Actions

Work Header

if you will come all the way down with me

Work Text:

Hannibal has to call Will several times, sounding rather irritated and impatient by the fourth call, before Will gets up from his seat in the living room and follows his voice to the kitchen. Half a dozen chickens are spread across the kitchen counter, plucked and cleaned out but with heads and feet still intact, their sightless eyes rolled up and beaks gaping open. Abigail is already there, apron on, drumming her fingers on the counter.

“This is important to me,” says Hannibal. “You will have to know how to do this, if we are to be together.”

“You do know that I used to hunt, right?” says Will. Squirrels and rabbits, mostly, but still.

“That’s what I said.” Abigail gives a resigned shrug.

“You know how to dress the carcass in the field,” Hannibal says, pointing at Abigail with his knife. “That does not mean you know proper butchery. So, we will start small: I think you are both familiar with chickens.”

Breaking down a chicken is not that dissimilar from breaking down a rabbit, and the first chickens go quickly and well. Deboning is another matter. Will mangles one of his thighs, nearly severing it from the rest of the chicken, while Abigail pulls one of the chicken breasts into pieces. Hannibal is patient and thorough in his instruction. Will knows that at one time Hannibal was just as unskilled as they, but he has a difficult time imagining it.

That night, Hannibal makes for them chicken paprikash, chicken pieces simmered in a rich, flame-colored sauce of red peppers and sweet paprika. He serves it with a side of thick, handmade egg noodles and broccoli raab sauteed with garlic. They eat family-style, with the food in the center of the table on platters, and each person serves themselves whatever they like. It’s the first time that Will has ever seen Hannibal eat anything with a bone in it, and he secretly rejoices when he sees Hannibal pick up a drumstick and bite into it, leaving sauce smeared across his lips that he wipes off with a cloth napkin.

-----

Will thought that Hannibal would want to live in a city, like Paris or Madrid or Rome, somewhere he could lose himself and have access to all the amenities he had in the DC Metro area: the opera, fine restaurants, art galleries. But Hannibal only looked at Will thoughtfully and said, “No, I think you and Abigail wouldn’t like that,” and purchased a large country home in the Chianti region of Tuscany. From the outside it is nothing splendid: rather square in design, with a stone exterior that can possibly be called “quaint,” but the rooms are large and airy and spill golden sunlight across the hardwood floors.

Hannibal immediately gutted the kitchen and reworked it to his own design: stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, two sinks, a prep island, and more kitchen gadgets and accessories than Will even knows what to do with. The rest of the house is a strange, patchworked mishmash of styles and fabrics: Will cares more about comfort than color and gives no thought at all to accessories such as lamps and wall artwork, while Abigail is ready to sacrifice function for form. Save for the kitchen and dining room, Hannibal’s influence is felt only in small pinpricks through the rest of the house: a chandelier of antlers here, a sleek and elegant armchair there, surrounded by bulky couches and polka-dotted beanbag chairs.

Hannibal gardens, much to Will’s surprise. Herbs, mostly; some herbs he keeps indoors in little pots, like he did in Baltimore, but outside he plants thyme, rosemary, oregano, sage, and mint. Will is astonished to see Hannibal with dirt under his nails; Hannibal with blood on his hands is no stretch of his imagination, but Hannibal on his knees spreading soil with a spade is new.

“Can I plant something too?” Will asks.

Hannibal glances up at him with raised eyebrows. “Of course. What would you like? I’ll buy the seeds.”

Will plants peppers, okra, and celery, and dreams of gumbo later in the year. He plants tomatoes, because this is Italy, and zucchini, because zucchini always grows. Abigail asks to plant flowers, and soon the garden is a profusion of lavender and lillies, with clematis twining around a trellis against the wall. They start a compost pile in one corner, where Hannibal deposits onion skins and carrot peels, and which Will waters and turns every other day. He is triumphant when he sees the first worms pushing through, wriggling and pink among the dark soil. Abigail thinks it’s gross.

Three weeks after that first worm, on the way home from Florence with a bagful of soap on his lap, Will says, “Stop the car.”

Hannibal pulls over without question. “There is some meat in the glovebox.”

Will pulls open the glove compartment and, sure enough, there is a small package of storebought pepperoni, never even opened. He glances at Hannibal, who looks back at Will with an expression like a vault door. Will tears open the package and emerges from the car with a handful of cured meat, and a skinny, wire-haired stray with a matted coat perks her ears up at him hopefully. She stinks and surely has fleas, but Hannibal allows her in the car without complaint. Will names her Betty.

Abigail names the next dog Angelo; Hannibal names the third one Dante.

Summer comes. The tomatoes grow red and fat with juice, and Hannibal makes bruschetta and roasted tomatoes and ragu. Will tans on his arms and face from taking long walks with the dogs and makes a strange gumbo using a local smoked sausage in place of the andouille. Hannibal takes Abigail shopping in Florence, and she returns with a wardrobe of sundresses and flowy blouses and shorts and many, many shoes. Will doesn’t know why one person even needs that many shoes.

Sometimes Will stands at the end of the drive and can’t believe he lives here now, among vineyards and ruined castles and rolling hills dotted with cypress trees, where the sky is an unreal shade of cloudless blue every day and the air smells fresh and vegetal. Sometimes Hannibal comes to stand next to him, looking out over the countryside as if he can see what Will sees.

“Do you like it here?” Hannibal asks him, once.

Will takes a deep breath. “It’s beautiful.”

-----

“Come outside, please; I need your help carrying the pig.”

It is, in actual fact, a pig, a good two hundred pounds of it, stretched out in the back seat of Hannibal’s car on a sheet of plastic, a grinning wound in its throat. Hannibal takes one end and Will takes the other, and together they move it downstairs and onto one of the metal tables, where Hannibal shows Will how to gut the pig and remove the organs. It’s not dissimilar to field-dressing a deer, but Hannibal is a lot more careful with the offal than Will ever was.

The bone saw lays open the pig’s spine and vertebrae with a terrible noise. Will looks away, recalling another, different bone saw cleaving through dark hair white with frost, revealing the meat and bone and fat that we are all made of, inside. Hannibal sends Will to vacuum-seal the offal. When Will returns, Hannibal is wearing a floor-length apron and has arranged the two half-pigs side-by-side on the metal table. He hands Will another apron, along with a heavy leather glove and a boning knife. He does not take a glove for himself.

“You’re inexperienced,” Hannibal says, wryly. “I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”

Will has learned from the chickens and rabbits that Hannibal’s style of butchery involves surprisingly little knife work. Hannibal uses his knife to sever tendons and connective tissue, finds the seams between the muscles with his fingers, and the flesh parts beneath his hands. So he does with the pig now, beginning with the spine: a few cuts here and there, he leans his weight upon it, and the spine falls to gravity’s push. Will watches and repeats on his half of the pig, and in this way they remove the legs, the chops, the fatty belly. Hannibal says the name of each part--each food--as they slap onto the table: Prosciutto. Sausage. Lardo. Sopressata. Even the head: Hannibal touches the snout with his hand and says, “Coppa.”

“What about the dogs?” Will asks.

Hannibal sighs. “Yes, of course.”

But even after the pig is dismembered, there is still more to do. Will is sweating and sore, but the table must be cleaned and wiped down; the meat they don’t plan to use in the next week must be vacuum-packed and frozen; the waste must be disposed of. The dogs follow Will out the front door, noses tilted upward; he tosses two jawbones in the air and the dogs race after them into the setting sun.

“That was a lot of work,” Will says, coming back inside.

“It is,” Hannibal agrees. He has put some rabbit ragu on the stove to warm for dinner, and the kitchen smells less of corpse and more like food; funny how the two things are the same, and yet one smell provokes nausea and the other, appetite. “It takes a lot of work, to transform something ugly into something beautiful.”

-----

By the time Will is learning to break down a pig, Abigail is in Milan, studying fashion design. Will was surprised that Hannibal let her go.

“Aren’t you afraid that she’ll.” Will stops with his tongue against his teeth. They don’t speak of the past here. The house won’t bear its weight.

Hannibal does not look up from his tablet (he still reads TattleCrime, for some reason). “To speak would be to condemn herself,” he says. “She benefits from my continued freedom.”

“I thought you wanted us to be a family.”

“We are a family.” Hannibal looks up at last. “This is what family is. Children grow, they leave the nest, they make shockingly poor life decisions that we warned them against.”

Abigail visits on the weekends sometimes and shows Will and Hannibal her drawings, and sometimes mends Will’s clothes (Hannibal takes his to a tailor in the nearby village). She makes clothes for the dogs; Betty looks silly but beloved in her little dog dress, but Angelo refuses to wear his and Dante outright chews his up in protest. Abigail wears her hair long, to hide her ears, but she confides to Will that she’s thinking about getting prostheses. Sometimes Will looks at Hannibal when he isn’t looking back, when Hannibal is looking at Abigail instead, and remembers walking into Abigail’s hospital room and seeing Hannibal asleep by her bed with her hand in his. He didn’t know what Hannibal was then, but looking at the way Hannibal looks at Abigail, he’s not sure he knows what Hannibal is now, either.

Will perches on the arm of Hannibal’s chair. “What if I wanted to leave the nest?”

Hannibal rests his hand on Will’s thigh. “Why would you want to do such a thing?”

“I don’t,” Will says. “But what if I wanted to?”

Hannibal presses his lips to the seam of Will’s jeans in the gap between his forefinger and thumb. His eyes are distant. “I don’t know,” he says, and his voice is filled with wonder.

-----

Will wouldn’t have thought that Hannibal owned a crockpot; a device like that seems like cheating, somehow. Hannibal doesn’t even own a microwave. But the crockpot makes only rare appearances, mostly for stock, which Hannibal lets simmer for an entire day before freezing in quart containers and ice cube trays for later use in soups and sauces. On the day of the pig, Hannibal brings out the crockpot for the pure white fat that he has trimmed from around the kidney area and the loin.

“Lard?” says Will.

Hannibal nods as he turns the crockpot on to Low. “Many people think it imparts a porky taste, but leaf lard is flavorless and odorless, and imparts a wonderful texture to pastry.”

“I know,” Will says, irritation bleeding into his voice. “I am from the South.”

A brief pause. “My apologies,” Hannibal says, with a slight smile. “I’m used to having to explain myself.”

“You know you don’t need to do that with me.”

Hannibal washes his hands and dries them. “It is one of the great pleasures in my life, yes. I don’t suppose your education in the Southern United States has included prosciutto?”

“Not prosciutto, no.”

“Then we will amend that. If you’ll take one of the hams, I will take the other.” Will takes his, and Hannibal cradles the other in his arm so that he can also pick up the bucket of salt from the bottom shelf of their pantry. They go downstairs, where Hannibal has built a special room for just this purpose, apparently: there are hooks for hanging the prosciutti, and a humidifier. He lays the hams on a nearby table and instructs Will on how to salt every crevice, rubbing it into every nook and cranny around the protruding bone. When they’re done, he places the hams on a rack, with a plastic basin underneath to catch the liquid.

“In a day or two, we will brine them,” he says. “After they brine for eight or ten days, we will hang them, and then they will cure.”

“How long does it take for them to cure?” Will asks, as they mount the steps back to the ground floor.

“A year at least. I would prefer closer to eighteen months.”

“Wow.” Eighteen months. They’ve been in Italy for six months already. Will just turned thirty-nine. By the time the prosciutti are ready, Hannibal will be nearly fifty years old. “That’s a long time.”

The crockpot has already begun its work; the kitchen has filled with a warm, meaty smell. Hannibal lifts the lid and pokes the contents with a wooden spoon.

“All good things in life,” Hannibal says, “require a great deal of patience.”

-----

One day, Will looks at Betty and sees her as a collection of muscles and offal. He knows where he would dig the point of his knife to sever the ligaments holding the joints together. He knows where he would set his fingertips and pull. He would braise the tough meat of her forelegs; her hindquarters he would roast. He would stir-fry her flanks. His dogs eat well: raw meat and bones and vegetable scraps. They live happy lives filled with plenty of sunshine and scratches and long walks through the countryside. The meat would be good.

That night, as Hannibal undresses for bed, Will watches his muscles move under the skin. One poke here, another cut there, and Hannibal would just peel away.

“I saw the dogs as meat today,” says Will. “I see you as meat, too.”

Hannibal looks over his shoulder at Will. “Is that so?”

“Here’s where your tenderloin is.” Will, already lying in bed, shapes it in the air with his hand, where he sees the muscle laid over Hannibal’s hip. Despite the lack of a regular swimming regimen, Hannibal remains very fit; he goes running most days, and he lifts and butchers and works in the garden. He has not been able to avoid some of the spread of middle age, but the muscles of his torso are well defined, and he has kept his weight down.

“I believe you’re referring to my gluteus medius.” Hannibal sits on the edge of the bed, half-turned toward Will. “But actually, I think that the comparable parts on a human are the base of the thumb, here,” he holds out his hand, jutting out the fleshy ball, “and the latissimus dorsi, here.” He runs his hand midway up his back. “And the cheeks, of course, and the tongue. Those are all exquisite.”

Will shivers. “I’m not sure how I feel about this.”

“There is nothing wrong with it.” Hannibal draws his fingers along Will’s arm and up to his shoulder. “We are all animals, after all.”

“Some people don’t think so,” Will mumbles.

“Do you think so? What is it, truly, that separates us from ‘the animals,’ as we call them? Tools? Language? Fire-making? Culture? Art? Mathematics? Every arbitrary barrier that we have put up between them and us has eventually been knocked down. We are animals; we are merely smarter than the rest of them, in the same way that blue whales are larger than the rest of us.”

Will focuses his gaze on Hannibal’s face. “So you think that makes it okay to eat people?”

Hannibal somehow manages to give the impression of shrugging without moving. “Why not? In the absence of God, all things are possible.”

-----

“You must never overcook the liver,” Hannibal says. “Undercook it if you must; you can always put it back in the pan. It is not ideal, but better than overcooking it. Overcooked liver is only fit for your dogs.”

“Good thing I have four of them, then,” Will mumbles. He added Achilles to the pack last month.

He does, in fact, overcook his first liver: the oil is too hot, charring the spices on the outside and overcooking the interior to a leathery texture with a distinct funk that sticks in the back of Will’s throat. The dogs don’t seem to mind.

Hannibal cuts open a slice of Will’s next liver and touches his tongue to the interior. “Acceptable,” he says. “A bit on the rare side, but there is nothing wrong with that.” Will exhales a sigh of relief, though he spies Angelo skulking around outside the kitchen with a hopeful eye.

Will comes to prefer dishes that more or less cook themselves, with little in the way of direct intervention from him. Paté, for instance: simply pulse the liver in the food processor, combine with the ground pork and the spices, and bake in a water bath. It’s impossible to screw up braising tough meat in wine and stock, and so he masters coq au vin and osso bucco nearly right away. Making sausage also turns out to be surprisingly easy, with the right kitchen attachments. Even risotto is not so bad, as long as Hannibal is in the kitchen with him, pouring him glasses of pinot grigio and reminding him to add more stock. It all takes time, but Will has plenty of that, and so does Hannibal. Will learns to make crisp lemon calf liver, parmesan-crumbled lambs’ brains, and braised beef lungs. He learns to roll pastry and season sushi rice. He learns the names of two dozen cheeses and how to pair wine.

“Why do I have to learn all this, anyway?” he asks one day, clutching a towel against the side of his hand.

Hannibal returns with the first aid kit. “It’s important to me. Show me.”

Will lifts the towel, now blotchy with fresh red. The jagged tear in the side of his hand still weeps blood. It hurts like a bitch; he was cutting a stale loaf with a bread knife, and the wound is ragged.

“Not so bad.” Hannibal applies a butterfly bandage. A dark stain spreads across the gauze square underneath the tan strip.

“Are you afraid I’ll embarrass you or something?”

Hannibal gives him a look. “Nothing you do could embarrass me.”

“Then I don’t see why,” Will mutters.

Hannibal busies himself for a moment with shutting the first aid kit, pressing down the latches with a snap. “After nearly fifty years of living, I have found someone with whom I can share myself, fully,” he says, without looking at Will. “And so now I desire to share all of myself. That includes...all of this.” He gestures to encompass the kitchen, the parsley and basil growing in the windowsill, Will’s blood dotting the cutting board and the crust of the bread that he’d been going to make into pudding. He meets Will’s eyes. “Do you understand?”

“I think so.” Will doesn’t know what he shares of himself, but he suspects it doesn’t matter.

-----

Will wakes up in the middle of the night to a bump and a scrabbling sound, and Betty barking. He heaves himself out of bed, gooseflesh rising on his bare thighs, and stumbles to the living room, where the dogs sleep. Angelo is spasming on the floor, tongue lolling; Dante and Achilles circle cautiously, while Betty runs back and forth and barks. Will quiets her and puts the other dogs in the music room. When he returns to the living room, Angelo has stopped seizing and is trying to get up.

Hannibal comes downstairs half an hour later to find Will holding Angelo’s head in his lap. Angelo’s tail is ominously still, and his hind legs stretch out limply behind him. The dog has fouled himself and the surrounding floor; his fur is streaked and matted with urine.

“Sorry I haven’t cleaned up the mess,” Will says. “His legs stopped working after the last one.” He looks up. “I called Abigail. She says she’ll be here tomorrow. Later today. She’s getting on a train now.”

Hannibal squats down next to Will and puts his hand between the dog’s ears. “I don’t think he’ll last that long.”

“Me neither.” Will gives a clogged sniff. “I want to take him in the garden.”

Hannibal nods and picks Angelo up. Will stays on the floor a second longer before pushing himself to his feet and following Hannibal out, with a brief detour to the kitchen.

The sun is just rising, casting a pale pink and orange glow over the snow. Hannibal lays Angelo on a bare patch of ground and holds his hand out for the knife. Angelo twists his head to look up at the two men, mouth open and tongue hanging out, his front legs swimming even as his hind legs remain lifeless. Will knows that he would be wagging his tail. The dogs aren’t allowed in the garden.

“Animals are fortunate,” says Hannibal. “They don’t know that they’re suffering.”

“Just make it quick, please,” Will says.

Hannibal puts one hand around Angelo’s muzzle, pinning his head to the ground. With the other he drives the point of the knife into the base of the dog’s skull. It’s quick and surprisingly bloodless; Angelo goes stiff, then relaxes all over, eyes half-closing. Hannibal lets go of the dog and pulls out the knife. He stands and wipes the blade against his trouser leg.

Will puts his hand on Hannibal’s shoulder. “Thank you.”

“If you wish to kill a man quickly, that is also the way,” says Hannibal. “Here.” He demonstrates on his own neck. “He’ll never even know that he’s died.”

“Please, let’s not talk about that right now.” Angelo looks so small and pathetic on the snow. Will can’t take his eyes off him.

“As you wish.”

The frost leaches from the ground, and fresh black furrows are plowed into the vineyards. Will is able to take a shovel out to the garden to properly inter Angelo, who’s been waiting patiently in the downstairs freezer. Abigail is present, attired in tall black boots with fur tops, fleece-lined tights underneath her black dress, and a black fringed scarf, as a concession to the morning cool. Will had difficulty recognizing her at the train station; fashion school has shortened Abigail’s hair, painted her face, and changed her silhouette into slinky lines. She has stopped hiding her ears.

“I tell them a different story every time, whenever someone asks,” says Abigail. “Like, my parents were in the Mafia and one time I was kidnapped. It was a deep sea diving accident. Or I was attacked by dogs. I was hit by a car. My friends think it’s cool.”

Abigail tells them that she’s taking summer classes, and so she won’t be back for the summer holidays. She’ll come for visits, so they’ll still see her. Will nods and makes the appropriate noises of encouragement, but he wants to ask the names of her friends, what they’re like, if she’ll invite them to the house sometime. They have a lot of meat. Hannibal smiles and tells her it’s important to focus on her studies.

“She’s drifting away,” Will says to Hannibal that night as they do the dishes. Abigail is on an overnight train back to Milan.

“It happens.” Hannibal dries a wineglass and hangs it in the rack.

“She didn’t even learn all the butchering you wanted to teach her.”

“She has other passions,” Hannibal replies. “Fashion, for instance. She has a good eye for color. She has other ways of introducing beauty to the world.”

Will turns off the water and buries his hands in the hot, soapy water. “What about me? Don’t I have other passions?”

“You have passion for me,” Hannibal says.

-----

The prosciutti are covered in white mold. One of them has a bluish tinge.

“It’s a good thing,” Hannibal says, standing in front of the hanging meat with his hands in his pockets. “It keeps the prosciutto from drying too fast. I would question it, if mold had not grown.”

The outside of the prosciutti were thickly coated in paprika and cayenne pepper before being hung to dry, to discourage flies and bacterial growth. Will wonders who was the first person--or first people--who discovered that they could cure meat in this way. He wonders that about a lot of things: the first people who discovered how to ferment grapes into wine, or figured out how to make cheese, and how much fruit or milk or meat spoiled in the process. The long, hard struggle of humanity against starvation, always one winter away from extinction.

“When we slice it,” Hannibal says, “it will be hard and inedible on the outside. That we will not eat. But inside, it will be smooth.”

Will swallows. “Did you--did you make your own prosciutto, back then? Out of--”

“Out of human flesh, yes. The human thigh and buttock is very comparable.”

The one and a half pigs that Will and Hannibal worked on together are long gone, turned into dog food and sausage and head cheese and prosciutto. Since then, Will has butchered half a cow, and even a goat. There was a sameness to all of them when they were reduced to joints and cartilage and fat and meat.

“Who taught you all this?” asks Will.

“There was a chef, when I was living with my aunt and uncle.” Hannibal sounds thoughtful. “I learned a great deal from her. The rest, I learned from books. Trial and error. I took a few classes. Recently, I have learned some new techniques from the Internet.”

Will smiles, imagining Hannibal with his iPad propped up in the kitchen, following Jacques Pepin’s instructions in making lemon curd.

“What’s so funny?” Hannibal sounds annoyed, not that Will is laughing at him, but that he doesn’t know what Will is thinking.

“Nothing,” Will says. He thinks of the prosciutto, carving away the ugliness to the soft, tender meat.

-----

Weather permitting, Will traditionally takes the dogs for a long, long walk on Sundays, leaving Hannibal at home. There is no particular reason for it to occur on Sundays, days of the week having very little meaning for Will anymore, and Hannibal would not come on the walks anyway, since he does not especially care for the dogs. But it is a way for Will to demarcate the days, to keep them from sliding one into the other in a long slew of butchering, gardening, cooking, eating, Hannibal. The dogs love it; Will can almost believe that they’ve learned to tell the days of the week.

A quarter-mile from home, Will becomes aware of a familiar smell. That is, he knows it’s familiar, but he can’t identify it. Then he spies someone crossing the grass toward him. Betty barks and races toward her: it’s Abigail, in a canary yellow dress.

“What’re you doing here?” he asks, just as she says, “God, we thought you were never coming back; I was going to look for you.”

“What?” says Will, and Abigail laughs and pulls him by the hand. The dogs race on around and ahead, barking merrily, and the reason for that familiar smell becomes clear when they round the corner to the drive. Hannibal has set up a portable stove on a table covered with newspaper, and is stirring an enormous stockpot.

“Ah, good,” says Hannibal. “I just put in the sausage.”

Will’s eyes are riveted to the bucket by Hannibal’s feet. “What’s in there?”

“I believe you know.”

Will goes around the table to look. The bucket is filled with dozens of crawfish: tiny, lobster-like creatures with gray-green shells, waving their little claws and eyestalks. Will possibly makes a noise of suppressed longing.

Abigail laughs. “Oh my God, I had no idea you’d be so into this.”

“I haven’t had a crawfish boil since.” Since Louisiana. “It’s been years.”

Hannibal lifts the lid to the pot. “You may do the honors, then.”

Will lifts the bucket of crawfish and tips them into the pot. Hannibal slams the lid down as soon as they’re in, and the three of them stand and wait. Dante and Betty circle with their noses to the ground; Achilles sits and stares. Will swallows and licks his lips. A few minutes later, Hannibal lifts the lid and, using a slotted spoon, spreads bright red crawfish, corn on the cob, potatoes, and chunks of sausage across the newspaper. “I hear this is traditionally how it’s done,” Hannibal says.

“Oh my God, did you find andouille?” Will picks up a piece of sausage with his bare fingers and scalds himself getting it down. “Oh’mgod, you did, it’s andouille, this is amazing.”

“You can buy anything on the Internet these days, it seems,” Hannibal remarks.

Will picks up one of the crawfish, twists it in half, and sucks the juice out of the head. He peels the tail and gobbles down the succulent morsel of meat. He’s sure that Hannibal has never done a crawfish boil in his life, but it’s perfect. He grins, wondering if Hannibal watched a video on YouTube.

“Does it meet your standards?” Hannibal queries, pinching a crawfish in half the way Will just did.

“You goddamn well know it does.” Will picks up another crawfish.

“I’m glad.” Hannibal sucks on the head in perfect imitation of Will. “Mmm. This is very good.” Abigail wrinkles her nose, but she tries one of the heads too, but only one; thereafter, she leaves the heads on the table, where Will happily scoops them up.

They feast on crawfish for the better part of the afternoon. Will lets the dogs have a bite of sausage each, and Dante gnaws on a corncob and then carries it around in his mouth, tail held high. It’s summer, and the daylight lasts long. They remain outside well after all the crawfish have been consumed, sitting on chairs and talking about nothing in particular. Abigail throws sticks for the dogs to fetch. Hannibal gazes into the distance with a noble profile. He has a bit of crawfish liquid still smearing the corner of his mouth, and his fingers are stained with reddish juices and sausage grease. Will likes the look on him.

“What’s the occasion, anyway?” Will asks.

Abigail gives him a raised-eyebrow look. “Happy birthday?”

“Oh.” Will feels his face go slack in surprise. “Oh, shit. Is it?”

Abigail bursts out laughing, as Hannibal says, “Your fortieth, I believe.”

“Oh my God.” Will laughs, a giddy sound torn painlessly from him. “It’s my birthday! Holy shit! Thank you!” He seizes Hannibal’s hand and squeezes it, and the look of surprise on Hannibal’s face is second to none.

-----

The days grow short and crisp again; time to slaughter the pigs. Hannibal drives Will to the farm in the early dawn light, where large-handed men with thick veins in their arms stand outside, waiting. Hannibal parks the car and gets out; Will hesitates a moment before following. Hannibal is speaking to a man who appears to be their leader: a thin, wiry man Hannibal’s age or older, with ropy arms, thick eyebrows, and a proud Roman nose. He speaks to Hannibal in rapid Italian; Will’s studies have been indifferent, but the conversation is not difficult to follow: “Back for another pig, doctor?”

“Yes. This is my friend; he would like to watch the pig slaughter, and perhaps participate.”

The man casts his gaze over Will, who tenses; it must be obvious to everyone in the neighborhood that they are two men living alone in an enormous house, and that a young woman of the right age to be their daughter visits on weekends. But the man only says, “As long as he won’t fuck it up.”

“He is a very good student,” Hannibal assures him.

It’s a surprisingly modern and efficient business, with over a dozen people helping in various capacities. The pigs are led one by one out of the shed, noses twitching, blinking sleepily. Someone shocks the pig with a taser; the pig collapses; someone else cuts the pig’s throat, while yet another catches the ensuing spill of blood in a bowl, which is then poured into a bucket. The pig is carted off to a separate area for gutting and hair removal. After watching this cycle repeat itself four times, Will steps forward and says, in quiet, unsteady Italian, that he would like to help.

“Yeah?” says the leader. “Whaddaya wanna do?”

“I would like to use the knife,” Will replies.

The men chuckle at each other. “He thinks he’s a big man,” says one. “They’re not that soft,” says another. “Did you see the doctor, last year?”

Will is given an apron, and the slicer hands Will his knife, wiped clean of blood. He stands in his place and waits, fingers clenched tight around the knife handle, while another pig is led toward him. It surely doesn’t recognize him, but it doesn’t seem to care. Suddenly, the blue-white crackle of the taser: the pig goes down. Will steps in, kneels, and pulls the pig’s head back for a good angle. The knife is sharp and does the job well, and warm, dark blood gushes forth into the bowl.

He looks up. Hannibal stands nearby with his hands behind his back. His face is a still pond, but Will knows that he is proud.

-----

At last, one still, snow-covered day, Hannibal pronounces one of the prosciutti ready for carving. They bring the leg upstairs, where Hannibal winches it into a vise-like object and produces a long, slender knife and a fork. “The rind protects it, so remove it only where you want to slice. We’ll not be carving this whole thing today, so I’ll just remove a small piece, here.” He demonstrates, slicing off a cap of moldy skin and fat. “Slice from right to left, like so.” He makes a light, easy sawing motion, and a thin sliver of pork rises onto his blade, which he picks up with his fork. To Will’s surprise, Hannibal pops it into his own mouth first. His eyebrows change as he makes a thoughtful noise. “Very acceptable. Here.” And he slices off another piece, which he gives to Will.

It’s salty, fatty, but not greasy at all, with a supple texture and a meaty sweetness that Will thinks must be from the joy of the pig. He remembers how complacent and trusting they were, being led out of the shed. The world was nothing but good to them their whole, short lives, and men went on being good to them even after they were dead, lovingly salting and curing their bodies, and then waiting over a year in order to properly glorify them. This pig will live on inside of Will, turning into hair or toenails or liver or skin.

“What do you think?” asks Hannibal.

“It’s amazing,” Will replies.

“Here. You carve, now.”

Hannibal hands Will the knife and the fork, and they switch places. Will holds the knife how he saw Hannibal hold it but has difficulty cutting in a straight line, resulting in a piece that’s thicker at one end than the other. Hannibal eats it off the fork anyway, and Will’s next attempt is better. Three or four slices in he thinks he’s got the hang of it, and they switch places again, and Will eats another three slices off of Hannibal’s fork. By this time they are both quite thirsty, and Hannibal pours them both glasses of wine while Will slices some bread, and then more meat. They feast on raw flesh and fermented grapes, and when Hannibal says that Will is ready, Will agrees.

-----

They can’t take their prey from the village; it’s a small village, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and besides, they rely on the village for food and clothing and household goods. No one in the village is expendable. So they go to Florence to find their target, and sure enough, in almost no time at all they encounter an tourist screaming at a street cleaner in American English, a woman around Will’s age with bottle-blonde hair and an obnoxious leopard-print coat. She’s very drunk, and when Will plays the sympathetic American expatriate, she gratefully accepts a ride. She passes out in the back seat and wakes only when they’ve reached a deserted country road. Hannibal kills the engine and walks around to the back seat. Will follows him.

“Wha?” She sits up. “Where’re we? Wherezis?”

Hannibal opens the door and pulls her out roughly by the arm. She shrieks and jerks, but Will knows that Hannibal has a very firm grip; all she’s succeeded in doing is bruising herself. “Let’s go away from the car,” Hannibal says. “I don’t want to get blood on it.”

“What?!” she squawks. “What’re you talking--get off me! You’re hurting me!”

The pendulum swings, and Will sees the future unfurl. Hannibal will jab the syringe into her neck. She’ll stiffen at first, try to fight, but the sedative will take hold much too quickly. That will be Will’s cue to step forward, draw the knife out of his pocket, and slice her throat, just as he did the pig. The blood will arc over the snow. They’ll load her drained body into the trunk, which is already laid with plastic, and take her back to the house. They won’t display her; it will attract too much attention, and Hannibal has other desires besides performance now. They’ll dismember her right away, pack her into vacuum-sealed pouches, and give the dogs her bones to gnaw on.

Will sees. She’s a woman his age, single, and with no or few friends--none who would come on a trip with her to Italy, anyway. She’s traveling alone, not with a group. She wanted to reclaim some of her early 20s, when she was a wild and carefree youth roaming through Europe with a backpack and a shoestring budget, one last hurrah with adventure before resigning herself to menopause and middle age and dying alone surrounded by cats. Instead she’s only rediscovering how alone she is, and so she drank too much to forget. When she found kindness she thought that perhaps she found understanding, maybe even love, but she was wrong. Oh, she was so wrong.

Will takes two steps to the left, behind Hannibal, and jabs his knife into the back of his neck, the base of his skull. Hannibal crumples, knocking the woman to the ground. She screams as she scrabbles out from underneath Hannibal’s weight.

“Shut up,” Will hisses. He yanks her to her feet and waves his knife in her face. “Just--shut up. Go on, run. Run! Find someone. But don’t come looking for me, or you won’t like what you find.”

She takes his word for it and disappears into the darkness. She’ll find a farmhouse, a village, something. By the time she makes her way back here they’ll be long gone.

Will rolls Hannibal onto his back. The light has already gone out of his eyes; no breath issues from his lips. For a single, stupid moment, Will wishes Hannibal were here. Hannibal would know what to do. Will bends until his forehead nearly touches Hannibal’s, fists one hand in Hannibal’s collar, squeezes shut his eyes. He tries to hold his breath, but it comes out in a burst of ugly noise. Just once, and then Will collects himself and drags Hannibal under the armpits, back to the car.

It’s a long, long drive back to the house, with Hannibal silent in the back seat. Will didn’t want to put him in the trunk, in the dark. He pulls up in front of the house, puts Hannibal in a fireman’s carry, and gets him in the front door and down to the basement. The dogs mill around with curious ears and claws clicking against the floor, but they don’t follow him downstairs. Will heaves Hannibal on the metal table where they butchered pigs together and undresses him, dropping his clothes on the floor.

Once Hannibal is laid out on the table like a victim in the crime lab, Will takes a moment to breathe and simply look. After this, he will never see Hannibal again, except in dreams. He stands by Hannibal’s head and pushes his fingers through his hair. Hannibal’s eyes are slightly open, his corneas clouded over. Will tightens his fingers in Hannibal’s hair, briefly, and lets go.

Then he turns away, dons his apron, and picks up his knife, to transform something ugly into something beautiful.

-----

Will throws a dinner party.

He invites the farmers who sold Hannibal the pigs and taught Will to slaughter; he invites the village grocers, the butcher, the baker, the cheesemonger, the fishmonger who went through such lengths to find live crawfish for Will. He invites the winemakers whose bottles fill their wine pantry, and all their workers. He invites everyone who’s touched their food in some way. And he invites Abigail, of course, though he has to send a driver to meet her at the train station, because he’s too busy overseeing preparations.

The day of the party, Will washes and brushes the dogs. He ties a pink bow on Betty. He dresses himself in one of the three suits that Hannibal had made for him, and which Will never wore except on excursions into the city: charcoal, with a pewter waistcoat, a burgundy shirt, and a jet-black tie. He feels a little bit like he’s going to a funeral, which he supposes he is.

He is overdressed for his own party, but it doesn’t matter. All attention is on the food: liver pate, prosciutto roses, heart tartare, delicate skewers of meat and vegetables, miniature mushroom and kidney pies. He has the prosciutto leg on display in its holder; guests cut off pieces themselves, or sometimes Will does, flourishing his wrist and letting guests eat straight off the blade with giddy laughter. The room is filled with exclamations. Who knew the man could cook?

Will shuts the dogs in the music room after he spies someone giving Achilles a bit of meat off their skewer.

“Where’s the doctor?” inquires more than one person.

Will casts his eyes to the floor. “You could say this dinner is in his honor.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” they say, over and over again.

“He would want to thank everyone who’s given us food.” Will raises his eyes again.

Abigail knows, of course, though Will hasn’t said anything to her. Her aspect is the opposite of Will’s funeral attire: a stunning red dress, with red-soled heels and a choker studded with black crystals. She doesn’t eat. “I’m vegetarian now,” she tells Will, when he offers her some prosciutto.

“Oh, uh.” Will’s face falls. “I’m sorry. N-nothing here is vegetarian.”

“It’s all right,” she says.

“The prosciutto isn’t...I mean, it’s not vegetarian, but it’s not…”

“I know,” she says. “Prosciutto has to cure for over a year.”

---end---