Sweeter is the Meat by Roxanne Grandis
Sweeter Is the Meat
Down at the zoo, the lions are considering a rebellion. “Fresh meat,” they roar. “We want fresh meat.” They have voracious looks in their eyes as they stare at the little girls and boys in freshly washed underpants and socks—looks that seem to take in ankles to eyelids all at once. An inhalation, if you will. The tension is building, but the lions are subtle. Their keepers know nothing of the coming insurrection, and they throw the rib eye and chuck roast carelessly. They are old hands. The lions are their friends. Old Gumby. Martha The Third. Mr. Socky. Priscilla. Nanette.
Nanette is the most terrible of the bunch. She has long eyelashes. She is such a flirt. She swings her tail ruthlessly, and the children beyond the fence marvel at her and make goo goo eyes and howl, “Mommy, I want a lion. Can I have a lion to call my very own?” Nanette turns her back to them, her rump raised high in the air. She wants meat! Fresh meat! This dead stuff will not do. She measures the distance from the stream to the fence, calculates how with a mighty leap she might penetrate the fence and snatch a tasty morsel for own. She would not share. She tells the other she would share, but she would not. And she’d like to see them try to make her.
Martha the Third is Nanette’s mother. Martha the Second and Martha, just plain Martha, all died, lovesick for the plains and the knotted bushes they called home. Martha the Third has one eye. She lost the other to Mr. Socky, ever infested with an inferiority complex due to his name. But Martha the Third doesn’t blame Mr. Socky for her blindness. She understands philosophy and the drives of the id upon the ego. Martha the Third doesn’t care much for her daughter. Why, in her day, they went off behind the great rock to copulate, but Nanette … why, Nanette is such a flirt.
Priscilla is in love with Old Gumby, but Old Gumby wants nothing to do with her. Old Gumby is a lioness trapped inside a lion’s body, and the years have done him in. He allows Priscilla to comb his grizzled mane, but he won’t do much more for her, and he licks at his testicles like he would like to gnaw them off, so the keepers place a muzzle on him and the people say, “Poor old lion,” and they sigh. But Priscilla is not fooled. She knows that a warrior’s heart lurks beneath Old Gumby’s effete exterior, and she longs to break through, to mold him into the model he was meant to be. If he could only accept the Lord into his heart. If he could only swat his tail at the flies, and not swish instead. Poor young lioness. Priscilla, why can’t you learn that you can never change anyone?
Sometimes the lions imagine that they are putting on a play. When the schoolchildren come especially, so delicious in their sweet young skins and stinking bottoms. The lions gather at the far end of the compound, only their yellow tufted tails visible in the sunlight and they conspire about the day’s adventures. They will tell a tale to make the children blush! And Old Gumby stirs out of his lethargy, and Nanette, why, Nanette is such a flirt! Martha the Third makes a dive for the stream, her snoot curved into an impressive snarl, and Nanette leaps from her hiding place and swipes at her tail as if at a pincushion. Down they roll into the stream, their fur glistening with sweat and creek water, and they snap at one another delicately, taking care not to bite too hard or leave gashes. Mr. Socky and Old Gumby wait for them besides the great rock, and they roar together in harmony (Old Gumby’s a muffled bark from the muzzle), Priscilla standing by their sides, the meek little lamb caught in the battle.
Soon Nanette returns victoriously from the creek, her head held high. It is always Nanette who wins. And Martha the Third slinks to join the pride, back slung low in defeat. Then, in perfect unison, they plop their backsides down on the rock and commence to licking their genitals with long, slow strokes that make the children scream. And the teachers shuffle the children off in droves while the kiddies wonder out loud, “What were they doing back there?” The lions have a great laugh over this, and Martha the Third thinks that maybe she is too hard on her daughter, and Priscilla hopes that she has impressed Old Gumby enough that this time he will give her a second glance.
The lions have considered the rebellion in great detail. It is not that they are treated badly. They are not, and they can admit this amongst themselves in the man-molded cave they call their den when the crowds are gone and the keepers turn in for the night, when their last bits of beef are digesting in their mighty stomachs. None of this pride was born in the wild, and so they can only imagine Africa and what it might be like to hunt down fleshily tempting gazelle over the endless green, and lap with their tongues at a stream that does not taste vaguely too clean, sterilized they might say, only they have no words for this. They only know the stream in front of the fence leaves an aftertaste in their throats that makes them thirstier than before they drank. Satisfied, but unsatisfied.
They long for more. They have room to roam, but they pace in circles along the perimeters of the den. It is always the same, unchanging. The rock that was there yesterday is there today and tomorrow. Priscilla sometimes wakes from fitful sleep in the middle of the night, the moon hanging heavy overhead, and she springs from the den silently and pounces, lunges into the darkness sure that this night holds something different for her, some new mystery waiting to be experienced when all of the other lions are asleep and she has her world to herself. She traipses out of the cave and feels the coolness of the air tickle the fur upon her paws. She takes eager cub steps, savoring the moment, and she runs out into the moonlight and … and then … she sees that nothing has changed. The rock that was there yesterday is there today and tomorrow. She cries. She weeps long, lioness tears down her snout. She imagines that she is over the fence, that she has managed to leap it, but then she is faced with the greatest fear of all. Perhaps over the fence, everything is still just the same.
The lions have studied Marxist theory with the Siberian tigers. They know that this is pretentious. They do not believe in tossing about platitudes, and polysyllabic words, while lovely to the ears, do not action make, but they have studied it nonetheless, and they whisper the words of the revolution to themselves quietly. Oppressor. Bourgeoisie. The proletariat. “Why, we are merely chattel,” roars Nanette, and Mr. Socky nods his assent. The past will rise up and strike them down! The lions are committed to the cause. Old Gumby. Martha the Third. Mr. Socky. Nanette.
But what about Priscilla? Is dear Priscilla committed to the cause as well?
One day a beautiful child comes to the zoo to see the lions. The lions have no way of knowing this, but the child is sick. The child is very sick, and will soon die if she cannot be treated, and there is no treatment for the sickness the child has, and so she will die. The child has no mother, and the father drinks, partly out of sadness because the child’s mother left and the child is dying, and partly because alcoholism runs in the family, and if the child could live she too would most likely grow up to be an alcoholic as well. Partly the father drinks because he likes it, and because they show football continuously on the television at the bar where he usually drinks. The father thinks that this is funny, and he thinks that people are always trying to come up with complicated reasons to explain behavior when really motivations are usually quite simple to figure out, and they are primarily selfish as well.
The child obviously knows nothing about her father’s motives for drinking, and she doesn’t even know that her father drinks very much anyway, because she is always in and out of the hospital being filled up with one fluid or another and scanned and x-rayed until she is tired and all she wants to do is sleep. The father doesn’t usually come to the hospital with the child, because he is wealthy from inheritance and he has hired a nanny to take care of the child and wait with her at her bedside.
Secretly the nanny thinks the child’s father is horrible, but she doesn’t say anything because he pays her very well.
Secretly the child thinks the nanny is beautiful, and she wishes that her father would fall in love with the nanny and they could be a real family again.
Secretly the father is impotent from his drinking, and therefore he could never marry the nanny, and this is the reason the child’s mother left in the first place.
Secretly Old Gumby pines for Mr. Socky, and he longs for a classically Greek society where their love would not be reviled. Secretly he thinks Priscilla is a lesbian, but he is prone to thinking that about everybody.
When the beautiful child comes to see the lions, she is happy. She has not been happy in a long time, but she is happy when she comes to see the lions for three reasons. First, she is out of the hospital. The tubes are out of her nose and her wrists, and she feels free. Second, she is at the zoo with both the nanny and her father, and this pleases her as she loves them both and hopes they love one another. Third, and this is the simple reason that her father would most approve of, she loves lions. She thinks that they are very cute, and look like big kitty cats. She would like to have a cat and name her Gretel. She thinks that Gretel is a very cute name. If she had a cat named Gretel, she would dress it up in her doll clothes and she would take it for walks in her baby carriage. She would feed it mice because she doesn’t like mice, and she would make it sleep with her, and she would take it into the bath and play mermaids with it. The girl has imagined all of the things that she would do with her cat, Gretel, a hundred times lying in the hospital bed, but now that she is here in front of the lions, she imagines them all again and adds that if she had a cat named Gretel she would ride it around the living room and play horsy with it.
The lions pace. They eat grass. It clears out their digestive systems. They practice looking menacing for the rebellion.
The beautiful child becomes very excited when she sees Nanette. Is it not easy to become excited when one sees Nanette? Nanette is sitting on top of the big rock licking the fur on her back until it shines. She’s just given herself a manicure, and she’s feeling quite vampish. “Look at the pretty cat,” screams the beautiful child into the nanny’s ear, and the only reasons the nanny doesn’t smack the child is because the father is paying her well and the child is dying. “Look at the pretty cat,” the child screams again.
Nanette hears the scream and looks up from her fur to see the beautiful child’s bouncy, blond ringlets flouncing in the breeze. “Why, it’s meat,” says Nanette coquettishly. “Hello, hairy meat,” grins Nanette. She has known the day was coming, but she just didn’t know how soon. She waves her paw in the direction of the meat. To her carnivorous delight, the meat waves back. Oh Nanette, you’re such a flirt!
Martha the Third, Old Socky, Mr. Gumby and Priscilla amble over to the great rock to see what’s going on. After all, nothing ever changes for them. They’ve been picking gnats off each other and wondering if their keepers are capable of moral reasoning. Emotions, yes. They are sure that the keepers feel things. Martha the Third conducted an experiment in which she lightly bit the hand off a certain young male keeper, and Martha the Third said she distinctly smelled his fear. But aside from basic emotions, well, they can reach no exact conclusion about whether or not the keepers keep a proper code. This is an old discussion for them, and they never come up with any definite answers. “What is the true nature of morality anyhow?” says Old Gumby, and they laugh at him. They cannot help but laugh, because he has his muzzle on and is completely unintelligible. They think that today perhaps might be the perfect time to put on another play.
The beautiful child is entranced with Nanette, whom she calls Gretel. She sighs and stretches her flimsy little arms, weak and unused from months in bed, and begs the nanny to lift her up, just a little bit higher so she can see better. The nanny says no. She says, can’t the beautiful child see the sign? There is no lifting, and there is no feeding the lions. “These are dangerous creatures,” says the nanny, “and we must have respect for dangerous creatures.”
The beautiful child begins to cry. The beautiful child begins to whimper. The beautiful child begins to whine. This is not very odd, because even Mr. Socky (who is not all that bright) knows the beautiful are used to getting their way, and they often lack essential social graces that the less attractive are forced to master. They are used to being coddled, and the beautiful child is no exception to this observation. She is beautiful, and she is sick, but she is a beautiful, sick little brat.
The nanny frowns. She checks her watch.
The father has a bad hangover. He has a date with a bottle of gin in the evening, and he is tired of being at the zoo. He hates the sound of a crying child, especially when he’s not drunk. “I’ll lift you up honey,” he says with a smile. He says this in a tight voice with a tight smile. His muscles are tight too. When he lifts the beautiful child up, he creaks.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” says the nanny. The nanny has read a good many fairy tales.
“Stuff it,” the father says back.
The beautiful child is radiant in her father’s arms. Her golden ringlets shine in the sun. She is an angel. She is a doll with a cherry-red painted mouth and blue-china eyes. She lifts up her delicate hands to the sky and her wrists barely show the puncture wounds and needle marks of her months of illness. She braces her body against the fence and leans over to see her Gretel. Perhaps her father will buy Gretel for her, and Gretel might come to the hospital with her. When the nurse’s back was turned, she would feed Gretel her awful medicine and stick the terrible needles in her tail, and no one would be the wiser for it.
Nanette measures the meat carefully. Martha the Third, Old Gumby, and Mr. Socky, they cock their heads curiously and wait for the revolution to begin.
Only Priscilla does not watch. She covers her head with her paws and prays. She prays because she knows she loves Old Gumby. She prays because she knows that a May/December romance could work if he only gave it a little time. She prays because she knows that he’s a real male underneath that soft fur and swishy tale. He’s just artistic, that’s all. She prays because she has seen the darkness and the great rock in the moonlight, because she knows what lies over the fence, and that though the meat on the other side is fresh, it is also rotten. Priscilla prays because she is afraid of loneliness, because she is afraid of being alone.
The beautiful child reaches. She leans. At the same moment, the father spots a young redhead in a tight skirt in his peripheral vision. “What an ass,” he thinks, and something suddenly stirs in his groin that has not stirred for years. This does not happen for any particular reason. The young redhead does not resemble the beautiful child’s mother or a long-lost first love met by the sea. The father would scorn such psychological interpretations in general, and they aren’t true in this case anyway. The young redhead just happens to be young. She has big breasts and a small waist and a very high, firm backside, and her skirt is so short the father thinks that if she just bent over because she dropped a coin on the sidewalk he might see all the way to kingdom come. The father becomes very excited by this, and he thinks that this revelation might lead to some sort of religious conversion. Finding the sacred in the profane.
The father forgets about the beautiful child. He holds her in his arms, but he has eyes only for the beautiful redhead. The child reaches for Nanette. “Here, kitty kitty! Here, darling Gretel!”
Nanette bats her eyelashes. She has such very long eyelashes, and why, Nanette … Nanette is such a flirt!
“Kitty,” screams the child, delirious in the throws of ice-cream-like desire. She snatches at the air and finds nothing to grab onto. No fence. No Gretel. No Nanette.
Oh how terrifying the tale now turns…. Let us all tremble for the beautiful child.
For of course, we know what must happen if the story is to continue.
There is no need to describe the image of the child falling, the father’s frozen fear as he feels what was once in his hands fall out of his hands, the look on the nanny’s face somewhere in between dread and reproach, the hungry open jaws of the lions as they pad tentatively toward the blond ringlets, the cherry-red lips, the blue-china eyes, the white-pink, tender flesh soaked in sunlight, sweat, and fragrant perspiration. The smell of it! Why, the smell of the meat of it alone is enough to drive Mr. Socky to madness. Martha the Third feels her nails extending involuntarily, kitchen-clean butcher knives waiting to slice into the feast. Nanette cries out. “Long live the revolution!” She charges down to the stream, ready to make good on her promise. The meat is hers. It is hers alone. She lured it. She alone will gorge upon it. There will be time enough later for the others to pick at the bones, to ensnare their own prey. This is the beginning of the beginning! The call to action has been sounded. The lions must arise!
Priscilla peeks out from behind her paws. She is alone on the great rock. She sees the others prowling in the stream. They snarl at one another and gnash their teeth. Old Gumby has torn his muzzle off in a frenzy. He swipes at Nanette and draws blood. There is screaming from behind the fence. There is a deep smell in the air, muskier than dirt and more potent than blood, and Priscilla does not need Martha the Third’s experiments to know that this is the smell of fear. It is a rotten smell, and seductive too. It is the smell of fresh meat that Priscilla has never smelled before, and she is frightened by it and surprised and in love. Why, she does not know herself anymore!
The father and the nanny stand behind the fence and sing out in terror. The father knows that if he were a brave man he would jump in and attempt to save his child. But he knows that he is not a brave man, and that he will not jump, and a small, generous part of himself says that his child was sick anyway and would not have lived through the year.
The nanny has no such thought of jumping, but she is a practical woman and she calls out for the keepers and the police and the firemen. There is much crying from the people, and the adults shield their children’s eyes from the spectacle as the children try to squirm out of the adults’ grasps to see, but there is not much to see anyway except a pack of lions huddled around one another clawing and snarling and growling and biting, with the hint of bloody, blond ringlets peeping out from here and there behind yellow fur. The young redhead with the great backside sits down on the sidewalk and begins to moan. Her kingdom come is visible to anyone who might care to look, but no one does, least of all the father.
Priscilla knows what she must do. She is sure of it now. The revolution will cause nothing but division. There is nothing good beyond the fence, nothing but more grass and great rocks and streams, and at least this is their grass, their great rock, and their stream. The smell of the meat is seductive, and though her head is cloudy with want, she knows that she must stop this before it is too late to turn back.
She flings her paws to the ground and races down to the stream, bounding with the energy of adrenaline and lust. Across the field, through the green, down the slope, she runs, pants until she reaches the stream and the others.
And what of the beautiful child? Her cherry-red lips? Her blue-china eyes? Her bouncy, blond ringlets and the needle pocks in her skin?
Well, of course she is dead.
Did you expect otherwise? A crowd of fearsome lions has been at her, and she’s strewn in chunky pieces in the stream and along the bank.
Nanette has a long cut running up the side of her lovely snout. She licks succulent flesh off of her gums and also licks her wound. Even in pain, Nanette cannot help looking charming. That Nanette, why, she’s such a flirt!
Martha the Third and Mr. Socky tenderly gnaw at a leg bone together. They share it and some nostalgia too, remembering the old days when the tree at the north end was a mere sapling and young lions had manners and knew when to mind their elders.
Old Gumby himself stands poised over the rib cage. He is ripping out organs with his teeth, which are now freed and white and glistening and proud. His belly is full and portly, and his eyes are fierce and pleased with himself. He’s given Nanette a beating she won’t soon forget. Priscilla stares at him, her eyes full of love. “You must stop this,” she says gingerly as she approaches him. “There’s nothing worth going to beyond the fence. Nothing that we haven’t got here.” She point to the organs spilled out on the dirt. “It’s rotten, you know. Look what it’s done to us.”
Old Gumby grumbles. “It’s fresh,” he says simply. He moves over, makes way for Priscilla to join him. “I’ve never had real, fresh meat before,” he says. “Not in all of my days.”
Old Gumby takes pity on poor Priscilla. Always looking for a reason in things. Always looking to make sense of the world. He abandons the meat and leaves it to Nanette. He pads around behind Priscilla gently, his tail low, and with a gentle growl he mounts her. He dreams of Mr. Socky and fresh meat and dry wind on the plains and love that can never be. He whispers enchanting and ruthless words into her ears that only lions can understand, and Priscilla seems to. She seems to understand.
© Roxanne Grandis
Roxanne Grandis has an MFA in creative writing from New York University and is sure her old professors would be horribly disappointed in her penchant for romance novels and science fiction. She lives in a suburban neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia, where all the houses look the same but everyone surely has some awful secret lurking underneath their lawns. In her spare time from overmothering her ten-year-old son and spoiled dog, she teaches online writing.
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