EXCERPT: 'Cleaving' by Julie Powell

It's a difficult thing to explain, made more difficult still by a phenomenon I've noticed many times since starting work here: it turns out it's very hard for people to listen clearly to a woman holding a butcher knife. But, truly, the glint in my eyes is not about violence or vengeance or cruelty. The joy I take is not – well, not only – in the power I now have to hack and cut and destroy. It's about something else, something delicate and calm and ordered.

Just as Tinker Bell led Wendy astray from time to time, I've followed my inner whisper right into all manner of scrapes and heartbreaks these last years. But I trust it, because I've also followed it to my apprenticeship. My haven. My butcher shop. I spend my days now breaking down meat, with control, gentleness, serenity. I've craved certainty in these last troubled years, and here I get my fix.

I wipe my hands on a hand towel I grab from the bin and bring the china plate with its glistening offal rosette up to the front of the shop. As I do I feel an insistent beelike hum at my left butt cheek – the Blackberry tucked into my jeans pocket. I only get phone service at the front of the shop; the walk-in coolers at the rear block the signal. Though I do, if I'm honest with myself, still feel a small adrenaline-stoked surge in my chest whenever I feel this, I ignore the buzz, and instead hold the plate up to Hailey, who's ringing up a couple at the cash register. "For the case," I mouth at her.

She nods. A line is forming, the beginning of the afternoon rush. "Can you put it in for me? There should be room on the top shelf."

"Um, where?"

"By the oxtails?"

I slide open the glass door of the case, bending to rearrange the crowded array of meat to accommodate its new addition. It's full to bursting already, with dry-aged steaks and unctuous Berkshire pork chops, heaped bowls of ground lamb and rows of spice-spiked homemade sausage. I thought it beautiful the first day I entered this shop, nearly a year and a half ago. Now, as a contributor to it, I find it more beautiful still.

As I close the door and straighten up, I find myself eye-to-eye with one of those women. They come into the shop every now and again, these women, with their raised eyebrows and sourly flared nostrils, as if they're walking into a refugee camp latrine. Vegetarian or merely squeamish, forced by whatever circumstance into a clean-smelling but unapologetic temple of meat, they exude supercilious disapproval, as if this place I have come to love is a barely endurable abomination. It's all I can do to be civil, honestly.

"Hi, whaddaya need?"

"Two boneless skinless chicken breasts, please."

These women always want boneless skinless chicken breasts. "We've only got bone-in, sorry."

The woman sighs noisily at this affront. I try, not entirely successfully, to repress a roll of the eyes. Of course, I could offer to bone them out for her, I now know perfectly well how to remove the breastbone and cartilage from that insipid slip of white meat. But I am offended by the very notion of skinless boneless chicken breasts, and the boring stick-like women who eat them. This is why I don't work the counter; my people skills leave something to be desired. "Well, that will do, I suppose," she mutters. I turn to one side to reach for a pair of latex gloves.

"Ex- Excuse me? "

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