MEAT IS MAGIC
Barney was a vegetarian. She worked at a butcher shop. At night she’d cast dark magic on the customers who came in the store.
“Save those leftover bones,” she said to a coworker as they got ready to close, the bright red animal parts hanging around them like broken tree limbs.
Her coworker frowned down at the bones, looking as though he’d learn of their importance by staring at their small and bloody pieces. He looked back to Barney and shrugged. Then he wrapped the meatless body parts in a sheet of deli paper.
Just as Barney was about to toss her balled up apron in the laundry pile, a couple came in and commanded that she slice them up a half pound of pork loin.
“We know you’re trying to clooooooose,” one of them said, his nose sounding plugged with snot. And when he failed to follow his statement with a “sorry” or the slightest sign of appreciation, Barney knew that his statement wasn’t an apology; it was a taunt. She half expected to turn around and see his arm locked with his partner’s, the two of them dancing in circles and singing:
We know you’re trying to clooooose.
We know you’re trying to clooooseee.
We know you’re trying to cloooose.
Barney sliced the meat quickly, muttering under her breath. Outside the deli, and all across the country, invisible farmers tended to the ghost of every animal that ever lived. Dark sorcerers lined the mountains with their magical smoke.
Barney was a dirty-looking person, even when her hair was wet from the shower. She wore loose, black clothing and strange smelling shoes made out of mushrooms. Her voice was sharp, and carried further than the average person’s. Still, aside from her work it was rare for anyone to hear the woman speak in public. Instead, she could be heard riding a creaking antique bicycle year-round in any kind of weather.
Now she rode through the thunder and lightning, the wind blowing her hair into a dark and spastic cloud. Cars honked their horns and people shook their fists; people wanted people to die.
At her apartment Barney soaked her bloodstained khakis in the bath tub, and wrung the fabric’s pink water out into a salad bowl. Like catching an invisible spider on the ceiling, she raised the bowl up towards the sky. Across the city, the couple with the sliced pork loin held hands across their dining table. Clouds covered the moon and the dining room’s light grew darker.
In her early twenties, Barney had spent two months on the crew of a theater company’s interactive haunted house. Evil-looking props were stuffed inside a warehouse for the extent of the Halloween season. This was before Barney had discovered her interest in dark magic, and early on in her protest against the manufactured meat industry. In the performance she had been assigned the role of “The Witch”. She dressed in black, with a costume store’s cheap and pointy witch hat. Her cloak was long and baggy. She hid a water-filled spray bottle in her sleeve.
That opening day, a teenager sulked behind his younger siblings as they wandered through the haunted house’s constructed maze. The younger ones scurried around, laughing in confusion. Between sighs and scoffs, the teenager took unusually small nibbles on a rod-shaped beef jerky snack, like he was opening a plastic wrapper with his teeth.
Barney hid behind the set’s wooden tombstones, amongst the fog of the house’s haunted crypt. Her eyes lost focus, as her annoyance turned to rage. She felt her head get heavier, as though her brain were turning into uncooked dough. She burst from behind the graveyard, with both hands raised above her like an opening drawbridge. “MEAT EATER MEAT EATER MEAT EATER.” From her sleeve, she sprayed a mist of water in the teenager’s face, and his meat snack dropped between his feet.
He reacted as though the water had been pepper spray.
“Sweet Jesus! You’ve burned off my skin!” the teenager shouted. One of his siblings began screaming while a soft drizzle of pee spilled through the other sibling’s pants. “You can’t do that!” The teenager began to cry.
Barney felt such power, she began trembling. “YoU Can’t dO ThAt!” she mimicked, then she sprayed him a second time. He fell to his knees, his sobs ringing outside the warehouse and into the street. This was Barney’s first and last day on the job.
It changed her entirely.
Barney’s boss at the butcher shop was a stubbly man with a layer of five o’clock shadow covering his face and body. His hair looked like a carefully groomed golf course. The sight of the man would send Barney spiraling downward into her recurring evil thoughts.
“Havin’ a little cook out,” her boss said with an elbow leaning on Barney’s juice-covered cutting board.
“Are you asking me, or telling me?” Barney said, staring at his slowly soaking arm.
“I’m inviting you.” Her boss removed his elbow, leaving an oval shaped imprint in the thin puddle of blood.
“No chance,” she said, but even as she said this, she knew she would go… She just wouldn’t be seen there. She would keep her distance, attending the party from afar.
It was the start of summer and all across the city the people gathered in its parks. Sausages and burger patties blazed above an endless row of grills. People ran around while others talked in small circles. Some yards away from her boss’ grill, a sand volleyball game was starting to get interesting.
“YEE-AUGH!” one player yelled as they dove. With a muscular swing, they sent the ball sailing back over the net. A wave of sand fell over Barney’s shoe and into the grass.
Barney could see that her boss had a raw burger patty resting on an open bun. “Here you go! Here you go!” He laughed at himself, offering the pink meat to everyone around him. He flipped the bun upside down and let the patty drop onto the grill.
“Fuck you,” Barney said, so far out of ear shot that one of the volleyball players thought she was talking to them.
“Hey pal. You can move,” the player said with the ball tucked under their arm. Barney turned and hissed at the players, then she took a few steps towards the cookout grill.
Barney took a small meaty bone out of her pant pocket and balanced it between her finger and thumb, like she was examining the material in a vial. Immediately her boss’s hands dropped to his knees. He began coughing and gasping for air. A burst of flames shot out of the belly of the grill, making a sound like a rocket. It looked as though the pillar of fire went all the way to outer space. When the fire died down, a cloud of black smoke floated up through the grates. Barney dropped her bone in the grass like she was tossing a gun.
Behind her the six volleyball players locked their arms, their limbs joining together like a table. Then they knelt down and made their table into a floor. Their open eyes turned the color of their eyelids, and they hummed through their noses like ancient dehumidifiers. Barney took two steps onto their arm-woven rug and they raised her up, and began walking away.
If Barney was happy about accomplishing her mission, she was happy in an undetectable way. At her apartment she arranged some chicken bones into a pile under her pillow, then she rested her head and closed her eyes to sleep. In the shadows of the room her face continued to hang off its own meat.
Through the night, the meat-eating population would breathe noisily, their bellies full of magic, though they have yet to realize the dangers that rested inside them. Barney was just beginning to learn. Tomorrow morning, she would marinate some hooves in her bath tub. When she got home from work, they would be ready to cast their evil spell. For now she pushed strollers full of blood-soaked demons in her dreams.
Nate Hoil grew up in Davenport, Iowa. He received his MFA in Poetry from Miami University in Ohio in 2021. He currently lives in Chicago, where he writes and makes handmade books under his independent publishing company Secret Restaurant Press. You can find more about his work by visiting natehoil.com.