The last stop of the day is the butcher’s shop.
The shop is back over the other side of the railway line, towards home. People save it for last, to keep the meat fresh and because the parcel is too heavy to carry around. Bernie’s mother has her big shopping bag ready, and Bernie will help her carry it up Tainui Street.
The butcher’s shop is in the block nearest the railway line, next to the fish and chip shop. Across the street is the church and the Catholic school where Bernie’ parents went. Next door is the enormous old convent where her father dropped them off earlier to walk into town.
Bernie and her mother enter the butcher’s shop, flicking their way through the plastic curtain. Fly strips fall around Bernie’s shoulders like long hair. She grabs a strip and pinches it as she passes by, pressing its long narrow ridges between her finger and thumb. Her teeth itch to bite it.
mmm… a strap of licorice.
The shop is an open space. The walls are hard and white, with no decorations except a calendar. There is only a counter. The air is chilled, and sawdust is scattered over the concrete floor in piles. Bernie scuffs her shoes through them.
They join a line of customers. Bernie settles into the space between her mother and the next lady. She points her toes like a dancer and twirls them through the sawdust, making shapes, drawing a picture on the floor. Tiny squares of sawdust cling to her wet shoes.
The smell of frozen blood enters her nostrils. She looks up and sees a row of huge animals—cows and sheep—each one dead and stiff, with no skin. They hang from hooks along the back wall of the shop high up in front of her. A grotesque curtain. An altar of meat. Maps of hard, white fat splay across the torsos.
Everything belongs on hooks.
The butcher is serving. His cleaver lifts and lands… chop chop chop. He knocks a carcass with his shoulder and it swings slowly until it hangs still again, suspended like a pear on a tree. The customers have string bags threaded through their elbows. They clutch wet raincoats across their chests.
It’s Bernie’s mother’s turn now.
The butcher picks up his cleaver. “And what can I get for you today, Mrs Brosnahan?”
“I’ll just have…”
Bernie hears the rattle of the fly curtain. She turns around. An apparition in black is blocking the entrance. It moves into the shop. The shape is large, like a walking tent.
Bernie looks closer and sees two heads, two faces inside. There are two tents. She can’t see any feet. They are a pair of gigantic birds, much bigger than blackbirds, like crows in stories from other countries. The chins hang and wobble when they speak.
where did they come from? where are they going?
how do they get born?
from a mother? from an egg?
The customers move a few spaces along, placing themselves slightly differently. The crows look around the shop, taking everyone into their gaze. Bernie’s mother has finished her shopping and they turn to leave. The tall crow is right in front of them, and says, “Hello Evelyn.”
“Hello, Sister,” says Bernie’s mother.
Bernie is listening to her mother’s voice, a new voice, one that Bernie hasn’t heard before. She speaks to these crow women almost like a child would speak, saying “Yes, Sister,” and “No, Sister.”
The crow turns to Bernie, who is making a road in the sawdust with the soles of her shoes. “And when is this little one coming to us, Evelyn? She looks about ready.”
Bernie’s mother replies.
“She’s only four, Sister, and we live too far away from a Catholic school. She’ll start at the state one nearby, for now.”
Bernie sees the crow hunch and rise at the same time.
“Well.” Another rise and a deep breath in. The wings bristle.
“Evelyn, you mustn’t neglect the faith, even as early as this. It’s very important. You mustn’t neglect her faith. It’s a long way down there where you are, out in the middle of nowhere.
“Are you keeping well, dear?”
Bernie is staring hard. Her mother tugs at her hand, which means: Stop staring. She ignores her mother’s signal, she is jiggy with curiosity and excitement. She lets go and leaves her mother’s side. She steps out onto her road of sawdust. She stands and lifts up her head.
“Who are you?” she asks the crow.
Bernie’s mother grabs her hand. She pulls Bernie to her with a firm yank.
“She’s a bold wee thing, isn’t she?” says the crow.
Bernie spies a pristine pile of sawdust nearby and cuts a clean swathe through the middle of it, flattening the edges neatly.