The Butcher’s Stump

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The Butcher’s Stump

Thomas Tall they called him, to name his difference from Tom the builder (who was stocky and close to the ground like so many men from the Fens), or from grizzled decaying greybearded Tommy the carter.
He was never called Tom or Tommy, but was always Thomas, too imposing in height and dignity to tolerate any contraction. He’d lived his whole life in Cambridge past the river, in the same house his father had dwelled in and his father before him, and like his ancestors, Thomas had been trained in the craft of butchering and slaughtering.

His father had made a passable bare living by selling meat. Thomas remembered that when his father had occasionally managed to provide some decent pork steaks or new sausages to one of the big colleges for a substantial mark-up, there would be festive rejoicing in the household. But Thomas was nothing like his father, dead and gone by the time he was twenty. Money meant very little to Thomas – he was concerned with only two things that in his mind were really one thing: the purity of piety through the proper worship of the Lord, and the devotion to his labour. He was a religious man, taking after his grandfather, who had been something of a lay preacher for his colleagues at the slaughter house. That sort of thing might have gone out of fashion long ago, but Thomas’ worship of Gοd burned with a reverent, intense, and private fervour, radiating from behind his eyes and his stony face like the beacon from a light house on a cruel lonely rock. Thomas knew that cleanliness was next to godliness, as his grandfather had taught him time and time again when he was just a lad. Dirt, whether physical or spiritual, offended Thomas’ grandfather. When Thomas had been a boy, if he spent the afternoon fishing by the banks, his grandfather would roar at him for idleness and returning with the slightest dab of mud on his shoes.

His grandfather had held Thomas’ young arms in his crushing hands with his eyes wide and full of fury and used to say:

“Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?
Or who shall stand in his holy place?
He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart,
who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity,
nor sworn deceitfully!”

His grandfather taught that to keep oneself clean and pure was the obligation of every good Englishman, and Thomas learned to feel the strength of that truth right inside his very bones. Thomas devoted himself to preserving himself unblemished and godly in body, mind and soul. He attended Church every week, sitting up the front and blocking the view of anybody behind him, and he never gambled or touched alcohol, except for one glass of mulled wine with his family every year at Christmastime. In the six days when there was no Church, Thomas strived to keep himself holy and pure for the Lord in every aspect of his life. Butchery is messy work, but Thomas made unusual efforts to keep his clothes and instruments unstained. Because he knew that purity of mind meant giving himself over to labour, when he was cutting and draining and scraping and breaking from morning to night, he thought of nothing but that work and of the cleanest, subtlest striving his hands and fingers could produce.

The other butchers had mocked him in his youth, those callow spotted and spattered young men, but Thomas was tall and silent and strong in his faith in the cleanliness of Gοd and the pristineness of his working hands. It was no wonder that one who worked as he did soon became known for his skill and his care at keeping his knives and cleavers sharper and brighter than any other meatman in Cambridgeshire. Even before Thomas’ father had passed away, harried to death by his dreary obsessions with money, Thomas had far surpassed him in his skill in the slaughterhouse. He did not work quickly, but every movement of his knife was a thing of certainty, and even with his constant cleaning and sharpening, Thomas could butcher any animal more efficiently and exactly than any of the other apprentices.

He did not permit himself to feel pride at his growing fame as a butcher, since for Thomas aching labour was all in the service of being a holy, god-fearing man. Nor did Thomas regret giving himself over to the Lord and the clean blade. When the other apprentices cawed about their shallow indulgences outside the slaughterhouse, Thomas only felt contempt for their indolent souls and their refusal to better and righten themselves. The other young butchers called him ‘The Solemn Pillar’ and laughed at his devotion to the purity of work, but it never upset Thomas. He looked down on the other lads’ drunkenness and whoring with unclean women as nothing less than a damnable corruption of their Gοd-given lives.

At the proper time, he’d taken a wife, of course, just as he was taught was proper for a godfearing Englishman. She had been a small religious girl named Rebecca who came from a farm some miles off. Rebecca’s father had worked with Thomas’ own sire for many years, providing hogs for the butchers, and there was a long-standing unspoken agreement that the marriage of Rebecca and Thomas when they were old enough would simply be another transaction to add further faith to this business relationship. The marriage had been adequate, and Rebecca had kept her head low and silent and bore Thomas two children – a girl and then a boy, and had then immediately fallen dead from the typhoid sickness. Rebecca had died before she had even begun to know herself, but Thomas couldn’t lie to himself that he missed her. He despised lies. If anything, the loss of his young wife added another pleasing cooling layer of distance between towering Thomas and the rest of Cambridge.

His reputation spread out as far as Norfolk and Norwich, and Thomas stood firm and unchanging, refusing to let the sin of pride enter his heart or infect his worship of the Lord and the perfection of his labours. As Thomas’ stature grew, Romsey Town likewise swelled with the coming of those strange hissing machine beasts – those new steam trains that skittered across the untouched green fields of England, racing too quick and perilous for any of the Lord’s true creatures and harrying a new age of unnatural people inside their flanks. Everything began to hasten mindlessly in this new age, and it was becoming impossible to escape the railways and all they carried with them to Cambridgeshire.

In the blink of an eye in this careening world, Thomas’ eldest Leah was now a woman and married and gone to London with a young man in the business of draperies, leaving Thomas with nobody but his boy, Jacob. His daughter talked endlessly of her husband’s prospects in the drapery shop and promised that she would visit from the filthy Babylon of London, always marvelling at the cleverness of the trains, an enthusiasm she had contracted from her money-grubbing husband. Thomas had no time for the age of iron and steam and smoke. To his mind, these were not marvels, but the creeping steely taint of man’s wickedness. It was the role of man to look about, to strive and labour with his own hands and to build his soul and body to a state of perfection worthy of Heaven. His daughter never understood that and she could not comprehend the righteousness of devotion to working and shaping the world in the image of the Lord.

Thomas also did not particularly miss his daughter Leah when she was gone and consumed by the maw of the Leviathan London.

He looked now to his son, Jacob, pleased to be able to perfect him without any distractions. Thomas was stern and unyielding with his son, as his father and grandfather had been with himself. For the first time in his life, Thomas conceived of the idea that even if there was nothing beyond work and purity of the soul, perhaps it was part of his humble life to ensure those qualities were firmly instilled in his young son. From before the lad could even hold a knife, Thomas spent every moment he could spare teaching Jacob about purity of body and spirit, and the devotion of hand and blade and flesh. If the lad would leave his clothes filthy or speak coarsely and impiously like the other boys of his age, Thomas would lock the child Jacob in one of the slaughterhouse animal pens without food or water for a period that fit the severity of the crime. If Jacob emerged with the slightest sign of dirt upon him after his time in the cages, Thomas would have the boy wash himself and the pen spotless and return him to his confinement for further instructive punishment. Through hunger and fear of the cold gaze of his towering father, Jacob soon learned to obey Thomas’ precepts. The boy scrubbed himself until his skin hurt, and would work by his father’s side from dawn until deepest dark of night without a complaint, no matter how his limbs and fingers ached.

In the warmer months, Thomas used to butcher meat for the residents of Cambridge out by the Mill road. He had a heavy wooden plank that he would place on a tree stump for his cutting board. Jacob felt a respectful fear in those days at the terrifying strength of his father with this wooden board, a timber that the lad himself could not even begin to shift. In the child’s youthful mind, he had some vague conception that his stern father had hewn the board from that very tree, the stump of which now served as a support for his butcher’s board.
With all humility and obedience, Jacob tried to follow his father’s instructions and to become a worthy child, but truth be told, he never had the same dexterity with the flesh and blade as Thomas, and he lived in constant dread of disappointing his father. He never dared to say it aloud or allow himself to think of it for more than a moment, but although Jacob knew it was unmanly, the shrieks and screams and kicking of the animals – the pigs in particular – unnerved him and made him shudder in his sleep. The blood, the skinning and the evisceration did not upset him any more, but no matter how many times he heard their death-screams, the noise of the animals made Jacob sick with fear. Yet, what made the lad’s fear even deeper was the terror that his father might someday discover this weakness in his son.

Thomas used to butcher and serve his graceful cuts of meat from the heavy board on the stump, and young Jacob would scurry about as an assistant. In many ways, Jacob provided something for the customers that Thomas lacked – a pleasant contrasting kindness of character and honest smiles of welcome. Thomas didn’t approve of that sort of lightness of conduct, but permitted it at the butcher’s board since the customers appeared to value the boy’s presence.

As Jacob grew closer to young manhood, Thomas began to perceive further discomforting hints of feeble will and low desires in his son. Jacob was found on more than one occasion stuffing his face with the sort of grotesque treats favoured by lesser boys, he was beginning to form a most immoral habit of sleeping late, and his attention wandered at Church, showing an unsettling lack of concern for piety and his immortal soul. Despite these flaws, Thomas was unwavering in his resolve to keep his son on the difficult path of clean righteousness, away from sin and temptation and idleness. Whether he needed to shape his son’s soul with constant teachings of morality or to scourge away the lad’s physical weakness with punishment, Thomas never stinted in his care for Jacob. He worked on forming his son with the same unwearying patience he would employ in any other form of difficult purifying labour. If he strove hourly and daily at removing sin, lust, and the corruption of novelty from his boy by making him understand the cleansing divinity of work, Thomas felt that he could die satisfied, knowing that he had passed on godliness and dedication to his last remaining root.
Aided by the ever-chastised Jacob, Thomas spent that spring butchering animals with famous skill and providing meat to the people of Romsey on his stump-board set so close to the train bridge, as if it was the symbol of untouchable Thomas’ standing against the new noise and smell of the trains and the crowds of sinners it brought to Cambridge with their obsessions with fashion and indulgence. Thomas had on one occasion discovered that Jacob had been overcome with boyish fascination at these transporting beasts of modernity and that the lad had secretly gone to peer at one particular new model of engine. No matter how Jacob scrubbed his hands and face, he felt sure that his father would see his disobedience smeared across him in plain sight. Indeed, although Jacob never learned how his small fall from grace was uncovered – whether from one of his fellows or the many customers who came to the stump to unthinkingly gossip as they waited for Thomas to serve them – his father did learn how his son had been tempted to stare open-mouthed at the beasts of steel and steam and the soft fops and low women who were vomited out at the station like Jonah from the belly of the whale. By the time of the incident of the trains, Jacob was beginning to become a man, becoming stronger and taller with each passing day, yet he still cowered beneath his father’s icy piety. That time Thomas had locked Jacob in the animal pen for three days without food and water. So ashamed and broken was Jacob by his father’s love that it was another two weeks before the lad again uttered a word to the customers at the stump.

And so matters went on until the day that Jacob grew to the very threshold of manhood and began to forget his father’s words as he looked about him at all the delights a youth could enjoy in Cambridge. As ever, nothing about his son could be hidden for long from Thomas, and one day he received word that made him realise Jacob was no longer an innocent child. A story had spread about Mill Road that Jacob was courting young Marta Wright. Marta was a girl with full lips and laughing eyes and Thomas heard rumours that she was not even the first Cambridge girl that Jacob had turned his enduring charming smile upon. Naturally, all of Romsey knew of the young man Jacob’s flirtations before the tower Thomas. For as long as he was able, that paternal monument resisted the battering waves of scurrilous gossip. He believed and hoped that Jacob followed in his footsteps, worshipping the Lord with purity of soul and devotion of hand.

Then, one day, he saw Jacob kissing Marta in a most disgustingly familiar manner and something dropped in sickness within Thomas. He could no longer ignore the evidence of his eyes. Marta Wright was no better than she should be – the mere daughter of a shiftless ‘businessman’ trading upon the foul goods trucked on the dirty metal backs of the trains. She was a godless blight whose merest touch contaminated his son and his family name. And if he could drive Marta off, what then? Clearly there would be other unclean temptations for Jacob, who had not the strength of soul to resist the murk of sin. Thomas looked within himself and knew that he had expected more from his son.

One night, long past sleep, Thomas took Jacob to the stump. He told his son that they had a big order of slaughter for the colleges, and Jacob did not yet have the strength to rebel against his statuary father despite his incipient desires.

They stood by the stump and as Jacob was instructed to balance the heavy wooden board, Thomas struck and stunned his son as he had so many animals before.
Today, they say that the stump always bleeds and that if you lay your head upon it, you will dream of the death of the one you love most in the world. There is also a tale that if you touch the stump, you will lose your hand in a month, but that is merely the sort of nonsense that folk say.
With all the care and grace he would show when he bled a bullock from the throat or eviscerated a pig, Thomas butchered his son.
He cut the lad’s throat, and while the blood dropped over the thick board and the stump, he began removing Jacob’s skin, cutting and stripping the exterior of his boy while his eyes were still open and his mouth made a gurgling high-pitched noise. Thomas stood tall and righteous and with sureness deftly removed the viscera of his son and and arranged it neatly on the stump board, wiping the fluid as he worked from the board. Next, he began cutting Jacob into joints, constantly washing and sharpening his knives as he went, cleaning up the blood and filth that fell from the remains. When the strength of Thomas’ hands had finished dismembering his son, he began laying out the pieces of meat on the stump board in the appropriate places, carefully reconstructing the shape of his son with the warm dead meat.

If things had gone differently, perhaps nobody would have ever know what became of young Jacob. It so happened that a drunken college man out too late was walking past this grisly scene, and, unable to comprehend what he was looking at, laid a hand upon the butcher as he was critically draping the skin back on to the flesh of his son’s severed palm. As if disgusted by the contamination of this sot’s touch, Thomas neatly cut off the passerby’s hand with his cleaver. It was the screams of this bystander that woke the people of Mill Road and brought the neighbours to the site of horrific slaughter.

Thomas never bowed his head, but he went quietly away. When Henry Wilson the grocer asked him why he had done such a thing, Thomas answered that he had sacrificed to the Lord,and that he had saved his son and preserved his purity intact.

Romsey Town tried to forget what had happened at that stump near Mill Road and the bridge. They even tried to cut down the stump, but they found the roots were too deep to uproot it entirely, and when they tried to sever it from above, they only succeeded in shortening the wooden base. The people of Cambridge found that they could not tear out such a deed so easily. The bloody stump was sunk deep into the earth. It is an unshiftable reminder of blood and purity, and Butcher’s Stump it was called then and has ever been called since.