From the author: A restaurant with questionable sanitation practices undergoes an equipment change.
Slicer’s rubbery, mouthless face stretched itself into a distorted smile as it stared down at the cut of red meat glistening on its counter. Its segmented eyes twitched and swiveled to take in every inch, admiring the color and marbling before carefully raising two of its six knife-tipped arms. Slicer paused to plot an angle of descent, rotated its hand-blades just so, and brought its bladed hands down on the slab of raw flesh. The surface of the meat gave, parting in two satisfying valleys where Slicer’s knives landed. It pulled its blades free of the cut and raised all six arms before bringing them each down in careful sequence, the knives curving in a symphony of shimmering silver arcs over the blossoming red of the meat.
When Slicer finished, it slid its hands across the counter between the cuts, portioning the bloody filets into piles. To Slicer’s frustration, some sections were not cut all the way through and had to be tugged apart to tear the fibers between them. Soon enough, the meat lay in piles of small pink medallions across the counter. Slicer beamed, proud of a job well done.
A kitchen worker shuffled into Slicer’s room, dragging a damp sack behind him that the boy’s arms could barely hold. Slicer smiled at the worker and waved at him, the metal of its hands catching the flickering candlelight in a glinting strobe, but the young man only shuddered and lowered his gaze. With an effort, he hauled the sack onto the counter and poured more shapeless chunks of meat out of its slack burlap mouth.
Slicer pushed the fresh pieces to the center of its counter with the flats of its hands as the worker ducked around Slicer’s wire-haired arms, scooping the prepared piles onto a grimy tray he had retrieved from a nearby cupboard. The kitchen worker scurried out when his tray was fully loaded, casting a leery glance at Slicer over his shoulder after he managed to shoulder the door open.
Slicer turned away from the door and smiled. It loved its work, but it also liked having visitors, even if they were distracting. But now it had to resume, or else risk failing the restaurant. Cuts of meat, cut the meat, portion the piles. Slicer was productive, and therefore content.
The door swung open again and another kitchen worker bustled through, this one as young and nervous as the last. This time he was followed by the boar-headed Father Gristle, and a tall man that Slicer did not recognize. The tall man and Father Gristle murmured to each other as the kitchen worker set another bag of meat on the counter and gathered more of Slicer’s portioned filets. Slicer tried to listen to what they were saying for a moment, but occupied itself with work once the meat toppled from the kitchen worker’s bag.
The two men stood by the door watching Slicer, even after the kitchen worker made his way out loaded with trays of Slicer’s medallions. Slicer wasn’t sure what to think about their presence, but he was absolutely certain that he should work regardless. Father Gristle had told him the very same many times, his snout snuffling as he peered under Slicer’s tall shoulders.
“Slicers are here to slice, snrrrk, slice and portion, no matter the circumstances.” Father Gristle had said. “Y’stop slicin’, you’re not a Slicer anymore. Simple, yeah?” Slicer had smiled back at him, thankful for the guidance and company. That had been some time ago, it thought. The beginning of a long life of work.
The tall man said little as Father Gristle spoke to him. He only nodded in response, and pushed his small circular glasses up the bridge of his nose each time he inclined his head. At one point, he interrupted Father Gristle to light a second lamp above Slicer’s counter. The tall man’s disrespect of Father Gristle in such a way made Slicer nervous, but it was glad for the better lighting and kept working.
Eventually, the tall man whispered something into Father Gristle’s ear, stooping down to accommodate the shorter man and cupping a delicate hand to shield the sound. Father Gristle nodded thoughtfully.
“Yeah, I think that may be. Been a while,” Gristle said, his long lips working around his tusks.
The tall man whispered again.
“Hmph. Yep. Won’t forget again. For all I know, the thing could still be down there.”
The tall man straightened up and brushed his eyeglasses back up the bridge of his nose. He turned on his heel, swept out his arm to open the door, and left soundlessly, Father Gristle trailing behind him.
Slicer continued its cutting and portioning, hardly marking their passing. If something was wrong with Slicer’s kitchen, Father Gristle could fix it. In the meantime, Slicer could enjoy the steady progress and reward of its work.
A few piles later, Father Gristle trudged back into Slicer’s room dragging a gargantuan cut of meat by a chipped length of protruding bone. Another kitchen worker followed at his heels. Father Gristle ordered the worker to clear Slicer’s finished piles and hauled the meat onto Slicer’s counter once the worker left.
“Hmph. This is the big one,” Father Gristle said. “Gonna need you to get this done as fast as you can. Cut it deep, and give me six stacks for the cooks.”
Slicer smiled at Father Gristle and gave an eager nod. The boar-man looked back at him impassively, his hands tucked in the pockets of his apron. Slicer turned back and raised its arms and brought all six down at once.
They did not rise again. Slicer struggled to withdraw its hands, but something - bone, gristle or tendon - had seized the blades. Beside Slicer, Father Gristle gave a phlegmy sigh.
“Hmph. I was afraid of that. Knives are too dull.” He clucked his tongue and tapped a clawed finger against the flat of Slicer’s struggling blades. “Looks like we’ll need t’ swap you out. Sorry ‘bout this.”
Slicer’s brow furrowed and he looked to Father Gristle. The boar took his hands out of his pockets, tugged at the white clerical collar that fit snug around his bulging neck, and cracked his knuckles. Slicer started to turn its attention back to the meat before Father Gristle plunged a clawed fist into its chest.
Slicer’s face twisted in pain as Father Gristle’s arm pushed into its trunk to the elbow, rooting around for something he couldn’t seem to find. Slicer thrashed, unable to scream or pull its arms free. After a minute of groping in Slicer’s writhing ribcage, Father Gristle wrapped his fingers around something solid.
Slicer felt as though the entire lower half of its body was being pulled away. It tried to buck forward to curl itself around the pain, to make the agony more bearable, but Father Gristle reached up with his free hand and gripped Slicer’s face in his strong, hairy palm. A moment later, the boar man stood holding what looked like a pearl the size of a grapefruit, cloudy gray and shimmering in the light of the extra lamp. The pain dulled to a wicked throb, but it was still unable to bring itself to think clearly. Why was this happening?
Father Gristle looked down at the pearl, his small eyes hooded. “Hmph. There’s that done,” Gristle said, flicking some of Slicer’s innards from the tangle of his knuckle hair. “We’ll have a replacement once this hatches, and you’ll pass on quietly. The pain might be bad now, but believe me, you’ll be glad we remembered this time around.” He tucked the sphere gingerly into the pocket of his apron.
Father Gristle walked around to the other side of Slicer’s counter as gore seeped out of the hole in its torso. He reached up and wrapped his fingers around another protruding bone in the massive side of meat and tugged it from the counter, where it landed with a wet thud. The meat pulled Slicer down until it was bent double, the hole in its core pulsing with agony as Slicer’s body hunched around the wound.
“Hmph. Never look forward t’ this part,” Father Gristle said, walking toward one of the doors and dragging the meat, Slicer in tow, behind him. “Slicers are good workers, y’see, and swappin’ you out always seems cruel. Can’t tell you how glad I was when they figured out how to breed the mouths off you.”
Slicer followed, its knees bent to allow its back to straighten, almost crawling after Father Gristle. It attempted to pull backward, to resist the boar man’s march, but the hole in its core made it weak. It was led through the kitchen rooms, past several wide-eyed workers leaning over steaming stoves, and eventually stumbled into the back room.
Water pooled on the floor of the back room in browning eddies. Hoses dangled from the ceiling and trailed, flaccid, to the floor. On the right yawned sewer grate, which Slicer had once been instructed to use to dispose of rotten meat. On the left, there was a hatch that Slicer had never seen opened. Father Gristle dragged him to the hatch and threw the metal door open with one hand.
“Father Gristle’s Chapel of Chow thanks you for your time and work, Slicer,” Father Gristle said. “We’ll keep things running here just fine, don’t you worry.”
Slicer looked up at Father Gristle; one, long, pleading, silent look. Its rubbery, mouthless lips twisted into as prnounced a frown as it could hope to form, and its eyes quivered with pain and fear. In all the ways it knew, it begged Father Gristle not to drop it down the hatch.
Father Gristle’s little black eyes looked back for a moment, and darted away. He remained silent as he pulled the meat forward, letting the slab capsize slowly over the lip of the hatch, bringing Slicer down with it.
As Slicer fell, it saw meat. It saw waste and offal, rotting at the bottom of the dismal pit. And it saw Slicers. Ranks of them, their eyes dull, their bladed hands still caught by their own final chunk of rotting bone. Each of them bore a hole in their chest that seemed to reach deeper inside them than the Slicers’ thin bodies should have allowed.
Slicer landed hard, and the hatch closed above it with a crash, leaving him in the dark. It tried to find purchase amongst the bodies so that it could continue pulling at the meat that had trapped it. The wiry hairs of the corpses prodded and itched at Slicer as it worked, but it ignored the discomfort. It wanted to leave, it wanted to continue cutting food and pushing it into neat little piles. Slicer wanted the pain to stop, and it wanted its light back.
Somewhere in the dark, something moved. Corpses rattled as they shifted aside, their metal-tipped arms clattering against one another as they made way for the pit’s last living denizen.
Slicer only stopped struggling for a second as it realized it was not alone. It felt the movement again. Something gave in the great slab of meat as the bone began to splinter. It gave another heave.
A searing pain tore through Slicer’s shoulder as a blade, dulled by a lifetime of duty, cut through his rubbery skin. Another blade plunged into its side.
“Y’stop slicin’, you’re not a Slicer anymore. Simple, yeah?” Father Gristle’s words came trickling back. And, after time and solitude and no privilege of a mortal wound, one employee still remained in the pit who sought to do the only thing that contented it. Slicer didn’t need to see the nightmare mirror-image behind it to know that, were their positions switched, it would have done the same.
Four more hands rose, and four more fell.
Father Gristle hung his apron on the hook outside his kitchen. He looked out into the dining room and watched the restaurant’s food, his food, as it disappeared into the waiting mouths of his customers. The meals vanished quickly at first, shoveled from the plates in great, gulping mounds, but slowed as the stupor of satisfaction tranquilized the hands that fed. Father Gristle suppressed his disgust. His disdain was immaterial. Their gluttony, his gain. That’s all there was to it.
He turned back to the hooks and grabbed his hat and coat, pulling his oversized hands carefully through the sleeves. He buttoned the front of his jacket all the way up to his neck, making sure to conceal his garish vicar uniform before he headed into the dining room. Something jabbed his neck when he had finally settled into his jacket, and he reached for the intruder.
His fingers plucked a silver-gray eggshell from his collar and he snorted in surprise. At least the thing had hatched quickly. With any luck, the replacement would be grown by tomorrow. Not like he would man the cutting station himself, of course, but there was no way the kitchen kids could keep up with demand. Father Gristle walked through the dining room and out the door, pulling the bill of his hat down over his brow as the cool outside air blew through him.
The owner wouldn’t like that Gristle was leaving early. It sent the wrong message to the staff, he would have said. Hmph. Screw the tall bastard, Father Gristle thought. It was Gristle’s restaurant and Gristle’s face painted on the restaurant window, not the owner’s. No amount of investments would change that. Appliance replacement always made for a long day, and if the owner wanted him to stick around through the night after something as exhausting as that, well, he could do it himself or bend backward and jump straight up his own pin-tight disposal chute, thank you very much.
Father Gristle pushed open the restaurant door and plucked a cigar from his coat. He bit the end off and spat it into an alleyway, where it bounced and rolled into a grate set into the pavement. Gristle thought he heard the sound of metal on meat wafting through the grate’s rusted teeth, but he pretended he didn’t.
We all have to make sacrifices, the owner would have told him.
Not all of us, Father Gristle thought as he walked into the cold night air.
This story originally appeared in Modern Comforts.