Clean Meat

“What do we do with it?”

“Fuck if I know,” someone hollered. The growing disturbance had pulled a small gathering into the street.

“It’s mocking us,” Tink Bayman said, as it lifted its head skyward, mouth ajar. It had a flat, thick tongue and its upper lip curled back to show a row of low teeth.

Upon seeing the display, the gathering drifted backward, keeping the distance between the two parties fixed. The braver ones in the group continued to investigate, but they extended their necks as far as possible. It did the same.

Tink was right. It was mocking us.

With my daughter tucked into the nook of my elbow, we worked our way toward the front of the crowd. Tink had grabbed the leash which was nothing more than an old piece of rope and led it into a storage building at the far end of town.

Tink was a bruiser of a man, and my daughter and I had watched him guide it through the street. It had a stilted, low-step walk and a measure of pride. Much like Tink.

Once secured inside the building, the crowd followed, pinching themselves into the far corner. As the number of people grew, it began a mad twitching of its tail.

“How do we know it’s authentic?”

“Are you serious? Look at it.”

A murmur washed over the room, and several nodded, giving consensus to the validity of its existence.

My daughter slipped under Brenda Barker’s arm for a closer look, and as she did, it extended its tongue as if to sample her scent.

“Yuck,” someone said.

“It’s real,” another voice boomed.

It was Martha Byrns. Declaimer of the obvious.

The small mob had grown to greater than twenty, and along with myself and my daughter, Martha had found her way front and center. Few circumstances occurred in the town without her intrusion.

A ripple moved through the room as the crowd talked amongst themselves and jockeyed for position. It was obvious no one had a plan. I thought Tink or Martha might take charge. Tink found it, so in my mind, he was the best candidate, though Martha was vying for a leadership position as she often did. Because everyone fixed their attention on the lack of leadership, few noticed it had urinated and defecated on the wood floor.

Martha Byrns screamed. Lee Chinn covered her mouth as if it had released a deadly airborne pathogen. Many of the others followed her lead. Several people exited the building altogether and spilled out into the darkness. Someone blurted out we’d lose our minds. Prions, they said.

“The children will chew their fingers to the bone if infected,” someone whispered.

“It can’t hurt you,” I said.

Having held a bioengineering position, I knew enough to know it wasn’t dangerous, and the crowd appeared to settle from my confidence.

“How did it get here?”

There was an abandoned abattoir a few miles away, but I kept that to myself.

“Not sure,” I said. “But it looks healthy.”

In 2050 food production collapsed, and many foods became unobtainable, even for the well-heeled. The country fell into a state of crisis. If word got out, we’d have a hoard of government inspectors at our doorstep.

The food shortage lasted three years until the Amazon bio-reactors came online and the food crisis stabilized. Amazon produced lab-grown meat at a rate well beyond traditional agriculture. I worked in a lab developing graphene scaffolding designed to do the work of blood vessels and deliver nutrients and oxygen to the cells. The end product was indistinguishable from real meat, acellular agriculture that did not need a muscle biopsy from a real animal. Large bio-reactors stimulated single cells into strands of muscle fibers via a low-level electrical current. Soon there were factories filled with rows of culturing vats—resembling breweries.

The improvements in technology and a fear of disease from traditional livestock wiped out the rest of conventional animal agriculture. The last living animal consumed by humans for food died over 100 years ago. I had never seen a live animal once consumed for food until today. Or known anyone who had.

“How did it get here?”

“Don’t know,” I said.

Between those who left, and those who remained curious, the group settled just short of a half dozen. Even loud-mouthed Martha Byrns found her way home, having long given up on taking charge of something so exotic. Those who stayed, Tink, myself and my daughter, Bill Rishovd and Donna Allen, appreciated what it represented. The others had little interest.

“What do we do with it?”

It had been a few hours since Tink had found it wandering in a large field north of town.

“I’ve never eaten a real one,” my daughter said. Tink, myself, Bill and Donna nodded. But my daughter held unbridled curiosity for the rarity of the opportunity and continued to push.

“When will I ever get another chance?”

“Why does it matter?” Bill said.

“Because that’s what they used to do,” my daughter snapped. Ten going on thirty, she saw the world as a collection of unseized experiences.

It appeared unaffected by the five of us discussing its future. Kicking and tail swishing as it had done since Tink tied it to the rail.

Tink disappeared into the back of the building and returned with an aluminum baseball bat and a crowbar.

“This is what I found,” Tink said.

The five of us had formed a semicircle around it.

My daughter, unable to control her excitement, stood face to face with it. Her big eyes were staring into its big eyes. Neither willing to budge.

“What should we do?” Donna said.

“Eat it,” my daughter said.

The semicircle closed in and Tink, who still held both the baseball bat and the crowbar in his hands, leaned in and sunk his teeth into the rear quarter of the animal. It side-shuffled but paid little attention as Tink returned with a mouthful of black hair and little else.

“Maybe we’re doing it wrong,” Bill said.

Since none of us had any experience, we were at a complete loss. As we mulled over our next move, it flicked its tail, in a lazy, uninterested way with a long slow whoosh.

Tink tossed the aluminum bat in my direction.

“On the count of three, I say we knock it unconscious.”

I nodded.

“One…two…three…”

Tink and I moved in from the side, and landed successive quick blows, striking it hard enough for it to drop onto its front legs and then fall on its side with a groan.

My daughter’s eyes grew wide, as did the others. The five of us held our breath for a moment before descending on the fallen animal, attacking its exposed underbelly with a voracity unseen since the starving years and it made me feel human again.

It took a handful of bites before any of us broke through the skin. My daughter made the most progress. Raising her bloody mouth, and with a level of excitement enjoyed by the young, she said, “Isn’t this great, Daddy?”

With a chunk of flesh clenched between my teeth, I turned and grinned.

It offered a soft moo, and a final swoosh of its tail, before succumbing to our savagery.

R. E. Hengsterman is a writer and photographer who lives under the Carolina blue sky.

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