Acquired Taste

by Chad Stroup

Uncle Ray peels back the first layer or so of his thumb and drops it in the frying pan, adds some cayenne pepper and liquid amino acids, says those two things get wedged in the creases of the fingerprints and spruce up the flavor real good. He wraps up his thumb tip in a previously soiled cloth bandage before the wound has a chance to take a deep breath. He doesn’t even wince. Hunger pangs trump traditional pain. He adds a few hunks of Yukon Gold potatoes with the skin intact and some slices of white onion and stares at the sizzling meal.

Jess Tyler watches from across the room, her bantam body curled up in a cracked plastic Adirondack chair. Jess is not old enough to sign the Eat Treaty yet, so her Uncle Ray has to take care of all the feeding duties around the house, which he has proudly done so ever since the secretive flesh sharers across the nation were finally permitted to publicly declare their beliefs.

The Tylers had some leftovers of Mr. Martin from next-door out in the spare freezer in the garage, but those are gone now. Jess thinks Mr. Martin was a good neighbor, a good friend, hell…a good American. He knew about the worth of sacrifice and what an honor it was to be consumed, absorbed, and shat out. From the earth and back to the soil, Uncle Ray had said when he took his first nibble of Mr. Martin’s sautéed cartilage in between two stale slices of ciabatta. The true cycle of life. But their neighborly feast was cut short because some jerks broke into their garage a couple of nights ago and took what was left of Mr. Martin, what would have been enough to feed Uncle Ray and Jess and her big brother Jojo for at least a week. Normally they have Jojo guard the garage ’cause he’s built like a fortified prison, but Jojo was out sharing some flesh with his lady friend last night. Sharing some flesh in both the biblical and the modern sense. Jojo came home this morning with fiery bloodshot eyes and a soaked bandage around his left forearm. He said they were spreadin’ ’round some blood like may-o-naise. Must have been quite a party.

Poor stealing from the poor, just like before, Uncle Ray says in an unintentionally poetic cadence, followed by a few indiscernible obscenities directed toward the thieves. Jess doesn’t know much about “before”. She was less than two-years-old when The Great Reverence passed into law in Black Briar (and the rest of the country, for that matter). Even now, at fourteen, she can barely grasp what eating meant in the old world, what a typical meal might have consisted of. How it played into the family dynamic. How the now sacred flesh of sentient non-human beings was ravaged and disrespected. The concept is like a dream that never existed, a wraith of the recent past.

Uncle Ray likes to spout off about how Aunt Nickie used to be such a great homemaker and made the most delectable peanut butter cookies every Sunday. From scratch. He licks his lips as he describes how she used to make crisscross impressions in the tops of the cookies with fork tines. But what does anything about Aunt Nickie matter? She passed through multiple colons months ago, and none of that flavor was even remotely close to peanut butter.

Uncle Ray finishes frying up his thumb layer and veggies, takes out a butter knife and slices the skin sliver in perfect thirds, sprinkles some sea salt and freshly crushed peppercorn on it. They each crunch on a meager piece. Uncle Ray Mmm mmm mmms all the way to Christmas and Jojo releases a belch like a whale queef, but Jess just forces a grin. She’s had worse and she’s had better. She feels grease tickling her lip and reaches for a napkin with her right hand, forgetting that the fingers are barely healed stumps, sacrificed for the greater good of nutrition. Just because Jess can’t legally sign the Eat Treaty doesn’t mean there aren’t some loopholes to be found courtesy of Uncle Ray. The phantom pains are still fresh, wiggling like invisible, bony worms and Jess feels the sensation may never go away. She switches hands, uses the napkin, and washes down the family flesh with tepid grey water. She anticipates there will be ice cream for dessert, still does not know for certain what the creamy, bitter substance is made of, shudders to think of the possibilities. Sugar and coconut flavoring can only mask so much, and sexual education during class time has robbed her of at least some smidge of naiveté.

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When the family shows up to Worship the following morning there are three animals strategically placed on the stage: a Saanen goat, an albino cow, and a Flemish rabbit. The goat will not lift its head from its water bowl, the cow is wearing a muumuu for some unknown reason, and the rabbit is extra twitchy. The church is not the animals’ natural environment, yet somehow they look like they belong. Jess was hoping for the appearance of a gharial this time, just as she always does, but reptiles are a rarity at Worship and Uncle Ray has promised her again and again that those ugly shits went extinct prior to The Great Reverence. He’s sure of it. Jess ignores Uncle Ray’s rudeness. She believes the gharial is a creature of beauty, of wonder, a crocodile designed as if God had taken design tips from Pablo Picasso. One-hundred-and-ten teeth, and yet Jess has read in some old dusty encyclopedia in the Black Briar Library that there is not a single documented attack on a human. She does not believe they are truly extinct, though. How could there suddenly just be none of something one day? Just like that, snapped out existence? Would the last one even know it was the last? Who would allow any of God’s innocent creatures to pass from this world, and will humans one day be a part of this list? If so, who will be around to take note of it?

Jess will find another gharial. She knows it is her destiny to see one in the scaly flesh. The image of the gharial comes to her in her dreams some nights, smiling its elongated smile, gazing at her with reptilian wisdom.

Jess keeps leaning over to Uncle Ray, asking him in a whispery voice why they can’t eat any of the animals that pass naturally in the world. The ones that were treated like part of the family, bathed weekly, passed around as community idols, medicated into euphoric states. Not that Jess even wants to eat them exactly, but it seems like a waste, she thinks. When Jess’s gerbil Herman went to that Great Runabout in the Sky two months ago, his empty husk was placed on their mantel and a shrine was constructed to honor his sweet life. The smell eventually became too much to bear and Herman was given a proper burial in the side yard, the topsoil sprinkled with lye. Jess always asks Uncle Ray about this waste of perfectly edible meat, and Uncle Ray does his best not to act irritated when he responds. Jojo tells Jess to Shut up ‘cause she’s a stupid know-nothing ingrate brat, and Uncle Ray says not to question the decisions of God and Government. All will become clear at adulthood. Jess has heard some stories in between class times about those who broke the laws of The Great Reverence, and those weren’t all that pleasant—they made tales of the Spanish Inquisition seem like a senior citizen cruise in the Bahamas, so she thinks maybe she should just listen to Uncle Ray. He’s no dummy. He used to be a senator or a manager or a janitor or something useful like that.

There’s a portly preacher man up on stage with the animals. He’s whiter than Frosty’s taint and he’s blowing hard about respecting their superiors, the sentient creatures that have put up with human abuse for so long. His purple robes are tattered and unwashed. Looks like a homeless Grimace, Uncle Ray whispers to Jojo. Jojo bites the edge of his hand so that he does not disrupt Worship with his laughter—drawing blood even, but Jess does not get the joke. Uncle Ray just tells her it was something from before her time. Jess wonders if this Grimace was an Old God, one that will soon return to spread his mighty gospel.

Some short little cotton-candy-haired old lady in a crinkled paisley tunic kneels in front of the goat, then rises, then brings its damp beard to her lips. Her face is full of glistening tears. It looks like someone filled up a water balloon with her make-up inside and threw it at her face to see how it might come out.

Jess wonders what makes the preacher man pick a particular member of the audience and match them up with one of these beautiful beasts. She simultaneously wishes for and fears this privilege. Will she ever be chosen? And if so, how will it change the course of her young life?

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Jojo finds the jokers that took the Mr. Martin meat. Right under their noses, two blocks south on Slater Street. The scavengers had eaten about half of it, including the private parts (which every pamphlet seems to claim are the most nutritious bits, but Jess refuses to try them). The Tyler family passes through a door that is not only unlocked, but barely hanging on its hinges. Uncle Ray and Jojo take the back end of a hammer to each of the thieves’ heads while they are laughing the night away in their mildewed basement, lit up on some homemade hooch. A bootleg videotape plays in the background, some ancient banned television program where an adorable wisecracking alien puppet tries to eat the family cat. Jess observes the scene from the top of the stairs without a sound and feels nothing. Jojo curses about the blood splattered on the new unworn blue jeans he just bartered for.

Uncle Ray and Jojo will not face any prison time for this murderous action. In fact, should they even bother to inform the proper authorities, they might be rewarded with a medal and a meal of choice from the Gourmet District, where the wealthy have many untapped resources and prison slaves. Meat theft is punishable by death, not regulated by the state, so says the Eat Treaty. But Uncle Ray is a humble man. He only wants to provide for his family and keep his home safe. Jojo—not so much. He will likely leak the information to his source at the Print Shop and get his picture in next Sunday’s pamphlet.

Now the family has rescued the rest of Mr. Martin, the added bonus of the thieves, plus some other flesh of indeterminate origin that was crammed in the back of the thieves’ fridge. The mystery meat is scaly and scabby, but unquestionably human. Any potential disease or contamination will cook right out, any foul tastes can be masked with cumin and garlic powder. The Tyler House freezer is so full that the door barely closes. Jess wonders if—in the old world—it had been a crime to steal from thieves, to reclaim what had been unjustly taken? Jojo tells Jess that Robin Hood was probably gay, because why else would he be worrying about stealing and giving back to the poor when he could just be boinking a babe like Maid Marian? That even in the Disney version, she was a real fox. Jess just shrugs, another reference from the old world lost on her.

Jojo is guarding the stash with his life now. He can forget about his little lady friend for a while unless she stops by for supper some time. Supper in the traditional sense. Traditional in the post Great Reverence sense. More important matters to attend to here. Duty calls.

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On an overcast Sunday afternoon, Jess and Uncle Ray make a trip to the farmer’s market. Chickens trot freely amongst the people as if they have their own shopping agenda, so many crowded into some spots that their loose feathers in the air appear to be the result of an impromptu pillow fight. Their clucking is metronomic, trance-inducing. Jess stops at a booth where a husband, wife, and son are selling their family flesh. Each of them is missing some piece that was once aesthetically necessary or even quite useful, but not essential to survival. An earlobe, the tip of a nose, a tongue, a finger or two. Jess stares at the son. He is around her age and, strangely, is missing exactly the same fingers on exactly the same hand as she. She feels something stir within her, a kinship-gone-crush that she refuses to vocalize, but they at least exchange crooked smiles. The boy has only a handful of teeth left. Enamel is a precious bargaining chip in these times.

Jess spies an old woman behind the family, what remains of her slumped in a wheelchair. She is a quadruple amputee, also missing much of her face and appears to have had a double mastectomy. Now that Jess’s own breasts are beginning to develop, she wonders if and when they will be large enough to become a useful commodity. To offer the purest of milk to all those who seek it. Uncle Ray has already been underlining passages from the Breast section of the Eat Treaty. A cream-colored substance oozes from the old woman’s nasal cavity and a fly hungrily rubs its legs together in the curve of her remaining lip. The fly seems to be well aware that the old woman cannot swat it. Jess studies the woman clinically. She presumes the family made a decision that Gramma had lived the longest life and therefore should be the first to be sold off at the market so that the rest of the family might thrive for a few more weeks. Jess knows this because her own Gramma went through the same process when Jess was still a toddler. She does not remember this, but Uncle Ray brings the fact up more than is necessary.

Jess sees an emaciated, androgynous child peddling professionally bagged samples of rat droppings. She barters a piece of flesh that once belonged to the thieves, a tiny, lean patch that she has hidden from Uncle Ray all morning, knowing that trading for this bag of droppings will put her in Jojo’s good graces when she gifts it to him. Jojo and his girlfriend snort the precious droppings on special occasions, and their anniversary is coming up. The droppings offer some strange level of high that Jess is curious about, but not curious enough to pilfer any of the droppings for herself. Her body is a temple and no waste shall enter its gates.

Uncle Ray purchases a bag of oranges because he claims Jojo has been deficient in his Vitamin C consumption lately and is at risk for scurvy. That is all the currency they have for today. As they leave the market, there are true vegetarian protestors politely picketing off to the side so as not to actually obstruct any foot traffic. They wield signs that say ALL MEAT IS SACRED—DON’T EAT SOMEONE WHO COULD BE THE NEXT EINSTEIN OR MLK OR POL POT and A WORLD WITHOUT MEAT=A WORLD REALLY NEAT. Jess is curious as to why they would not picket the entrance, as people leaving have already made their purchases and made up their minds. But she sees worth in their cause, will sneak away from home one day when Uncle Ray is in a drunken coma and come attempt to learn more, maybe even join in the protest if she feels it worth the effort.

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Jess attends Worship by herself the following Sunday. Uncle Ray is taking care of Jojo, who has come down with a case of something that may or may not be chicken pox. She stops by the market to speak to the meat-free protestors, but is disillusioned by the fact that most of them appear to be taking a break and drinking some milky beverage made of flaxseed. So she moves on for now. At the church, the pews are near empty, perhaps because there is a Sacrifice Lottery on the other side of town. Everyone wants to know who will be next obese denizen to be consumed in the communal feast, but Jess just rolls her eyes at the thought.

The purple priest is reading rewritten Leviticus passages, practically singing them in a bouncing ball cadence. He has an almost beautiful and soothing voice, like an angel’s harp that is slightly out of key. Nothing matters until the animals are brought out to gaze upon. An alpaca with its fur dyed blue, a Pug/Shih Tzu mix in a too tiny pink t-shirt that says “Lil’ Princess,” and—

Jess’s solo attendance today is like sweet serendipity, for the third animal that now sits on the stage is everything she has hoped for. She immediately recognizes that long, thin maw lined with jagged razors, that cold stare that burrows into her soul.

A gharial.

The last gharial, or one of many—this does not matter at this moment. What matters is the existence of such a creature at all. Extinction is a myth that can be disproven with just one subject.

The priest notices Jess’s excitement, makes eye contact with her, and beckons to her. It is as if he has been holding out for this very moment, taunting her for months upon years with the fact that she was not worthy. That there are not many attendees to choose from this particular Sunday is beside the point. This is Jess’s time to shine.

She approaches the stage. She is trembling, but she does not give a single damn. The gharial is indifferent to her approach, but Jess expects this. A gharial is not a Golden Retriever waiting patiently for its human companion to return home so that it may lick upon his or her face. A gharial is cold and calculating, but it is still beautiful.

It is the closest thing to God that Jess has ever known.

Jess reaches out her hand with the missing fingers, knowing that the likelihood of losing the fingers on her other hand is slim, but still possible. Those teeth do not lie.

The old scars along her arm are stripped in perfect indented lines like tribal tattoos. She reaches, she approaches. The gharial seems to be almost sleeping, probably dreaming of the gorgeous swamp it calls home and the plentiful fish that only it is allowed to consume without repercussion.

Jess kneels before the gharial, her finger stumps twitching, her destiny fulfilled.

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Chad Stroup received his MFA in Fiction from San Diego State University. His work has been featured in anthologies like Splatterlands and Creature Stew, and his poetry has also appeared in all three volumes of the HWA Poetry Showcase, with a featured poem in the most recent edition. Secrets of the Weird, Stroup’s debut novel, is forthcoming from Grey Matter Press. Visit Subvertbia, a home for some of his short fiction, poetry, and reviews at http://subvertbia.blogspot.com/, and drop by his Facebook page as well. https://www.facebook.com/ChadStroupWriter.

“Acquired Taste” (© Chad Stroup) was published in Issue 4 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.