The Sin-Eaters by Helena Baptiste

Today was a special day the men said. “Be on your best behavior.” The implied “or else” hanging in the air like a plague of biting flies. They always said this when bad news was coming, when pink slips fluttered down like empty peanut shells. They had tidied the place up, hosed everything down. It wasn’t quite sparkling, but the place smelled of cleaning spray and freshness instead of restless bodies and despair.

The men waltzed in at 10 o’clock after enjoying a leisurely breakfast that had been catered just for them. The scent of the food lingered in the air: eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, potatoes, coffee, toasted bread. We could smell it on their clothes. It made us nervous.

They passed by our cubes. We looked up, flashing teeth that we couldn’t make resemble a smile and that they didn’t take for one. Some of us didn’t look up, doing our best to give the appearance of being preoccupied with what we were doing: pawing a mouse, rustling paper, pounding metal into it, or stalking words and numbers on our screens. They didn’t really pay attention to us, anyway. Their gazes stayed fixed at a point just above our heads, while they sniffed the air and tried and failed to resist silently farting last night’s filet mignon dinner.

We were watching them, though. It was our natural instinct: study your prey. Know when they will dart left or right. Know their defense mechanisms. They didn’t see us watching them (or pretended they didn’t) and we all liked it better that way. They needed to feel strong and safe; we needed to feel like we were something more than helpless, like any second the tables could turn.

At 12pm, they were going to feed us. It was a special lunch, they said. They had us queue up to get our food and it felt good to be allowed out of our cages. There was no pecking order, even the weasels could be at the front if they wanted, tittering in anticipation of special treats. But when the lions showed up it was understood that they could move to the head of the line. They didn’t make a big show of it. One moment they were at the side of the line and the next moment they were at the front. Some lions queued up toward the end to show some sort of solidarity with us, but we never forgot they were lions and kept an eye to our backs.

We stood patiently waiting for them to give us the special food we had been promised while wondering which of us was on the chopping block this time. Standing in line showed they had us under control, they liked that—this effortless display of power. The giraffes craned their long necks to see what goodies could be expected once the line got moving. The monkeys were loud as usual, telling jokes that weren’t funny, secretly wishing they had a handful of shit to fling. The hippos shuffled their feet and kept their mouths closed, which was a good thing, really. They had teeth long as daggers. The elephants stood in line with as much dignity as they could muster. Would there be peanuts? There should be peanuts. Crunchy, chewy peanuts and puddles of bright red blood with man-flesh trod into ribbons under their feet. They tossed their great grey heads and fantasized about the luxurious weight of shredded flesh on tusks that had long since been filed to stubs.

Everyone ignored the tiger who regarded them with hooded eyes and whose body vibrated softly. It was better that way. We ignored him and we whispered about him. He was more dangerous than the men.

Of course, standing in line like a child’s toy soldiers, the metallic sound of warming trays clinking against each other reminiscent of rattling chains, every one of us thought about revolting. Just letting rip with fang and claw and hoof and antler. We could smell the aggression on each other. Our bodies stank of it. There were a few men, there were many of us. We could tear the place apart and kill every one of them. Kill them and eat them and wouldn’t that be ironic? A special meal, indeed. One even worth standing in line for. But then what? Where would we go? There was no place for us, nowhere we could run. More men would come with firesticks. They would kill us and take photos to steal our souls so we would never reach the Happy Hunting Grounds.

We could almost remember the Happy Hunting Grounds. As if it were more than a dream. As if it were a painting we had been ripped from leaving our edges ragged and sore.

The queue started to move and we could hear exclamations over the food as paper plates and napkins and plastic ware were collected. There were 2-liter bottles of fizzy soft drinks (some of them diet) and Styrofoam cups with ice. There were pork ribs covered with barbeque sauce the color of congealed blood, fried chicken, numerous sides and vegetables and several desserts. Bags of rolls were already opened, waiting for eager, unwashed paws to reach in and help themselves. There were tables, but not enough to comfortably seat us all. We knew that was by design. There would be some scrambling involved, competition, a little uncertainty, while the men sat a huge table above us by themselves, their elbows spread like soaring hawks’ wings.

We dined at tables covered in white paper tablecloths. Small plastic vases with ragged plastic flowers had been pulled from the decorations closet in HR and placed in the center of each table. One of the men rose and mumbled a few words and when he was through we sighed, lowered our heads and proceeded to rip flesh from bone. Pieces of meat stuck in the spaces between our teeth. That, too, was like a memory.




Helena Baptiste is the pen-name of a writer with work published in The Weeklings.



(Front page image via)

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