Apr/May 2016  •   Fiction


by John McMahon

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

The article was called "Mothers Against Meat Eating Mothers Who Breast Feed." An evocative, even radical, stance, but the author's argument was clear and her points solidly substantiated. Just the kind of controversial writing that piqued her detractors and satisfied her readers. Terry made a few notes within the piece for the author to think over, which were actually more for herself, it being an editor's responsibility to edit regardless of whether the article benefits from it or not.

She closed her laptop and eased back into the deep embrace of the plush seat. It was her first time on a private jet; she had never flown first class, nor did she ever expect her blog to garner such perks as free luxury travel, and yet she was there.

As if summoned by these thoughts, the single stewardess entered the cabin to check on Terry's needs. Another drink? A snack? Some music? The stewardess was straight out of the coffee, tea, or me days when flying was the realm of businessmen criss-crossing the country on fat expense accounts. She was perky and shapely with two buttons opened at the top of her blouse and toned legs in a short skirt. Terry refused any of the services, instead fishing the information packet out of her tote bag to leaf through again. What was the place called? The T-Bar or K-Bar? It had to be Bar something. All ranches were called Bar something.

The Lazy Vista. Possibly worse. She read about riding the range, roping, shooting, and barbequing just like a real cowboy. A vacation to a working ranch was as enticing to her as visiting a gulag or a porn shoot. She found her personal invitation between two of the glossy pages. The offer was odd to the point of insulting, being invited to a ranch, a cattle ranch run by some Stetson wearing throwback to a John Ford movie, but... the money. The upfront, no strings attached donation to her site, money she badly needed, proved to be reason enough. The volunteers who worked on her site told her she wasn't selling out by going, she was taking the enemies gold in exchange for permission to publicly vilify him.

The pamphlet explained all about the ranch, one of the last true working ranches in America. Organic, grass fed cattle, humane slaughter practices, spotless packing and processing plant, all in one. The letter explained why they had invited the founder and editor-in-chief of one of the highest ranked vegetarian advocacy sites on the net. It promised the greatest breakthrough in meat substitution ever. A self sustaining source of protein with zero carbon footprint that could revolutionize diets world wide. If she would be good enough to visit, she was free to write whatever she liked about the product. The money was hers to keep no matter how her final piece read.

The jet lurched in the air, and a vibration passed through the cabin in a wave. The stewardess poked her head out of the cockpit door to tell her not to worry, normal turbulence caused by descent. "Private jets don't crash," she added with a giggle before disappearing back behind the maple door.

Maybe it was true. Terry had never heard of a private plane crashing.

They descended low enough that she could see the pasture land rolling to the horizon, strung with white fencing and stippled with the dark shapes of what were described in the ranch's pamphlet as the finest beef cattle in the United States. Then they were closing down on the black landing strip and the tires were smoking and the wings buffeting as the flaps were raised to bring them to a halt. The plane taxied to a stop in front of a small, white hanger, and the stewardess emerged again from the cabin with Terry's overnight bag.

A menacing SUV that would take her to the main house sat hulking on the tarmac. The stewardess bid her a nice day and minced off to join the pilots. Terry was helped into the giant truck by a cowboy playing chauffeur by the look of his outfit.

At the ranch house, their term for what anywhere else would rightfully be called a mansion, she was shown her room among what seemed an endless hall of doors, where she unpacked her small bag and washed up in preparation to meet her benefactor on the terrace for a meatless lunch.

With the pared down tools of her trade—phone and digital recorder—she took a seat at a large, round table made from a single cut of some hard wood sitting on a vast stretch of limestone catching the sun as it wrapped around the side of the house, affording a view of the immaculate farm buildings and maybe 100 head of tawny cattle wearing horns and carrying a large hump of muscle at the back of their necks. Their musty odor was just discernible, mingled with the scent of cut grass. They were completely different from the dazed looking Guernseys she was used to from her childhood, and the knowledge the only reason these beasts were alive was to be cut up into slabs and charred made the back of her neck tingle with anger.

Gritting her teeth, she watched the cows graze slowly over the expanse of pasture. There was the click-stamp of the rancher's boots crossing the stone terrace. "Afternoon, little lady. Everything go alright with that old aeroplane o' mine?"

He was a caricature, from his walking boots to the out-sized silver belt buckle and Stetson hat he took off with an expansive gesture toward her and gently set top down on the table. Rocking on his heels, grinning down on her, his mustache draped off his chin almost to the turquoise clasp of his bolo tie.

Terry stood up and extended her hand. The rancher took it in his firm grip, turned it, and bowed down to smack his lips against the rift of her knuckles. "Woo hoo, you smell just as sweet as honey suckle on a Ju-ly afternoon," he hooted while she pulled her abused hand back and cradled it against her side with her still clean one. The look on her face must have conveyed an extreme discomfort because the rancher lost the dopey grin he'd been wearing and sagged a bit.

"I'm just messing with you a little." His voice shed of all the good old boy guffaw. He reached up and peeled the Yosemite Sam mustache from across his upper lip and held it out as a token of peace. "Stupid joke, okay?"

Terry reset herself, reached out and took the mangy looking hairpiece and flung it over her shoulder with a tight smile. "Okay, very funny," she said. They sat at the table where there were already cold pitchers of tea and lemonade, and the rancher mixed an Arnold Palmer, offered it up and then mixed another for himself. She took a long sip of the tangy mixture and wondered if she had ever had one before.

"So, I've been reading your site with interest for a while," the rancher said.

Terry pointed at the digital recorder, and the rancher shrugged his agreement. She positioned the recorder in the center of the table. "That's somewhat surprising—you're not a vegetarian, I take it, and I'm guessing since you own this ranch you don't believe meat is murder?"

The rancher smiled out at the pasture. "No, I'm not a vegetarian, but I am limited to one meat dish a day. My father and his father both ate about five pounds of beef daily, considered bacon essential at every meal, and lived into their 90s, but this is a different time, I guess."

"So why do you read my site?"

"Because it's good. It's clean. You obviously care enough to properly edit the work, and if nothing else, that lends you some immediate professional credit. I've followed a lot of vegetarian, vegan, and animal rights sites over the years, and they're mostly hysterical, knee-jerk diatribes riddled with bad grammar. Written in blog form, using numbers for words, and you know, abbreviations like LOL, OMG, SMP."

Terry nodded. "That's nice to hear, but you didn't answer my second question. Do you believe meat is murder?"

The rancher sipped his tea drink while framing his answer. "Meat is money, and at the base of anything worth a lot of money, there's gonna be some murder."

"That's a dodge."

Lunch was served. Two plates with a three bean salad running a crescent along a couple of fritters fashionably resting against one another, topped with a vinaigrette and sprinkled lightly with feta cheese. It wasn't very much food. Terry was hungry, having skipped breakfast and refusing all the offers of the too perky flight attendant on principle. She had expected something bigger, a meal more befitting a ranch.

"Do you recognize these? The recipe came from your site. Aubergine and Capsicum Dauphin?" The rancher asked.

"Are you trying to butter me up?"

" 'Course I am. Down here on the farm, though, we call 'em eggplant fry ups, and we sure do love'em."

The two ate in silence. Terry cleaned her plate in a manner of minutes and looked down both surprised and disappointed the food was gone. The rancher ate slowly, enjoying his, and Terry became a little embarrassed at having wolfed hers in such an unladylike way and then felt instantly guilty for substantiating the negative gender connotation. "Can we talk about why you flew me here?" She asked.

"All right, then, let's get down to brass tacks. I brought you here to talk about the future of meat."

Terry scoffed. "Then there's little to talk about as far as I'm concerned."

"No, there's a lot to talk about. Very wealthy people locked behind soundproof doors have long conversations about this topic every day—every hour—in this country because there is a lot to talk about when it comes to meat. Do you want to know my answer?"

She nodded.

"Meat has no future. At least not in the way we know it today. The world demand has been increasing multifold every year since we as Americans have proselytized the all-meat-all-the-time diet for the last 70 years or so, and the supply chain is already unsustainable."

Terry was shocked, she put down her fork and made sure she was still recording. "Meat has no future?"

"Terry, I'm a rancher." He spread his arms out as if to gather up the surrounding square miles and set them at her feet. "I'm also one of the largest producers of beef in the world, and you know probably as well as I do this ranch is a post card. A boutique that has nothing to do with modern beef production."

"So you have no future, is what you're saying. You self identify as a rancher and beef producer while acknowledging meat has no future? I'd say your ticket is punched, my friend." Terry said.

"I have a future, and that is why you're here." The rancher nodded, assuring his place, his viability. "I'm a businessman. I know how much water is needed to grow the feed to produce a pound of beef. I know how much land that feed takes to grow. I know the cost of breaking that meat down and stretching it out to a threefold yield and shipping it to any corner in the world, and I know the carbon print on every burger served up from Moscow to the Maldives, and that's how I know, not think, not feel, know, our meat culture is unsustainable. And so years ago I began looking at alternatives."

"You're a rancher turned soy magnate, or what? The largest producer of seiten steak in the lower '48? Or, I mean, what kind of alternative does someone like you look to?"

"Someone like me?"

"Yes, a person like you. A rich... a multimillionaire, hobby ranch owning, cattle butchering, GOP donating kind of a guy."

The rancher studied her with eyes narrowed against the sun, nodded once, and said, "Insects."


"Insects: high in protein, low in fat, no cholesterol. Processed and flavored as burgers and nuggets in fast food labs the world over and served up in all your favorite restaurants with a fraction of the environmental impact of using animal products."

"That's never not going to be disgusting to people."

"Whoa, now. That's a little western culture elitist for a campaigner of and advocate for the ultra left isn't it? The only two regions in the world where insects aren't part of the diet for the majority of people is central Europe and North America, not counting Mexico. You calling all those billions of people disgusting?" It was a nicely executed tactic probably used at a hundred dinners before, and she appreciated the move.

"So I guess I came here to write about bug burgers?"

The rancher pursed his lips and took a long, draining drink of his tea. "No, not insects anymore. Something completely different, something totally new. Around that time, when I was starting to get serious about production and was looking at some of the countries in the East where they're already doing it, I was approached by a group of scientists; biochemists, nutritionists, geneticists. Bunch of weird kids actually, unshaven, wearing comic book T-shirts and beany hats."

"Like the cast of an Apatow movie."

"Exactly, but these kids turned out to be magicians. Researchers who had lost their project funding, and so they came to me with a little plastic container of something the color of lard and the consistency of silicone that sort of twitched and wriggled when you touched it. Stuff they said could change the dietary profile of the planet."

"Like that manmade meat stuff? It sounds as bad—no worse—than insect burgers."

"That sample was only a very primitive start. I moved them here, set them up a lab, and I signed a lot of checks. They promised me in two years they would deliver a self-replicating autonomous source of protein 100 percent organic, 95 percent fat free, contained no cholesterol, and was completely maintenance free. They said it could be grown anywhere there was sun and water, and once established, would cost almost nothing to harvest and eat—or process."

"What are you talking about, Mr. McCinnis?"

"Why don't we go and have a look?"

The rancher led her to an electric car the size of a golf cart but sportier and with all the bells and whistles of a luxury sedan.

"Tell me one more thing, Mr. McCinnis."

"Call me Jeff, and I don't want to spoil the surprise." He turned on some music, and to Terry's surprise the heavy bass line of "Season of the Witch" filled the car. She found herself forced to reappraise the ranch and the man she had expected to loathe and belittle in whatever she may or may not write about the trip. He was much more intelligent and aware then she ever would have thought, and despite everything she had even caught herself admiring his profile and the shape and strength of his hands.

"You like Donovan?"

"Sure. He knew once all the peace and love shit lost its appeal, the hippies were going to turn mean. 'Beatniks are out to make it rich,'" he crooned.

They followed a pea stone path from the main house through ever more pristine pasture to a ten foot high fence with an electric gate opening automatically as the car approached. When they crested the hill, the stone ended in a circular turnaround, and the rancher killed the motor. From here they could look down on a series of rolling dells bordered by a stream where willows grew in a dense grove.

The rich grassscape ran away to the horizon, dotted with gray creatures about the size of sheep. They looked to have been stamped out or formed in a press mold, their anatomical lines too alike to be organic. They were mostly rectangular in shape, except one end was elongated and tapered to what approximated a snout, but with no eyes or ears, like childish renderings of quadropeds from an unknown world. The two looked over the herd in silence, the rancher grinning and the editor with a look of doubt marring her otherwise pretty face.

"These are Glumpies. Synthesized right here from the DNA on up. Petri dish to pasture to plate in just a couple of years." The rancher started downhill amongst them. He donned his hat again and affected a kind of strut, a walk of pride he hadn't used earlier.

"But what are they?" Terry called.

"They're protein. Well, they're other things as well. There's carbon, some fat, water of course, but the point is they are sources of protein that can be manipulated in almost countless ways."

They had reached the first one, and the rancher slapped what could have been a haunch and the thing twitched and shuffled stiffly away on its stumpy four legs.

"It moves... they... move?" Terry said.

"Yeah, they do. They move a little bit over the course of the day as they graze and angle themselves towards the sun."

"As they graze? You mean they eat."

"I don't know about eat. You're getting into a sort of gray area when you use bio-specific terms like eat or walk. They're not animals."

"But they eat. They eat to live?"

"To live? Again that's very fuzzy. I mean its not like they have a brain, or a circulatory system, or anything like that. Well, they do, but not like you and me, more like a tree. They exist somewhere between animal and plant with some borderline characteristics of each, or maybe needs is more correct. They rely on a kind of photosynthesis to grow. The mulching, as my scientists like to call it, was introduced as a way to keep them moving. Otherwise a sort of rot can set in."

Terry shook her head to repel the doublespeak and backtracking. "This is a simple question. Are these things alive, or aren't they?"

"They are a form of life of course, but they're not animal. They're closer to a head of broccoli or even the grass they're mulching. They have some animal DNA, they have some mobility, they maintain a constant temperature, they make, you know, some sounds."

"They make sounds? Why do they makes sounds? Why would you create something as a food source and give it the ability to make sounds? Can they communicate with one another? Do they cry out in pain when they're hurt?"

"It's not like that. The sounds they make are an effect of their photosynthesis. It's off-gassing. Like a burp. One of the great secondary benefits of the Glumpies is they actually reduce carbon dioxide just like any other plant. They take it in and release oxygen. Here, touch it."

She put her hands against the marbled gray side and felt the thickness of the skin twitch and bunch beneath her fingers. It was about the same temperature as the air and felt like nothing but a slab of gluten or tofu. It made a snuffling sound and moved a few inches away from her, but as it did, it angled its snout slightly up. Almost like a shy dog or farm animal unsure of whether it should be afraid.

Terry backed away from the thing. "You can't tell me that thing doesn't know I just touched it."

"There's a kind of primitive nervous system, of course, like those ferns you run your finger up and down and they fold in their little fronds, but no sense of pain, no self awareness. Look." The rancher took a folding knife with a bone handle from his pocket, flicked it open, and stabbed the three inch blade into the side of the same creature. He cut a four or five inch slab from its side and held it up for her to see. There was the thick skin, like a rind on the outside, and a grainy, lighter colored substance, still wet on the inside.

The Glumpy reacted no more than when Terry had touched it. Thick, clear fluid welled up out of the gash and ran in a thin stream down its side. "They react to temperature change more than anything," the rancher said.

"It's bleeding."

"Don't be ridiculous. It's fluid: water, sodium, glucose. Like sap."

"This isn't right. I don't know what these things are, but this isn't right. I mean, you're crazy. You're engineering a new form of life. What are you going to do if it starts to evolve?"

"We hope it will evolve, adapt, so it can grow everywhere. We want to see Glumpy in every corner of the world. Used in every cuisine mankind has developed: spiced, fried, stewed, and grilled. Glumpy Tikka Masala, Glumpy a l'orange, Glumpy cacciatore."

"Not just as burgers then?"

"That's the start, that start, that influx of money from the fast food industry, is what's going to allow us to basically give these babies away."

"So this is a charitable endeavor? You're doing this for the betterment of the world?"

"No, that doesn't work. Charity doesn't solve problems. These guys are going to make a profit, and that profit will be enough to give a percentage of them to those who really need help. It's been the idea from the get go. Glumpies have no natural predators. They can survive and grow on a minimum amount of water. They have cod genes, so they're frost proof and give off a phosphorescent glow so people can find them at night where there's no electricity. You see? We can put them anywhere, and they'll prosper. It's part of a master plan." The rancher got more excited as he spoke about the Glumpies, raising his hands to the sky, the hunk of Glumpy still dripping in one. His eyes lit up with the brilliance of a creator.

"God, that is... I mean you sound like some kind of bad movie evil scientist. Rub your hands together and grin, already. What happens when they are, you know, consumed? People will eat what you give them. Then what? How do they grow more?"

"I told you they're self replicating. C'mon, I can show you."

They walked among the flock of plastic looking creatures clipping at the grass, some making a tottering progress while they passed, others releasing gas with a throaty belch. The rancher was studying their profiles until he found what he was looking for.

"Here's one ready to pop."

It looked no different than any of the others except it was swollen on one side with a lump the size of a basketball. The rancher drummed his fingers against its taut skin like he was testing a melon to see if it was ready to eat.

"It happens really quickly once it starts."

The swelling suddenly peaked and crowned like a pimple, and a gray lump spurted from its side with a gush of fluid and fell onto the grass. Like any infant it squirmed in its mess as it spread out of its fetal ball, stretched, scrambled shakily to its feet, and fell into chopping at the grass the same as its single parent, which noticed neither the reproduction nor the newest member of its kind.

Terry stood wide eyed, now finally stunned to silence by what she'd seen. All afternoon she had been secretly warming to the rancher, even to the miraculous idea he may indeed be developing a cruelty-free way to provide the world with protein. But a birth, and she could find no other word for what she had just seen, was too much. Too unnatural. Too frightening.

"I want to go now. Take me back to the house, please."

The rancher saw the look on her face and knew he had shown her too much, too soon. He led her back to the car, and they returned to the big house in silence. They had a tense dinner with little conversation, and though the table was laid with Glumpy served up in five different dishes, each with their own sides, Terry ate only a small salad before excusing herself to her nice room in the beautiful house to sit in front of her laptop and type out her invective.

Hours later she lay awake in the king sized bed and toured the horrible images of the Glumpies in her mind's eye. It was after midnight when she got up, dressed, left the still house, and drove one of the tiny cars out along the same path where the fence opened automatically at her approach by some electronic agreement. At the crest of the hill where the path ended, she got out and walked a short way down and sat in the cool, damp grass. The dark night was stippled with stars, and the soft, yellowish glow of the Glumpies spread out along the pasture. Silently clipping at the grass they didn't need to live, producing oxygen and growing and multiplying without any tending.

She sat for how long she didn't know, weighing what had happened that afternoon, balancing what she had been told by the rancher against what she had seen. She thought of places on the map devastated by drought where nothing would grow and pictured the starving hoards of central Africa and desolate desert tribes and was amazed at her own arrogance of denying anyone sustenance because she was squeamish over the ethical boundary the rancher and his scientists may have crossed.

"They're kind of nice to look at in the night, aren't they?"

"Jeff, I'm sorry. I mean, I can't..."

"I'm sorry, Terry, it's a lot to take in one shot. I should have been a little more sensitive. I was trying to shock you, and unfortunately it worked."

"I couldn't sleep thinking about them. I had to come out here."

The rancher wrapped a chenille blanket already warm from his own body around her shoulders, sat in the grass next to her and handed her a foil wrapped sandwich. A rich barbeque aroma rose from its metallic folds. "Maybe you were just hungry. No one should go to bed hungry."

"You're going to help the whole world with these Glumpies, aren't you?"

"I hope we're going to help the whole world with them. Go ahead, eat."

She bit into the sandwich. It was spicy and rich, and the brioche roll was sopping with tangy sauce. She chewed the filling, forcing down an initial wave of revulsion from the density and grain of the meat. They are not animals, she thought as she swallowed.

Jeff watched her, her face messy with barbeque sauce, like blood smeared across a smile that crept up as she ate. He finally took the chance to do what he had wanted all day and leaned in to kiss her while she giggled, still chewing.