Directions to a Feast

The village is at the top of a mountain, threaded to the parched plains below by a winding road. The bus beetles back and forth, nosing its way upwards. It rattles like all its screws are loose. Its wheels spin madly in the mud. Panels flap and squeal.

The mountains are very damp and green, shrouded in a clammy mist from which protrude ragged trees with dark leaves and gleaming, sodden trunks.

You watch the greenery slide by outside the steamed-up windows.

'Today is a feast,' says the man next to you. He is wearing sunglasses and a leather hat and a pair of bright red trousers. 'They will celebrate by killing bulls.'

'How many bulls?' you ask, thinking maybe five or six: surely enough to feed a small village.

'Two hundred,' grins the man. You assume he's joking.

Alongside the road you see houses made of sticks, thatched with banana leaves. The condensed mist slides off the leaves, making them shine like metal.

As the bus nears the top of the mountain, the man sitting next to you takes a bottle of honey wine and offers you a swig. The bottle is shaped like an alchemist's flask, a phial of liquid gold. It tastes of dead bees and faded sunflowers. The man swigs deep and slaps his knees and chuckles happily.

The bus disgorges its passengers in a lake of mud at the edge of a grassy field. The grass is the colour of wet moss and the sky is the colour of rain. Perhaps a thousand people stand around in small groups, wearing brightly coloured clothes, old suit jackets and checkered shirts and baseball caps and rubber boots and scarves and plastic sandals. Everyone is drinking beer and chewing unidentifiable grains from grubby newspaper cones. Children hop and squirm excitedly. There is an air of ditsy anticipation.

One very tall, very dark-skinned man wears a magnificent tunic patterned in red, yellow and black. Another wears a khaki trench-coat and peaked officer's cap.

Both of these men – and others, you see – cradle long knives in their arms.

Now the bulls start to enter the field. They are led, by women mostly, with ropes tied around their horns. They come willingly, their faces docile, straining to grab clumps of grass as they go. If they sense something ominous in the air, none of them shows it.

The women laugh and call out to each other and wave and command the children.

There are a dozen bulls in the field, then fifty, then a hundred. A little mob gathers around each one, tapping its flanks and taking turns with the rope, as if welcoming it to the pasture.

The bulls are dun, soft browns and creams, all toffee and caramel.

They are horned like elegant demons. Something about the sheer number of bulls, and the sheer number of people, really brings across to you the difference between the species. The two-legged ones are us. The horned ones are them. The difference is irreconcilable.

Perhaps the starkness of this difference makes what is to happen easier to witness. Because you observe it as if in a dream, as if through a coloured fog.

When a critical mass of bulls has been reached, this is how it happens:

A man loops a rope through the bull's front legs, and tugs the rope in a certain way that brings the legs together at the knees, and the bull topples heavily onto the grass with a surprised groan.

Another man leaps from the crowd, swinging a knife as long as his forearm, and falls upon the bull like a bird of prey.

You can't see exactly what he does because he has his back to you, and excited spectators have surged around, but it looks like an act of great physical exertion, a back-and-forth sawing motion.

In seconds, the man leaps back up with a jubilant, agile hop. The crowd parts, and then you see the deep crimson gash he has made, a yawning chasm of red.

The bull then stumbles to its feet – the rope has been removed from its legs – and takes a few cautious steps towards the crowd. It knows that something has happened to it, that a profound and terrible change has been wrought upon its body, but can't yet grasp what it is, or what it means.

Its head flops loosely on its half-severed neck. Bright blood bubbles from the wound in its throat: fresh blood from the heart, vital blood, life blood. It cascades frothingly down its legs, splattering the dull grass.

The bull staggers round drunkenly, a look of enormous resentment on its face. It knows a cruel trick has been played, a joke has gone too far; it looks like it still can't quite believe anyone would do this to it.

The spectators are grinning, milling around, expecting something to happen.

The bull swings its head and charges the crowd. It charges in a futile rage, like a hurt child rushing his tormentors, who simply whoop and jump out of the way, thrilled at provoking the reaction. The momentum of the charge doesn't last. Already the bull has lost too much blood, making it weak and clumsy. It drops to its knees and collapses on the grass, exhausted.

The bull's body no longer works. You can see its profound confusion. Each powerful heave of its heart just propels more blood out onto the ground. Its throat has become a waterfall.

Its eyes roll around in bewilderment, its tongue flops uselessly. A pinkish foam spumes from its mouth. It looks like a fish dragged out onto land, drowning in the air.

This is happening everywhere. The soft earth thuds with collapsing bulls, as if bulls are falling out of the sky, jugulars burst on landing. Heads are lolling back and forth. Throats are flapping open. The field is soaked red, littered with corpses. It's like a medieval battlefield.

The butchery begins forthwith. Four or five men to each bull, whickering away with knives, peeling off the rubbery sheet of the skin, smashing through the joints with axes, severing legs and horns and head, slicing sinew, parting bone, lopping off the meat. Within minutes the living bull has been reduced to a few neat piles, its various parts separated and sorted, laid out on banana leaves for everyone to see. You can browse through heaps of intestines, marbled in fatty blues and whites, admire the purpleness of the liver, the undersea shades of the brain. The bull has become a museum of itself. Everything's on display.

Bulls are still traipsing into the field, tugging idly on their ropes, pulling against the weight of the women, dribbling green cud. They huff and blow their way through the crowd, plodding down the aisles of blood, apparently unconcerned.

There are no attempts at rebellion. Perhaps they are in awe at the sight. Perhaps they do not recognise death as we do. Perhaps they only see the green grass and smell the rainy sky.

A man uses the back of his sleeve to scrape bone powder off his axe. A boy in a torn tweed jacket runs past with a platter of trembling meat.

The blood sops beneath your feet as you wander from one bull pile to the next. The raw, severed heads look like slaughtered minotaurs.

They look like totems made from meat.

They look like skinned gargoyles.

You examine these images one by one. You take one image, have a look at it and put it back where it came from. Then you take another one and do the same with that. As if you are taking them out of a bag and turning them around in the light to see which way up they go.

They look like dogs that were boiled alive.

They look like thermograms of pain.

They look like the kinds of things you'd pull out after a nuclear bomb.

'Eat!' cries the man with red trousers. He has sought you out in the crowd, still clutching his golden potion. Between thumb and forefinger, like something he has carefully plucked out of the sea, he holds a cube of pink and glistening meat.

The meat is sliced fresh off the flanks. Everywhere people are lopping off chunks and popping them in their mouths.

Its pinkness seems somehow indecent. You put it in your mouth, and start to chew.

You think about a race of cream-skinned demons wearing antlered battle-crowns, pantaloons of excrement, shoes of rounded bone.

No hot blood runs down your chin. Its taste is bland and inoffensive, a little bit like sushi.

You think about the aftermath of wars. Defensive longhouses on stilts, villages walled with dark, wet stones, the stones gleaming in the light as the rain comes sweeping from the south, across untravelled miles.

'This will make you very strong.' The man is watching happily and taking hits from his flask of liquid bees.

The meat is difficult to break down. The muscle is elastic, resistant to all changes.

You think about defeated soldiers dragging their feet across trampled grass, shrugging to keep the flies away, roped like slaves, through crowds of cheering children.

Everyone is wildly drunk, drunk on meat and gorged on wine and staggering in a tawdry, coloured daze.

You think about temples, sacrifice pits, altar stones, and kindling.

Eventually, you manage to swallow. It slides down mostly intact. You can feel it sitting inside you, a reluctant presence.

Do gobbets of strength surge through your cells? Does power flood your body?

The demon race lies hacked and chunked in a sodden field.

The road is dribbling back down the mountain, and your bus is leaving.