Fiction: Butcher

Here is the second instalment of The Bear Pit, with part one here.

Stiff in his starched shirt the boss leaned over the new iron railings, rivets still bright and yet to be painted, and looked down into the pits deep shadows.  The speeches had gone on longer than he’d hoped, the boss a man always with something to do.  He was unused to such formalities, church on a Sunday more than enough listening for him, ears numbed by a life of blasting and stone rumble, not deaf yet, but heading down that road like many of the old quarrymen he’d worked under.  Listening was not what he was paid to do, but direct his tools and his men to dig and cut and blast, and now paid up he was eager to just get off, the work done. 

The stone had run deep into the hill, cut and quarried, drilled and blasted, a year of solid work for him and his men, long hard shifts, taking what the earth had offered up, some river or sea they said, laid down once, sliced up like a cake and passed on to the masons. 

He remembered the first visit here, to this place not so far from where he grew up, remembered coming here not as a man-made gruff, body shire horse thick, but as a boy.  Here there had once stood a wood on the edge of the black city, a wood of sooty leaves but green enough when only a boy: chimney’s of oak not brick, clouds of green not black.  In a clearing that was once where he now stood, on that now decapitated and butchered hill, he’d seen strange rocks squat like rough black beasts grazing, all-round and pebbly and made dark by the foundries.  They’d dared each other to climb up onto the backs of these stones like boys do, that human urge to rise high impossible to deny, to look down not up.  And so standing on joined fingers and knees and shoulders and heads, on a pyramid of boys, his hands clapping flat while his shoes were pressed up from below, peddling, one thumb rubbing hard on a gem of a stone, set down so long ago on an ocean floor or river bed.  And then he was up, the first to make it to the top of the highest stone, where he had jumped for joy, the boys shouting wildly and running around like savages at his feet. He’d been the champion of stone that day, unable to foresee stone would soon be his life, the murderer of such things as these - their bisection and separation - his bread and butter, him the butcher of the rock.  Standing there, when his heart died down, he’d looked at his feet and saw marks, most names or marks scraped in by knife or chisel, but also older signs of lost meaning, cut by hands as lost to time now as the river that once ran here too.  Unable to resist he knelt down too and taking his penknife added his mark to the roll of time.

And there that beast stone was again on his return two years gone by, thirty years gone on his return, with his foreman and the architect, the woods now almost captured and swallowed up by houses build in brick, tight, row upon row furrowing the hills that ringed the steel the city.  Passing his jacket to the foreman the boss climbed up again, only without help this time, what had once been an expedition as a boy was now a simple yard to the top, no bother on a man’s legs.  Up he went, walking around for a moment in the sun, eyes searching for his mark, that childish thing.  And there it was.  His mark, a lightning bolt, the first he ever made, making him consider for a moment fate, not framed in such a way, but only as some wonder at where life had led.

Within a month the balance of the trees had been cut and dragged away by horse, these stones robbed of their cloak of oaken leaf and left naked to the sky and ready for butchering, and soon enough his men blasted and sliced and cut the stones, his mark, the mark of other children, and men older than the Ark, all lost to rubble and dust he guessed, the odd one living on as the face of some block, but the rest turned to fragments and fill.  The beasts were cut down to the root, then the root dug out, the soil at their feet shovelled by navies, a stone hole eating down into time.  Around them other men worked, clearing and moving the earth, planting and cutting and shaping, all paid in steel coin, this place to ease a rich man’s burden, all he could buy bought, this place to be a gift to the people they said.  

Each day they cut the stone and pulled it out, the rock-cut and shaped, stacked and formed, lined up to form walls higher than a man and far too high for small boys, a boundary between the swell of the city and the graveyard of that dead hill and forest.    It looked like a battlefield but one day this place would be a castle full of flowers, this hole they dug to build its walls its dungeon, in which a monster had been found.  

Close by a large building took form from their labour, to be grand as any stately home the architects boasted as they rolled out their plans, a museum of things not from here.  More walls were built, this time to take roofs made from glass, also set to guard great natural wonders, a cathedral to flowers from the other side of the world.  The work was hard but his men were as solid, no fingers or hands or toes lost on this job, no lives squashed flat by some unseen weakness or careless tap or pull.  The work was good and well paid, the money, some small piece of wealth from steel: bombs and bullets and battleship skin gave over to this dark city.  

Down they had dug, ten fathoms, the lie of the stone forcing small adjustments in the plans but no more, the pit long, twisting a little like the river that gave birth to it, the earth held back where it appeared by the masons brick and mortar, the earth cut away or added to form a flat hill that surrounded the hole, its edge cleaned up and brick-lined, a fence of iron railings already begun, once complete to safeguard the unwary.  

The last month of work had been the building of an arched tunnel along the length of the quarry entrance, where tracks had once taken the stone to the mason’s yard, now lifted up for moving on, the tunnel made up of the leftovers by the mason’s apprentices, a wall built at the quarry end to cap the hole, earth scraped and pushed piled to bury the tunnel and leave a hill once more again, trees set that would one day hide this pit in their shadow.

He stood there now, besides the other trades, in his best clothes: white cuffs tight to his battered hands that gripped the green railings fresh painted, looking down into the pit, his work done, eager to be off, a new job pressing, a quarry not far away, on the edge of the moor, dug for the new cathedral.  It was a job that could see him out he guessed.  Beside him now was the man of steel, shaking hands, a little bent, bent from counting coin someone had whispered, the man who had paid for this place for the people, but would be gone before flowers blossomed in their first spring.  The old man gave a short speech after the mayor and the parliamentarian, a good one he reckoned, a speech about how this would be a place for the people, a place for higher things, of art, of culture and of leisure, his gift to the future, but few really listened, their empty stomachs eager to get onto the food laid out in the new greenhouse.  As the boss listened he thought about what he would leave behind, what was his life’s work.  For him, there were no monuments to his labour, not like the mason or the carpenter or the architect or the maker of dreadnoughts.    No for him there were but holes in the earth.

The speeches over, most of the audience broke down the hill, past empty flowerbeds just about to sprout colour and freshly planted trees and bushes, but the quarryman remained for a moment, him and the master mason and his apprentice, looking down into the pit, down into this hill he had hollowed out and butchered, made its insides naked and new to the sun and the rain and the snow, like time would have done perhaps one day if left to its devices.  Together they looked down and watched, watched as the bear roamed backwards and forwards in search of a way home.