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Chop Chop

by AJ Nelson 11 months ago in Short Story
V+ Fiction Award WinnerV+ Fiction Award Winner
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Food-focused dark fantasy

Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels

The knives need sharpening. The entrails of the first tomato squelch, spread across the cutting board, watery carotene phlegm on golden olivewood. I watch the skin stretch and tear, fantasize about a neat, deep cut.

It’s Sarah’s job to sharpen the knives. It’s Sarah’s job to do everything in the kitchen. Most nights I’m only allowed to do the washing up, and even that will be subject to final judgment. There’s oil on the Le Creuset. Water spots on her beautiful knives.

But tonight, Sarah can barely manage to open the second bottle of Pinot. “More?”

As if she needs to ask. I shrug, watch the bottle tremble as she fills my glass, biting her violet-stained lips. Her chin quivers, transforms into a walnut. She turns her back, sinks into the sofa.

I attack the tomatoes. Carnage all across her spotless marble countertops. Next comes the zucchini, little half-moons of queasy green flesh. I can barely bring myself to lift the aubergine. Something about its shape, that firm bruised skin. I find myself stroking it, nursing my cold fingers along the swell of it, the way Audrey used to run her hands over the soft swell of her belly. I fucking hated that. The way she’d sit on our sofa next to Sarah and stroke herself with that far-off smile. The way Sarah would hold her hand, watch her expand, like she wanted to eat her up raw. Like she’d starve if she had to wait another four months. In those moments I hated them both.

“We’ll try again.” Sarah’s voice floats over the arm of the couch, knocks against the back of my skull.

Like hell we will, I tell the spaghetti as I break their spines over the boiling water.

# Chop #

Dull knives are far more dangerous than sharp ones. Ask any medical professional. You're much more likely to take off a finger with a dull knife, with all that pressure behind it. And dull is definitely what we’ve become. Just try cutting through all that grief with a blunt instrument. It’s no good.

And suddenly, neither am I.

I keep having the same nightmare. I’m an improbable child in white knee socks and saddle oxfords. I’ve swallowed all the seeds from an apple, on a dare. Sarah lurks over me, the resentful babysitter. Tells me I’ll be growing an apple tree in my belly. I don’t want to believe her. I laugh at her until she cries. But I’m nervous, shaken. Late at night, on my back in bed, I feel the first branches pushing out against my distended skin, like wings unfolding. The dream always ends when I reach down to finger the first sharp green shoot poking through my bellybutton.

Sarah wanted it more than anything. Which meant we both needed the woman it was growing in. I vow never to eat another apple. Fruit of the womb, indeed. The surrogate giveth, and the surrogate taketh away.

# Chop #

She shouldn’t have. That much was clear almost immediately. Uterus for hire.

Audrey had to pay for her university place. Working two jobs was one option. The fetus was another. She would carry it for Dr. Sarah Langham, the maternal cultural studies tutor with the unviable eggs. The oldest exchange: flesh for money. Except Sarah kept calling it a baby.

Audrey could taste it. A carefree university life, like her friends whose parents were paying. And she could tell herself it was a good deed. Like the Virgin. Cross my heart, it was a miracle.

Loss of control can be liberating. Sarah told her what to eat, cooked and measured, bought pregnancy pillows and vitamins, drove her to endless appointments, held her hand and stroked her shoulder. But the first time Audrey heard that tiny heartbeat, it felt like drums in the distance. Coming for her.

She asks a lawyer, an old family friend. What would it take? He used to grin, run his eyes up and down her body. Now he looks at her belly as if he’s afraid she might explode. He tells her she’d be well within her rights to keep it. Says it through his bifocals while he studies the papers on his desk.

Audrey sees Dr. Langham on campus looking sick thin. But Sarah manages to smile and wave. Relieved, Audrey waves back. Tries to shield her nightshade belly from that hungry gaze.

# Chop #

The pool lies like a jewel in the basement of the gym around the corner. Sharp chlorine aquamarine. It laps at the edges of my sleep. I wake in the dark, sure I can hear the slap of water, feel the currents I create caressing my limbs. I go early, when it’s quiet. Sometimes it’s just me and my childhood nightmares of a shark knifing the lanes. My arms slice the crisp water like fins, blood thumps in my ears. Feeling flees from my lungs, bubbles into stillness. Not grief, not even relief. Pushing off the edge, it’s anger that rushes down my thinning thighs, along my tight calves, out through my toes. I leave it streaming behind me. A predatory scent.

Five days a week I sweat into the cold clear water, spit chlorine under the tepid shower. Lose ounces and inches. A pound of flesh to the circling sharks of my imagination.

I cook for Sarah, but she won’t eat. Pressed up against Audrey’s ripening belly, which Instagram documents for us on an hourly basis, Sarah caves in on herself. She perches on a stool at the kitchen island, jeans loose around her hips, her bony crack peeking above the belt loops. I know she’s hungry, because I am too. An empty belly I can’t fill with food.

We’ve forgotten how to forget. Social media makes forgiveness impossible. Sarah stores her winter sweaters in our unused oven. She sits in the kitchen, submerged in the underwater glow of her laptop screen. Outside the French doors, the moon washes our tiny overgrown garden in truer, bluer light.

I snap bitter celery, crunch sweet carrots dotted with garlic hummus, pop naked cherry tomatoes. Roll them inside my cheek, crush them between my molars, their juices sluicing my tongue. I gnash a round of eggplant, the purple blades of skin slicing between my teeth. It’s all I can feel now. It comforts.

Eggplant is a nightshade. Cooking neutralizes the poison. Sound advice is, never eat it raw. Especially if you’re pregnant.

A red rash sprouts between my spreading shoulders, creeps up over my collarbone, vining around my neck. Soon it will reach my chin, my cheeks. Soon.

# Chop #

I swim. Sarah scrolls. Weeks stand up and stretch into months. I eat my food raw. Sarah drinks. I worry that the baby she can’t bear is eating her from the inside.

In the end, it’s Facebook that undoes us. Red alerts grab her by the chin and permanently shift her gaze.

“It’s happened,” she informs me solemnly. I don’t ask what.

“He’s here.” I don’t ask who.

Grief has a smell. Nobody tells us that. Some combination of raw cabbage and sliced bird’s eye chilis. All crunch and heat and bitterness. Sarah’s unwashed body is a daily reminder of my failure to feel it. To feed us.

I slice all the eggplant. I eat the chunks raw. I incubate.

# Chop #

Late one night, I shiver on the doorstep, my fist around the doorknob. Creeping over our threshold, the smell of butter and rosemary ambushes me. I track it down the hall, around the corner. There’s a memory standing before the stove.

Ziggurats of chopped eggplant, bloodred sauce bubbling, raw meat browning in buttery spice. Round red iron pan, an Olympus of shredded cheese. Moussaka.

I force my feet to move, wrap my arm around Sarah’s tiny waist.

“You’re making dinner?” I try not to sound incredulous.

The bottle of wine next to the stove is nearly empty. When she smiles, her teeth are bruised.

“Would you open another bottle while I finish this?”

I try making small talk at the table. Except I’m the only one eating. Sarah’s squirming. I finally ask what.

“We can take it to court.” It dawns on me that what I’d taken for a turn was just another loop in the spiral. “It’s not about the money,” she tells me.

As if I thought it was.

“We'll sue!” she steams.

I inhale, hold in the sigh. “And then what?”

She stabs the table with her butter knife. “We signed a contract!”

“It’s unenforceable. You know that. The lawyer told us. No judge is going to make a woman give up her baby because she signed a contract.”

“He’s not her baby!” Her mouth wide, spitting. Like the Red Queen shouting, “Off with her head!”

Sarah refills her glass, sloshes. She doesn’t bother to wipe up. I go in search of a sponge.

# Chop #

The headaches come first. Nightshade poisoning. I've googled all the symptoms. Nausea comes next. I welcome the waves, stomach clenching, cramps tightening and releasing like a slow-beating heart. This is what it should feel like. Growth. Hatching.

The rash creeps up, lines my chin like stubble.

One frigid morning, I find her in the kitchen, hunched over the sink, shedding tears over a blueberry.

She’d been washing a whole basket when one escaped. Floating in the murky water soaking yesterday’s cereal bowls, it looks like Mother Earth suspended in space.

I offer to fish it out, wash it off. No, she sobs. No. She doesn’t want to eat the blueberry.

Then what?

“It’s just so sad! Like it missed its whole purpose in life.”

I don’t ask what a blueberry’s purpose in life could possibly be. She keeps weeping. I empty the bowl. We watch the berry swirl down the drain, a misty blue jewel in the desolate darkness.

# Chop #

Once the thought is planted, it grows a taproot.

Deadly nightshade. We’d spotted it in our tangled garden last summer. At the beginning. When we were happily babyproofing. Sarah wanted to pull it out immediately. I told her we still had time.

The blossoms are so beautifully fragile. The berries mimic blueberries. Its other name: Bittersweet.

I try one berry first. Nothing. Reckless, I up the dosage to five. A little nausea, nothing I can’t stomach. I chew my eggplant prophylactic. I think it’s time.

Our anniversary. I plan a red carpet meal. Bitter endive stuffed with luscious goat’s cheese and golden honey. Wilted spinach salad with sweet-crunch pecans and sour-soft cranberries. Thick spiced pumpkin soup. Duck dripping from the bone, begging to be devoured. This is her chance.

I eat. Sarah drinks.

And then there’s the cake. Her favorite. A simple blueberry lemon, sugar snow-dusted, like the frost-spangled garden outside our starved windows.

I plead. Just one piece. I’ve given up so much time, and she’s hardly enjoyed any of it. It’s important to me. It’ll all be over soon. Please.

She bites. And bites again. The slice disappears. I’d counted as I cut. Eighteen berries. Enough.

The side effects of nightshade poisoning are not so different from drunkenness. Cotton mouth. Poor coordination. Spiked temperature. Dilated pupils. Drowsiness. Blessed numbness. She won’t realize until it’s too late.

I watch her pale face, her hazelnut mouth. I wait.

She sees me. I see her see me.

I’m not sure I like what she sees.

# Chop #

I step out into the garden with the rest of the bottle of Barolo. I don’t bother with a glass.

The Bittersweet is gone. I took care of that this morning. Even the soil it corrupted is carefully raked. Eventually the grass grows over everything. All that’s left is a ripple in the earth. A silver stretch mark.

I take a deep swimmer’s breath. The red-rash noose around my neck loosens.

I sink into the icy bench. Take another stinging breath. The cold reaches famished fingers into my ears and squeezes.

I’ll clean up the kitchen tomorrow.

# Chop Chop #

Short Story

About the author

AJ Nelson

I wrote my first novel when I was 10 years old – about a horse, of course. Since then, my work has been shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize, the Bridport Prize, and the Berlin Writing Prize. My pronouns are she/her.

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