A Song for Alice
by DJ Daniels
Ben was a singing butcher. Not the loud, operatic songs of a fruit seller, just a ditty, a tiny hum, a speck of joy. He sang to distract the girls from his profession, from the blood and the bones and the hanging carcasses. One girl, in particular.
She didn’t notice him, not for a long time. She would shudder when she came to the shop counter, and everyone knew she wasn’t happy to be there.
“She’s not for you, mate,” his fellow butchers would say. Probably a vego, probably anemic, probably forced to eat some meat. They’d seen it all before. “She’ll never look at you.”
Ben would watch her long, red hair swaying as she walked away with her sausages and bacon, and he would sigh. He made special marinades to tempt her, and in his imaginings, his longing, he found could see the flow of life before her, in beautiful curls, curves of pleasure and joy. He thought that if he sang, she would see that his life could coil in with hers, that they would wind together and make something marvelous and alive.
It took a while—he embarrassed himself—but she saw. He learned her name: Alice. They curled, they curved, they swirled; together, their patterns were wondrous.
Alice moved in. They drank red wine, and he tempted her with a little meat, always in disguise. Never too fatty, no bones to contend with. Nothing so confronting as kidneys or liver. He blindfolded her once and fed her tiny morsels of venison while he sang softly.
He learned to eat the vegetarian meals she made. Bland, tasteless things, but he did not mind. He could eat them with her.
But Ben saw that the pattern was changing. The curves twisted the wrong way, knotted into something terrible and disastrous. He tried to sing things back on track, but he knew that something was irretrievably wrong. He couldn’t have said what it was exactly.
His singing became sadder, his dishes, more complex, and when Alice shook her head at a small serving of his five-hour cassoulet, he knew it would be any day now. The knot.
When at last it revealed itself, he was almost relieved. It came in the form of an unwelcome diagnosis, a growth, an overtaking. Alice submitted to a variety of attacks designed, they were told, to defeat the growth, halt it, and persuade it that its intentions were misplaced. The offensive was prolonged and brave, but Ben knew it wouldn’t be enough.
He offered himself in her stead. It was the only thing he could do. To whom, to what, he didn’t know, but he meant it and was heard. Within a week, a knife at work hit something it shouldn’t, whirled up and around and through. A freak accident.
He lost an eye. It was the expected payment, Ben knew that. He was hopeful, sitting in his own hospital bed. When Alice visited, they held hands and he could feel the patterns of her life beginning again, curling and shaping themselves as they should. And if the pattern was slightly different now, who could blame him if he misinterpreted?
Alice got better, as Ben knew she would. The doctors offered nothing beyond the need for annual checkups. He was not concerned. He began to sing lighter songs. She began to whirl and dance and curve, her own dance this time.
She danced away. It is hard to dance with a one-eyed man, after all.
It had been a mistake, she told him, to eat meat. That was probably why she had fallen ill. Of course she still loved him. But she couldn’t stay. He watched her leave, her hair much shorter now, her neck exposed, her back vulnerable, and he wiped away the tears that fell from both eyes.
Ben knew then that he’d asked too much. His eye was just a down payment. There was always a trick, always a curse, always more than you counted on. He should’ve remembered that.
Now he could see patterns in everything, in everyone, and it was too much. His songs became melancholic, dangerous. There was an edge and a longing that was difficult to listen to. Nobody would approach the counter when he was there. He tried to stop singing—he was warned more than once— but it seemed beyond him. He was sent out the back and the door firmly closed.
“Don’t want to lose ya, mate,” his boss had said, but now Ben was left all day in a room full of carcasses, and it was unbearable, even for him. He left. He had a little money saved, not much.
He told fortunes at markets on the weekend. If he sat in a tent, he could almost cope. It muted the patterns and, when someone approached him, if he breathed slowly and deeply, he could make himself focus on that one life and that only. Not that he ever told the truth. He always gave them hope, because hope, he thought, was what they needed.
Until the day Alice returned, with a tiny son and long, long hair. The patterns of her life were as beautiful as ever, and Ben told her so. There was no need to lie.
Though he could see why she was here, how the tendrils of the almost-child who lay in her belly were already pale and uncertain. Not sure what pattern to make, if any.
Alice took the knife Ben always kept on his table, the knife that had jumped up and claimed his eye, and held it out to him, questioning. He nodded, but before she could go, he began to sing. Alice waited, still holding the knife, although carefully, away from her son.
Ben’s song, this time, was rapturous, and his voice, the voice of a flawed angel. People gathered at the tent opening to hear the song and for a while, for those short few minutes, he lifted them up in the curls of the music into something close to transcendence. They floated away, back to hot dogs and chips and cotton candy and rides. Back to the people they loved.
As the last notes hovered and the son clapped his small hands, Alice handed Ben the knife. He took it, said goodbye, felt her lips brush his cheek. He waited until she had left the tent, though the echoes of the song still swirled around him. And then the knife plunged through his heart just as if the song had carried it there itself.
Copyright © 2014 DJ Daniels