The butcher’s son stood behind the wooden block and bit his nails. A thin stream of sweat trickled down his forehead. Thud! His father heaved an unconscious goat on to the block, fixed his eyes on his son and waited with his hands on his hips. The son licked his dry lips. He wondered where the goat had come from. Its beard was dirty and matted. Maybe it was a stray. Its eyes hadn’t clouded yet. Life flickered in them. It looked like it hadn’t eaten in days. Maybe its death was a better life for it. Did it have a family? Would they be bleating frantically in grief?
His father growled. The son saw his father’s bloody apron from the corner of his eyes. The goat’s eyes were shaming him for what he was about to do. The wind brought out the smell of rotting innards from the back of the shop. He had forgotten to clean up again. Shit!
“Come on! What are you waiting for? For the goat to sit up and slit its own throat?” The father inched closer to his cowering son, who was thinking about the goat’s destiny. Would it end up in a biryani? Or a curry?
“Pick up the cleaver! Be a man!” The father goaded. The son wiped his sweaty palms on his apron and wrapped his fingers around the cleaver’s wooden handle. “One sharp cut in the neck. Don’t dilly-dally now.” The father roared.
The son gulped. He took a deep swig of water to push down the lump in his throat. “Do it, boy!” The growl was deeper now, coming all the way from the father’s belly. The frown lines between his brows had hardened and set. The son wiped sweat away from his newly sprouted mustache, breathed in, muttered a prayer for the goat and its family, picked up the cleaver and shut his eyes tight.
At that moment, bells jangled at the temple down the street. Sandalwood and rose incense perfumed the wind. He opened his eyes. A gaggle of kids in tattered clothes raced towards the priest who was distributing prasadam after offering it to God. The son had tasted it once although his father forbade it. It was sweet and nutty with hints of cardamom and rebellion. Whenever the stench of the shop made him gag, he smelled the fragrant ghee from the prasadam that lingered on his palm.
A rustle of sarees arrived with the heady scent of jasmine and camphor. A group of women holding their pooja trays strode towards the temple.
Then he saw her.
She trailed behind the women, tottering in nine yards of canary-yellow silk that her frail body was enveloped in. He imagined her squirming as her mother draped it around her. How she must have whined when her mother made her wear those strings of jasmine in her hair. “Why can’t I wear jeans to the temple? A sari doesn’t completely cover your body, Amma, but jeans and a t-shirt do!” She might have argued.
A woman turned around and glared at her. Probably her mother. The girl straightened her back and took a few brisk steps before slowing down and looking around. Her eyes landed on the butcher’s son holding a cleaver in mid-air. It made her chuckle.
She then saw his father towering behind him and smiled at her fellow sufferer. The goat waited. The butcher decided to give his son a few more seconds, the ocean’s tides stopped, and the earth ground to a halt. People turned into statues, frozen in action. Her eyes were all the diamonds in the world. She understood him. An idiotic grin pasted itself on his face like that aromatic ghee on his palm. She walked away.
He looked at the goat. It was at peace. He was forgiven. With the force of all the new-born hope in his heart, he brought the meat cleaver down. Blood gushed out the goat’s jugular, drenching his stark white apron and his palms in red. He looked down at them and then at his father. A proud smile tried to form on the father’s stony face.
The temple priests chanted the vedas in unison with the muezzins in the mosque. She had given him the courage to be a man. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for her. Wiping his hands down his apron, he went out back to clear the rotting trash.