Selling Horse Meat

 

“When I was in jail”, she casually said, “I learned to wash my clothes and our dishes using chips of soap, wiping them with a sanitary pad, our very best dish-washing tool. It's hard to take care of yourself, and keep clean. You can't just reach into a drawer and get new underwear, or even wash what you have. We each had assigned chores. Mine was the food cart twice a day. One day, Nancy and Kate were brought up on solitary confinement because they had a screaming physical fight over a Ramen Noodles package. We weren't allowed choices over anything, so food became important”.

“You what?” I said, “you fought over Ramen noodles and baloney sandwiches?”

“No, just Ramen Noodles, there were rewards of baloney sandwiches that the guards gave out, but we didn't fight over them, since the smart women gave them away to others. I exchanged mine for other goods, like a nine inch piece of tape that I used to attach the tampon container bits to my pencil stub, to make it longer. I learned how to scavenge what is available and make it work. I learned from the women who had been there lots of times before; they knew all sorts of ways to do things without any resources.

I did learn to make a cake from salvaged breakfast eggs, a carton of milk, …..”

I listened in horrified fascination. My friend spent two months in jail for her DUI a few years ago, after finally exhausting her legal options. While not quite a rollicking dancing scene from Chicago, the musical, her experience seemed to me to be both the worst of times, and the best of times. She was scared, she was depressed; she was sent to isolation for three days, the dubious medical treatment for getting an attack of pancreatitis, a terribly painful condition that usually merits a hospital stay. At that same exact time, she discovered a new self. She may have reached inside herself, found her character and accomplished some growing up. Not so bad, as results go, and she has stories to tell. She practiced some terrific creativity, within an extremely limited scope of raw material. She may even go back, if she needs more experiences to learn upon. She believes, however, that she will use her tale to reinforce her desire to keep from drinking in the future. As her friend, I hope that she is right about that; successful self- motivation is a whimsical task-master.

Stories, we all have em. Some are really personal incidents of ourselves or others, like my friend, some are tales, tall and short, others are just damned lies told well. “We are all actors on a stage,” I think it was Shakespeare who observed.

“Let me tell you a story about the night that we....”

“Did you hear the story about.....”. There are multiple stories that one tells to friends; fairy tale stories, haunted house stories, vampire and ghost stories, romantic tales and mystery or detective stories, fables of suffering love or devastating loss; lessons to be learned, or lived through. I love most of them. I adore some of them, especially the ones that begin with Once upon a time. In Spanish, they must have the same intention, since they start with . Italians say there was a time with C'era una volta. The story always begins some time ago, about two years, or two hundred, and anthropomorphic talking animals are common.

The tales always serve some purpose or make a point, however instructive or far fetched. I have collected a few international fairy tale books, choosing to buy those whose artwork I admire; the stories usually remind me how universal our tales are, how all cultures pass along their beliefs, guiding us unconsciously from within, engraving images on the hearts for later, mostly unconscious recall. Often, a story of greed or foolish choices, or intemperate anger carries the cautionary tale. I like them best with a happy ending, although my husband is quite the opposite. He cheerfully appreciates the hanging finish, the failed 'fix' the broad open-ended completion or double cross of human betrayal. Finding the happy ever after is just not his style, although it is often what I would seek. I sleep well after a satisfied ending, and such bliss eludes me when it follows confusion or worry.

Historically, fables have been useful broadly as a societal metric, and used to create negative as well as positive results. Could Germans have given over their individual moral authority during WW2 to allow the killing of others on a gruesome wholesale level without the story of Aryan racial supremacy being taught and reinforced over time, I wonder? How much does our familiar Yankee sensibility create our responses to larger global and international need? Buried in my national identity is Johnny Appleseed, George Washington and Paul Revere. I find that I have an image of myself, as both American and Italian, as member of my family, as member of a church, my heritage, my history. I usually act within those images, even without thinking. Often without analysis, I dip from the soup that is my inheritance, seeking sustenance as well as definition.

My mother often said,

“You come from a family to be proud of, do not let it down or shame your family name.”

I wondered why she was telling me this, as it meant little to my adolescent mind, living in the moment, a moment of me. Later, I was amazed to find that my foolish young-self had never really listened to the fables told in front of me, and I began to question what she know about this, and what did she mean by that? It took years, but some of the truths behind the fables come to light. In Italy I was shown an 18th century manuscript in a library telling of the remarkably pious and noble Lavezzi brothers who were known for their integrity, and for their skills in diplomacy, and how they had brokered a peace document between the warring kingdoms of Genoa and Pisa. I puffed up with pride. I felt as though I could own some genetically solid markers of character just by being descended from such sterling folks, from such a proud family. I suppose that I didn't want to find the scoundrels or the reasons why we lost our noble name; even a minor nobility was aristocracy! I cherry picked my history just a bit, discarding the bits I didn't want to know, and clutching the good pieces as evidence of something grand, like a good credit rating I could flash. One that hasn't been discarded, as it is a good genealogical story, is the story of a distantly related person, nicknamed “Scrambled Eggs” (Strapazze). The name and tale, translated from Italian, is because he was messy in his attire, and usually wore his latest meal across his shirt and down his front. I was told this by a resident in the town where the family had lived, for whom this story was nearly current news, although it happened two generations ago. He came from a family that had owned the butcher shop, and which was suspected of selling horse meat. The shop closed down after word got out. The tale has been passed down for 70 years to others in the town as a warning perhaps, to have two concerns: the meat they would order from the Macelleria, and the ephemeral quality of the good name of your family. In towns like that, a reputation is important. I can hear it now.

“Be careful, once we had a butcher in town who sold all of the townsfolk Horse Meat, can you imagine that! One can't be too careful. The family was ruined when people heard this; people refused to serve with them at church, engagements were annulled, and finally the family moved away to a strange village where no one knew them. So,” she raised an eyebrow warningly at me, “be careful where you shop, and bring your business to people you know and trust.” That thread runs through the family, like a cautionary warp woven through life's changing patterns.

I guess, to be careful, you would want to watch the coming, and the going of old horses in town as well.