I was sitting wretched in a penny sit-up, my hands and face caked with the dirt of the day—reflecting the filth this place sees me as. I was one of many who died to the beast of social class. I was nothing to anyone who had a full belly and more than a handful of pennies in their pockets. I am nothing.
The air was stagnant despite the number of bodies that chose to fill this place. My hands lay face down across the roughly cut wooden table. A candle placed every few feet or so illuminated the scars on my skin and the caked-in dirt under my nails. A cough would echo through the area, overshadowing small conversation tired men were having to merely stay awake, as for just a penny, you were not allowed to sleep here. In fact, someone would periodically saunter around the rows of tables and be sure to wake anyone who did fall asleep.
For a penny, you got a dingy roof held up by decaying brick walls, kept only semi-warm by the bodies that paid for the privilege of inhabiting it. You wanted to sleep?—well that would cost you two pennies, and you’d gain the luxury of becoming part of the great mass of men and women sleeping standing up, with only a rope to lean over supporting all of your weight. I’d sooner piss on the pennies and use the same rope to hang myself. Is this really the life I live? Murdering myself for the privilege of surviving? Surviving was a strong word at that.
Lost in my own thoughts, a man sat down next to me, placed a bag down on the bench between us—an empty burlap sack that appeared empty. The man sat almost perfectly upright, and was wearing a nice coat and long-brimmed hat. His eyes were shaded and just in the corner of my sight, but a smile was all too apparent. I ignored him. I paid my way in here to relax, not to make small talk.
“You look awfully tired, my boy.” The man spoke in an unfamiliar way—something about his accent. It was comforting, charismatic even, but somehow disconcerting.
I slipped a small glance to him before refocusing on the few inches of wood grain in front of me. “We are all tired.”
He gave a low, cadenced chuckle. “A penny can buy you a bench and a roof. You might think a handful could buy you a better life, wouldn’t ya?”
I didn’t want to respond, but he persisted. “Didn’t you hear me, friend?”
I felt his hand grip my left forearm before my eyes shot to it. His hand was black as night—covered in coal? I looked into the man’s eyes, or rather the place eyes would be. The shadow and dim lighting covered them. I could see only small specks of light reflecting from the glossy wet spots on his face.
“Get your hands off me. I don’t mean any disrespect, but I want to rest, not talk.”
The stained yellow teeth appeared in the dark like a wound being cut open. He clacked them together once before letting go and facing forward. My heart was as uncomfortable as I was, beating practically through the buttons on my coat, but I couldn’t get up or move away. He seemed like the type to cause a scene.
“What brings you in for the night?” I decided to ask, most likely to my future regret.
His hand reached into his left coat pocket and pulled a small pipe from his coat. He packed it full of tobacco; the smell was unmistakable, and honestly a refreshing change amongst the sweat and soot that permeated this building.
“The night brings me in.” He pulled a match and struck the pipe, the flash briefly illuminating a face, pale white, contrasted by the black coal color that reached up to his neck and ears. He had angular and sharp features, including a rather pointed, crooked nose. Scars littered his face in no discernible way. I was almost so distracted by catching a glimpse of the strange man that the answer to my question didn’t sufficiently shock me as it should.
“I’m sorry? The night?” I attempted to regain what little composure my mind had to afford.
“Yes. It gets cold. Needed a place to rest.” He gave a slight exhale as smoke filled the air around him, almost hanging in the spaces the light chose to settle.
“Oh, of course. I’m sorry. I’m weary. Long day. Long life.” My voice trailed as it neared the end of my thought. The space around me had gone quiet. It felt as if I sat alone in an empty room with the strange man. The candle flame flickered.
“Life is a struggle, a fight. For some, the fight is lost at birth.” He grinned, his pipe clutched in his jaws.
“What are we to do? It can’t be changed. Like you said—lost at birth.” I let out a small cough. The taste of sickly mucus filled and coated my tongue before swallowing it back down.
“You lost this fight, absolutely.” He took a long drag of the pipe. “But suppose you start another?” He let out the smoke, causing the candle to flicker, almost fade. “Become Goliath.” His smoke filled the space in the air that was illuminated by the wisps of flame in front of us. It hung, lingered around us.
I had no idea what in the hell he was talking about. A tickle in my throat welled up. Just before I leaned into my abrasive wool coat, I heard another cough erupt a few rows back. I leaned to peek at the man fighting a coughing fit. Some patted him on the back, some scooted farther away.
“A struggle…” His voice lingered like the smoke as I watched the man continue to cough, stand and choke on his own lungs. No help was offered, only one of the men that kept us awake to grab him by his flailing, grasping arms and drag him out. In-between the spaces well lit by the poor flame, I could see the bright red crimson running down the man’s white shirt as he was being evacuated from the space.
Was it another disease? A new one? I wouldn’t doubt it. I couldn’t doubt it; it seemed like every other day a dead body was being dragged out of alleyways and factories. We, the wretched squalor, were not only disregarded by those that thought themselves better than us, but by the entire world, as it seemed to be trying to expel us with a horrid miasma. My sight lingered on the door the sickly man was dragged out of, watching the heavy wood sway and slam shut against the metal frame, echoing a call throughout the quiet interior. If it weren’t for the man sat next to me exhaling another cloud of sweet sickly smoke I might have never refocused.
“It’s like the world wants us dead. Like the stars want us dead.” I said, my thoughts fleeting, tremors running up my hands.
“You are quite something to think you are important enough for this cosmos to acknowledge you in the slightest.” His words dragged out slowly, like he wanted me to interrupt him. I don’t know what I would interrupt him with. My mind felt hazy; it felt farther than it had ever before. “But you could be truly seen, by those stars you deem your executioner.” He spoke with the pipe gripped in his jaws.
This man spoke as if he knew something no one else did. He seemed proud of it. I sighed deeply trying to catch some breath that had left with the dying man and leaned into my hands, my elbows resting against the rough table before me closing my eyes.
“You talk as if you know, stranger.” I spoke purposefully and mumbled into my hands.
He tapped his dirt-filled nails across the wood grain like a chittering insect on the hunt.
“These eyes see through so much. Little bitty puppet. I can see your strings.” He smiled a toothy grin that cut through the shadow like a blade through soft skin. “Wonder who is gripping onto those frail little strings?” He stopped himself. “Or maybe not a puppet—a pig waiting for the butcher’s knife.”
His voice was punctuated by a cacophony of coughing men. Hacking and gagging simultaneously amongst the building. My stomach rose to my throat. My head spun as if I had been drinking all night. Nauseating pain shot from my temple down to the base of my neck. Within the dark of my closed eyes, spots of light began to erupt, breaking the black. Despite the pain, it was beautiful. I didn’t want to open them. It felt like floating in the night sky, out beyond the clouds. My stomach turned violently, my eyes shot open at the sudden upheaval of my insides and I gripped my mouth as if that would stop it. I tried to overcome the feeling. After a moment that seemed like many, it passed.
“Sick of being the pig, aren’t you?” my eyes lazily dragged over to him as he spoke just as calmly as he had when he first sat down.
“What are you talking about? Have you lost your mind?”
He pulled in another long breath of smoke. As he responded it came pouring out like a dragon eyeing a new piece of glittering gold. “Want to feel what it’s like to be the butcher?”
My stomach reeled. My arms began to ache from shoulder to fingertip as if they were covered in boiling oil, like my skin was being cooked. My eyes flashed around the room looking for anyone to help. Barely standing, I tried to call out, but all I could manage were grunts and groans.
The small embers of lights that illuminated the surrounding tables were going out, as if some hideous demon was going around blowing them out swiftly. I could hear shifting in the dark, swift ends to screams snuffed out quickly. The man still sat, pulling in more of his pipe.
I grabbed hold of his jacket, intending to demand answers, but again, I couldn’t. Nothing but a warm liquid flooded from my throat, cascading down the front of my chest. I released him to try to cover my mouth, but far more came erupting out with a sickening pulse. The black liquid tinged with the bright red crimson of my being poured out over the dam I made with my hand and the resulting pain brought me to my knees.
My grasp tightened at the stranger’s coat as he calmly stood up and, with a flick of his boot, kicked me free of him. He leaned down to show me that pale white face running a black as deep as the void I felt consuming me. Another damned smile crept along his face before he took two long steps out of my sight.
I was left with only agony—my mind splitting open and a song of coughing and pain surrounding me.
A sharp pain started at the tip of my chin and slithered into my stomach, with a crack and a sickening squelch from within me. Starting at my jaw, I felt myself bifurcate. My tongue went loose with no jaw to keep it in my mouth, my viscera spilled across the loose gravel before moving like living snakes, latching onto anchor points and other writhing bodies in the dark.
In the bloody split I could see snapping ribs rearranging into teeth. My eyes followed, but my brain felt as if it was long lost. A scream so deep that would make the devil flee escaped from me—not from my throat, but from the new mouth gifted by the pain.
Between each horrid mutation, images flashed of starlight, of distant globes floating in the void, dead cities and rotting populace, screaming denizens of space and time unknown. The pain reached its peak and emptied from me in the form of another deep guttural scream. I felt like a blade against a throat. I felt power.
My eyes rolled back into my skull, tearing themselves from their homes with a quick snap. Shadow was all I was offered, shadow and the sickening sounds of my flesh becoming something alien, a heresy to life, beautiful. I could feel myself being dragged along by the length of my guts—my new means of locomotion?
In the black of my own thoughts I witnessed the screams and shouts of the populace not only in this wretched place, but from all of London. It didn’t take long before I had new eyes to see from. Pair after pair gave me new sight to see the horrid perfection I had been granted. I took from man what had been taken from me—life.
My body was not mine anymore; it was a mere vessel of the cosmos. No control would be had. I merely got to watch, lose myself as more and more pigs were added to the pile, merging flesh with flesh, bone on bone, and mind on mind. I reveled in it—a beautiful spectacle of ancient cravings I had not known, primal and unrelenting.
I become we. We became more than what we were as individuals. Feared, the Butcher of London comes knocking to reveal the truth you all know yet refuse to show.
You are nothing.