HCE received a lot of high-quality submissions for The Brutal Issue – sadly, too many to fit inside the magazine! So we offered some of our shortlisted contributors the chance to be published on our website.
Keep an eye on our social media for more great writing like this, in the run up to the release of The Brutal Issue…
The Cost of Weakness
Helen, being the accomplished hostess she was, did not make an ostentatious display of the human cadaver being served as one of her refreshments. One was forced to circulate, to stare at the old-forest redwood with gilded trim that had come to replace the marble and mahogany decor we’d seen during last month’s soiree, to see the twelve-piece jazz band playing to a barren dance floor, which none of us could remember containing even a single couple. The body had been set into one of several “refreshment alcoves”, where guests would need to gather in small groups by turn. Helen hovered in the vicinity, as though by chance – ready to watch the faces of admiration and envy which gazed upon this unprecedented morsel. Guests buzzed around the periphery of the party, tasting the lobster rolls from crustaceans grown in specially-isolated rock shelves in the arctic and foie gras from the liver of honey-drenched-fig-fed geese, before leisurely making their way over to Helen’s maternal face and its wolfish smile presiding over her triumph.
This unofficial centerpiece was a man of fit, almost statuesque physique laid out upon the table with his arms at his sides, palms up. The chest cavity had been carved out to hold the pâté into which his flesh had been mashed and molded. The skin had a slight waxy sheen, having been encased by plastic microfibers for display. It was unclothed, in deference to our capacity as sophisticates, and the genitals were little more than a tiny, curled-up snail after hours in the oven. All features had been scaled back to anonymity, the cooking and preservation reducing the face to a mannequin-like mask. Once rumors had begun to circulate a few days earlier about this intriguing dish, I had considered skipping it on account of the delicate constitution of my wife, Jane. Foolishly, however, I had decided to trust her to maintain a mature demeanor.
“Helen,” I said as we kissed our hellos. “You remember Jane, of course.”
Jane wordlessly managed a small wave in acknowledgement.
“This is a pleasant little fête,” I said. “And I see you’ve accomplished the formerly impossible with this…hors d’oeuvre. How was it managed?”
“Oh, it was quite a challenge,” Helen said. “One needs to locate a proper specimen. Interviews must be conducted discreetly, of course, but–”
“Wait,” Jane said. “Are you telling me that you met this man?”
“Well, not personally of course. Chef sees to all of that. But it is a very lengthy process.”
“So he knew he was going to…to be eaten?” My wife’s quivering voice was, I feared, beginning to border on the hysterical.
“Well, of course,” Helen said. “One needs to cultivate candidates. Then you need to make sure they’re being fed and exercised properly, the way you would with a prized steer.”
“That’s horrible,” Jane wailed.
“Oh no,” Helen replied reassuringly. “They are more than adequately compensated. Believe me. Everything is done quite humanely.”
“The effect is…” I paused before deciding on, “breathtaking.”
“Thank you. It’s a multi-year process involving more than a few tests. But,” she said proudly, “I perfected it, with enough suitable livestock remaining for a few more dishes.”
Clever, I thought. She was creating an inherent time investment for the trend. Her “reserve” would be used over the next year or so. Anyone who attempted to serve a human being during that period would be accused of cutting corners, using an under-cultivated specimen in order to ride on Helen’s coattails. By the time another host could make good on the necessary preparation time, it would already be a déclassé shadow of Helen’s innovation.
“Please,” she said. “Try some.”
The white-liveried server nearby gently dipped a spoon into the body cavity, spread the pate onto one of Helen’s signature stone-ground, wood-fire-baked crackers, and presented it to me on a tiny, bone-white china plate. When I turned around to see if Jane would accept a plate of her own, she had already lost herself in the crowd again.
For the span of a couple of seconds, I considered declining, but I could devise no excuse more palatable than my wife’s maudlin sentimentality. The veganism I had vocally championed – after Jane weepingly corralled me into it – had already long since exhausted the admiration it had once garnered. Although I had won a few converts (all enthusiastically evangelical for the period of their experimentation), time had whittled the roster back down to myself – and Jane, if one wished to include spouses. Rather than continue this now-unfashionable prohibition, I reintroduced meat into my diet – reminding everyone that after my “vegan cleanse” I would only include proteins that met my exacting standards. The ostriches I ate, for instance, all came from a particular ranch in Alberta, fed only by kelp shipped straight from the Gulf of Mexico.
I noted, as I chewed the moist pâté, that the flavor was reminiscent of pork. It was laced with the familiar tang of some peppers from Helen’s Peruvian plantation, which she’d introduced into many of her specialties. “Quite something,” I conceded. “Very interesting.”
Helen smiled triumphantly. When I turned back towards the churning mass of the party, I saw Ashley. She strode towards us, wearing a jewel-studded cocktail dress that showed off every contour of a body which had managed to stave off the deterioration of a rumoured five decades, through a vigorous exercise regimen – and various procedures under the most competent scalpels in the hemisphere. She was flanked by her husband Matthew, and her perhaps-lover Vale. If hatchet-faced CFO and gossip Vale did hold that position, I was determined to supplant him. If not, then I would happily plant my flag in that promised land first. Silent Matthew was a typical, agreeable spouse – more properly docile than Jane.
They affected not to even notice the body, a marked refusal to grant Helen her victory, which did more to cement it than fawning admiration ever could have. After greetings and pleasantries, Helen beamed as the waiter handed each of the new arrivals a tiny plate bearing a human-pâté-laden cracker.
“You heard, of course, about Grant Summerson,” Vale said, his tone carefully placed between declaration and question. I had overheard him broach the subject in the same conspiratorial voice to no less than three groups of people already.
“Yes,” I said. “Embezzlement. Such a shame.”
“The shame is getting caught,” Vale said with a chuckle.
“The shame lies in doing it at all,” Ashley said. “It seems so…crass. If one cannot properly command adequate compensation, then one has no right to it.”
She was living proof of what real talent could exact from a company’s coffers. Ashley had negotiated not only an unprecedentedly generous remuneration package from her own board, but also a lifetime share in residuals from several patents held by the company – despite having invented none of them. Her husband and most members of her family – rippling outwards into circles of cousins she had met only a handful of times – had stipends for vague, laborless sinecures which rivaled even middle-management salaries. Additional perks, including the corporate retreat on a private Caribbean Island for her exclusive use, rounded out her compensation nicely.
“Well,” I said. “That’s the real problem we have these days, isn’t it? Everybody wants something for nothing. Meanwhile, the world is rife with rewards for skill and striving.”
“I admire ambition,” Ashley said with a smile, her eyelids dipping slightly into a seductive posture. “Theft, however, is contemptible.”
“Well,” Vale concluded. “All bills are paid in the end. As old Grant is no doubt finding out.”
After a shared laugh, our little group dissipated, leaving Helen to linger near her triumph. I made it only a few steps away, practically hypnotised by Ashley’s catlike striding around the hall. As her face tightened into disgust, I followed her gaze to see Jane once again standing in front of the body, shivering with sobs. I managed a countenance to match – when Ashley’s eye caught mine – her incredulous dismissal of my wife’s insipid drama. As Ashley lost herself in the swirling horde of guests, I walked over to my sobbing wife and our now grim-faced hostess.
I’d tried to ignore the little idiosyncrasies which had been creeping into my wife’s behaviour. In the interest of giving her healthy outlets for her peculiar proclivity towards altruism – as well as to avoid any further outbursts of righteous indignation, like the affair at Walker’s daughter’s wedding – I had directed the board to establish an appropriate charity for her to administer. Our market research team discovered a type of baby-faced lemur which had been hunted into endangered status in some corner of Africa. This photogenic creature and its plight resonated with focus groups, and Jane was placed at the helm of a new organization dedicated to saving these piteous beasts from their role as bushmeat. After a while, however, she had attempted to funnel the charity’s funds into “food relief”, to eliminate their demand as prey. This roundabout approach – akin to giving tax breaks to muggers in the hopes that they would leave the law-abiding alone – ignored human nature at its most basic level. But, in the interest of harmony, I allowed the foundation to “diversify its approach” to the issue – provided that Jane’s quixoticism did not curtail the interception and prosecution of poachers.
Jane frequently called our son at boarding school. I repeatedly impressed upon her the rigour of his coursework, and that part of the purpose of the exclusive – and expensive – programme was to wean a boy of eight from juvenile dependence upon his parents. Their conversations happened in my absence, but her phone records testified to an exorbitant amount of time spent talking him out off whatever progress he should have been making. Our daughter had begun her nursery school program, including all of the extracurricular activities (subsumed within a larger, twelve-hour curriculum for the core of the most gifted at her preschool for the gifted), but my wife shuddered every morning when sending her off with our driver. She wanted to ride along at first, but I had explicitly forbade it. Jane sat in our son’s room sometimes and cried. I’d also caught Jane sitting and sobbing in our daughter’s room while she was at preschool. A dark portend for the coming years.
She’d begun cancelling appointments with her personal trainer in order to descend the long set of stone steps to our private beach and wander lackadaisically across the sand. According to the household staff and the surveillance cameras, she would sometimes roll up her pant legs, walk into the ocean, and stare dolefully at the horizon. I had to explain away the lines appearing on her face as an insistence upon a certain skin treatment which required the cultivation of several breeds of coral – currently delayed by over-regulation from Australia’s nanny-state. The truth, however, is that she had refused to see Dr. Kellman for any sort of procedure or revitalisation for over a year.
Such eccentricities did not augur well. I had a growing fear that once this marriage had run its natural course, I would have to watch the two children I already had be supplanted in accomplishment and affection by their as-yet-unconceived half-brethren. It is the way of the world, of course, but I was not without pity for my elder offspring – nor without blame for having allowed Jane to coddle them. It was, I reflected after Ashley had coyly returned my awkward smile from across the hall, just as well. Vale was right: all bills are paid in the end. I bypassed the sobbing Jane, and made my way over to Helen to apologise for my wife’s grotesque display.
KIT STORJOHANN is a writer, film archivist and meditation teacher living on the east end of Long Island, New York. As a founding member of the North Fork Writers Group, Kit’s work has appeared in the anthology “Seven Voices: Volume One”, and also in “The Mindfulness Bell.”