Alora Prescain balanced barefoot on the stump of an old oak tree and wondered if the tree had a soul. Animals have souls, of this she was certain. She studied her toes, spread against the rings of the tree, trying unsuccessfully to ignore her uncle Toby.   

Toby knelt on the ground holding a four month old lamb, easing it onto its back. Four hooves sailed up in the air. The animal cried out: Maaaaaah! Its white wool pristine like a cloud against the grass and foxtails. Toby, large man in a apron, whose largeness always seemed small due to a humble spirit, murmured last rites.

When he grabbed the small knife hidden in the grass, Alora lept off the stump and trotted towards the grove. Find the cat. Do anything, she thought.

“Fetch me the Emperor, would you,” Toby called.

Alora groaned, wishing she hadn’t heard, wishing she could save the lamb. But family secrets had passed down the line for generations. Prescain Gut Strings were the finest traditionally made music strings, starting in Cairo, now in the foothills of Las Plumas Blancas, California. Not in a million years would her wishes be heeded. And now the lamb had to be finished, butchered for its meat. Small intestine harvested. 

Alora angled towards the morning sun not yet crested over the treetops, through the shaded land where wild clover and sour grass still held the morning dew. Past the backyard where the land opened up, melded into foothills beyond, where she was unsure where Prescain land ended and state-protected land began.

The scrub oak bent and creaked in the northern coastal breeze. The freshness of eucalyptus mixed with the muskiness of jasmine. Her hair flamed out, long, unwashed and tangled.

At sixteen, she still loved getting her dresses dirty, running barefoot outside.

The little Prescain slaughterhouse stood in a grove of heavily shedding eucalyptus.

Alora came to a dead stop. Anxiety pooled in her stomach. Within, Toby kept the Emperor, his favorite butcher’s knife, with the pearl inlaid handle.

You can do this. You can.

It wasn’t a real slaughterhouse, more of a storage place for tools, a place to do fine trimmings, and pack meat. The place where small intestine were collected in five gallon buckets before she, or someone, carried them sloshing to the string shop, so her father, Aman, could turn them into beautiful music strings.

Alora cupped her hands around the glass and peered in. She could not enter if it had recently been used, but the inside looked clean. The metal trolley cart, the island butcher’s block, the knives hanging from a chandelier of metal hooks. Among them hung the Emperor, seven inches of gleaming stainless steel. This use to be a fun place to hide, to play with her bigger sister, Sylvi, with no concern for meat hooks, the drains in the floor.

She cracked the door open. The green hose coiled neatly in the corner. Even in the absence of blood, every cell in her body revolted at the thought of entering.

One breath.

That’s all it took to ruin her next meal, the whole day if she wasn’t careful. This revulsion had crept up with the onset of puberty. It both shamed and dumbfounded her that she, niece to the butcher, resident of the abattoir, could no longer abide by the rules.