For my 10th birthday my family took me to a steakhouse. This was the last time in my childhood I really enjoyed eating meat. I ordered steak tips medium rare. Before they brought the food they brought out tin buckets full of peanuts. My brother and I finished an entire pail, cracking the shells open with our fists, crunching the remnants on the floor. When our meals came, I could still feel the empty shells crushed under my feet.

***

When I was fourteen my brother explained to me the reason we had canines. He was eight years old. He said in this world there are only two kinds of animals: predators and prey. He said, You should enjoy your place in the food chain.

***

The summer of my sophomore year of college I started eating meat again. One weekend my roommates went to Maine and came back with lobsters. They couldn’t figure out how to boil them. They smoked up and I heard the water boil over and imagined the water had turned red. Our house smelled like lobster shell and weed for over a week.

***

The first time I dissected an animal I was in high school. They brought out the slabs of dead frog like large plastic dolls. I loved tearing them open, looking at the tiny organs, all their different colors: blue veins, purple liver, red heart.

***

When I first learned that soap could be made out of animal fat I was in elementary school. I refused to wash for a week.

***

I can’t get past this idea that what I am eating used to be alive. That in this world there are only two kinds of animals: predators and prey. That this is the backbone of survival.

***

I used to be allergic to everything. Milk. Wheat. Nuts. Shellfish. There was only one specific type of baby formula that I could tolerate. This is how I beat natural selection. In most other time periods I wouldn’t have survived.

***

Is trying to relate to the animals we eat a sign of empathy? We relate to animals in different ways all the time, from our pets to beloved cartoon depictions. Perhaps this isn’t because we are kind. Maybe it is just the way we are wired. At a friend’s house last summer my friends and I giggled and cooed at the little Roomba robot as if it were an actual living thing, with feelings and people-like emotions. We joked about giving it eyes to make it more like us, to give it a human face. Maybe this impulse is as raw and unrefined as our desire to kill things and eat them. Are any of our desires in our control?

***

In the spring of my junior year, my ex-boyfriend and I house-sat for one of the lawyers he worked for. They were very generous, encouraging us to go downstairs and check out the wine cellar. They didn’t tell us about the gun racks. We found those on our own, past the Pinot Noirs and Rieslings. Just rows and rows of solid black rifles.

Our job was to feed the turkeys and take care of the owner’s two dogs. This meant feeding them and making sure they didn’t run off to have sex with other dogs. This was the only way to make sure they remained a pure breed.

It was winter. The air was cold and wet. Outside we saw one of the dogs walking round the yard with something bloody between its teeth. We bought lamb from the supermarket. It was wrapped in plastic. We served it with wild rice and glasses of Pinot. Even on the China it was still just meat.

TAGS: , , , , , ,

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review, South Loop Review, The Ilanot Review and Press Play (Indie Wire). She has been listed three times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contests . She is currently writing her first book. She is Associate Book Reviews Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.

6 responses to “Prey”

  1. sarielle says:

    Some predators are also prey.

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      That is very true. I think the fact that we humans are both predators and prey also contributes to a sense of emotional confusion; we are at the top of a system we are still relatively vulnerable to. Thanks for commenting, Sarielle!

  2. Richard Cox says:

    How we define other life forms is a personal thing for sure. There is a part of me that believes it ludicrous to make a distinction between plants and animals. As far as we can see, life in the universe is rare and precious, and it all matters. If we were to discover microbes on Mars or plant life in the oceans of Europa, people would go nuts. It would be one of the most amazing discoveries in human history.

    But by even using the term “human history,” I’m making a distinction between my own species and every other animal on Earth. Because I assume the others cannot appreciate the gravity of finding life on other celestial bodies. And therein lies the dilemma. Once you begin making distinctions, where do you stop?

    When I’ve visited Europe, I often find veal on the menu. My knee-jerk response is to be offended. But when I think about it more detail, I have to wonder why there is a distinction between young and mature cows. If they’re being raised specifically for the purpose of being consumed as food, does it really matter at what age their lives are terminated? Sure, if I were looking at a calf, my mammalian parental instincts would kick in and I probably wouldn’t be able to kill it. But would killing a full-grown cow be any easier, really?

    And is veal raised humanely more or less offensive than full grown cows raised in filth and mass-executed in giant agribusiness slaughterhouses?

    These are intensely personal and complex ideas and, for me, cannot be easily defined for humanity as a whole. I’m not a vegetarian, but I can see why someone would be. I could more easily harvest basil from my herb garden than shoot a cat and eat it. But if some apocalyptic event happened and food supplies were gone and I was starving, I might change my mind about the cat. I dunno. It’s a fascinating topic.

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      Thanks for commenting, Richard! I’m sorry I have been so slow to reply- I’ve actually been in Europe, eating more meat than I generally do back home!

      I think the issue of veal has to do with two things: the fact that veal comes from a cute little calf, and the fact that the way they make veal tender is to raise that calf in rather inhumane ways (more inhumane than the way they raise big ol’ grown cows, which is still relatively gruesome)

      I eat more meat in Europe because I still have some food allergies so my diet is already somewhat restrictive, because it’s harder to eat vegetarian when abroad and for sheer politeness when offered something new. All of this really boils down to the fact that I care more about myself than the animals I eat. Is that natural? Certainly that’s a central idea in most cultures in the world today. And even predominantly vegetarian cultures can still have a hierarchal approach to the world. After all, in India there is still a caste system….

  3. Leslie Jamison says:

    This was a visceral and compelling read. Lots of it, I think, will stay with me–the crunch of shells underfoot, tiny organs, that dog outside the window with its bloody teeth as you season your wild rice. As someone who’s moved back and forth between periods of being vegetarian, I found it nice to read something evocative that raised questions without moralizing too bluntly–there was a lot humming in the breaks here.

  4. Arielle Bernstein says:

    Thanks for your feedback, Leslie! Are you still a vegetarian today?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *