When Nod tells me he found a supplier, I figure he’s putting me on. I give him the $100 I promised, thinking I’ll get it back.
“No wings for you,” Nod says. He is footing the other $400.
We sit around my apartment until after 1 a.m. We leave our phones behind, as instructed. Nod has an ancient electric car that smells like spent fireworks, but I have no car so I can’t complain. We drive north of the city. From six lanes to two, then gravel. I don’t ask if he knows where he’s going; I just stare out into the darkness thinking about what it must be like to live out here, and what the world looked like before the change. I’m starting to fade when I hear branches scraping both sides of the car. Nod stops. The headlights light up the skeleton of an old, collapsing farmhouse.
“Come on,” he says.
“Are you sure this is safe?”
“Nope.” He laughs as he gets out. Then he lopes ahead, all eager and secret agent–like. Having participated with Nod in a number of derelict acts over the years—graffiti and gas lifting—I was always comforted by how excited he got. While I was scared shitless at the idea of getting caught, he would be prancing around like he scored free tickets to a metal concert. But this time is different. I mean, what do we know about animal activism? This is serious. Life-in-prison serious.
I stop just before the front steps and shine a flashlight around. The windows and the front door are missing. Off to one side of the house are a few rusted car bodies and tires scattered about. Nod hops on top of an old washing machine and plays lookout.
“This was farmland once,” he says. “It’s all federal land now. Planted trees everywhere. Damn climate Nazis.”
There is a flash of light from inside the house, like from a match, and my stomach sinks as I realize I will not be getting my money back.
I follow Nod inside. Standing in a room that was once a kitchen is a large man dressed in black, wearing a cheap plastic mask of President Sanderson.
“Like your costume,” Nod says. “That what they call irony?” Sanderson outlawed meat consumption back before we were born. Nod has a dartboard in his room with the man’s face on it.
“Raise your arms, the both of you.”
“Need to see if you’re chipped.”
“We’re clean,” Nod says, as the man scans our bodies with a handheld device.
“What does it matter if we are?” I ask.
“If you are, you come a long way for nothing.”
Nod looks over at me and grins. I know what he’s thinking, that if he had joined the military he’d be unable to do this, because they chip you upon entry. So do prisons. Government jobs. Big companies. But when you’re like us, still relatively young and in half-assed pursuit of our first full-time employment, you’re probably still free of any tracking device. I imagine how Nod will use this rationale to keep from ever getting a steady job.
Nod takes the pocketknife out of his hip pocket when the device protests.
“For later,” Nod says.
The masked man puts the device in a canvas army surplus bag on the floor, then he removes two white chickens, legs tied together, and he hangs them from a piece of wire dangling from the ceiling.
I shine my light on their red heads, looking for eyes. Tiny white feathers fall like snow to the floor. This is the first time I’ve seen chickens this close.
“Free range, grain fed,” the man says. “From Idaho.”
Nod grunts approvingly.
“Are they alive?” I ask.
“Sure they’re alive.” He pokes one hard in its belly, and it springs to life, flapping its wings, feathers scattering. “Hanging like this calms them,” he says. “So does the dark. You want ‘em relaxed right up until the end.”
Nod takes out the cash and hands it over. The man counts it, pockets it.
The man steps into a doorway I didn’t realize existed and is gone. I wonder if he lives here or in some cabin in the woods or if he has a car parked somewhere and a house back in the suburbs. Just another ordinary family man on the surface. I wonder how many chickens he sells each week, how many more of us are out there living in the shadows.
“Pretty awesome, huh?” Nod says. “I’m salivating already.”
“Let’s get out of here.”
“Grab them,” he says.
“Because I gotta drive.”
I hold the chickens upright on the drive home, cradled against my chest. They emit strange little chirps and whisps, like they are talking to each other in hushed voices. I marvel at how they twist their necks, looking up at me.
“We’re going to have a fucking feast!” Nod says. “I should’ve picked up a can of mashed potatoes. You think the mart is open this late?”
“Where are you going to kill them?” I ask.
“You got a bathtub. You should see all the blood that comes out of these things.”
“How would you know?”
“Found a book online. Before they took it down.”
As we return to the city, Nod talks about all the things he has learned from the book. Like the correct way to pluck feathers or remove the crop, the oil gland, guts. I try to tune him out as I stroke the feathers of the chickens nuzzled in my arms, trying to decipher their secret language.
* * *
I met Nod at church in the tenth grade. I was sitting in the last pew. I had taken to sitting far apart from my parents after they questioned my belief in glossolalia. Nod snuck in halfway through mass and slid in next to me. He was breathing heavy and I remembered seeing him around school. He kept to himself, like me. I followed Nod down the aisle to accept Holy Eucharist, and when I returned to my pew, head down, I felt a nudge. I looked up to see Nod heading straight for the foyer, waving me along. I followed and I watched him smoke a cigarette at the elementary school playground.
“I never stay past the food service,” he said. “Damn shame they don’t give you wine anymore.”
“It’s not wine,” I said. “It’s blood.”
“You don’t believe in transubstantiation?”
“Nobody does. What? Do you?”
“I didn’t at first. But I’m starting to come around.”
“It’s a fucking lie, dude.”
“Everything’s a fucking lie.”
“You got a point there.” Nod studied his sneakers.
“But as lies go,” I said, “I like this one. I like the idea that something changes its substance without changing its appearance. I like thinking of those wafers as skin and bone. Of Jesus. Even though they look like ordinary wafers.”
“That would make us cannibals, you know.”
“No, it wouldn’t.”
“The only flesh I want to eat is animal flesh. Cows and pigs and chickens.”
“Good luck with that,” I said. I didn’t realize at the time that Nod wasn’t kidding.
From that day on and after my graduation and Nod dropping out, we stuck together. My parents helped out with rent, mostly because they didn’t want me in their house anymore. Nod would crash on my couch for weeks at a time. Nod’s dad used to beat him. Nod wouldn’t admit it when I asked, but I could tell. The way he’d flinch when I reached across him for the remote or if I’d point at something while in his car. Nod used to make excuses, say he had amazing reflexes, that if not for his asthma he’d be off fighting on the Asian Steppe.
Nod chewed bacon gum. Not real bacon, of course, just flavoring. A pack a day he chewed. He’d swallow it too, not spitting it out.
“What I would give for the real thing,” he said to me one night while sharing a bottle of tequila at my place. He had just lost another busboy job because he got caught lecturing patrons about their meals. He began pacing, as if plotting a coup.
“I don’t know why you need that stuff,” I said. “The fake is just as good.”
“I can tell the difference. I had pork once. Real pork.”
“Where’d you get it?”
“It’s better you not know.”
“Was it good?”
“Amazing. Energizing. Real meat puts us back in touch with our humanity. It’s who we were always meant to be. Carnivores. The idiots up top think they’re saving the planet. Instead they’re killing it.”
“What about the rising waters?”
“You think the cavemen worried about the ice age?” he asked. “They were too busy hunting wooly mammoths to worry about shit they couldn’t change.”
“They say we’ll all live longer,” I said. “Doesn’t that count for something?”
“You know the Gabra live to ninety eating meat and drinking blood and milk? No vegetables. No soy. No fruit.”
“Who?” I asked. Nod was always reading random books about science and history, collecting facts and passing them off as knowledge.
“They’re a nomadic tribe in northern Africa,” he said. “Camel herders. Nothing artificial or electric out in the middle of the desert. Just camel blood and camel milk. The world around them got all technological and polluted and they just kept doing their own thing, wandering from watering hole to watering hole.”
“Maybe we should go find them,” I said, half serious. I wanted to get out of here, badly. I wanted to see Miami or Boston or New York, even if it meant chartering a boat and renting scuba equipment.
Nod wasn’t interested in traveling. Nod wanted revolution.
“Fake meat. Fake people. You grow up eating that processed crap and you turn out processed.” He finally sat back down and downed another shot. “Hell. Who wants to live to be a hundred in this world anyway? No smoking. No meat eating. Everyone’s busy smiling at the sky and those damn hydrogen cars everywhere. It’s too bright now. We need a little pollution now and then to make us appreciate the sun.”
I agreed then to join him if he ever found a meat supplier. And I began to join him at his various protests. Handing out leaflets at street corners, county fairs, malls. Urging people to sign petitions. Take back our country. Take us back to nature. To what God intended. I was mostly doing this for him. He was hanging on by the edge. So many animal activists are.
* * *
Nod stands in my bathtub and centers the shower curtain rod. He attaches a hanger he had bent to function as a meat hook.
“After you kill it, we’ll hang it from this to bleed out.”
“Wimp. I’ll go first.“
He goes into the other room and returns with his chicken. She is looking at Nod cautiously, but she isn’t shy either. I can already tell the two birds apart and I am relieved the other chicken—my chicken, Lucy—has been spared. For now.
Nod begins to lecture about all the ways to kill a bird.
“You can grab them by the head and spin ‘em around until the neck snaps. The problem with that approach is sometimes the head snaps off too, and then you’ve got one hell of a mess. But I read that it’s best to let them bleed out slowly before you cut off the head. You have to hold the body between your legs, like this.”
Nod sits on the edge of the tub with his feet inside. The chicken struggles as he positions her head by his knees.
“Then you hold the beak with one hand and tap the neck methodically, gently, till it relaxes. Like this.”
I watch as Nod’s voice dims to a whisper. He is speaking to her, like talking to an infant, quiet and soothing. I can’t make out the words. And it’s the first time I’ve seen him this way, so calm, tender. And I wonder, why now? Does it take cruelty to bring out the better side of man? Is that why Jesus was crucified? By drawing out such cruelty, did he leave us open to compassion?
Nod’s wrist springs to life and the chicken’s body twitches and I hear a tiny squeal, or maybe it is my mind, then a steady flow of blood gathers around Nod’s sneakers. I can hear myself breathing, my hands trembling.
“I should have worn boots,” Nod says.
Minutes pass until the flow trickles to drops, and Nod stands and hangs the headless body. The wings moving slower and slower, a wind-up toy winding down.
“Your turn,” Nod says.
Nod washes his shoes under the faucet. I watch the blood running through the crevices of his worn rubber soles. He is talking to me, and I look up.
“Hey! You have to slaughter your bird.”
I go into the other room. Lucy is disoriented, standing alone. I had set up a sort of pen for the chickens out of a sideways chair and couch mattresses. So they could walk freely again. I even put out some sunflower seeds that have remained uneaten. Nod approaches.
“Can’t I just keep her as a pet?” I ask.
“How you going to protect her? Word gets out, and you’ll get slaughtered too. Remember Hayden?”
Hayden was a few years older than us. The story I heard was that he tried to raise three chickens to finance his drug habit. But then he got attached to the birds or just wanted to eat them himself, so he hung onto them. Word got out that he was sitting on maturing merchandise, and one night someone broke in and killed him. Along with the chickens. They left his body behind. It was hard to tell whose blood was whose.
I kneel over the pen, and Lucy looks up at me. She knows. I can see it in her eyes. She must have heard the noise made by the other bird, their language.
I place my hand on her chest and I pick her up. I can feel her heart pounding under the feathers.
“C’mon man, let’s go,” Nod says.
“I can’t do it in there.”
“She’ll see the blood.”
“For fuck’s sake, man, who cares? It’s past dinnertime and we’ve got to butcher them still.”
Nod reaches for her. “I’ll do it if you won’t.”
“No. I’ll do it.”
I take Lucy to the kitchen counter and I wrap her in a small towel up to her neck. Then I lean Lucy back, her head hanging over the sink. I turn to Nod.
“Leave us alone.” I wait until Nod is in the bathroom.
I whisper to her. “Forgive me, for I have sinned.”
I bring down the blade. The body in my hands jerks, expands, then I feel the air release like from a balloon. Then an explosion, the sounds of wood splintering, the front door, loud enough to turn my attention away from Lucy, dying in my arms.
* * *
“You are animal terrorists,” Dr. Bob tells us. We are standing in front of our bunk bed in the sleeping dorm, dressed in our work uniforms—blue flannel shirts and blue jeans. We are inmates of the Ridgeview Animal Sanctuary, on the site of a formal cattle ranch, retrofitted with thirty-foot electrified metal fences around the perimeter, topped with barbed wire. Surveillance cameras. Guards with weapons. A prison. But not for the cows or sheep or horses or llamas or chickens or rabbits or pigs. A prison for the dumb-luck humans who care for them.
The animals, Dr. Bob tells us, are the last remaining livestock, sheltered around the world in sanctuaries such as this. The purpose of these animals is no longer to serve humans, but for humans to serve them. “You are here to learn your place in society,” he says. “To share this planet peacefully with other creatures, humans and non-humans alike.”
“You’re not domesticating me, man,” Nod says.
Dr. Bob is shorter than Nod but he doesn’t hesitate to get in Nod’s face. And yet he doesn’t raise his voice. He says that if we hurt any of the animals we will be punished and that if we kill an animal we will in turn be killed. Put down is how he says it.
We were sentenced to seven years, this being our first offense. We never did find out who tipped the cops. I think it was my neighbor. Nod blames Sanderson.
There are about fifty of us, men of various ages; women are housed in their own sanctuary, though Dr. Bob won’t tell us where that is.
There is Elton, who beat his pet dog to death one day when it peed on the carpet. And Duke. He was caught fishing for salmon one night in the Haro Straight. “I miss salmon like my old man missed high school football,” Duke told me one day.
There is Travis. He was caught hunting deer in the Cascades; Nod heard that he killed somebody in here once. And Nelson, who was caught with six turkeys in his garage in a sort of makeshift factory farm.
The work isn’t too demanding, though the days are long. A horn blasts us out of bed at 5:30 to let the animals out of the barns, lead them to pasture. The rest of the day is spent mucking out stalls, tending the gardens, fixing fences.
Nod and I stick close those first few weeks. I can tell Nod is struggling. Many times he walks right up to the metal fence and stares past it into the trees. Until I tap him on the shoulder to get back to work or some guard shouts the same from one of the towers. Nod has already had a few run-ins with guards. He’s become a regular in the barn stalls, shoveling crap while the rest of us take our breaks. But the threat of solitary confinement—him alone with the animals—has kept him from doing anything truly stupid.
One night, sitting in the dining hall, Nod shoves his plate of food away and stands, raising his voice. “They’re killing me with this shit,” he says. “It ain’t humane.”
Dr. Bob approaches from the other side of the room. “There is no reason any longer to kill animals, Nod,” he says. “We have the protein we need. Plants are healthier. Better for the planet. Now sit.”
Nod sits. “Fuck the planet,” he mumbles as Dr. Bob walks away.
I look around the dining hall. We are all different and yet all alike, refugees of sorts from a plant-based world. Trying in vain to satisfy a hunger that will never let us rest. I look at my plate. A chicken patty sandwich.
“The chicken appears like chicken but it is not chicken,” I say.
Nod looks out the window and points. “Those are chickens.”
I say nothing. I think of fake chicken and of real chicken. Then I think of the planet. So different on the outside from years ago, yet at its core still the same.
The next day, in the field, Nod kicks Charlie the potbelly pig hard, sending him squealing away. Dr. Bob is watching, and his face turns red.
“We’re a care farm, Nod, not a kill farm.”
“I’m not killing him.”
“We’re not a torture farm either.”
“Except for the people,” Nod grumbles. “This isn’t about caring for animals, this is about torturing us. Surrounding us with all this fresh live meat. Then expecting us not to kill it.”
Dr. Bob sticks Nod in the barn again.
I focus on the work at hand. Tending to the chickens. These animals, they have come to depend on me. I carry the food bucket and they run to me. And in their eyes, every one of them, I see Lucy.
I tell Nod this the next morning, and he spits at one of them.
“This place is fucking with your head,” he says.
“At night, in my dreams, I see Lucy looking at me.”
“You shouldn’t have named her,” Nod says. “That was your mistake.”
“But I did. And now I am haunted.”
“I didn’t name mine, and I’m haunted only by the fact that I didn’t eat it.”
“It was a she, not an it,” I say. “Her name was Felicity.” But Nod doesn’t hear me, having already walked away.
* * *
I don’t see as much of Nod these days. I sit alone in the dining hall or with Duke. Nod sits off with the deer hunter, and they speak in low voices. I know he’s planning something, but when I ask him he says nothing.
One day, while out fixing a fence, I press him. “It’s better you don’t know,” he says.
“You know I won’t talk.”
“I need something,” he says.
“You’re going to kill Dr. Bob?”
“Maybe. I’d like to.”
“You’ll never get out of here if you do.”
“We’re never getting out of here,” he says. “I’m surprised you don’t know that yet.”
I want to argue with him, but the notion of never leaving doesn’t bother me. In here, I don’t worry about paying rent. In here, my life has a meaning of sorts. Shoveling animal shit. Maybe this is what Jesus meant about penance. About asking for forgiveness. How else does one beg forgiveness of an animal but to clean up after it? To give it the comfort that I denied Lucy. To realize that we are both prisoners on this planet and we’d best make the most of it. To reach the end of your existence with another creature and to know that you won’t die alone. I think about these things.
We are out mucking in the barn one evening when I notice Nod in a stare-down with Charlie.
“You see the way that pig looks at me? Like he knows.”
“Why I’m here.”
“I caught Sammy eyeing you too,” I say.
“The cow. Haven’t you learned their names yet?”
“You get on a first-name basis with them and then who knows what will happen,” Nod says. “You’re right about that pig. Why me? Why not you?”
“Because you were the leader. They can tell.”
Nod tosses his shovel and stares out the barn door.
“I gotta get out of here.”
“I was just messing with you. You can’t leave.”
“I’ll hop the fence. The electricity. It’s not enough to kill. I’ve tested it.”
“We’re chipped now, remember? They’ll hunt you down.”
Charlie approaches, hopeful for food, and Nod jumps out of his way. Still so jumpy. Still confusing animals with humans.
“So you don’t want to leave. That it?” Nod asks.
“I don’t want to get killed,” I say. “We’re lucky enough we’re here and not someplace worse.”
“I thought you wanted to see the world before it’s all underwater,” Nod says.
“I used to.”
“Atlanta is next,” he says. “The waters won’t stop. No matter how much they try. These animals will drown too.”
“Unless we build an ark,” I say.
“What?” Nod snorts at me. “You can’t even build a bird house. What do you know about ark building?”
“I’ll learn,” I say. “There’s a wood shop here. You could help.”
“I can’t wait that long,” he says. “The waters won’t rise fast enough for me.”
* * *
After evening chores, I return to my bunk. Nod is not in the dorm. I fall asleep and dream about Jesus. He is standing on the water, or just above it. I am standing on shore, and he waves to me. I step out on the water, and it is like standing on ice, smooth and solid. Another step and I watch the ripples moving underneath my shoes, still dry. I slide out to him.
“I thought only you could do this,” I say.
He says nothing. His mouth bends slightly, like he is about to smile. And I know he won’t speak so I figure I’ll leave questions for another time.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
I wake myself—screaming, I think. Nod told me that I do that a lot. I sit up and squint through the darkness at the other bunk beds. Nobody else is awake. I place my hand on the bunk above me, but the mattress is flat. I climb out and pull on shoes and a shirt. Nod’s bed is still made.
The lights are on in the barn. When I enter I’m met with the moaning of animals, unease, bodies of horses and cows against stalls. At first I think a fox or mountain lion has snuck in. This happens, I am told.
I find Nod kneeling over Charlie as if in prayer. He looks up at me and his face is dripping red. Blood. He holds shimmering pieces of fat in each hand, which I realize are from Charlie’s gutted belly. A bloody knife, the shank, lays to one side.
“Join me,” he says with a mouthful. “There’s plenty enough for two.”
I pick up the knife.
“They’ll kill you for this,” I say. “I’ll kill you for this.”
“I don’t care. I’m hungry.” He shoves meat in his mouth and continues talking, but I can no longer understand him, and I wonder if this what speaking in tongues sounds like and what spirit possessed the body that used to be my friend.
I step behind it and I grab its hair. I hold the knife to its exposed throat. And I speak soothingly, the way Nod spoke to Felicity. To keep it relaxed.
“And the Lord be with you,” it says.
I back away and I jam the knife into the wooden railing.
“You should go,” I say.
I stand at the barn door. Darting across the yard, Nod climbs the fence, leaving a red path behind. Followed by a hard landing. Nod stands and looks back, and I raise my arm to wave but the spotlights blind him. He disappears into the woods.
I know they will hunt him and they will kill him. Probably tonight. And yet I imagine him getting away, past all roads and former farmland, to the rising hills, running, four-legged up the steep rocky slopes of the mountain, standing above the tree line looking down on the cities and roads and the haze of humanity. No longer the Nod I know, but something different, if not on the surface than in substance.