The Abbatoirs of Ashkelane

In Ashkelane all the citizens have a talent for butchery. It is embedded in their lives, the way singing or shepherding identifies other places. That very word, however—butcher—suggests an oafishness, as if they are merely brutal and intent only on the subjugation of weaker provinces.

While they are indeed belligerent when they need to be and have successfully defeated all enemies handily, they have never been the aggressor. And their trade is the opposite of a hacking imprecision you might at first imagine. On the contrary, a responsible accuracy begins early. Children are taught to wield knives as soon as they can hold a utensil. Even if they are not to become professional butchers, a child is considered only half-formed if she does not grow up with the skill to break an animal down into artful chops of meat.

Often you see an infant, just then learning to sit up and move his wooden toys from his new height, tracing with a small wooden knife, (miniaturized models of the sheilagh carved from tiger maple) the dotted topography of an oaken heifer carved to scale and about the same size as he.

When children reach the age of two and can feed themselves at table, parents will give them their first steel sheilagh, the blade three inches long and the handle, fashioned from steer horn, also three inches. The instrument, like its adult counterpart, is perfectly balanced and will rest on the ridge between the child’s thumb and forefinger so that all the child has to do is rotate her hand and seize the handle. Dogs are trained to hunt squirrels, voles, and other rodents, which the children practice on, the dogs returning with the animals, dropping them at the feet of the children, and waiting patient as butlers for the heads and the offal while the children whip the entrails about over the heads of the dogs before tossing them.

Though it is a manly art, this trade and its mastering, requiring strength, one will not succeed at the master level without imagination. One of the nobles sees a chop before him and thinks nothing of it beyond his imminent satiation. Yet the artisan who separated that from its animal had to see into the beast and cut just so, working from a memorized knowledge of anatomy but adjusting for every cow or sheep’s unique features and topography.

It would seem, at first glance, that this is a savage people, this province whose most highly esteemed trade slaughters and separates creatures for consumption. In fact, however, a fascinating paradox of mercy lies at the heart of the abattoir’s centrality.

Ages ago, goes the legend, the archaic butchers (so fastidious with ritual that today’s Halal guilds and their dhabihah methods, and the celebrated shochets, themselves shrouded in yet more ancient legends, would be ashamed at their pretentions to holiness and precision) nearly lost their trade to barbarism and became human butchers.

Some speculate that the unspeakable (yet fascinating, let us admit that) subset had its potential evoked over the discussion of a hog, as you might expect.

One freshly drained and skinned hung from a hook, and the master, along with her apprentice, done for the day, sat in their white and blood-spattered aprons smoking cigars and drinking ale when the apprentice mentioned that it appeared for all the world that it was a man and not a pig hanging there.

Such an admission hung always on their lips and was considered, quite literally, unsayable. To say it was to broach a taboo from which there was very little room for turning back.

The master rose from the bench and pulled down a bottle of lemon liqueur from a high shelf. Her younger colleague’s suggestion called for a change of mood before things got out of hand. The apprentice, ashamed and afraid at what he’d said, sat there looking at his elder as if for advice. She assured him that he’d made a common enough mistake and poured a measure for each of them and handed him the small fluted glass they reserved for that drink.

The apprentice had two choices, she explained, waving and scooping away the thick cigar smoke above their heads. Now that he had uttered the thought, it was no longer the secret between them he might have hoped, and for reasons she couldn’t quite explain, the magistrates knew at that moment he’d passed to a new stage of development. It has been foretold, as they say. That it happened to be him and not someone else was beside the point. Unfair, yes, but irrelevant.

His choices were these. He could slaughter her, hang her as they hang the hogs, and cut her up properly. You might find that it is indeed not much different from a pig, she assured him. The cuts more or less line up, hock, belly, and ham. I have no choice now but to go willingly if that is your decision. Alternatively, he could bring one of his family members in, slaughter the wife or son or daughter (no matter which), and perform the butchering likewise had it been the master.

The former choice carried with it, of course, the ancient allure of iconoclasm. Their religious symbolism featured a sweating god-king cowering in fright beside an oak and a young man peering from behind with a curved blade. Once she was dead and partitioned into meat, the young apprentice would then be the master, and his family would gain more prosperity and notoriety in the town. The downside, obviously, was that he would face the same fate some day when his apprentice—and there would be a string—thought of and said the same thing. Don’t worry, though, she told him. By that time you will have accepted the gravity and, I might add, the absurdity of your office. On the other hand, you would never know the hour of your demise, and each morning you would leave your family with tears in your eyes, aware that it may be the last time you see them. But while you were with them, they would be immeasurably precious to you, and your gratitude for them would fill you with a sense of the grandeur of life that very few people ever discern.

The latter option was unthinkable. How could he slaughter one of his own? Forget for a moment the horror of choosing one of his own to kill. How could he look into his son’s or daughter’s eyes while he pulled the blade across their pale, soft throat? He wouldn’t hear talk of the smooth blade they took pains daily to inspect for nicks and burrs, its whispering mercy, the quick exsanguination and loss of consciousness. Think of it this way, the master said, pouring another measure of the liqueur. What do you see in our graveyards? Many little stones next to bigger ones. How do those children die? From disease, neglect, a hoof (or hand) against the head, or a broken back when a sow decides to charge for stepping too close to her piglets. It’s likely that one of yours will die from some meaningless cause like this. How much the better to sacrifice one for a noble cause? Their death would be meaningful, not cruel, and it would come at your hands, the only one in this world, beside their mother, who they can be sure loves them.

The young man drained the little glass, stubbed his cigar out on the floor, and put his head in his hand. Could it be true? It seemed he’d just been a man close to mastering a trade that would support his family respectably until he died. And now it was as if his superior’s announcement had rent the fabric of this world and shown him an entirely different one, one where the same people walked, made love, ate, and died on their beds of straw but where now the smallest of circumstances like this cast a grave delicacy over his choices.

Whatever your choice, the master said, bear in mind that either way the meat has to be dealt with. You can’t simply bury it. You’ll need to burn it. The end of her cigar was gray and seemed less friendly now.

But let us set aside for a moment the apprentice’s dilemma and return to the question of the crucial role this craft played in the province’s civility. For though this tale is the province’s Aeneid or Genesis, it is also a tale written on a grain of rice compared to the fulsome epics of other societies. And why is that? For one, they were landlocked deep inside a cluster of other artisanal societies themselves surrounded by a stable but unassailable protectorate, so while they exercised some independence, they were essentially a supplier of goods to wealthier peoples in the lands surrounding them. As such, they had little experience with peoples from other lands, as the rich citizens of the protectorate did in coastal settlements. So they had no seafaring adventures, no tales of exile and reestablishment in strange new landscapes. Their origin (or at least their notion of it) was in fact quite an anomaly. Nearly all epics document capture, servitude, escape or exile (the result of manifold causes), and especially the sense of starting new, rebuilding in a foreign land. Here, it was as if they had always been in their place, formed at the same time as the pasturelands capped by shelves of limestone. Add to this their literal provincialism and you can see how easily they clung to this one tale, as if they had some rube’s notion of it containing all the knowledge one ever needed. Even now, as the story has faded into legend and hasn’t been considered “real” for a very long time, the residue of its effects lingers solidly.

So you would think that such narrow pride and ignorance of other peoples would generate hostility and suspicion, but it bears noting again that they were never the aggressors in conflicts, dealt fairly with their neighbors in matters of small-scale trade, and treated kindly travelers who passed through. So how is it that a nation of such potentially deadly people seem so uncharacteristically genteel? Simple. It is inherent in the aforementioned paradox, and of course the origin tale, to which we will now return.

The pity of the apprentice’s dilemma couldn’t be clearer, and it is that moment, with the smell of his extinguished cigar wafting up from the sole of his boot, the skinned hog hanging redly in the shop, the master’s disinterested but not unsympathetic expression, this moment with the apprentice’s fate hanging, like the hog, before it tips one way or the other, when the people of that province, and indeed us, feel our hearts break for the weight of the young man’s responsibility, not to mention the unfairness of his plight. All he did was utter (perhaps unadvisedly, but not unforgivably) a thought deep in the marrow of us all. And yet that utterance set in motion the rest of his life. Perhaps here too we see the power of words to alter one’s life in a single moment, that power instructive to the citizens to perpetually be aware of the moment one is in, especially in the treatment of strangers and loved ones.

And so perhaps not too curiously, the resolution of the story is not clear. Rather, it seems deliberately indeterminate. Ask a citizen how it ends and you get a shrug, as if they had been asked why children cry. Different versions exist, though none have been canonized. In one variant he kills the master, hangs her by the Achilles’ tendons, skins her, butchers her with reverence and sorrow, and then wraps the meat in bundles and burns it on the highest pasture.

In another, he lines his family up after dinner, puts three hog’s teeth in his cap, and makes them draw lots. The daughter draws the long tooth, and the scene careens into wailing with the mother pulling one arm and her father the other. Lit candles on the meal bench topple and sputter in their own wax. The son, mute and terrified, is torn between his father’s authority and his love for his sister. One can see the wisdom in refusing this ending. Aside from the simple horror of it, it sets up too readily an Oresteian perpetuity, the wife taking revenge on the husband, the son hunting down the mother, ad infinitum, until some deus ex machina resolves the blood feud.

In yet another version the mother offers herself, the children being hearty, the father loving, and the future of the land dependent on some decision.

The absurdity of the premise of the myth is not worth pondering. Like most origin stories, it is shrouded in its archaic architecture and thought, and rationalizing it is of no use.

So how, given that the story hangs on the apprentice’s moment before decision, is the image of the king-killing retained, suggesting that the apprentice did in fact choose to kill the master and perpetuate the cycle? It is odd, given the agricultural basis for the ritual slaying of a king and its assurance of fertile land when this province imported all its grain and never had to give a thought to crops beyond rain for the grass the few cows ate.

One theory argues that, as an aesthetically-minded people, they have adopted this image, however passively, because it satisfies an urge for unity, for form, for balance. The situation of the original story, as noted, is dire, but there it hangs like a fact. It’s what to do with it that seems more important. And that image has settled, that of the older master, still well within her powers but certainly not in peak condition, being supplanted by the younger man. Scores of minor schools over the centuries have interpreted a patriarchal violence in the iconography, but the rebuttal is easy enough—would you have the man murder his wife or one of his children?

All these variant endings are, like the unspeakable thing the apprentice uttered, themselves unspeakable, which is why they have not been included in official legends. By official, we do not mean a written codex, for none exists. Instead, we mean the folk tradition, for that has, counter to almost every other example, remained consistent in its refusal to end the story with a conclusion. True, it is a small land, but it is remarkable that the story is unchanged, again likely owing to the isolation. We see such lack of development and variation (and stark originality) in the Icelandic prose Eddas, but again they are exceptions, anomalies.

So the pig hangs there, muscular, the fascial binding dry and pearlescent in the torchlight. The master savors her cigar and liqueur while waiting for the apprentice to make his decision. The apprentice gets up, wipes his knife on his apron, scalds the blade in a kettle of boiling water, and begins stropping it on a length of leather tied to the bench. There’s a small window in the shop, and the master has forgotten the horn-shaped moon that’s on the wane. She walks to the window and notices, in the pastures to the east, the dark humps of sheep in the faintly silvered grass.  

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