2020 Short Story Competition Runner-up

“The Price of Haman” by Albert McFarland

First on Meryl’s list of items for George to pick up at the farmers market was “a country haman.” He wondered if she meant jamón, Spanish cured ham, before dismissing the notion. His wife would not make such a mistake.

The list went on: honey mustard, Jordan almonds (white only!), eight large peaches for pie (Sweet Scarlet variety)… Well, he had his marching orders.

Stopping just inside the entrance, George shaded his eyes and squinted at the market sprawl. The lot obviously was once a drive-in movie theater. Arcs of asphalt radiated out like ripples in a pond; stalls occupying spaces meant for cars oriented themselves around a giant, empty screen that loomed over all, a remnant of a shrine to a forgotten god.

He passed a booth where customers lined up for cheese and chutney, then stopped. A bright-blue furry pet peeked out of a woman’s shoulder bag with a yawn, unfurling a forked tongue. A poster on the adjacent booth showed a picture of the same creature. CRISPR Critters, read the headline. Engineered feline and electric eel genes. Purrfect for purrsonal-defense! It was hard to keep up with the latest trends, let alone know which to adopt.

Wandering past unfamiliar stalls, George loosened his collar and rolled up his sleeves to expose pale arms, translucent as a cave salamander in the late-afternoon sun. He was the sort of man who, the less he wore, the more he seemed like he belonged inside an office.

He stopped at a produce stall. A woman humming as she arranged a small mound of hairy tubers smiled brightly at his approach. He asked where he might find a meat seller. He held out Meryl’s list the way a tourist might do with foreign money. The woman smoothed the paper out on the table, peered at it, then frowned.

He thought, It’ll be me on the chopping block if Meryl doesn’t get what she wants. He did not want to give her a reason to throw another grand mal of a tantrum like the one she had in their bedroom last week. George, having already turned in for the night, agreed to host a dinner party but drew a line at inviting his boss. 

Meryl paced back and forth at the foot of their bed, clawing at an earring tangled in a dark coil of hair. “What are you afraid of?” 

She slammed the bathroom door, locking it with a snick.

He wanted to break the door down into splinters. Instead he scrunched up his face like a fist before burrowing tightly into her pillow to muffle his scream. Depleted, he soothed himself in the cradle of her scent. 

It took more than an hour of pleading through the door to coax her back to bed. Even then she behaved as if he weren’t there, her eyes fixed on her phone. George excelled in his negotiations at work, but increasingly failed in them at home. In the end he surrendered. Meryl was unable to tolerate disappointment and he couldn’t stand feeling like one. 

The produce woman pushed the smoothed-out list across the table without making eye contact. She pointed at a white tent off in a corner by itself, to the side of an abandoned playground directly under the movie screen. George felt obliged to buy something, so he picked out a long bunch of leeks even though they weren’t on the list.

George approached the edge of the market where the tent lay in shadow beneath a Medusa of an oak. It sat flanked by an animal pen and a silver trailer hitched to a rusty pickup truck. The pen was the sort of thing you might see outside a supermarket before Halloween: pumpkins arrayed for sale in a rustic farm setting enclosed by a high fence to keep out vandals. However, this one had only a single hay bale placed in the center on a thinning bed of straw.

The front of the tent was splayed open, a counter running the length of it. Facing out above the counter, a barn-board sign read in white painted brushstrokes E-I-E-I-O Collective. 

No one manned the counter, so George called out, “Hello! Anyone there?” 

On a shelf next to a roll of butcher paper, a small bronze bell sat atop a throne of stacked flyers. He gave it a tap, piercing the air with a sharp ding.

He heard a rustling and a grunt, then a gravelly voice from behind a curtain wall at the back of the tent: “Yes! May we help you?”

A sour barnyard smell wafted by on the warm breeze, reminding him of the 4H section at the county fair. “I’m looking to buy a ham.” 

Water splashed in a sink behind the curtain.

“A ham,” George said loudly, bunching the muscles in his jaw. 

“A what?” came the voice behind the curtain.

He glanced down at the list Meryl had scrawled for him that morning, with the name of this particular farmers market underlined at the bottom. 

“A country haman!” he said. “My wife said I’d find one here!”

“Your wife’s correct! There is still one left,” came the reply. “My apologies. I’m cleaning up from the previous transaction.”

“No problem,” George said toward the curtain. “I’m glad to hear it. Meryl… my wife, she’s the chef of the house. She promised our dinner guests we’d be serving something special…” He stopped, realizing that he had undermined his negotiating position. “Say, what’s the price?” he asked.

“It depends.”

“What do you mean?” asked George.

“For you, not so much.” The curtain parted. “For us, everything.” 

Out stepped the proprietor, smiling lopsidedly. He stood about four feet tall with a stocky, muscular build. Two short tusks curved up from the corners of his mouth, one jaggedly broken near the tip. Hairs dense and reddish as copper wire protruded from the top of his head and down the nape of his neck. He removed a white butcher’s apron stained with fresh blood. Underneath he wore an unbuttoned black leather vest. The jowly pinkness and the unmistakable nose were sufficient to indicate his parentage. This was a porcine-human chimera.

“Still want to do business?” The chimera cocked his head. He stepped onto a raised platform behind the counter and stood almost eye-to-eye with him.

George tightened his grip on the leeks. Goddammit, Meryl. Why didn’t you tell me what this haman thing was all about? He was angry with himself for accepting the errand. He had heard of people eating real chimeric meat in other countries like they do horse or dog, but he didn’t realize there existed a market for it here. He envisioned Meryl scrolling through her exotic foodie sites looking for an exciting new recipe. She and her friends from the NuYu Medspa were always trying to outdo each other on the food front. For Easter, one of those ladies had served vegan lab-grown yak meat, and Meryl had been scheming about how to top her ever since.

“It depends,” George said, seeking to regain his footing in the transaction.

“Look, we’ve got to start packing up soon.” The chimera gestured with a thrust of his bristled jaw toward the truck. A large animal hoisted a crate, and then disappeared behind the trailer, its dark torso muscular and wide as the trunk of the oak tree. 

Bovine… minotaur class, George guessed. “Hang on. I get it. You’re all…”

The chimera tried to cut him off. “Yeah.”

George proceeded anyway. “You’re all domesticated barnyard blends here. Is that it?” 

The chimera winced. “We are undomesticated. We are a co-op and own ourselves. Our website spells out the details. Most people who arrive here have done their research.” 

George’s smile disappeared. Meryl!

“It would be best if you consult our brochure here. I’m legally bound to direct your attention to the fine print regarding the risks associated with wild game.” He leaned forward and handed George a folded sheet of pink paper. The chimera’s hands consisted of two short fat fingers and a thumb. Hoof-like.

George set the brochure down. “No offense… I normally get store-bought. We try to buy organic. Humane, grass-fed, cage-free, that sort of thing… We haven’t tried blends.” 

The chimera stared at him for several seconds. George felt like he was being sized up. The chimera, he noticed, had eyes turned down at the corners making his expression look sad. 

“We are what we are. There’s no changing that.” The chimera muttered this mostly to himself. Then, lifting his chin, “Do you want to buy some meat today or not?”

“I don’t know…I think so.” George took off his hat and wiped his head. It seemed like he had no good options. Where else could I find haman at this late hour? Nowhere, clearly, and the chimera knows it.

“Well,” the chimera said, “as I mentioned, we have one last haman left. ‘Domesticated porcine’ as your kind like to say, but infused with a rare stock of feral razorback boar blended with Scandinavian sapiens. How does that sound?”

“Sounds like what the chef ordered.” George then remembered Meryl’s instruction to make sure to ask for fresh. Heaven forbid I forget. “It’s fresh, right? Not frozen?”

  It’s fresh alright.” The chimera puffed out his chest. “It’s standing right in front of you.” 

“What?” blurted out George.

“I’m the last one here. More should show up for the weekend shift from the other farms in the co-op. So it’s me today or nothing.”

“I… I don’t know about that.” George turned away, shuffling his feet.

“It’s okay. I’m the oldest provider for the farm. Someone’s got to bring home the bacon. Heh heh,” said the chimera, patting his stomach.

He can’t mean it, can he? George thought. Or maybe he’s playing with me. He’s laughing. This is crazy!

“Look, we’re bred to be a part of you. Personally, I’d prefer being eaten the old-fashioned way over getting harvested any day of the week.”

George said nothing at first. Sweat beaded on his forehead, the heat looking for a way out. Goddammit! That preening shitbird of a wife. She insisted I invite my supervisor to the dinner, for chrissake! Plus her elderly cousin from Reykjavik whose mumbles no one can understand. This whole thing made him feel guilty in a way buying meat already processed and packaged didn’t. He wanted to leave. 

“I hate the idea of all this.” George opened his hands palms up. “The supermarket must have regular classic hams. Better priced for me. Better that way for you.”

“No need to be concerned. It’s how we stay in business,” the chimera responded. He continued, saying that the proceeds from feeding others allowed them to feed themselves and doing this work let them live good lives on their own terms on their own farms. George could tell he’d clearly delivered these memorized lines before. 

The chimera spread his arms wide. “Everything eats everything, you know.” 

A breeze, thick with humidity, coursed like a current through the branches above. Dappled shadows danced across the side of the tent. A high-pitched creak of metal-on-metal drifted over from the playground, punctuated by the deep lowing sound of an animal, resonant as if wrung from subterranean bowels. 

Flicking his eyes downward, the chimera grunted with his lopsided grin, “I’d go good with leeks.”

George looked at the long green blades held in his hand hanging at his side. He considered the list of things he still needed to get. “Um… so, how does this work?”

The chimera told him they were a designated game preserve, allowing them to get around the restrictions on the sale of fresh chimeric meat. Meaning, a customer could legally eat what they hunted. 

“Like it says in the brochure. Bring it down and it’s yours.” The chimera stated it matter-of-factly.

“Um… so, we have to go to your preserve to do it?” George felt like he’d stepped into an unexpectedly deep mud puddle.

“No, no. By extension our corral there suffices. Same as on our farm. It’s legally a part of the preserve.” The chimera gestured toward the adjoining enclosure. 

George noticed that the hay bale bore dark stains. He thought of a trip a decade earlier with Meryl to see Mayan pyramids rising up out of the steamy jungle. The sacrificial altar atop the highest pyramid was roughly the size of a hay bale, though taller. “Willing sacrifices,” he’d been told by the guide. 

It had been Meryl’s idea to sneak back up in the moonlight. “What are you afraid of?” she whispered before nipping his earlobe and dancing away just out of reach to clamber up the steep steps. He had no choice but to follow. 

She dared him to make love there on the altar. “Be a man,” she told him. 

Afterwards, she lay spent, her head resting on his chest watching lightning flicker over the distant sea. Meryl delighted at every rumble coinciding with a beat of his heart. He ran his fingers up the nape of her neck, wrapping them in the silkiness of her hair. She kissed him. The stone carvings standing mutely over them, he remembered, were interestingly of animal men.

The porcine glanced at his watch. “I’ll throw in the hunting license fee.” He said it with finality, slapping the counter like punctuation and startling George.

He considered walking away, but knew he wasn’t really willing to go home without the haman. 

“It’s a deal.” 

They shook. The chimera’s inhuman hand felt odd. If it were a classic pig’s foot it would have been one thing. Like shaking paws with a dog. This in-between hand was weird in the same way as those fat tadpoles he’d caught in the pond as a kid in Texas. The ones with tails and tiny legs sticking out of them. Neither wholly this nor that.

After they completed the payment and paperwork, the chimera yelled out over his shoulder, “Esmeralda! Bring out the same set from earlier! We’ve got one last transaction before we pack up!”

A slender girl ducked under the curtain and strutted up to the counter. A Rhode Island Red chicky, George figured. He’d seen a special mini-documentary about egg-laying hen-human strains. Feathers covered her private parts like a burlesque dancer’s plumage from a bygone age. She stood no higher than his waist. Her furtive movements made him nervous.

With both “wings” outstretched, she presented George a black velvet pillow. Lying side by side on the pillow were a butcher knife and a meat cleaver. He reached out partway and stopped.

“You ken take either one or b…b…both. Customer’s choice,” said Esmeralda in a scratchy nasal voice. She kept turning her head this way and that to look at him with each eye on either side of her face. Her eyes were large, shiny wet.

George picked up the butcher knife. He let it hang by his side in his right hand with the leeks held the same way in the left. The chicky bowed her head then exploded out the back in a burst, clucking out, “L…later, Len.”

“Len, is it? I’m sorry; I didn’t think to ask your name. I’m George.”

“Good meeting you,” said Len flatly.

George placed his hat on the counter. He rolled up his shirtsleeves higher as they proceeded awkwardly to the enclosure. People milled around the booths. A couple of chimeras exited the trailer. Esmeralda he recognized. The minotaur he saw earlier returned from behind the tent accompanied by a centaur carrying what appeared to be a platypus wearing a yellow dress with black polka dots.

“Look Len,” he said apologetically when they stepped inside the enclosure. Len sat down on the bale, plucking a straw of hay to chew. George closed his eyes tight for a moment while pressing his lips together even tighter. I can’t back down now. Hell no. I can do this! He inhaled deeply, and then exhaled for what seemed like a minute. “How do we best do this? Um… so it’s not traumatic for anyone.”

Len continued to sit quietly working the straw with his mouth. He looked up at the sky. “I’ll try not to squeal if you don’t.” Then he got up.

George frowned. He had thought Len was supposed to lie back on the hay bale like a sacrifice. Someone coughed. The gawkers congregated closer. Humans on one side. Chimeras on the other. He felt trapped. Like he had to perform for an audience.

His plastered wet shirt unpeeled from his back as he turned to face Len. “How do you want me to… you know, to minimize suffering…” His voice trailed off.

“Right. You didn’t read the pamphlet.” Len lifted his hand as if holding an invisible document. “The game preserve rules clearly state you have to take down your prey.”

George stared blankly.

Len started to move slowly, circling around the enclosure. “You’ve cornered me. You see I’ve nowhere to run.”

The minotaur shut the high gate and rattled it with a tug making sure it was secure. George looked about. The enclosure seemed suddenly like a fight cage. Oh shit no no.

“Hold on… On second thought, I’m thinking chicken might do.” He nodded toward the diminutive Esmeralda who stood pressed against the chain-link fence.

Len’s face pinched up. “Was that a joke? She’s my fiancé!” 

“Uh, listen, we don’t…”

Someone in the crowd muttered, “Are you two gonna just talk or what?” The girl standing beside the speaker elbowed his side. They were sharing rainbow-colored shaved ice and a red chunk calved off, falling to the asphalt with an audible splat.

“Len, b…babe,”—George recognized Esmeralda’s clucking voice—“don’t drag this out like earlier. Finish this q…quick. We got mouths to feed. Got to git back to the co-op.”

“Okey doke. Whatever you want hon,” said Len, his head angled so the sad blue eye above his shattered tusk remained fixed on George the whole time. “Don’t drop your guard, man.”

George raised the knife, breathing fast and ragged. He pointed it at Len. Barely audible, he stuttered, “I…I…”

“D…do it, Len!” called out Esmeralda.

The chimera dropped to all fours and charged, huffing and grunting, with straw flying up in a cloud behind him.

George stumbled backwards. 

Len hit him low, raking him deeply with his tusk. 

Pain roared up George’s thigh. He went down on his back. He heard screaming. Above him, the oak’s branches writhed black against the pale blue sky. Darkness pressed in around the edges like during an eclipse. 

George’s body heaved to and fro slowly, in sync to a rhythmic thrusting. He was being gutted. He smelled rich earth and shit. His hand weakly reached around in the straw feeling for the knife. He clutched hold of the leeks, squeezing them tightly. Their texture silky smooth to his fingers, familiar and comforting. 

“Oh Meryl,” he whispered.

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