“We don’t serve murder here,” she said, with more than a trace of disgust. I told myself that she was not disgusted with me, or with my partner in mischief. It was our proposal to engage in a sin most venal, a vice declared on the official books of our society, that she vilified. She wiped her hands on her smock, and barked an order to one of the cooks in the kitchen, behind where she stood at the counter of the cramped restaurant. Was she wiping the stain, of knowing us, clean? All we had done was to inquire—
I did not derive much comfort, from such a self-indulgent notion. “It’s nothing personal” means very little, issuing from a warden’s mouth, to a new prisoner. Even then, as a young man, newly arrived in Buenos Aires from my home back in Gaiman, Patagonia, I lusted for novelty, not for open violation of the social order. My major transgression was being curious, open to new experience, but it led me to a shocking revelation, and then, to another. I threw my hands up to give the proper subservience to this woman; she didn’t seem reassured by this.
I must have stammered something in Welsh, because she gaped at me with a mixture of bafflement and scorn; I remembered to convert my protest-ations, of innocence (of course!), into Spanish. I wasn’t showing off an education, of which she couldn’t match — my family came over from Wales, as did those of friends and neighbors, back there, in what we call, Y Wladfa Gymreig. As for my partner in future crime: she rolled her eyes and clutched my forearm, no shrinking flower in the face of the other woman’s withering stare. “Come on, gurí,” Hersilia tossed off, although I am not a boy. She pulled me outside, to the street.
Traffic shummed (a cross between hummed and wooshed) past us, going all four ways, as we dashed across the boulevard. We were nowhere near most reputable streets in this section of the city, but this neighborhood was still respectable enough that we knew: that woman’s response to our inquiry was typical of what we could expect to receive at the finer rest-aurants. It would fall to someone less savory to meet our expectations.
Hersilia knew it; thirty-three years of age, far older than I was, married to respectable, stable Eligio, she was the one with a hankering for something dangerous to do, with her evening. He had to work late at the university, or so he claimed. He was a chemistry professor. It was a plausible excuse. I was only his lab assistant. Wasn’t my place to overrule my supervisor on a matter of personal style.
We paused on a street corner. Hersilia glanced about, sniffing the air. “It’s going to rain,” she announced. How she knew that, without consulting her pocket genius, I had no clue, but she had a worldliness then that I lack now. Looking hard down an unenlightened alleyway, she clutched my bicep with renewed urgency. “It’s that way, I think,” she said. “Come, Emyr!”
We got no more than four or five steps before we were set upon by the third member of our posse. The glittering of light reflecting off of our third’s eyes was just bright enough to seize our interest. I was stock-still; Hersilia tried pulling on me, but I wouldn’t move. I wanted our new acquisition to come forward. A meow issued in the night air. Hersilia aimed her pocket genius down the alleyway, calibrated its forward beam, and issued a searchlight.
“Buenas noches,” I recall Hersilia saying, as she knelt before our new friend. The cat had a dazzling coat of several colors — black, white, orange, gray — and striking bloue eyes that seemed to look right through us. “Something, somehow, tells me that you won’t turn us into the Policía de seguridad? It’s possible that you savor a little taste of Asesinato — right, mi amigo felino?”
La Edad de Oro — “The Golden Age” — did not look as seedy as she would have hoped it would. Nonetheless, Hersilia somehow decided that it passed a test of character, or lack of character, and bestowed upon it the honor of serving us our first taste of murder, or at least, mine. She held the door open for our traveling companion. The cat graced the restaurant with his presence, after mulling it over just long enough to make us impatient.
The laws banishing this activity, the last known vice involving the ingesting or a foreign substance, had dried on the books, when I was still learning how to walk without my mother’s or father’s hand to assist me. Hersilia, being almost a decade older, could recall a stir of excitement in her family household, when she was just a gurisa, not even of school age. “My father was furious,” Hersilia recalled, “but my mother seemed almost relieved. Then, my sisters came into the picture — and they grew up, not even knowing what had been ‘taken’ from us!”
A lanky waiter, if that’s what he was, approached us and looked around. The dining room was mostly empty; we had arrived late in the evening, almost at closing time. Hersilia brought out her pocket genius, to send another plaintive message to her husband, my supervisor, asking him again to shum his way to join us. Knowing him as little as I did, I guessed — correctly — that Eligio was uninterested in living dangerously with us on that night. Our waiter, whose gaze continued to sweep the room, back and forth, front to back and front, seemed to verify Eligio’s wisdom in avoiding these proceedings.
Murder had been enjoyed, in almost every inhabited nation, for thousands of years. Now, in a generation, maybe even less time, it was almost extinct — for humans, at least. I knew, every schoolchild knew, that some limited forms of murder were permitted under the laws of the world, for animals. I looked at our visitng cat, whose presence the waiter seemed determined to ignore — a good sign of this establishment’s moral turpitude, Hersilia felt.
Our waiter invited us to witness what was being done to satisfy our vivid, and condemned, appetites. We glanced over at a nearby table. A tablecloth draped over it reached down to the floor, concealing a large something underneath. A warmth radiated from under the cloth — I opened my hands to feel it, Hersilia followed suit, and the cat, exquisitely bored as only a cat can be, ignored us. A flick of the wrist, from one of the briefly visible cooks in the kitchen, inspired the waiter to pull back the cloth. We saw what looked like a metallic pot, with charcoal briquets glowing with heat. “That’s called a brasero,” Hersilia added, her enthusiasm almost palpable.
Our vigilant waiter remembered to drop his duty of watching the barricades, long enough to serve us a fine bottle of wine and some leafy green salads. We were more excited about the wine, not to mention, the main course, than we were with the salads, but we tucked in, clinking our glasses together in a kind of victorious toast. The cat seemed on the verge of losing consciousness from sheer boredom, though he licked his lips, twice, no doubt to remind us what was at stake, and not just for us. “Don’t worry, amigo,” I reassured him, giddy at the thought of my imminent introduction to this savage act. “You shall not be disappointed.”
“Che,” Hersilia snapped, to seize my attention. “We are about to experi-ence…” Before she could finish, the waiter and a ‘busboy’, who was a young woman, came forth from the brasero, with plates at the ready. The older gentleman, working the pot, was known, Hersilia had told me before, as a parrillero. He worked in concert with our waiter and busgirl to place onto our plates these reddish strips of what looked like fish, but was decidedly not fish, onto our plates, which the latter two moved onto our table, before us.
I marveled at such a fantastic vision, taking up space before my eyes. This was a cooked strip of flesh, animal flesh, blackened around its edges, and oozing fluids. Hersilia thanked the waiter and busgirl and gave me a con-spiratorial grin. “What do you wait for, Emyr?” she gasped. “Your first Asesinato — your first taste of murder!”
I cut off a strip of reddened/blackened meat and leaned down to give it to the cat. No longer bored, no longer pained by the presence of mere humans in his reality, he practically tore the meat from my fingers. He tore into it with such abandon that all of his previous calm abandoned him. He snarled, loudly and often, to convey his pleasure and relief. “Manyar, my friend,” Hersilia chimed in. She nudged me with an elbow, adding play-fully, “It has a double meaning, manyar does. ‘To eat’, and ‘to know’. Now, we do both.”
I recalled the intriguing fact, or maybe it was only a possibility, that our feline friend could not see properly, without the ‘help’ of murder. It was having to do with their eyes; cats couldn’t see, without what murder provided to their —
The waiter was walking, toward us — but not to us. He seemed to be glanc-ing past us, at the front entrance to the restaurant. He called out, “We are closed,” possibly thinking this would suffice to shut down all other inquir-ies about the place, but he was mistaken. Even as Hersilia closed her eyes, savoring the tang of scorched flesh, that had once belonged to a warm-blooded mammal, I was privileged to see who had penetrated our indulgent dining experience, and it was not… a welcome sight. “Some buchón be-trayed us,” the busgirl sneered.
Even though they did not flash their badges, even though they did not march inside to the tune of the Sol de Mayo, our nation’s anthem, their allegiance to the Policía de seguridad was no great mental feat of deduct-ion. Two of them, a pair of hardened men of authority if I had ever seen them, strode to our table, looking down at our plates, then back at us, firing lances of accusation at us from their eyes. One, whose height and brute strength reminded me of my father, pushed down on my shoulders with both of his hands, tossing me to the floor. Eliminating me as a threat, I presumed.
The other, who was more wiry, addressed Hersilia, then the waiter, and the busgirl, with a surprisingly calm, educated voice. “It is an uncommon night,” he said, “that we are witness to the violation of the law that the whole world has seen fit to enforce.” His irony, like a knife, worked this way, then that, for maximum tearing effect. “Don’t you know what this did to our water, and to our health?” he gasped. “What has brought you to this… lowly condition?”
As if this were not shock enough, the answer to his question sounded — from Eligio’s throat. “I can tell you,” he said, as he walked to our table. Hersilia, a moment of blinking later, smiled with a teardrop forming at the edge of each of her eyes. Her husband, my supervisor, did not waste a glance on me; I was not worthy of his notice, let alone, his scorn. “I am Professor Travieso. She is my wife, and this… is my student aide. I may be able to assist you, in clearing them.”
He carried a small kit that I recognized from working with him — a person-al field chem-kit, that could identify almost any known substance. Why had he brought it with him to this unfortunate rendezvous? What would that prove, except that we had indeed engaged in the consuming of murdered animals? Hersilia looked at me, uncertain for the first time, about any-thing, all night. The cat continued to munch and snarl, this time, on my last dropped morsel.
The senior constable seemed to waver, but only for a moment. He permitt-ed Eligio to collect a piece of cooked flesh from his wife’s plate, placing it under his kit’s microscope, as he twisted its control rings. Various hues of light from the device shone down upon the morsel. Without looking up, he held out his hand, and the officers gave him several more bites of animal “flesh” to examine. At last, he rose to his full height and declared: “There is no animal protein, of any variety, in this. Hersilia, you and Emyr have been eating treated plants.”
He favored his wife with a look of disappointment, mixed with relief, and me with a look of just disappointment. The cat must have been starved, for many days, as it continued to eat. Its eyesight would not be served by its vegetarian dinner; it seemed not to mind. I was reminded of an old folk expression: “God sends meat, and the devil sends cooks.” We trundled out of the restaurant — the officers declaring it “closed, pending further invest-igation” — on our way to a precinct station. Eligio expressed his belief: that we would not be charged.
© Eric Wolf 2022.
About the Creator
Ink-slinger. Photo-grapher. Earth-ling. These are Stories of the Fantastic and the Mundane. Space, time, superheroes and shapeshifters. 'Wolf' thumbnail: https://unsplash.com/@marcojodoin.
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