Carol thinks it only appropriate to dress in black for her journey to the butcher shop. It’s time to collect the fresh blood she ordered. A pig has been slaughtered especially for her, then suspended by its cloven hooves and bled into a basin. Through the glass partition, she sees what remains of the hog hanging from a rope, waiting to be dismembered. The butcher gives her a knowing smirk, then motions for her to follow him into the back where he hands her the vital fluid. His thick knuckles brush hers. She cringes, thanking him profusely for satisfying her unusual order. He shrugs.
When Carol learned that the butcher raised his own pigs, she begged him for a quart of this sanguinary delicacy. She was planning a grand surprise for her husband, who was raised on a farm in Czechoslovakia. Packing the plastic container in an insulated cooler bag, she buckles it awkwardly into the passenger seat and rushes home before it coagulates.
In her splattered apron, Carol follows the repugnant recipe to a T, mixing the pork blood into a bowl of diced onions, lard, apples, fatback, garlic, parsley, nutmeg, cream, egg, and a dash of salt and pepper. Her stomach lurches when the blood dribbles off the wooden spoon, trailing down as if from an invisible gash. She can barely bring herself to watch the dark goop congeal as it cooks, binding itself to the other ingredients. It’s hard to imagine young Pavel devouring such a dish at his farmhouse table, but it was his father’s specialty.
Carol hopes this gesture will wake Pavel from his emotional catatonia. They’ve been married 16 years and their relationship is beginning to sag at the center like a worn mattress. A decade ago, an ectopic pregnancy rendered Carol infertile. Although she knows it’s a self-punishing habit, she still sheds secret tears at the shame of her physical failure.
She stuffs the hog casings, then squeals as she drops each sausage into 185 degree water, darting back as it splashes out from the pot. Pavel takes no notice as he breezes through the front door, patting down his wispy brown hair, and kisses her on the cheek.
“I have to change my shirt.” His ballpoint pen has bled through his breast pocket again. He slips into their bedroom before taking his seat at the dining room table. Relieved her work is almost done, she sautés the curled sausages in browning butter and serves them to Pavel with mashed potatoes garnished with parsley.
Carol blinks back.
“I made these by hand,” Carol emphasizes. “They’re —”
“Oh.” Pavel looks hesitant. “Yes, I know what they are.”
He smiles nervously and accidentally gurgles like a choking baby. They lock eyes. Without a word, they decide to take the first bite simultaneously, but fail to coordinate the lifting of their forks.
“Thank you,” Pavel says, with a tentative swallow. “It was sweet of you to remember my father’s old dish.”
Carol savors the taste of blood sausage for the first time. The link is soft and crumbles in her mouth. She chews slowly. Each slice is earthy, almost indecently rich. She glances at Pavel to gauge his reaction. Clumps of gore stick between his teeth. He resembles a masticating animal. His lips retract fiercely, and his tongue is stained a dark burgundy.
* * *
Later that night, Carol is jolted out of sleep, as if a hidden defibrillator had charged her body with 1,000 volts of solitude. She blinks, flapping her eyelids toward her husband, then back to the ceiling, and again toward her husband. Then deep into the abyss.
She notices the red, glowing eyes of the television and the smoke detector, and the blue, snake-like slit of the DVD player tracking her like nocturnal predators. She rolls instinctually toward Pavel for protection, but recoils in the other direction. Something is different. He’s off-kilter. Her husband is dreaming strange and unknowable things. It feels like Pavel’s subconscious is summoning these radiant predators out of the dark.
* * *
Since that dinner, Carol senses a shift — her balding husband has become strangely lupine. Pavel is now mysterious when he sleeps, grinding his teeth and snarling, flinging his slender fingers through the air in claw-like slices.
Carol is repulsed. And fascinated. She takes breaks from her calligraphy work to nap in the afternoons; she needs to stay up to observe her husband’s nocturnal life.
In the evening, she slips on her nightie and crawls in between the sheets at 10:30. Pretending to drift off, she peeks out of her parted eyelids, watching as Pavel straps on his sleep mask. As soon as he’s settled, she rolls away from him and slides her butt against his hip, waiting for the purring vibrations of his chest before turning around.
It doesn’t take long for Carol to discover a pattern. Every night, sometime after 2 a.m., Pavel cups his hands over his ears and screams in horror. She can hardly believe these passionate outbursts are coming from a man who typically swallows his words as if they’re his only form of sustenance. A man who no longer has a single word for her as they trade sheepish glances across the dining room table, trying to quiet the metal scrapes of their utensils.
She’s deciphered two words to date. Two words that she’s mulled over for hours. Two words with sinister implications: “butchered” and “her.”
Carol looks at Pavel differently as he slips his argyle socks into the worn beds of his leather loafers and leaves for his accounting firm. This meek accountant is suddenly titillating, licentiously secretive, afflicted with midnight passions. As she cleans his breakfast plate, she wonders whether she really knows her husband. Their relationship has been on a backwards trajectory. When they first met, they fell into an uncanny intimacy, as if they’d already known each other a lifetime. They communicated with the slightest squint of the eyes and twitch of the lips, anticipated the other’s needs before they even needed. But over the years they’d grown less and less acquainted with each other, until they failed to understand even the most pointed words, stopped using their eyes and mouths altogether, and finally matured into intimate strangers.
There was a time when Carol would affix each of her limbs around Pavel as if they had possessed serrated suckers. Carol’s chitinous tentacles would draw him toward her colossal beak, shredding him with her tooth-lined tongue. Her knees would buckle at the mere sight of him, as if Carol In Love attempted the impossible — 43 feet of giant squid lurching out of the ocean and endeavoring to walk on land.
But time had caused them to drift apart. Carol Not Loved now feels submerged. No longer like a colossal squid, but rather like a slightly plump woman trapped 1,000 meters below sea level, with frightening phosphorescent predators trawling for her in the dark.
Things have changed, Carol thinks, scraping away the remains of Pavel’s untouched meal, flipping over the plate and banging it against the rim of the trash can. Pavel used to love her bacon-filled pancakes. Her breakfasts were a form of culinary foreplay, teasing his palate, ensuring his quick return home from work to indulge in her delectable dinners. Carol quantifies her husband’s love by his appetite, rating his consumption like a Dr. Love Meter arcade game. If Pavel utters mmm … CLAMMY. Clears his plate … SEXY. Back for seconds … HOT STUFF. No left-overs … LOVE FEVER.
* * *
At 10:30 that night, her nightie on, his mask strapped, Carol feigns sleep, flips over, and after 2 a.m., like clockwork, Pavel cries out “My love!”
She meticulously adds these words to “butchered” and “her.” It’s inconceivable that this two-timing man-beast is referring to his infertile wife, with whom he is silently wallowing in a mid-marriage crisis. Did Pavel ever butcher a woman in a fit of amorous rage?
Lost in ambivalence — dejected, tantalized, and terror-stricken — Carol swirls with emotions that mingle but don’t mix, like water and oil bouncing off each other in a buoyant separateness. In this state of utter confusion, she flops face down into her pillow and weeps. The cable box is blinking in her direction. Her vision blurs and, for a moment, she sees a blue-black silhouette at the foot of the bed, as if a giant squid has squeezed out its ink in the form of a man.
* * *
The next day Carol sniffs Pavel’s dirty trousers and rifles through his pockets for incriminating evidence. She smells baby powder and crotch sweat, only unearthing a paperclip, bubble gum wrapper, and a twenty-dollar bill folded into an origami crane. It dawns on her that Pavel couldn’t be cheating on her:
- He’s never come home past 7 pm at night.
- He still pops pink bubbles into his mustache.
- He folds his money into miniature animals.
The real shock is that she’s married to a knock-kneed schoolboy.
Undaunted, Carol Not Loved decides that Pavel’s affections can be revived with one last, orgiastic banquet: Salzburger Wiener Schnitzel vom Schwein stuffed with mushrooms, bacon, onions, and herbs, unctuously smothered with a fried egg, anchovies, capers, and sour cream. And in case that’s not fully to his liking, she prepares an alternate schnitzel dish with a gypsy style tomato sauce, served with bell peppers and onion slices, accompanied by potato salad, boiled potatoes with parsley and butter, snow peas, gravy, horseradish, sourdough bread, pickles, lentil salad, sauerkraut with tomatoes and cumin, chips, lemon wedges, white rice, and a decadently buttery spaetzle.
* * *
That night, there’s a lot of stabbing, cutting, and shuffling, and very little swallowing. Pavel doesn’t comment on the “toothsome” dinner, as he often referred to Carol’s cooking. In fact, behind the flares of the burning candlesticks, she sees him puckering his lips in disgust. Carol closes her eyes conjuring up Pavel’s gummy grin as he saws through a naked woman who’s splayed voluptuously across a butcher block. When she opens her eyes, she catches him spitting out bites of her pork cutlet into his napkin.
“Would you, uh, mind terribly if I go to bed without finishing dinner?” He asks, wrapping the linen around his discarded food.
Carol trails him into the bedroom and shuts herself in the bathroom. She clogs her wrinkles with a collagen cream, pinches her cheeks until they’re bruised, curls her lashes with a metal clamp, and teases her hair like a ’60s tramp. She risks wearing her sleeveless nightgown, which reveals her slackening arms. Seductively shuffling into the chamber, she flips off the overhead light.
Slipping beneath the covers, Carol slithers towards Pavel like a sidewinder rattlesnake, leaving J-shaped wrinkles in the sheets. Her tense panting heats his neck. Her hand emerges beneath the blanket. Carol fans out her fingers, sliding them delicately across his skin, and firmly gropes his thigh. Pavel yelps. Carol recoils back into her burrow, miserable and heartbroken.
She looms over Pavel while he sleeps, constantly checking the clock until it strikes 2 a.m. She watches his teeth gnash together and the left side of his upper lip curl back in a growl. Foam collects around his mouth. He resembles a rabid wolf. As he’s aged, his teeth have become irregularly fanged and yellow. Pavel’s jowls flex. Carol leans in closer. His stomach muscles tighten. “Into the meat grinder!”
* * *
The next day, Carol becomes unhinged, rearranging Pavel’s night-time words into all possible combinations, interpreting the sequences as complex algorithms — butchered her, my love, in the meat grinder; my love, butchered her, in the meat grinder; in the meat grinder, my love, butchered her; butchered her in the meat grinder, my love — arriving finally at the only logical conclusion:
- Her husband had an affair.
- When the tramp got pregnant, she blackmailed him.
- So he butchered her and fed her into a meat grinder.
* * *
That night, scared of Pavel, Carol hides her pocketknife inside her bathrobe. She follows him as he sets his briefcase down in his office and slips out of his loafers and into his worn sheepskin slippers. She realizes that she has no idea what her husband does all day when he leaves the house — When did he become such a rapacious brute? And why the hell has he taken to lacerating his huggy pillow? She pivots every which way in order to avoid turning her back on him. He twitches nervously and asks, “Would you, um, mind terribly if I skip dinner tonight?”
She doesn’t want to anger her husband. “Oh, that would be fine,” she gushes, calling him sweetheart for the first time in years. They look at each other in shock, then turn away again. Pavel munches on some crackers. Carol lurks in a corner of the kitchen. I want to feel like a giant squid again! She seethes in his direction, dreading the nocturnal abyss awaiting her.
* * *
In bed, Carol wedges the pocketknife between the headboard and the mattress, then erects a pillow wall between them. She can’t stand touching Pavel. Touching him only reminds her of his inability to touch her. When she inadvertently brushes him, she feels his discomfort in her fingertips and hears the panicky intake of his breath. What’s worse, she’s jealous of the marbled woman whom Pavel fed lustfully into the meat grinder. For a second, Carol laughs at her own perverse thought — My husband doesn’t even love me enough to murder me!
Carol bitterly watches the clock change, and just past 2 a.m., Pavel suddenly cups his ears and shouts “Adriana!”
Carol had always remained silent, but on hearing this name, she can’t stop screaming, not even for a breath. Pavel lunges upwards, rips off his sleep mask, and wails frantically in response. Carol’s knife is pointed at him. Their eyes distend outward. Tonsils spasm in the rear of their throats. Their faces flush with blood. They both sob for a long time, hysterical with confusion, and don’t quiet down until the first morning light starts to bleed gently through the bedroom curtains.
They remain frozen in dumbfounded silence.
When the alarm goes off, they both erupt in riotous laughter. They snicker together at the puny pocketknife, which Carol waves comically in the air like a stage prop. Stomachs cramped with mirth, they wrap their arms around their waists to soothe their mutual pain.
Another silence sets in.
In the first blush, Pavel turns on the table-side lamp. The beady red eyes of the electronic predators retreat from the light.
“Do you know that you’ve been screaming in your sleep?” Carol asks.
Embarrassed, Pavel reaches out his hand, which softens its claw-like stiffness and curls around her. “Oh, honey. Uh, so sorry. D-did I wake you?”
“You’ve been shouting things like ‘butchered her’ and ‘meat grinder.’”
Pavel swallows, straightening his rumpled pajama top. His speech is more accented than usual and seems rusty like an ancient pitted cleaver, “I’ve, uh, been dreaming about my p-piggy Adriana. She was my childhood pet, but, uh, one day my father up and made her into b-blood sausage.”
Carol gasps. Why had he never told her before? She wraps a tentacle around his back and suctions her hand to his shoulder, drawing him delicately back onto a cradle of pillows.
“He told me what the sausage was made of only after I ate it.”
Pavel’s stomach grumbles. He grins awkwardly. “I’m starving. I, um, haven’t been eating much lately since, you know, after we had those links. You wouldn’t by any chance be willing to make your bacon pancakes?”
She motions for him to follow her, flipping on every light as they pass through the withdrawing darkness, vanquishing each inky apparition on their way to the kitchen.