Into the Woods is a new concept novel by Maya Lee, and she will be sharing excerpts on her page
Zoe killed her first pig on her third birthday.
Her father, the town’s butcher, had wrapped the ax roughly in brown parchment. He had thrown it to his daughter with a gruff “happy birthday.” Before, her mother had gotten her a long kiss on the top of her ginger head and her brother, Damien, per his usual fashion, got her nothing at all.
She had been hoping for a doll.
But Zoe wouldn’t tell her Father that; she would rather die.
“It’s about time you learned the business, baby,” her father said, clapping her on the shoulder. “I ain't gonna raise another squirming bastard.”
He juts a thumb towards her older brother, who was reading a thick leather skinned book on the couch. Simultaneously, the two of them flip each other off. From the kitchen, her Mother lets out an audible sigh.
“Stop being a child, Doug,” she mutters, but only Zoe seems to hear her.
Zoe admires the steel blade, running her small thumb along the handle. It was a silky smooth hickory, rich with the jagged rings of the tree that it came from, and hand-crafted, it seemed, for a boy thrice her age and much, much stronger. But she was a strong, young girl; her Father had known that when selecting it from the blacksmith’s collection, stroking his dark beard in deep contemplation.
“Ain’t your son an intellectual, or somethin?” the blacksmith asked.
“It’s for my little girl.”
He scoffs. “Ain’t your daughter just a youngin?”
“I promise ya, that girl’s stronger than a bull.” There’s a hint of pride in his voice. “And b’sides, she’ll just grow into it.”
And per his assumption, Zoe now lifts the axe easily over her shoulder, glancing up at her father with determination. Silently, she shoves down her rising disgust “What are we killing, Daddy?”
. . .
Their quaint cottage sits just behind the butcher’s shop. After three years, the rancid stink of carcasses dangling from meat hooks out the back of her father’s store no longer bothers Zoe. As she trails her father out the front door, she watches the flies swarm the skinned, amorphous blobs, probing the meat with their small insect toes.
A little ways away from the shop are the pens--chickens, cows, pigs--huddled against one another and peeking between the wooden fences. Zoe turns her from the anxious livestock to the meat dangling there on the elevated rack just a few feet away, and back again. Naively, she always thought the animals looked so sad behind their bars, but her Father never seemed to mind their suffering, so she kept her mouth shut about it, too.
The butcher leads his daughter into the pigpen. The rusted gate groans open as they shuffle through the sea of pigs trying to escape. They graze her legs lovingly, oinking and prodding with dirty snouts and gentle hooves. She looks straight ahead as her father guides her towards the back of the cell.
“Now, you wanna make sure that they’ve had time to fatten up a little,” he points to a scrawny piglet, cornered and alone, against the wooden spikes. “No one ain’t gonna pay for pig bones, alright?”
Zoe fixates on the piglet with wide eyes. She grips her axe tighter, clutching it to her chest. “Which one is right then, Daddy?”
Her father points to the center of the pen. There, lying docile on its plump behind, snores a heavy pig. Sitting there on his own feces. Her small nose crinkles in disgust.
“Grab his legs, Zoe,” he murmurs. “It ain’t good to kill ‘em in front of everyone. That how they lose trust in us.”
She hesitates, only a moment. The butcher eyes his daughter wearily. “You weak like your brother, too?”
She shakes her auburn braids. “No, Daddy.”
“Then help me pick ‘em up, will ya?’
She had no more fight in her to refuse.
So, together, they yank the grubby animal from his place in the dirt. The pig squeals, digging his hooves into the mud, but the butcher is stronger, tugging the creature up into the air. Fecal matter flies, landing onto Zoe’s freckled face--despite her repulsion, she doesn’t make a sound. It yowls louder, and the other pigs turn to watch, unamused, with their small and beady eyes. She shoulders the pig’s legs over her shoulders, rubbing dark mud on her otherwise well-kept red sweater. Louder, it squeals, an alarm blaring...
She tunes out the noise, humming the birthday song under her breath. They’ve made it through the gate, and she slams it behind her into the faces of those desperately trying to escape. With a sly grin, she turns back to look at the pigs behind her. And past the dopey faces of those planning a hopeless escape, she witnessed the lone piglet trembling harder in his place by the fence. Even beneath her hums, she could hear its sickening squeals.
Horrified, Zoe faces forward again, humming until she can no longer hear anything at all.
. . .
Just beyond the small pigpen lies the town’s woodlands. Just beyond the first set of trees is a small clearing, sporting only birch trees, sparse brush, and a scarlet floor stained with slaughter. Zoe had been back here before, had helped her father carry in the carcass of the freshly killed since she could walk.
He had never asked her to be the executioner.
The butcher drops his prey in the center of the putrid floor, prompting his daughter to do the same. The pig’s wails become frightened, desperate, a call for help that with no answer. He places his boot on the animal’s supple stomach, grinding it down hard, ensuring that it wouldn’t escape.
Zoe had never heard so much pain.
“Do it now,” the butcher instructs.
He nods. “Aim for the neck. You wanna make sure the poor thing don’t feel it.”
“But what if I miss, Daddy?”
“Then you’ll hear his scream as he dies.”
Her knuckles whiten around the hickory handle. She gulps.
Zoe could’ve told her Father then. She could’ve cried like her brother had at the first signs of violence, could’ve thrown down her axe and ran back home to the warmth of the fire and the comfort of a doll in her hands.
But her Father watches her beneath gray, bushy eyebrows, crinkled over his weather-stained eyes. At three years old, she couldn’t understand this hateful thing called pride, the one that drove her to seek her father’s unquenchable satisfaction.
Even if it would hurt her, she would rather do that than do something to harm him.
She raises her axe above her small head, positioning herself. Below, the pig struggles, screeching above the blood of its brethren, fighting against its surefire fate.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she makes the noise disappear.
She wouldn’t be another disappointment.
The axe slices through flesh with a dull, repulsive thud.
The pig would squeal no more.
Unsaid fear leaves a bitter taste on Zoe’s tongue. Opening her eyes, she looks down, suppressing her scream.
The lolling head has been detached from its body. Bits of bone and carnage litter her boots, meat and blood still leaking out of the fresh carcass like a decomposing stream. The corpse steams in the nipping cold of the woods, and large flies begin swarming its glassy eyes, landing on its placid tongue.
She had done that; that was her fault.
Above her, the butcher gives his daughter a proud, solemn nod. “It doesn’t get easier, baby. Now, help me drag it inside ‘fore the flies come for ‘em.”
And as she picks up the pig’s feet, a slow, sinking dread begins to rise in her chest. But it doesn’t last. The blood leaks in large drops from the headless pig as they walk, and she watches the body swing side to side behind tearless eyes, suppressing her remorse deep, deep into the small hollow in her chest.
This couldn’t hurt her; nothing would hurt her.
For her Father, she would become strong.
She had lost her chance to be any other way.