Taste

by Joan Mary Flordeliz L. Rayos

Jiko was climbing down his bunk bed when he saw a human-sized rabbit, all curled up in Mael’s bed.

It was unmistakably a rabbit—Jiko would know; he was a hunter patrolling the border of Arcadia, where animals roamed in the wild, free from direct human contact—before he worked at the abattoir. Its soft brown fur enveloped its body; long ears protruded upright from its head. Its teeth were bucked, and whiskers stuck out near its pink nose. It even had a cotton-like ball of fluff for a tail, stuck to its behind. He reached out to touch it.

“What are you doing?” The creature shrunk back from his touch, irritation scratching the surface of its groggy voice. Its eyelids parted, revealing a pair of red—no, white—eyes that were, again, undoubtedly that of a rabbit. But its voice—its speaking voice—was not.

“Well?” the rabbit said impatiently.

Dressed in human clothes, taking up human space—it made him feel that it was he, Jiko, who was the weird one between the two of them. He couldn’t help but react as if he were being questioned by a fellow human being: he quickly turned away, and walked toward the fridge to get a half-eaten soy wrap for breakfast. He looked back to the bunk bed to check if, like a dream, it had disappeared. But it was still there, snuggled up in a patchy blanket. Jiko worried if it would shed on the mattress—how difficult it would be to clean, and how he would explain it to the laundromat.

As he slipped into his sandals and exited the apartment, Jiko felt unusually comforted by the sight of alcohol and nicotine-intoxicated people passed out on the street, who were very much human and not covered in fur.  At least there were still more of their kind in the city, Jiko thought, even as he tried to ignore how, at the corner of his eye, human ears seemed to morph into upright animal ones, and the shadows registered tails growing above some people’s buttocks. He even looked at his own reflection in a neighbor’s window, only to see that it was still him. Covered in skin, not fur. Small human ears protruding from the side of his head, instead of the top. Relieved, he picked up his step, finally shaking off the fog inside his head.

A teenage rabbit inside the apartment? That must have been Mael, newly returned from wherever it was he found money for the rent. Jiko slapped his own cheek and laughed, then waved at the apartment, though no one stood outside to wave back.  How could he have mistaken Mael’s voice for an animal’s? While it was true that human-bred animals had already learned to speak human, there was always something in the human voice they couldn’t replicate. Despite its mastery of human-speak, an animal’s voice remained just that: animalistic. On this issue, Jiko found himself to be in complete agreement with Mael, who would remind him, every time he complained about the animals in the abattoir: “Just because they can speak like us doesn’t mean they’re human.”

###

Jiko had been completely disoriented during his first day at the slaughterhouse. The mangled corpses of every kind of farm animal hung from the towering steel beams of the warehouse. The walls, floors, and tables were painted different hues of red. From the hanging slabs of meat and carcasses, Jiko could make out small squiggly white thread-like shapes squirming, looking very much alive.

The deputy supervisor, Bobby, a strapping middle-aged man whose bearing reminded Jiko of a tamaraw, handed him a flimsy blue face mask that looked like it could barely help with the smell. “You’ll get used to it soon,” he said sympathetically. But it wasn’t the smell of fresh and rotting meat that bothered him the most.

Bobby grabbed a rattling steel cage right under the table. Jiko could barely see the creature inside it, until the stout man pulled it out by the ears. It was a white rabbit with frightened red eyes kicking and struggling under Bobby’s grasp. “Let go of me! Please, I beg you!” Jiko was astonished, then frightened, by what he heard. He could understand what was being said, even the feelings behind what was said—but the way it was uttered…not human at all. How could it be?

“So noisy, right?” Bobby scratched at his ears with his free hand. “Bet you never saw anything like this outside the border.”

“Outside, in Arcadia…” Jiko began, “The ones that don’t know human—they were the targets. Our only targets. The law says—.”

“Can a bullet or a knife tell which is which?” Bobby said, looking Jiko in the eye. “We do things differently here.”

Bobby said he would begin teaching Jiko how to cut and fillet meat. Jiko watched as he slowly shredded the skin off the poor rabbit. The creature made a sound that resembled no human word, but Jiko understood perfectly.

###

After it was discovered that animals bred in captivity had learned to speak human, laws were passed to outlaw animal breeding, driving up the price of meat, which only the richest could afford. Jiko knew that people paid good money for meat. He had earned enough as a hunter stationed at the border, being a skilled marksman who could take down even the swiftest animals in the wild. It was ironic that the very same thing that had thinned out the animal population in the wilderness was what deprived Jiko of his livelihood. Had he been unable to wriggle his way into an underground slaughterhouse that bred animals, he would have already been living in the streets, scavenging for food in dumpsters.

When he returned home from his first day at the slaughterhouse, Mael said Jiko smelled worse than a sewer and quickly pushed him into the shower.

After he had thoroughly scrubbed and washed himself, Jiko found Mael watching a low-quality contraband video of rabbits coddled at the Philippine Eagle Center, where they used to be fattened up by their caretakers before being fed to the Haring Agila. Jiko thought that the grainy clips must have been taken when no one had a problem with the consumption of meat or troubled themselves about its provenance. The “Circle of Life,” was what they used to call it.

Just as the eagle dug its beak into the struggling rabbit’s flesh, Mael muttered, “Given the chance…”

“What?”

“If I had the chance, or opportunity… I mean if someone offered…” Mael looked up at Jiko, his eyes twinkling with morbid fascination. “I would. Eat meat, I mean.”

“What’s wrong with you?” Jiko scoffed in disbelief. Vivid memories of the slaughterhouse flashed through his mind. “Weren’t you just complaining about how I smelled?”

“Well, I…” Mael averted his gaze downwards, as if to find the proper words or reasoning. “You don’t know! I mean, why do people pay so much for it, if it’s not good?”

“But we’re not rich people, Mael.” Jiko argued, attempting to keep his cool. “And if you only saw or heard what I did in the slaughterhouse today…”

“They’re not human, Jiko,” Mael sighed. “Besides, aren’t you even just a little bit curious? If I were in your place, I would definitely nick one or two—”

“Enough.” Jiko cut him short. “I just… There’s no point in talking about this anymore. I had a long day.”

Jiko had wanted to tell Mael how much he disliked his workplace—how, given the chance,he would not work in the abattoir. Who in their right mind would choose to make their living in the portal to hell itself, he thought.

And yet, he was bothered by the fact that he couldn’t answer Mael’s question: Arent you even a little curious?

The naïve, yet morbid curiosity that twinkled in his roommate’s eyes kept Jiko awake that night, and on all the ones that followed. 

###

Time was gold in the slaughterhouse. There was no such thing as lunch break for the butchers; only a fifteen-minute snack time, as the workers called it. Most of the butchers went outside to rapidly scarf down their soy patties and banana skin burgers or smoke.

Jiko relished the fresh air outside the slaughterhouse, which reminded him of the land beyond the border and the work he used to do. He was able to take pride in his work back then. Whenever he picked up the spoils, he would hear the birds singing, not human culture-produced radio songs, but their mating calls. Not a single human word was muttered. Only chirps and melodies fell from their beaks. From time to time, Jiko became curious as to what they were actually singing about, if it could be translated to understandable language. Working at Arcadia was peaceful; perched atop his station, armed with a rifle, which he aimed at wild animals from a distance,  Jiko believed that every kill he made was humane. And when he had been tasked to kill an animal up close in its burrow, Jiko would carry out the order in the early morning, while the prey was sound asleep.

Mael let him know he disagreed. As far as he was concerned, Jiko the hunter was doing exactly the same thing as Jiko the butcher: killing animals.

Under his favorite tree, a short distance from the abattoir, Jiko fished the soy wrap from the pocket of his jacket and began to eat away quickly at what was left from breakfast. Fifteen minutes of calm and sanity was all he had before he went back to making clean and precise cuts of meat amidst the stench of blood and guts and the unsettling sound of human pleas for mercy uttered by animal voices.

“That’s lunch?” a voice suddenly said from behind Jiko, startling him. He then turned around and saw the outline of antlers in the shade. “Would you like some of mine?”

“Sir Bobby?” Jiko said, recognizing the deputy supervisor’s voice.

The outline of a tamaraw standing on its hind legs approached Jiko. Bobby’s face on the body of a tamaraw standing on two legs. “You won’t get enough energy from that, kid. We’ve got a long day ahead of us.”  A sandwich offered, not by a hoof, but by a human hand.

“I-I’m fine, thank you.” Jiko politely averted his gaze. A low, deep-seated growl arose from his stomach. Jiko felt his face flush.

“Come on,” asserted Bobby. The smile that stretched across his lips was so natural, yet disturbing. “It’s delicious, I’m telling you.”

Disoriented still by Bobby’s bullish presence, Jiko reached for the sandwich. He noticed how there was a thick slab of a slightly charred pinkish white patty wedged in between the slices of bread. It was not as blandly colored as the white soy patties that he had at home, but neither was it as chunky as the banana ones. It had an appetizing scent—savory with a spike of sourness but unlike anything he had had before. Tofu burgers didn’t even come close.

“Yesterday’s spoils,” Bobby said, gloating.

“Wait, come again?”

“Rabbit meat.”

“Oh,” he pressed the sandwich back into the deputy supervisor’s hands. “No, no thanks.”

“It tastes just like chicken. But less cholesterol. Good for old men like me.”

“No,” Jiko insisted. “I-I’m just not a fan.”

“Well, that’s a first,” Bobby innocently mused. “You can’t go wrong with chicken.”

Jiko gulped and stared at the tender-looking piece of meat. He had always thought that their customers had eaten the putrid, rotten slabs of flesh hanging in the slaughterhouse raw. Cooked rabbit meat seemed more edible than he had previously thought. Jiko observed how the slab in Bobby’s sandwich oozed with a fatty glaze. His mouth watered.

“It’s a matter of personal preference, I guess.” Jiko carefully reasoned. In a few minutes, they would return to the slaughterhouse where he would have to silence every small voice and whisper begging for their lives. All this he had almost forgotten as he stared at the pinkish piece of charred meat wedged between slices of bread. Jiko found it hard to believe that he was looking at a rabbit. Or rather, what used to be one.

“Your eyes tell a different story,” Bobby snickered.

“The truth is,” Jiko said, clearing his throat. “I’ve never tasted meat—not rabbit, not chicken…”

“You can’t be serious.”

“I can’t afford it—I mean, who can? You can’t even find it in the regular market.”

“You mean to say you’ve never hunted meat for yourself?”

“It’s forbidden—and isn’t our meat for customers only?”

“Get that stick out of your butt, kiddo. Why do you think we work here?” Bobby scoffed, then, lowering his voice, said: “It’s the only way to get close to the game.”

Jiko craned his head to silently avoid eye contact as the deputy supervisor walked away. His last words weighed down on Jiko: “And you call yourself a hunter.”

As Bobby approached the other butchers, signaling the end of the break, they rose from the benches, threw their cigarette stubs, paper cups, and towels into the trash. Was it really true that it was not soy or tofu or fruit meat they were eating, but meat, nicked from the day’s slaughter? How could Jiko not have noticed, until that day, the glorious odor, the patina of meat in their little lunch tins? As Jiko approached the slaughterhouse, he could hear the cries and wails rise up again from the slaughterhouse and slowly close in on him.

What he would give for the peace and quiet, the joy of hunting in Arcadia again.

###

Back outside the border, where the chill morning breeze blew over the grassland, Jiko could feel the quiet—save for the whistles of the crickets—wrapping around him like a comforting blanket. How he missed this place so after working in the slaughterhouse. I’m finally free from all that madness, he thought.

Jiko felt like it was a dream. Too good to be true.

As he stood in the middle of the field, he took a short while to relish what he had taken for granted before. The sun didn’t look like it was rising anytime soon.

Remembering the task that echoed in the back of his head, Jiko convinced himself to finally get moving. One juvenile male rabbit. Dead.

He remembered Bobby, who had shown him how to skin a rabbit and how the little thing in his grip had screamed. Jiko sought solace in the fact that he was going to be the one who would kill it. Quickly and humanely.

He crept up towards a small burrow where he could make out the faint silhouette of a sleeping rabbit. Like clockwork, Jiko crouched down to reach his target easier—to grab hold of it even if it jolted awake and tried to run away.

Excitement ballooned in his chest, as though it were his first hunting job. He was finally in his element again. Jiko’s knife felt snug in his hand. As he inched closer to the creature, he almost cursed when he heard the sound of the grass creaking under his feet.

Creaking? Dry summer grass didn’t creak.

Focus, Jiko.

It hurt his pride as a hunter to even consider that his skills had dulled after working at the slaughterhouse.

He continued to approach the resting animal. Much to Jiko’s amusement, it not only snored, but even muttered in its sleep,

“Mmm, I don’t want to get up for work yet… it’s so early…”

It was his first time to have encountered a wild animal that spoke human.

Maybe he was just imagining things. After all, he had grown a little used to the speaking animals in the abattoir. Or perhaps Bobby was right. There really was no sense in distinguishing between human-bred animals and those who lived in the wild. Even in Arcadia, he knew now, animals talked. Human speech in an animal voice. He found it weird but a little funny—how the animal reminded him of Mael. Mael, who hated to be woken up so early in the morning.

“Don’t worry, you won’t be getting up for work,” Jiko said, barely audible. He grabbed the rabbit by its long, fluffy ears.

Fluffy? In his hands, the rabbit ears dissolved into a mass of fur laced with grease.

Jiko lifted up the creature’s head, to expose its jugular. He was about to make a swift, clean cut when the rabbit’s eyes fluttered open, catching him off guard.

“What are you doing, Jiko?”

 It knows my name.

In a panic, Jiko tightened his grip on the knife and slit the throat in front of him. But the knife didn’t feel like it cut as deeply as it should have. The rabbit began to scream then beg, choke then gurgle….

And just like that, Jiko was back in the slaughterhouse, chopping and slicing, denying the possibility that his skills might have started to dull ever since he’d started working as a temp under Bobby’s tutelage.  He worked methodically, long after the sounds from the bed had come to a complete halt.

The bed?

Jiko blinked.

It was early morning. The mellow flickering light of the street lamps seeped through the window, illuminating his surroundings. A gentle breeze brushed against the top of Jiko’s head. The blades of the electric fan whirred above him.In his hand was a dull kitchen knife. And on the bed, what remained of a body, limp as a rag doll.

Jiko blinked, unscrewed his eyes open, then screwed them shut. When he opened them again, everything was still there. Inside his apartment.

It was a rabbit I killed. An animal. I saw it clearly, Jiko said to himself as he shook the blood off  his hands. Animal, not human. Human, not animal. He repeated these words like a chant. From the depths of his mind, he could hear a cacophony of screams and wails surfacing. Jiko could not tell if they were animal or human. Suddenly a vivid voice emerged, rising above the twisted chorus:

Looks like someone’s having rabbit for lunch today.

The voice in his head almost sounded like Bobby.

Jiko expected—willed—the vomit to rise up his throat.

Instead, he began to salivate, and his stomach began to grumble.

About the Author: Joan Rayos has had two great loves of her life ever since childhood: writing and drawing. When she was in high school, she worked as a feature writer and editor of their school paper, which also released annual literary portfolios. Since she grew up watching horror movies and reading Goosebumps, she became fond of incorporating elements of the grotesque and supernatural into her fiction writing. Her drawings are a different story, however. Despite the usual subjects and theme of her writing, Joan’s artworks are mostly cutesy romantic drawings, heavily influenced by the animated series and comic books that she reads during her free time.

She is currently a student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature under the College of Arts and Letters in UP Diliman. Her works can be seen and followed on her Instagram @joan_d_ark.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.