The Steak Tartare of the Damned

This is how they say it happened. My father’s father told him this story, so that he could tell it to me and I could tell it to you. This is the story of the King of All Meat.

They say his name was Fill, and he owned a small but well-appointed butcher shop on the downtown west-river region, right where the neon playtents join up with Slumside. Fill was a simple and practical man with one devoted wife, several children and a neat little house. What Fill didn’t have was much of a choice. By age thirty, Fill was already way deep in debt to the meat men of Slumside, those mean hard children of the Mob who saw to every steak and chop in the whole city. You see, the meat men owned a cut of every link on the flesh-related food chain, from the organic farmers to the rich old consumers. And with meat worth more than gold in those days, they could afford to buy their way into any business in town.

Remember what they used to say: the meat men of Slumside’ve got their fingers in the baby back ribs of every cop and judge, and you don’t crumble bacon on your Caesar without their say-so! Don’t cross the meat men or you’ll end up on the freezer hooks! That’s what they used to say.

One day, Fill did exactly that. He let himself get two weeks behind on his meat payments, and the meat men of Slumside politely informed him, over the phone, that they’d be round momentarily to shatter his patellas. Fill became very agitated. He closed up the butcher shop and locked himself in his basement (which smelled quite poorly and was in dire need of repair, for it had been water-damaged a season ago when the river banks had burst), and he paced back and forth. He weighed his options. He couldn’t pay up – there was no more meat to sell. He could try to borrow some back from his regular customers… but no, there wasn’t time. He paced some more. He supposed he could run – but what of his family? Was it to be the hooks for them? The meat had to come from somewhere! Oh, terrible fate! And then…

And then Fill’s basement floor gave way mid-pace, and Fill tumbled very far into darkness.

When Fill awoke, he was in a place of death and screaming. Bleached bones lined the blackstone walls, and the far-off cavernous ceiling was held up by pillars of skulls, some human and some animal. At the edge of his vision, the shades of dead men, their mouths open and their eyes hanging from their sockets, faded in and out of sight.

“Of course,” said Fill, who had studied his Mesoamerican anthropology. “I must be in Xibalba, the land of death and madness that is recorded in the Mayan Popol Vuh! How odd that my waterlogged basement should be situated directly above it!”

Fill looked around. This was Xibalba, all right. Why, there were the unquiet spirits of those who’d died violently. Over there were the nine Houses of Pain. And right across from him were the three rivers that marked the way into the underworld: the river of scorpions, the river of pus, and the river of…

The river of meat.

Tentatively, Fill approached the flowing stream of blood and raw flesh. He dipped a toe in – it was warm. As he watched, a side of beef flowed by, borne on a current of ribeye steaks. It was followed by several suckling pigs, which were themselves followed by a stream of plump, plucked turkeys.

Fill had begun to formulate an idea.

By nightfall of that day, Fill had paid off his debt to the meat mafioso, and then some. The next day, Fill reopened his store. By the end of the week, the flow of customers had become so great, and the queues so rowdy, that Fill was forced to buy the two establishments on either side of his little butcher shop just to knock them down and expand. By the close of the month, Fill had enough meat, money and prestige that he was able to make the meat men of Slumside an offer they couldn’t refuse, and they left Fill alone forever after. But they spoke of him in hushed whispers, and word began to get around. People began to talk about the young butcher shop owner, and when they did, they referred to him as the King of All Meat.

And why not? For it was a well-known fact in those days that his was the best supply, the freshest cuts, the finest sirloins in all the city; perhaps the state; perhaps the nation. The King of All Meat could not be beat for prices. The King of All Meat was the people’s champion. Moreover, the King was generous and fair to his competitors, showering them with gifts of T-bones and other barbeque-ables. He was known as a good man and a great butcher, and his reputation in business was unimpeachable. You might well ask, who in that city did not love the King?

Who indeed.

It was autumn before they arrived. When they came to Slumside, they brought winter with them. They were the Four Vegan Brothers of the Yucatan, and they came to clean up this town.

They had numbers, not names, and they wore cloaks of red and green. They were vegans of the highest order and the blackest belt, having studied in the mountain monasteries of Lakbet. (This was in the dark and violent days after the Seafood Riots, but before the Long March of Hummus and Grains.) They came from a pure white city, a place where neither meat nor dairy had passed human lips in over three hundred years. The FBI brought them in to bring down the meatlords, but they were no feds, no duty-bound government agents. They were crusaders. They were the Four Vegan Brothers of the Yucatan.

There were many witnesses to their epic struggle against the King of All Meat, and no two of them tell the same tale. There are some who say the battle lasted for days, until the bullets of the meat men and the gangsters were finally overcome through the strength of pure faith and cruelty-free diets. There are those who say that the King of All Meat was forced to call on the hellish undead legions of Xibalba for aid, that the streets ran red with meat and zombies, until finally the door to the underworld was sealed. Some will tell you that Fill the butcher shop owner went quietly, claiming that he’d never meant to cause a fuss, and that it had all been a bit of accident, really.

We may never know what really happened that day in Slumside, but we know this much: the King of All Meat lost his throne, and the delicious red river ran dry at last. That day, the people of the city wept openly in the streets. The meat men and the feds hung up their guns and cried together. All work and traffic stopped, as the people went home to be with their loved ones. They held candlelight vigils and they cooked up their finest steaks, the ones they’d been saving, in honour of their fallen king. It was a sad day; perhaps the saddest day in all of history.

If the Four Vegan Brothers of the Yucatan had expected a hero’s reward, then they were perhaps surprised. We know that they left soon after, following several threats against their person. As they rode into the distance, they did not deign to look back at the impure city that had spurned them. They were not happy or prideful of their accomplishment, and they did not judge us for the path that we had chosen. That’s just the way they were; righteous and strong. Crusaders.

So the story doesn’t end, but you must know the rest. You’ve seen the statues down on main street, and you’ve heard how the old men talk, when they’re into their bacon and ham. They talk about Fill, and about the good old days of cops and meat men, when veal was cheaper than water and folks sucked the marrow out of life. Those great, lost days.

And I don’t know if I believe them, but there are those who speak of a return. They say the day will come when the King of All Meat will take back his throne, and on that day hamburgers and blood pudding will rain from the sky, and we will all of us be saved. They say the time is coming when all men and women will be free to eat their fill of life and happiness, and all our sins will be forgotten. They say the day is coming.

The little shop is still there, they say, in the downtown west-river region, right where the neon playtents join up with Slumside. It’s right there if you know where to look. They say you can walk inside, right down to the basement. You can stand where he once stood.

And if you press your ear to the stone floor and listen just right, they say you can still hear the river flowing.

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Xander Bennett rearranges words for fun and profit. Read a preview of his new book at www.cagescomic.com.

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