circle and play-eat a six course dinner. Of course, the meal was made of six different kinds of bones.
      She liked to work from the sawdust frame and build a house of bones—with rooms and stairways and kitchen appliances made of the many shapes and sizes of the cow's skeleton. When her father returned and saw what she had done, he told her to put them back in the barrel because if they got too dirty he couldn't sell them for the penny a pound they'd bring. Then he grabbed her hand to go outside and feed the steers in the holding pen that were getting killed tomorrow.
      Her father thought the cows were beautiful. He would point at each one and call tenderly
      Black Angus
      He pronounced each name as if he was saying:
      ruby sapphire topaz
      frankincense cinnamon myrrh
      She begged off from petting them; they stank of dirt and manure and lowed in a singular shrieking moan as they crowded around her father’s body. She sat sulking atop the wooden fence, watching a spider on the edge make its parachute net, "so it can fly like an angel," she whispered to herself while her father with the feed pail was inside, up to his boot tops in the mud, calling to and stroking each one. The spider’s legs waved frenetically in the air. Her mother had told her how they made webs that were just a single thread that grew from their bellies, how they’d kick their legs up, waiting for a breeze to come and when it did, they’d wrap their eight legs around the thread of their flesh and parachute away.




terhouse 1960

shelley berc