The Hole At Smithfield Meat Market
By T. Dalton
Tom Burns heaved the butcher blade onto the bovine corpse, shearing the ribs in two. Around him, the pounding chaos of metal on flesh and bone, the clank of wooden tables, of meat gawkers hollering their wares and the passerbys arguing over the price entrapped him in the auditory prison that was his workday. It’d been his home as long as he could remember, having followed his father’s profession of butchery in the Smithfield Meat Markets. His father, Bartley Burns, slung blades and sold corpses much the same, till the day an angry bull went loose and impaled him with its horns. The old man lived, but died from pestilence a week later.
“Shit day,” Gregory said, working at the post beside him. Gregory smashed the cleaver down on the cow. “Too hot and there’s no sun. It’s all off, I tell you.” Smash. “And still a man’s gotta work.” Smash. “Need to leave London.” Smash.
“Smells awful. Even here.” Smash
“Enough to drive a man insane,” Tom replied. Smash.
“Aye.” Smash. “Cellar I’m staying in smells like ripe death.” Smash.
Shifting through mounds of shit and streams of urine from the bovines in the stockyard, Tom sent the ribs off to the wheelbarrow man. He needed to butcher three more fat cows for an order set that Monday morning. Working at a furious pace beneath a grey London sky, Tom and Gregory cut away in the yards. Filled with animals and filth, butchers and drovers and hawkers and boys all yelled orders or instructions. Vagabonds would come into the market trying to steal what they could, whether it be a steak or a sling of fat they might later sell off later. The people and the animals and the smashing and the crowds and the driving and the yelling and the constant din of metal against bone and flesh and meat was enough to drive you mad.
Tom stepped away from his station, butcher’s blade in hand. A boy and a dog raced behind him through the yards. Tom turned to kick them away. His foot caught in a mound of cow shit and he fell back, the massive butcher’s blade promptly slicing off three fingers from his left hand.
He cried in pain and Gregory stopped to help him. “Shite, Tom. You’ve gone and sliced your bloody fingers clean off!” Tom shouted for help and Gregory ran off to get their foreman. The foreman arrived to a sight of of Tom grasping for his fingers.
“What’ve you gone and done, you bloody Mick? Mr. Curtis wants his beef cut promptly, not your fingers.”
Tom reached out in desperation and picked up his empty ring finger from a pound of manure, blood spurting out from his wounds.
“Alright,” his foreman said. “They’re gone. And you are too. A man can’t cut like this.”
“I can do it,” Tom struggled. “I can still work. Just stitch me up.”
“Found your other fingers,” Gregory said. “Laying on a heap of fat, over here.”
Tom turned to see his only friend, Gregory, holding two of his fingers. Then the hole appeared.
Where Tom had just been working away, stretching what could be a hundred meters, an enormous hole in the ground came into being. There wasn’t much other way to put it. Before, it was the madness of the meat market. After, there was an infernal absence of space. A hole, dark like a cave that’d never known light. And in it, anything that had been there. Gregory and Tom’s fingers included, the hole engulfed them and Tom watched the darkness swallow them up.
He fell back on his ass, screaming. Crowds pushed around, roaring like the calls of the mad. The foreman ran off hollering like a lunatic and Tom realized he sat in a manure pile. He remained there, staring into the void of the hole. Not looking away, he placed ring finger in a pocket.
When the crowds died down and returned, careful not to fall in themselves, they stood in silence, staring down at the thing in the muddy and putrid dirt. Tom watched a man slip and fall in, his cries echoing in the cavernous tunnel until they heard him no more. He disappeared before his voice did, and Tom strained his ears, listening for the voice. Lightheaded, he looked down at his forgetten maimed hand and grabbed a rag covered in cow blood and tied the wound. He found another and tied this one tighter till he couldn’t feel the pain anymore.
The hole seemed to descend as far as light could reach. Perhaps even into the center of the Earth. He tried to judge the distance. The hole was cut clear and clean in the Earth with smooth walls. Smooth like an architect had designed it. Like rocks smoothed by water, the hole showed god’s hands. But what god would do something like this?
When another an onlooker slipped and fell, taking two others down with him as he struggled to save himself, the entirety of the morbid audience took steps back for safety. The sudden danger broke the spell. Tom glanced down to find the blood had soaked through the rag and felt dizzy. He collapsed into a pile of manure and thought about how he’d survive.
By then, Mr. Curtis arrived. Owner of the stockyards Tom worked in, he stepped up to the hole with guards at his side. “By god, would you look at the size of it!” He glanced around at the butchers, asking how it came to be.
“Just happened, Mister Curtis,” Tom heard a man begin. “Act of god, I’d say. Me back was turned and I was cutting ‘way at me meat, I was. Then I heard screamin’ and turned ‘round and there it was. Just like that.” The man snapped his fingers, something Tom would never be able to do with his left hand again.
Tom would be a cripple. And he knew what that meant. Like as may, he’d become a vagrant begging away for scraps. Maybe if he was lucky, he could get a few pence sweeping chimneys till he grew a soot wart and died in a gutter.
And poor Gregory…
Curtis demanded they rig up a rope and a sheep immediately. The workers began to tie what ropes they had together into one massive length, as if they were angling for a moon. Curtis ordered they tie a sheep to the end of the rope and lower it into the hole.
Tom forced himself back up, weak as he was, to watch the experiment. They lowered the sheep into the hole until light failed and none could see it. As if the hole itself swallowed anything that reached deep within it. Though the workers still felt the weight of the animal, none heard it. They screamed when a fifth man slipped and fell into the void. The rest of the workers grasping the rope let go in fear. The unlucky man cried, gripping the rope in mid air as the hole swallowed them both.
"Something pulled it!” a man shouted. “I didn’t let go. Something down there took the bloody rope!”
“Well. That’s that,” Curtis announced. “Set up a wall around the infernal thing. Scientists from the University are on their way. The rest of you aren’t learned men, you’re butchers. And we still got orders on the ground. So get to work!”
The crowd couldn’t believe the orders. They glanced at one another then at the remnants of the stockyards. Those unconvinced by the hole chased after pigs and cows freed during the chaos.
Curtis stared down the hole once more then started off. Tom, using what life he had left in him, pushed his way over to the man. “M-m-m-mister Curtis,” he began. “I-I slipped some and cut meself. I-“
“You’ve maimed your hand I see.”
“I need a doctor.”
“That’ll cost you your day’s pay. What’s your name?”
“Your name,” he repeated. One of his guards approached Tom, billy club swinging lazily from his wrist. He smiled like a shattered rock. What teeth were left were dark as pitch.
“I believe Mr. Curtis asked you for your name, that he did,” the guard said. “Now ‘ows bout you go on and answer the man.”
“Tom. My name is Thomas Burns.”
“Well Tom Burns,” Curtis said. He tightened his tie and took a cap from an attendant. “Seems today isn’t your best day. A hand like that has no place for a butcher.”
Tom took out his ring finger and tossed it into the hole.
“That tie,” Tom began. “Looks quit strong. Strong enough to hang a man from.”
“Best silk money can buy,” Curtis snarled.
There was a moment, no longer than a heartbeat, where Tom hesitated. Curtis smirked at the threat. Tom reached out, grabbing hold of the silk tie around Curtis’ throat and lept into the hole.
Tom knew the future ahead of him. Dank and putrid cellars. Begging for coins on the street. Dark days and come winter, he’ll likely freeze. It wasn’t a life he’d want to live.
They would be days of certain grimness.
At least the hole remained a question.
Hearing Curtis’ screams of terror, Tom smiled as oblivion consumed them.
The prompt was: Deep below ground, a portal opens...