He pushed his hands against the shutters. The wood was cool beneath the soft finger tips. With an effort he pushed them aside and gazed out into the street. Vagabonds shuffled through the road of sleet, snow and soot. Across the street from him three stories above a window flung open. A woman in her thirties leaned out and hoisted a bucket over the edge, she emptied its liquid contents onto the street below, then slipped back inside. The vagabonds shuffled on. Little eyes gazed out of the shutter and small feet shifted on the stool beneath them. Over the fire at the back of the room water boiled in a saucepan.
The little boy stepped down from the stool and walked toward the fire. The cold bit his toes, three of which were exposed through the multiple layers of thin socks. He stopped as he crossed the floor and fell to his knees. In front of him lay several scraps of paper, some marked with thick blobs of black ink and lines that formed half letters. To his left was a book, barely bound and with half the cover missing, it lay open to the first page. A dedication was written in flowing calligraphy. On his right was an ink well, beside which lay a fountain pen. An unsteady hand picked it up then held it firmly between the fingers. With his free right hand he turned over the scrap of paper, then placed the tip of the pen against it. Grains in the floorboards created ridges in the page, yet with slow strokes he formed the first letter. Minutes passed before the second, then the third. In time the fourth and fifth followed. He sat back on his heels and read the word aloud “win’er”. With a flick of his wrist the title was underlined and ink dripped onto the next clear section of the page “it was win’er 18-“ he stopped speaking “it was win’er and so cold, it only snow’d in win’er”. He listened as the words fell from his mouth, hoping they would write themselves onto the paper. Eyes set with determination he sat hunched over. The pen found its own way, its point dull from the scratching the others had made in the walls. With the crackle of the fire and boiling water in the background his hand guided the ink around the first letter of ‘it’. For a moment there was a slight hesitation, he hovered with the ink above the letter “capital?”. Silence responded, the vagabonds with a shuffled and fell, drunk, into doorways. He dotted the ‘i’. Then crossed out the tittle. ’T’ was next and with less difficulty he wrote the letter in two separate movements.
“Was” he said to himself “was, is next” and with a slow jagged movement he drew a single line somewhat representing a ‘w’. The door of the house opened without his hearing it, then slammed shut. With great care he turned his head toward the short hall and watched a figure, much bigger than himself appear. An old man stepped in front of the fire, his coat launched shadows on the walls. An arm reached out from under the coat and took the pipe from the mantel piece. “Matches.” The man said to the boy without turning, then took a sliver case from his pocket and filled the pipe with tobacco. “Now.” The boy dropped the fountain pen, which spilled ink across the page, and with a clatter of his chain, fetched the matches.
“Good” a command-like-praise received the matchbox. The man lit the pipe, then left. Again the boy was on his knees hunched over the page. A solitary tear rolled down his cheek at the sight of the ink spill.
Outside the air was still with a light snow fall. On the back of the property sat another house less than fifty feet from the first. The two houses were the last on this side of the street before the roadway turned to a narrow lane that led into the fields of Hallendale. He placed the pipe between his lips and sucked heavily, exhaling the smoke through his nostrils. Gingerly he stepped across the slush at the backdoor before the pathway began. His mother had lived in the house behind in her final years and the path was the only proof of her existence that remained. Everything else, including her, was set ablaze in the anti-protestant fires. The second house had only one door which bolted shut from both the inside and the out, he slid the outer bolt open and closed the door behind him. Inside darkness filled the air, small slithers of natural light crept between the boarded windows before most were suffocated. He inhaled deeply and mounted the stair. The air below him was accented with tobacco smoke had had the aroma of roasting meat. As he advanced up the staircase the air around him became dense and desperate. The stair ended at wooden door with a split down the middle, wide enough to see through. The door’s lock remained in tact and the old man dug into his coat pocket, drew out the key and unlocked the door.
With two steps he stood inside a corridor that had four doorways in the walls. A splash of blood stained the immediate floor and he stepped over it without looking down, it had already turned black. Each of the rooms was small and held only a single bed. The house was a converted hospital, used in the pro-protestant war. He stepped into the first room and a set of chains hung from the ceiling. Two frail arms were suspended above a low hanging head and a small body sat on folded legs at top end of the bed. The little girl barely stirred as he walked toward her, remnants of food lay between her knees. The man slithered up to her from the door way and with his finger he lifted her chin. The wide eyes stared hungrily into the girls face. She winced at the sight of him. With a slide of his finger he slipped it out and licked it. Her head fell back into the position he had found it, before he turned on his heel and with one wicked foot in front of the other, almost skipped from the room into the one opposite. The second room had a small window, below which was a cage, inside the cage a boy was on his hands and knees. The floorboards had been softened with a small amount of hay and directly beneath the boy’s throat was a small pile of cattle feed. The space between the bars was enough for him to extended malnourished fingers and grab at the air. The top of the cage held a small hatch and the man strolled toward it and unlatched the locks. He placed a gentle hand through the gap and stroked the boy’s head before moving on. Each room had a unique stench of its own, which overflowed into the corridor. The third room was much the same as the first, and the fourth, was the largest. Room four had housed the make-sift hospitals six nursing staff. But was now home to a large iron trough that reached very nearly from wall to wall. The trough was in the center of the room and behind it three feet from the floor was an iron bar of equal length. The wall behind the bar had chains coming down from it, as did the bar its self. Attached to the chains were rusted iron collars that locked about the necks of four children, all of which could not sit or stand but only kneel.
“It is almost time my children” the old man said with a gentle air of affection. Four sets of sullen eyes that begged for death looked away from their trough and up at him.
“It won’t be long now.” And with that, he turned from the room.
In the house below the kitchen had a large oven with a fire that lashed against its cage. On top of the oven four pots of copper boiled with their lids off. The smells of their stews filled the downstairs rooms. With a fanaticism he held his nose over the edge of one pot and with his left and right hand, swirled the aromas into his nostrils which quivered with excitement. A long pause followed, in mid motion he stopped and only allowed his nostrils to quiver with delight. He took a towel from the hook near the oven and fiendishly, yet with a certain grace, swung the door open. Suspended above the flames on a large deep tray various meats roasted. The juices bubbled, teased by the flames and the meat slowly went crisp. His secret seasoning filled the room, mingling with the scents of the stew he breathed deeply and held it, the aroma circulated within his lungs. A tremendous exhale followed and the door was closed. For a moment longer he allowed the smells to embrace him. A set of knives hung from the wall on his right; meat cleavers, surgeon saws, and a set of handled bone scale knives. With the towel in one hand, he tied his apron, then placed a surgeon saw and meat cleaver into the leather hoops at his side. Still with the towel and now with his equipment at his side he alighted the kitchen and mounted the stairs, then stepped into the first room.
The boy sat back on his heels, still with the fountain pen in his left hand. Before him lay scrapes of paper, on each were letters. No longer lines, but letters. He had spread out the numerous sheets of paper and as he progressed over them with his eyes, he saw the lines turn to letters and the letters slowly turn to fragmented words. He refilled his pen and as the tip touched the page, a scream came from the house behind him. He dropped the pen and covered his ears, which only softened the terrified voice. The fountain pen swirled on the paper. The boy fell to his side. “Father, no, Father, no” he uttered before he turned his forehead into the wood and gritted his teeth. The scream had died down but still he lay for minutes before removing his hands from ears. Now he lay on the ground, his hands clasped to his chest and tears dripping from his nose onto the wood. His foot kicked, a reactionary movement, around the chain at his ankle. The old man had moved the chain and bolted it to the wall, it reached in a semi circle to the mid point of the room. As the boy gathered himself and began to rise, the old man walked into the room. The towel, now blood red, hung over his shoulder, in his right hand was a sack. A dark wetness migrated around the base of the bag and dripped on to the floor. With his left hand the old man held the pipe to his lips and sucked calmly. Blood had splattered on his face. He hefted the sack on the table then drew a chair out and promptly sat down. For many minutes he sucked at his pipe and blew the smoke around him. It covered his face with a dark haze, which accentuated the rings around his eyes and masked the flecks of blood. The boy paid him as little attention as possible and tried to focus on his writing. “I’ll write ‘eh ‘ovel I’ll” he thought to himself as the pen touched the paper again. He wrote the first letter of the word, then the second and began the third before he was dragged from the paper by the cuff around his ankle. His body tensed, but he resigned himself to the routine and lay still as a strong hand wrapped around his neck and stood him up.
“Son, look ‘ere.” Father motioned to the bag then opened it. The boy kept his eyes fixed on the floor. “I’m cooking in the other house, we’ll eat well tonight. You like my cooking?” for a split second the boy hesitated. The hand grabbed his throat and threatened to lift his feet from the floor. The boy nodded. And the old man released his grip. He opened the bag further and with a morbid curiosity and slight reluctance he looked in. The opening was stained with blood and inside the pieces of flesh had been cut into steaks.
“Look at all that meat!” The boy did not answer the old man’s statement, but instead continued to look into the bag. Against his will his tongue flicked across his lips. Revolted by his own action he turned his back on the bag and sat back down to his writing. The old man walked to the other side of the table and lifted the bottom of the bag, he then emptied the limbs and flesh onto the table. He stepped into the back house and retrieved a knife, within minutes he had returned and lined the different cuts of meat onto the table, before he de-boned, sliced and wrapped them. The market was tomorrow and the old man’s prime cuts were award winning. At the end of the table now lay four stacks of packages, four wide, by four high, and the bag lay folded on the floor beneath the table. In his wooden dining chair the man stretched his feet out under the table top and rotated a chair on the far side so the seat was facing him, then smoked his pipe and closed his eyes.
The little boy continued to work on his letters, he had moved from words to the alphabet. Each of the six pages he had filled were covered with capital and lower case As. He waited quietly until he was certain the man was sleeping, before he turned the pen onto the lock around his ankle. He slipped the tip of the dipper into the lock and turned it gently from left to right while levering it up and down. Each turn the pen slipped out of the lock and struck the cuff about his ankle. Still he continued. His eyes were set on the lock when the old man awoke. For a few moments he watched the boy hunched over his own limb. The scars at the top of the cuff were remainders that with that same pen, he had tried to remove his own ankle on several occasions. Silently the old man rose behind and placed a hand over his mouth, suffocating any chance of a scream. He then proceeded to tear the pen from the child’s hand dropped it onto the table. Without a word the key was drawn from his pock and the cuff was unlocked.
“Here you are son, go, run.” the final word came out as a hiss as the whispers progressed from threatening to mocking. For a long while the boy sat soundless, then the cuff was snapped shut around his ankle.
“I didn’t think so. Dinner time.” With that he left the room. Out of habit the boy stood and walked to the table, he sat on the chair with his chained leg out. The chairs were just out of reach of the chain and it tugged greedily at his leg. His father returned with a tray. On top of which were two bowls of stew, two plates of thinly cut slices of roast meat, 12 slices on each plate, it was the same every night. A bowl of boiled potatoes was also present and a chunk of bread to be shared between them was sitting in a bowl of gravy. His father placed the tray onto the table, then sat. The plates of meat and stew were between them and without saying a word he placed the plate of sliced roast in front of the boy, then lifted the bread from the gravy and cut a piece off which he slopped onto the plate. He placed two potatoes on each plate, then lifted three slices of the meat onto his gravy bread. The boy only watched as he bit into the soft meats and chewed eagerly then swallowed and smiled. With his finger he flopped the meat onto the gravy bread and followed his father’s lead. A small bite first and he chewed quickly. Then another bite. The third was much slower, he salivated, he tried to resist. He chewed slower, the juice flowed across his tongue which quivered. He swallowed. Placed more slices of the meat onto his bread and folded the remainder in half. Gravy ran down his hands, he opened his mouth and pushed it inside. Teeth sank into meat, gravy followed over his gums, he chewed slowly and savoured every bite. While with each mouthful he swallowed he became further and further sick.
Next the stew was placed in front of him. He shook as he drew his fork and spoon toward the bowl. Its liquid was hot on his lips and the lumps of meat overflowed with juices as he bit into them. One spoonful was followed by another and by the seventh the sick feeling within his gut had subsided. Hot stew and a side of potatoes. He watched the old man eat and for a moment, he admired him. His father devoured the potatoes, one whole potato after the other, it seemed as though he never stopped to breathe as he spooned more stew into his mouth. His eyes were wide and wild, narrow pupils although the room wasn’t dimly lit. A great hunger was amongst the two of them, the more they ate the hungrier they became. Each devoured his stew, the remainder of the potatoes were poured into the bowl of gravy. Savage forks stabbed through the skin, two by two they were shovelled into the mouths of the man and the boy. Gravy dripped from their chins and was sucked from their fingers. The feast had been finished. Every morsel devoured. The old man looked at the little boy
“Bed.” He climbed from his chair and walked the length of his chain to the blankets near the wall. Bowls were stacked and plates were shifted as he lay there in the fetal position. His father stacked the tray, blew out the candles, and closed the door behind him as he walked to the second house. Once inside he placed the dishes opposite the oven, passed the stairs and came to rest int one of the two rooms on the bottom floor of the house.
The boy watched the ceiling as his stomach twisted and turned. The ache was unbearable and he placed both hands on either side of his temples and squeezed. Slowly the pain in his stomach numbed and transferred to his elbows as he increased the pressure on his head. As usual, he passed a large portion of the night with his palms to his head. After hours had fallen to dust he sat, gathered up the excess of his chain and crept to the table. From there he took the fountain pen and slid it again into the lock of the cuff. In one practised motion he unlocked the cuff and placed it quietly on the floor. With is breath held, he crossed the room, on the other side he allowed only wisps of breath to pass through his nose. For the first time in months he pushed the door which led to the pathway toward the converted hospital. Each of the locks were snapped shut and in disappointment he released his breath. A cry could be heard from the second house and his blood dried in his veins. One foot behind the other he walked backwards to his bed, never did he remove his eyes from the door. The lone cry became a scream, the scream became silence. Then another scream, then silence. Again the boy rose from his bed and walked the length of the room. His ankle ached. He pressed the door again. Nothing. He stepped back and turned, his back against the wall. Another scream. His hands against his head. His eyes shut. The scream stopped. He opened his eyes. And in a second of recognition he remembered the shutter window that led onto the street. With the utmost care he clambered out of the window. Snow and slush soaked through his thin socks within seconds.Hands against the wall, he traced the outside of the house. The walk around the parameter was slow.
His first step onto the pathway was uncertain, his second more reassured. His brain throbbed and his heart raced. A light emanated from the window where his father slept. Cautious feet approached the window and peered in, the old man lay on his bed, cradling his pipe and tobacco box. The door to the house gave with a gentle push and he stepped inside. Warmth flowed forth. It embraced him. The aroma nostalgic. It lured him. He followed. Into the belly of the house he walked. A cold hand touched the banister. A nervous foot mounted a step. Then another. Then another. Guilt propelled him into the corridor. The first doorway beckoned. He fought it. He surrendered. Chains hung from the wall. They nestled on the sheets. Soaked with blood.
“Father, no, Father, no” he uttered. A step forward. The smell. Revulsion. A step back. Forward again. An outstretched arm. Wet bedsheets. Blood. Blood. Blood. Cold fingers. Metallic taste on his tongue. Possession. He lapped the pool on the floor, his eyes wide, his lips brushed the floorboards. His tongue sucked his fingers. He rose. Walked to the second room. He crouched to boy in the cage and took up a handful of hay from the floor, then pushed it through the bars. The boy in the cage took it and chewed. Each mouthful was a strain. The latch had been unlocked and the little boy stroked the other’s head. Closed the latch, and moved to the next room. Here he squatted in front of the children.
“I know, I should’t. Yum. Yum. Yummy. Meat. Yummy Meat.” He salivated involuntarily. His fingers caressed their skin. Every part of his mind felt terror, but his body acted as if it were of it’s own accord. He licked their skin and smiled sweetly. Stood and turned. Down the stairs he walked, one silent foot in front of the other. His pupils narrow despite the darkness. He followed his memories and found himself near the great oven. Inside it the cuts of meat roasted for the market. The knives hung from the wall. He sat and watched the flames through the grill. The old man stood in the doorway.
“Good.” He murmured.
Spread the word,