(Content Warning: This story features a scene of domestic violence)
The Moon sits on the windowsill of the butcher shop, smoking cigarettes. The butcher doesn’t mind, much, because the Moon is good company and blows her smoke outside, dangling the cigarette from her fingers out the open window. The butcher is breaking down pigs, routine work but heavy work, and the muscles in her shoulders twitch already, and the CD she has in her laptop on the windowsill in front of the Moon has looped twice now. The internet is down, as it always is when the Moon comes to visit, and if the butcher looks outside she’ll see the tide has risen to the bottom of the street.
“Why don’t you take a break?” the Moon asks, flicking ash out the window and into the concrete alleyway, where her hounds wait. Some are pacing, some lying down in that nose-tucked-under-paws way dogs have. The butcher isn’t certain of their breed; the closest she’s ever seen is a saluki, but the Moon’s hounds are their own creatures. The Moon never mentions them, as though they are her and she is them and to do so would be nonsensical.
“Because I lost my assistant–again–and these need to be done sooner rather than later.” The butcher never looks at the Moon for too long. She isn’t sure what will happen if she does. Become caught. Transfixed, unable to look away, intoxicated by her radiance. The butcher has an idea that the Moon visits her because of the knives, the blood, the animals.
“When you say ‘assistant’, do you mean that man you were sleeping with?” the Moon asks. A glance; her lips are the taut smile of a drawn hunter’s bow. The butcher and the Moon are of similar height, tall for women, for of course the Moon is a woman.
“Yes,” the butcher says slowly. It is the only time the Moon has ever mentioned the men. He wasn’t really her assistant, and he’d been a shitty one the rare occasions he tried, clumsy and impatient, damaging stock and then confused at what the big deal was, when she was unhappy about it. He’d been a shitty boyfriend too, but it had taken her too long to realize it. As always.
“Won’t you come with me?” The Moon is always questioning, always inviting. The butcher has always said no. She’s loath to ask if it means for the night or if it means forever; depending on the day, she doesn’t know which she wants.
There is distinction, and frustration, and sometimes embarrassment or anger in being the town’s only female butcher. Men who think they know better. Women who pretend not to understand, like they never considered things just jobs, not men’s work or women’s work. Who pretend like they’ve never wanted to be up to their blood-streaked elbows in something while holding their best and sharpest knives. Who draw their curtains against the Moon and her hounds when they pass through the streets with their light and their freedom from everything. That freedom is too much for some people; the butcher flirts with it in her mind every time the Moon arrives.
“No, but thanks,” the butcher says. The Moon sighs and flicks her cigarette butt out the window. They both know their roles, but sometimes roles, like rules, are made to be broken.
“Enjoy your work, then, and I’ll go and enjoy mine.” The butcher doesn’t know the Moon’s work precisely, she can guess. She had just opened the shop the first time the Moon came to visit her. Of course, it only happens when the Moon is full, that she steps down from the sky and, trailed by her hounds, walks about. She has occasionally caused damage in this way, and has for centuries, to men who spy on her for too long, to people who cannot bear her cool gaze.
She hunts, though the butcher never asks the Moon what she hunts with those hounds. What happens to her quarry once it’s run down, cornered, encircled by the hounds who are baying and then not, their cries belling through the night as their eyes forever catch the light with a silver, otherworldly gleam and the stars wheel unmoored above.
The butcher wonders if she can bear that cool gaze, if the circle of the Moon’s lithe arms is warm, what the Moon’s laughter sounds like. The butcher wonders why she always tells the Moon no, and tells her succession of assistants yes. She wants to go. She will not go. She in fact has much work to do, even more than just the pigs.
“I’ll see you next time,” she says. The Moon raises an eyebrow and smiles, and then is gone. Not much later, the internet is back and the butcher can call up her favorite breakup playlist. It’s sad what a person can get used to, breakup after breakup. Boyfriend after boyfriend. She works until the sun lightens the horizon, and wonders if that story is true as well, that the sun is the Moon’s brother. She wonders if he ever visits anybody and tries to get them to run away with him. She wonders if he would just burn a person up if he is in a room with them, actually burnt to a crisp, as opposed to how she feels when the Moon visits, her skin cool but her belly hot. Or maybe the Moon has had her own breakup, and the Sun pursues her day after day, not getting the message. Or maybe the Sun is a woman as well, passionate and impulsive and intoxicating.
The butcher happens into a new assistant by the next month. He is as bad at butchery as the others, even worse at boyfriending, and though she realizes this earlier than usual she still isn’t prepared for his conclusion. “I don’t get why you do this,” he says one evening, coming through the back door to the shop. As though this were a new thought. As though she might care.
“It’s what I do,” she says, as though he will accept it as an answer. Though really, what other answer is possible? He’d been down at the bar, watching some game or another. She’d been reading emails from local farms, with a single glass of red wine, her laptop on the old butcher’s block she’d restored when she bought the shop. Expanded stock. New breeds of pigs. Is this other beef worth it?
“Real fucking smart,” he says, and then she looks at him, the stick-up drunk sweat of his hair, the red veins in his eyes, and is afraid of him in a way that had not previously occurred to her. In a way she had never been afraid of the other men who had reached this point. What had been said, she wonders. What had happened in his time between doorsteps?
“I don’t really know what else you want me to say.” The butcher stands, sliding her chair crookedly back over the tiles. Her magnetic strip of knives is on the wall behind her, so far behind her. She wasn’t prepared.
They look at each other for an eternal heartbeat, a forever tide-cycle of inhalation and exhalation, and then he moves on her, his drunk red eyes gone angry like a boar’s, no reasoning with him, as though reason has ever been his strength, as opposed to forearms and shoulders she liked, his comparable height. Height was always one of her weaknesses. She hasn’t intentionally picked bad boyfriends, but it also seems impossible for so many men to be intentionally bad. It is the work the butcher fell into, after the first one, the work she was called to even as she learned her knives and her knives learned her.
Even though it seems like it’s the only thing he could have possibly intended, it’s still a shock when he hits her, hand not fully closed, connecting clumsily with her jaw and cheek. Something about this makes it ridiculous, absurd. It is always absurd. It simply cannot be happening. But he hits her again, bringing his focus to bear, and her nose streams blood down over her lips, her chin, and she is proven very wrong, this is very real. She stumbles away from him, no real thoughts in her mind, her head full of the static between songs, and when her hip hits the counter she reaches out and as though called, her fingers curl around the handle of the absurdly expensive breaking knife she bought during her butchery apprenticeship. It leaves the magnet with a tiny breathless noise like a kiss, and she turns and brings it up, sure and strong under his ribs, through his diaphragm and into his lungs and maybe nicking his heart. It’s a nine inch long blade, carbon steel, non-slip handle.
He’s instantly breathless, hung onto her shoulder as though he were also as bad at slow dancing as he was at being a decent person, and his breath has turned to dark blood bubbles when she gives a heave like he’s a hog she has to break down because at this point he is, tossing him up on the butcher’s block on his back, the wine glass falling to the clean little black and white tiles of her floor and shattering apart, leaving red drops which could never be mistaken for blood, not by somebody who knows the difference. Her laptop only falls as far as her chair, still playing some stupid song about love, as so many songs are. The only other noise is her dry breathing and his wet breathing, the slow drips of his blood to the floor, though not very much, not yet, with the way he was cut and the way he is lying. And then the only noise left is her breathing.
The butcher stands there for a very long time, too long, blood-slicked knife in her hand as though it has become an even more permanent part of her, like she can never again be without a knife in her hand. She is the town’s butcher. She had not thought he could surprise her like that, not after all the others. Why is he so different, after all the others? He shouldn’t be. She starts to laugh, or sob, and nearly screams when light hands are on her shoulders, but it’s the Moon, and the Moon pulls her into an embrace, finally; her arms are neither cool nor warm, and she smells like crushed dry grass and the wild salt wind off the stormy ocean, and she feels like strength. The Moon lifts the butcher’s hand and opens her fingers from the knife handle, one by one, until the knife clatters to the floor in a way she can’t stand, but can’t object to either.
Not for the first time but for the longest, she and the Moon face one another, look at each other eye to eye. “Come with me,” the Moon says, with smooth calm urgency. The butcher’s blood is smeared on her shoulder.
“I killed him,” the butcher says, wide-eyed, shivers down her arm, down her spine. She wipes her nose with the back of her hand, flinching from the hurt of it, from the copper taste in her mouth.
“I know.” The Moon knows, has probably known from the first.
The butcher looks at her shop, looks at the blood and glass and wine on the tiles. Her knife. She looks to the Moon again, and feels her pull, that she’s been resisting for all this time, and for what reason? The Moon smiles, pale and terrible and also somehow kind, and holds out her hand. The butcher takes it, and they walk out into the alley behind her shop, into the sea of bright eyed, light footed hounds with feathered ears and wet black noses, and they go off into the night to do the Moon’s work, and the butcher’s.
Jennifer R. Donohue grew up at the Jersey Shore and now lives in central New York with her husband and her Doberman, where she works at her local library and facilitates a writing workshop. Her work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Syntax & Salt, Escape Pod and elsewhere. Her novella Run With the Hunted is available on most digital platforms. She blogs at Authorized Musings, where she shares fiction and the tribulations of the writing life, and tweets @AuthorizedMusin