You've heard stories of the old woman before, the one who lived deep in the woods outside of town. Two oak trees squeezed the sides of her house, and no one could tear the ivy off without taking the siding with it. She had a utility pole in the yard and power coming in, serving the few electrical sockets that still worked. The sagging eaves of the house were dripping with homemade wind chimes, and they were strung in messy clumps off through the trees. Metal pipe, skinned sticks, strips of hard plastic, glass beads, and pieces of tin were tied into arrays with fishing line and wire. On a windy day, the chimes made the whole forest mutter.
She had inherited nine children from her daughter who had died, and the nine kids took turns hurting her: one was always sick, one was always breaking a window or a dish, and one was always causing problems at the school. As soon as she took care of one child, one of the other nine would start. She did their laundry, washed dishes, cooked for them, soldered their broken toys, and kept fixing things until metal and wood and green circuit boards grew so thin, they fell apart in her old hands. The old woman lived in her shoes, even slept in them, always on her feet.
It was the middle of summer, and she lined up her nine kids - the eldest boy watching the youngest girl, the twins standing together, the two middle boys, the three middle girls - and took them all to the landfill. They spread out in the shadows of bulldozers and the ruins of cars, turning over soggy black bags and tearing open discarded appliances. Some things the old woman knew how to fix, and they would take home vacuums, blenders, hammers without heads. Anything she couldn't fix, she lopped the electrical cords off of, laying the cut cords over her arm like tails, and gave them to her children to burn and then rake the copper out of the sizzling tar of insulation. After they had loaded all this into stolen shopping carts, they combed over the mounds of junk for fishing line, thin wire, pieces of glass, and metal pipe that the old woman could use to make wind chimes and sell on the roadside.
The old woman thought the chimes were beautiful, complex and gleaming and sharp. When she pulled the fishing line and wire through her teeth to make it straight, the strings twitched with their own life. Anything she tied with them would come alive. She dreamed of seeing her chimes over every door, on every tree. She hadn't been able to sell very many.
After they got back from the landfill, the old woman took the three middle girls with her to sell chimes. The girls were in their early teens, slim with long black hair and dark skin. The old woman stood them by the road in their summer clothes, leaning back against a wobbly card table set up on the shoulder and piled with chimes. She told the girls to wave to men who passed in their cars. The men would stop.
They'd been standing there for around four hours when a man in a brown car came by and pulled over. He wore a black hat and his hands were covered in dried blood. The old woman and her daughters could see a mound of packages wrapped in damp white paper in his backseat.
The girls smiled and told him they liked his hat, as they were supposed to. They touched the brim.
"Did you have an accident?" the old woman asked.
"No," said the man. "The meat fair's come again. This year, the Cleaver has six acres of butchers' booths."
She untangled one of the chimes from the pile. "Brown is the color for a man who likes meat. This is hand-made with root beer glass. See what it does to the light? Hear that sound?"
The man looked at several more chimes, talking to the girls and asking them which they liked best. Finally, he took the root beer chime, dumped it into his passenger seat and left. He gave them fifteen dollars for it, all they made that day. Soon, she would have to do something to keep all her children fed.
The old woman and the girls packed their things and walked back home, rolling the card table on its side through the woods. They came into the house, the three middle girls hooking the unsold chimes back under the eaves with the others. She spent the rest of the afternoon working on an old deep-freeze, unable to think of anything but the swollen packages in the back of the man's car. She finally got the freezer to hum back to life. Then it was late, so she put all her children to bed and went into the kitchen to sort the piles of pipe and glass. She unballed the tangled wire and fishing line and pulled it through her teeth until it was straight. They lay in clean rows on the table, wagging like tails and eager to move chimes. The freezer buzzed from the other room while she worked.
She got her children up early the next morning. "Put Ziplock bags in your pockets," she told them. "Line the insides of your clothes with plastic wrap and newspaper. We're going to the meat fair." They walked under the trees in the dim light, the chimes clattering above their heads.
The old woman, wearing a wide straw hat, herded her children inside the gates. There were hundreds of people, big fabric tents everywhere, and every kind of meat. There were sides of cow swaying from chains, plucked and unplucked birds hanging by their feet, ice bins stuffed with small, fatted rodents. Dorsal fins were stacked like chips on wire stringers, swimming pools stank with shellfish, and frozen cat carcasses filled boxes. People dodged yellow columns of flypaper hanging from the tent edges, vibrating with wing and leg and eye. Kids went to booths where they tried to guess their weight in chicken hearts or threw darts at inflated animal bladders. Nothing was labeled, but the butchers assured everyone that there was no kind of meat they didn't have.
The Cleaver was somehow everywhere at once. He was a huge man, big-bellied and shining with sweat. His white shirt curled up at the bottom, sliding up his stomach and sides. He wore rough leather gloves and delicate glasses. He spun the animals hanging overhead and lopped off slices of them with his knife, dropping the crescent-shaped hacks into wads of white butcher paper and filling his pockets with the meat-eaters' money. The hot dog vendors and fry pits buzzed with people, but could not move the Cleaver. He ate only vegetables himself. Had the old woman's eyes been better, she would have seen that the Cleaver was a man who believed in punishment.
She whispered to her kids to be careful and to run if anyone caught them. The nine children spread out over the fair and mixed with the crowds of people waving off flies and haggling over meat. Their small hands stole into bowls of livers, picked drumsticks from lines, pushed into ice-bins packed with cuts of steak. They fished out pickled sow-ears from jars and peeled off marbled strips of beef, filling their pockets and clothes with the chilled, spongy hunks of flesh. One of the twins had brought a backpack and, stopping for a moment, was able to slip it over a grinning hog's head. He could feel the snout pushing into his back with every step.
Everywhere they went, the Cleaver saw them, and ran his thumb over the blade of his knife while counting what they took. He saw their soggy pants' pockets bulging, the sticky tips of their fingers. He imagined them chewing it raw in the parking lot, cooking up stinking vats in their oven at home, rolling charred bits of it between their teeth, and this disgusted him. He would make sure they left with no more than they had come.
They left the fair as soon as the sky began to dim, the old woman leading her children in a long line on the shoulder, car-lights sweeping back and forth across them in the dark. After a while, they turned into the forest, pushing their way through the dark brush and avoiding the black columns of the trees, until finally they saw the blue glow of their yard ahead. Once they were all back under the lights of their house, their take of meat tossed in the freezer, the old woman saw that there were only eight children. One of the twins, the girl, was missing. She flexed her feet in her old shoes, took the oldest boy and three middle girls with her, and went out with flashlights to find the lost twin.
While they were gone, other children went through the freezer to see what everyone had gotten. "We'll have bacon first," the youngest girl said.
"That isn't bacon," said one of the middle boys.
"It's a lot like it, though. We could call it bacon."
They took everything out of the freezer, pushed the old woman's chime parts out of the way, and put all the meat on the table where they could see it: a small hog's head, a whole turkey, a leg of deer, a side of ribs, a couple of drumsticks, and lots of smaller pieces they couldn't identify. The twin said it looked like a person piled up the way it was, and the others agreed. They grabbed some of the strings that the old woman had straightened and cut, the line trembling with life in their hands. Then they found a needle and started stitching the clumps of meat together. They picked it up and set it in a chair where they could look at what they'd done.
"We'll call you, pigboy," the lonely twin said. He hugged it, making his shirt sticky and damp. "Until my sister gets back, you can be my twin."
The pigboy cocked his head at the twin and opened his jaw. "You won't find her," he said. "Not if the Cleaver has her."
"You don't know that," the twin said, "You're made of meat!"
"So are you!" said the pigboy. He jumped out of the chair and started circling the kitchen, dragging his bony knobs over the floor, rooting through the cabinets under the sink, butting against the table, and enjoying his new life. The children followed him around the house and cleaned up after him, eventually cornering the pigboy in the living room.
"We're going to be in trouble," the girl said.
"Will I be in trouble?" asked the pigboy.
"You most of all," said the twin.
The old woman, the three middle girls, and the oldest boy had been out walking for hours and hours. They went all the way down the dark road back to the fair gates, chained shut and rattling in the wind. The old woman leaned on the fence and listened to the fair: the hum of refrigeration units, the creak of the fences and snap of the tents, the tumble of crushed beer cans rolling around on the gravel, even the slick hiss of ice cubes melting in the heavy shadows under tables. She shuddered. It all had a bad sound to her.
They went back down the road, calling out on the roadsides and through the low places of the forest for the twin they had lost, but they couldn't find her. The old woman took her kids under the hard, clean lights of a gas station and left them clustered around a broken fuel-pump while she went inside to borrow the phone. She watched them through the window, dark and dirty as rats, heads lifting at the strange smell of gasoline. They all held hands and flinched from the cars pulling in and out. The old woman called the police and told them about her missing daughter.
When the old woman, the eldest boy, and the three middle girls came through the door of the house, it was well past midnight. They stopped in the living room, seeing the pigboy sitting in a chair with its mismatched arms folded over its turkey stomach, the youngest girl, two middle boys, and the lonely twin sitting on the floor around it. The pigboy said good evening to the old woman. The other children had told it that its chances would be better if it was polite.
The old woman and the older group of children sat down on the floor, too. She massaged the bottoms of her feet through the thin soles of her shoes. "Tell me everything you know about the Cleaver," she said.
The pigboy's nose started to bleed slowly, two thin lines that trickled down his snout and fell to his chest. He lapped at the blood with a stunted tongue, smearing it. "He rips, and he cuts, and he cleaves. That's all a Cleaver is. I can tell you about old women, too."
The old woman narrowed her eyes at him. "We're talking about Cleavers. If we brought you back, would he give back my daughter?"
The pigboy shook his head. "Cleavers don't give. They know only buying and selling."
The old woman got up and went into the kitchen. She came back with a loaf of bread and smeared the slices with lard, handing them out to her children and telling them to eat. "There won't be any meat tonight," she said. She put them all to bed, the pigboy shoving himself into the lost twin's pajamas and crawling into the topmost bunk. The other twin lay on the bed beneath it, crying for his lost sister and cradling a pillow. The old woman lay down in bed, her shoes sticking out from underneath her blanket and heavy on her feet. She thought of the daughters she had lost and covered her face with her hands.
The lonely twin lay in his bed thinking about what his lost sister might have eaten for dinner that night. If she was still inside the meat fair, maybe she had eaten hot dogs and fried chicken legs, or things they'd never even had before. He wondered if he was a bad twin for making the pigboy and letting him wear his sister's pajamas. He crept out of bed and was on his way out the door when he heard a scraping on the floor behind him. The pigboy stood in the hallway watching him, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders and head.
The twin held up a finger for him to be quiet. The pigboy headed out the door with him, through the clouds of dipping white moths under the blue light and into the black growth of the trees.
"What are we doing?" the pigboy asked.
"We're going to sneak inside the fair and find out what happened to my sister before the Cleaver wakes up."
The two of them ran back out to the road and jogged the few miles back to the fair. They climbed over the gate and headed between the tents, the pigboy leading the way to the trailers where the Cleaver kept everything that was important to him.
The refrigeration units on the backs of the trailers filled the fairground with a metallic droning. They tried three different ones before they found one that was unlocked. Inside, the metal floor was frozen over and clumps of bloody ice drizzled down the walls. There was a dim light in the top of the trailer, shining on sides of beef, stacks of chickens and turkeys in bins, and tubs with a mix of everything from chicken necks to cat bellies to crab legs. Lying on top, gleaming red under the light, was a long, thin section of skinned muscle and bone.
"That's an arm," said the twin.
"That's something's arm," said the pigboy.
"There's no hand or skin, but you can tell what it is. He carved her up, just like you said."
"He carves things. That's what a Cleaver does."
Shoving his fist in his mouth so as not to cry, the twin grabbed the arm and ran out of the trailer, the pigboy chasing after. The twin was almost back to the gate when the Cleaver grabbed him by the shoulder, shoved him inside the open door of a concession trailer, and shut the door behind them. The Cleaver's body took up all the space in the tiny room. No matter how he stood, the twin felt the Cleaver's body pushing against him.
The twin shook the arm at him. "This is my sister," he said.
"Call it whatever you want. You'll pay meat for meat," the Cleaver said.
The pigboy had made it back to the fence and scrambled over. He lay in a ditch by the road, his ears pricked up, listening to the sounds from inside the fair.
The sun had just come up when the old woman woke to the lonely twin standing over her, his eyes red and swollen, his shirt damp. His left arm ended in a butcher-paper bandage just below the shoulder. "I found her arm and tried to take it," he said. "So the Cleaver took mine."
She stared at his arm and could only think of chimes, wire and pipe, and how this was something she wouldn't be able to fix. "Show me what you found," she said.
Going through the living room, all the other kids were up, watching the pigboy bat the skinned limb back and forth over the wooden floor.
"What are you doing?" the old woman asked.
The pigboy picked up the arm and shook it at her. "It's a dog leg," he said. "Aren't dogs fun?"
The twin started crying and all the children talked at once.
"Does this mean our sister is okay?" the youngest girl asked.
But the pigboy wasn't paying attention to anything but the leg. He shoved the end of it into the soft meat of his crotch until it stuck there, then thrust his body so that it would swing back and forth. "Aren't dogs fun?" he said again. He said it over and over, swinging his body so hard that his seams stretched and cut across his flesh.
"Stop it!" the old woman yelled. All nine of them stopped talking at once, the pigboy losing his footing and falling into a heap on the floor.
"Good evening," he said.
The old woman pulled the pigboy into the kitchen and turned on the oven. All morning, the eight children watched her stuff his crevices full of yellow granules for poisoning ants, pour liquid termite killer down his throat, and fill his gut with green, flat discs of rat poison. She shoved him down into a heavy iron pot, the pigboy shaking and his nose bleeding, and poured a half empty jar of applesauce over him. She sent seven of her children, keeping the twin with her, out to collect the small, sour apples that grew wild in the woods, and she smashed those and added them too, the tart smell covering over the poison. She added cinnamon, clouds of it floating in the sunlight through the window. Then she opened the oven door, an exhalation of heat flooding the kitchen.
The pigboy looked around at the faces looming over him, the old woman and the children. "Lots of hands are good for chime-making," the pigboy said, "and the old woman loves her chimes."
"What's he talking about?" asked one of the girls.
The old woman squinted at her, trying to remember which one she was. "Nothing. It doesn't matter. We'll get your sister back."
"One sister is two hands for chime-making." The pigboy said this very seriously.
The children felt the weight of the chimes moving in the forest, creaking on the eaves, the guts of them strewn across all the tables and counters, their glass and strings stretching back for years, as long as they could remember.
"That's enough." The old woman put her shoe on the edge of the pot and shoved him deep into the oven with her foot, slamming the door. "The pigboy is the Cleaver's creature. Don't listen to anything he says." The children dispersed through the house, not talking, while the old woman cleaned up.
A few hours later, she opened it and pulled him out. The applesauce had caramelized over the meat. It filled the house with sweet-smelling smoke. The pigboy's eyes were cooked down to stains and his jaw hung open, his tiny teeth standing up from black gums.
The old woman loaded the pot into a wheelbarrow and told her kids to wait for her at home. She put a sheet over it and wheeled it over tree roots and heaps of leaves, through the forest and back out to the road. She pulled the wheelbarrow onto the shoulder where the man who had told them about the fair had stopped, and pushed it along the side of the highway.
When she rolled through the fair gates, the smell made people stop and press in close to her. "It smells so good!" They said. "Look how she served it, sitting up in its own juices, arms out just begging to be eaten. Let us taste."
She smiled and shook her head. "Every bite is for the Cleaver."
The old woman found him cutting rib-bones clean and white and laying them in rows across a table. She thought what excellent chimes they would make, could hear their bony clatter just by looking at them. The Cleaver asked her what she wanted.
The old woman stared at his greasy face, the bloody knife hanging from his belt. "I want my daughter back," she said.
The Cleaver squinted at her, still sliding his knife over bones. "I have as much meat as is mine," he said.
"I brought back everything." She pulled the sheet off the wheelbarrow. "I even cooked it, just for you. Take it."
The Cleaver leaned over the wheelbarrow, holding his breath so as not to smell it. He rolled the cooked pigboy into the tent behind them, then came back and fished through his wallet. He handed the old woman a check someone had written him for thirty-five dollars.
"A customer this morning bought her live, whole and uncut. The address is on the check."
"Bought her live?" the old woman said.
"Yes. Like a lobster." The Cleaver stared at her, wondering why she didn't understand.
The Cleaver watched the old woman run out the gate. He brought people back and showed them the cooked meat in the wheelbarrow, tearing off pieces of it with tongs and dropping it into squares of paper in his hand, pricing it by the handful. They ate it on hot dog buns, in chili bowls, in their hands, the crowd growing and growing. When the Cleaver cut deeper, he saw green and yellow swirls staining the meat, and he knew that something was wrong.
Yelling rose from the middle of the fairgrounds, and sirens flew toward them from every direction. The Cleaver went to see and found yellow lines of vomit on the grass, people lying on the ground. The butchers were swearing in front of their stalls and throwing their tongs at one another, each one blaming the others for selling spoiled meat. Through the gates, the health inspectors and police came in with their silver badges and wide-brimmed hats. They told the Cleaver that it was all going to have to be shut down. They said that all the meat would have to be thrown out, just to be safe.
The old woman had gone all the way into town, walking as fast as she could in her old shoes. She came to a green, open place with white houses and square lawns. Sprinklers stuttered and wet the sidewalks. SUVs shuddered heavy in and out of driveways, and she shrank from their clean weight. Counting the golden mailbox numbers going toward the address on the check, the old woman came to a yard where two young girls were playing in the sprinklers and laughing.
Had her eyes been better, the old woman would have seen that neither of them were her daughter. She thought she recognized the voice of the lost twin and pushed her way into the shrubs to wait. The girls were jumping through the water and shrieking, the bottoms of their feet flashing pink against the grass. The old woman squinted harder. That one. It had to be that one.
She reached through the bushes with her hard arms and grabbed one of the girls by her shoulders. The old woman dragged her through the bushes, squeezed her tight to her chest, and ran into the shadowy space behind the houses and off the road. The girl tried to scream, but the old woman slapped her mouth. She whispered a little nursery rhyme to the girl, over and over. The girl listened to it with wide eyes the whole way, her body limp with fear.
From the main road, police lights licked the asphalt and sent colors dancing through the trees. The old woman turned for the deep woods away from the sirens, away from the town and the fairground, away from gas stations and sprinklers, and headed back to her house.
It was late at night when she finally got in, and all her children were up waiting. She walked inside and sat the girl down on the floor, her eyes swollen. "Your sister is home," the old woman said.
Her other eight kids stared at her, silent.
"It's okay now," the old woman said. She turned to the lonely twin. "The Cleaver paid for what he did to you." The old woman hugged the girl, and she shivered in her bathing suit, not making a sound.
The twin said, "This isn't my sister."
The rest agreed. She had taken the wrong girl.
"You don't know what you're saying. Of course this is your sister."
"Who said that?" The old woman looked over the rows of bleary faces, the kids getting mixed up in her head with her childhood friends, her own children, her other grandchildren, other kids she'd seen or found.
"The pigboy was right." They spoke as if with one voice. "You only care about making the chimes." They called her a child stealer. They said she was just like the Cleaver. They asked what had happened to their mother, and they blamed the old woman for everything bad in their lives.
The old woman closed her eyes and leaned against the wall. The years came down on her old shoulders all at once, her feet hard and sore in the shoes she lived in. Not knowing what to do, the old woman did what she had always done. She yelled for them to shut up and chased them all over the house, whipping them one after another, even the new girl, until they lay in their beds shaking under the covers. Then the old woman went to lie down herself, but couldn't sleep. She got up and went into the kitchen, the empty freezer humming loudly from the other room. She pushed around the pieces of pipe and branches, untangling the wire and fishing line and pulling it through her teeth until it was straight and alive.
Outside, the chimes rattled along the sides of the house, so numerous they made the eaves groan. She closed her eyes and listened. It was a good sound.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Micah Dean Hicks. All rights reserved.