There is not a lot of sex in To Be Human Again: my goal was not to write erotica–nor pornography. If the reader is looking for titillation, they’re likely to be disappointed (with the possible exception of one story, but that’s not the one we’re talking about today). Still, it was the best moment of my literary life when someone admitted they’d found themselves getting turned on by an eight-year-old girl eating raw meat. Whenever I need a boost of confidence, I look back at that note in the margins of the rough draft.
This is where write what you know comes in–and people who know me are going to be raising eyebrows ’round about here. I’m a lacto-ovo vegetarian. I’m supposed to say something like “being vegetarian, I found this difficult to write”; oddly, it wasn’t all that difficult. These are precisely the sensations of eating meat, just with a positive spin on them. As well, family members will be able to identify (correctly, for once) where I have thieved ideas from real life. The maternal side of my family has a celebratory ritual known as A Great Bloody Feast, which involves an uncommon silence as they all smack their lips over a very rare roast of beef. As I always declined to participate with equal fervor, I had plenty of opportunity to watch them.
This is not the part of the story that got the beta-reader all hot under the collar. This is just a weekly menu:
Though she was only eight years old–young, some said, to be separated from her mother–Clara was content to be in the convent school. She appreciated the familiarity of routine, the dependability of stringent regulations. She found the curriculum stimulating–both the exhortation to do and say certain things, and the titillating list of Devil’s Work that one was never to so much as contemplate. The dormitory was comfortable and friendly with all the other little girls who would walk beside her, play with her, and whisper through the darkness until someone hissed at them to go to sleep. But it was the food she loved the most.
Meat: the first meal she had at the school was a thick soup with vegetables, potatoes and hunks of venison. At the first whiff, she was unsettled by the sudden watering of her mouth, the unclenching of her stomach. It smelled rich and hot, and she glanced at the other girls to see if they were truly allowed to eat it: she surmised it was a kind of test from the Devil. But the girls had all picked up their spoons and dunked their bread.
Her first spoonful was pure broth, glistening on the tarnished silver spoon. She allowed the saltiness to saturate her mouth, loosening her jaw muscles so the liquid filled the space between her cheek and her teeth.
The second spoonful scooped up vegetables, soft and earthy, familiar textures but with a new flavour that was alive. The third spoonful was one of the three chunks of venison. She tentatively raised it to her lips, testing the rough texture, feeling the heat radiating from the middle of it. She slid it into her mouth slowly and let it rest on her tongue. It was a gamey taste, wild and primitive, like the smell of the young man who delivered wood to the kitchen at home. She moved the piece of meat over to her molars and bit down. Rare juices shot through her mouth, and she drew in a sharp breath.
She glanced around the table again. The other girls were shovelling the soup into their mouths, alternating with bites of sopping bread.
She ate the soup, savouring each texture, each flavour. When the bowl was empty, she regretted leaving the slice of dark bread until the end: the strong taste removed the residual meat flavours from her mouth. She rinsed the black bread away with small ale.
That night at supper, she left her thin slice of ham for last. She relished the springiness of the hefty fibres as she bit down on it, the smokiness that filled her mouth, nose and throat. She imagined the pinkness of the ham mingling with her red blood, giving her nutrients, making her stronger, imagined her body as an oak, rooted, immoveable and ancient.
The noonday meal was her favourite. The meat was always thick, heavy. White meats had a subtle sweetness like grain; red meats had an animating iron tang that made her head swim and her heart race. There was a simple purity to the meat served at this meal. It did more than just satisfy: it fulfilled.
Supper also included meat. Usually, the meat was spiced or salted: ham or sausage. Still, it gratified her. She would eat her vegetables first, then her bread or potatoes washed down with ale, and then–finally–the meat. Each night, she would crawl into her bed thinking about flesh.
The first Friday was devastating. The noon meal was roasted vegetables, black bread and fish–plain white fish. When she put the fish in her mouth, her molars seemed to bounce off the flesh. Its meagre substance was flat, pale, flaccid. She let it rest between her teeth, willing it to release a metallic flavour. It did not.
Sundays were the best. When a large piece of meat was roasted, there was inevitably the rare part in the middle. She lived for the rare part. The novice who sat at the head of her table and served the food noticed the look of sheer pleasure, of near ecstasy, and began to save the rarest parts for her: the juicy dark flesh of fowl, and the bloody centre of a roast of beef. Clara thought she had been keeping her face expressionless, and she blushed deeply when she realised the girl was watching her eat. From then on, she made an effort to conceal her bliss.