The opening to The Butchers by Ruth Gilligan, published by Atlantic Books on 26th March 2020.
New York, January 2018
Even now, twenty-two years since he took the photograph, he still cannot quite believe the lack of blood.
The cold store isn’t a big room, maybe twenty by twenty at a push, the wall tiles riddled with cracks and greenish buds of mould. Below, the floor is a dismal skim of concrete; above, the bulbs’ glare is a merciless white; in between, the metal brackets traverse the ceiling, the meat hooks laned empty in their rows.
The lack of windows means it is impossible to tell whether it is night or day outside. It also means the walls are bare, save where a portrait of the Virgin Mary has, inexplicably, been nailed. And apart from Our Blessed Mother, there is only one other person in that dilapidated room.
There is a man, hanging from the ceiling, upside down.
The Butcher is still fully clothed, minus his socks and boots. His overalls are fastened. His pale shirt is neatly tucked. Only the wounds confirm the worst – that he isn’t just unconscious; isn’t just sleeping the wrong way up like a bat – only the holes in the bridge of his feet where the rusty hook has been pierced through, taking the weight of his body and holding it aloft.
Leaving aside the wounds, there is something almost languid to the flow of the Butcher’s limbs. The flesh has been drained of any trace of violence, any trace of how he possibly found himself up there. The eyes betray no pain as they stare out from beyond death towards the cold-store doorway, where they meet the blinding flash of the camera.
Ronan steps back from the photograph and trips on a roll of bubble wrap by his feet. Usually his apartment is pristine; today it is a chaos of boxes and gaffer tape. He glances at the clock on the wall. The delivery men will be arriving any minute. He is leaving this one unwrapped until the last possible moment.
Two decades on, there is still no denying the impact The Butcher has on him. He has started to accept that, maybe, he will never produce a finer shot; that maybe, despite the awards and the international shows, his peak was right back at the very beginning when he was only a young eejit wandering the Irish borderlands with a second-hand Canon and a baggie full of pills; a determination to find the perfect image that would get his career off the ground at last.
So he supposes it is ego, more than anything, that has finally persuaded him to put this photo on public display. It is good – very good. It deserves to be seen. In the past he always concluded, reluctantly, that showing it just wasn’t worth the hassle. There had been rumours around the body – suspicious circumstances and all that – which meant the image would have been treated more like a piece of evidence than a piece of art. But by now the dust has long settled – no one even mentions it any more, the ancient group they called ‘The Butchers’ – especially not over here in some small museum on the outskirts of Manhattan where every curator looks about half his age and every photograph is accompanied by a brief wall text that reduces the image to its biographical minimum:
by Ronan Monks
(County Monaghan, 1996)
The man in the photograph is thought to have belonged to a group of ritual cattle slaughterers known as ‘The Butchers’. Composed of eight men, the group travelled the length and breadth of Ireland practising their folkloric customs. However, around the time of the photograph, ‘The Butchers’ disbanded after hundreds of years of service. Today, very little record remains of their ancient, unorthodox traditions.
The buzzer sounds and Ronan startles. He presses the button by the intercom then hears the delivery men coming up the stairs, their hardy footsteps and easy drawl. It won’t take them long to move the pictures – the museum is only a twenty-minute drive across the river. Some of them will probably be half-Irish just like him. All of them will probably expect a tip. But for these final moments the only man that matters is the one in the photograph, his shadow pooled black, his toenails curved white in ten tiny crescent moons.
Ronan slides the metal chain and undoes the latch. This could be a mistake, he thinks; could mean giving up a secret buried safe for twenty-two years.
He turns the handle and the light comes blinding in.
County Cavan, January 1996
Úna had no idea it would be their last farewell dinner. And anyway, she was far too distracted that night by the prospect of a mouse.
Outside, the barren fields lay flattened by the January cold, the kind of chill that got into your bones and under your gums. Frosty vapours rolled in to lend the borderlands a haunted disposition, as if they needed any help in that regard. Beneath the beech trees, a flock of sheep huddled close for warmth, their wool crystallising degree by falling degree, until eventually their fleeces had frozen together to form a single, shivering mass – a terrified creature that might not last the night.
Inside the house it wasn’t much better, the cold working its way in quickly through chinks and gaps, and more slowly through the seep of plasterwork damp. But down in the kitchen, the air had been roused to such a glorious swelter it would stave off the worst of the freeze for another hour or two yet.
The feast was almost ready, the pots thuddering on the boil, the oven fan sucking up delicious vapours of its own. In the middle, Úna was setting the table – not just the usual cutlery and plates, but all the fancy accoutrements given the occasion. There were coasters and placemats, napkins dug up from where they lay buried deep for the rest of the year, their pretty scalloped edges creased and slightly frayed. In the corner of one she spotted a bloom of mould so she tried a rub of spit. It wouldn’t budge. She folded the napkin and put it in her place.
On the sideboard, the radio was wavering somewhere between static and the final bars of a Simply Red croon – apparently Mick Hucknall was pure delighted by the very idea of coming home to you.
Hearing the words, Úna almost laughed at the irony. Then she thought of the bleating frozen mass outside and this time she laughed outright.
Coming home to ewe.
She was about to share the joke with her mam who was over by the sink looking dolled up, gorgeous in her earrings and heels. Even though the whole point of the dinner was to celebrate the fact that, for one last night, none of them would be going anywhere.
Her mam, though, seemed too frazzled for jokes, so Úna tucked her mousy hair behind her ears and concentrated on double-checking her arrangement. Or maybe triple-checking was more appropriate since the three place settings were lined up precisely where they belonged. After tomorrow, dinnertimes would only be set for two, the pair of them chattering and chewing away, swapping jokes and silly stories from the day, while secretly both would be thinking of him, wondering what he had managed to get for his own tea, hoping he and the other Butchers had found a wayhouse where they could spend the night.
Right now her father was upstairs finishing his packing. He would set out tomorrow at the snap of dawn. If the freeze kept up its belligerence it was bound to be a slippery sort of farewell. He always told her that, apart from the knives, of course, the most important thing was a decent pair of boots. Their feet got annihilated on the road, blisters and bunions and pus weeping in between toes. So this afternoon, Úna had offered to take his pair and buff them up to a conker sheen; had said she could even rewind his laces. But after he thanked her very much, he explained such tasks were a Butcher’s prerogative. Úna had felt a swell of pride and jealousy all at once.
‘Right, you can call him – I think we’re ready.’
Úna looked at her mam.‘Don’t you mean Simply Reddy?’ She thought she caught a glimpse of a smile. She sprinted out to the hall – ‘Dad! Dinner!’ – and her voice carried up through the bones of the house. On the way back to the kitchen, she glanced around her before opening the boiler cupboard quickly, just to check. The knuckle of cheese on the mousetrap had frozen a solid white.
Once in place, they closed their eyes and reached out to clasp hands. Úna felt her father’s calloused skin, thick and hard like leather. By comparison, hers was still baby-soft. First they gave thanks for their meal and the beautiful bit of meat that sat resting before them. Next they acknowledged the lovely month they had enjoyed the three of them together. Then they prayed for her father’s travels tomorrow and the safety of his return; prayed all eight men would make it through another year. They were the usual entreaties, though Úna thought her mam’s voice sounded just a bit thinner on them tonight, a hairline crack when she whispered the final word, Amen.
The meal began. Plates passed. Wine poured. Spuds skewered. ‘Have you finished all your Christmas holiday homework?’ and ‘What about New Year’s resolutions? Mine’s sit-ups every morning – need to stop the old middle-aged spread!’ As ever, her father was the full whack of himself, trying to leave an imprint on the kitchen air, a compensation to ensure his presence would linger – as if, somehow, that would be enough.
Úna forced herself to eat slowly, savouring each salty chew in turn. Because on top of everything else, tonight was the last night before their meat meals were rationed down to once a week. The freezer out in the shed stashed all the properly slaughtered beef which the Butchers carried back each December for Úna and her mam to eke eke eke eleven months. Úna scraped her knife as she pictured it – the flesh famine up ahead; her dad’s absence at the table. She knew that missing a person could leave your stomach as hollow as hunger.
Plates licked and rinsed, she headed off to change into pyjamas. Outside the boiler cupboard she checked again, then produced the morsel of meat she had sneaked into her pocket. As her Christmas gift this year, Úna had asked for a bit of money, then bought the trap down in the village shop on the sly. According to the label, it was one of the new ‘humane’ varieties that worked mainly on balance – no spring loadings or metal decapitations; no poison or jam-thick layers of glue. Instead, the weight of the mouse tipped it over until a plastic door sliced shut behind – no chance of escape, but no blood to it either.
She cupped her hand now and waved it back and forth to help the steak smell waft into the cupboard. She hoped mice liked their beef rare, same as her. She would check the trap again tomorrow, right after her father had raised his leather hand to the morning sky and broken both of their poor hearts.
She was certain she wouldn’t sleep, but she must have dozed a bit because a few hours later she awoke with a start. Was it her prey that had woken her, scuttling out for a midnight snack? She strained her ears. The sound wasn’t squeaks, but hushed protests.
‘Cúch, what if I can’t face another year?’ Through the darkness, the crack in her mother’s voice had turned into a fissure.‘You have no idea just how lonely—’
‘Ah, Grá, don’t be starting all that.’ Her father’s sigh was heavy, a draught underneath her bedroom door. Though his next words were woollier.‘Grá, you know the rules. If I don’t go then the others can’t go and then—’
‘What if I don’t care about the rules any more?’ The fissure became a chasm.
Úna shut her eyes as if that would make it stop.
According to the ancient Irish custom, there had to be eight men present at every cattle slaughter; eight different hands touching the animal’s hide as it passed from this life to the next. So now eight Butchers spent eleven months of the year calling on the few families around the country who still believed, and killing their beasts in the traditional, curse-abiding way.
Úna’s father had been a Butcher her entire life. In those twelve and a quarter years she had never known her gorgeous mother to complain.
‘What if I came home?’
She had also never heard this question asked. She opened one eye.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Halfway round. We’re usually over in Monaghan for June.’ Her father paused, letting the implication take. ‘I could pop back for a couple of nights. Spend a bit of time with you both.’
The pause that followed was the longest yet. Úna opened her second eye and pictured her mother’s emerald greens piercing the shadows to see if the offer was really true. But Úna had to figure out the answer for herself because no more words arrived, only giggles that eventually turned into moans. It made her tingle beneath her pyjamas in embarrassment, but it was nice, she told herself, natural. If anything, it was a bit like animals.
The dawn was barely cracked when the time came for departure. Her father would walk to a crossroads about a mile down the road where the others would be waiting with the horses and carts. Sometimes her mother, for a mess, suggested the Butchers should drive; should invest in a minivan. They say Ireland’s getting more ‘modern’ by the day – why not keep up with the times? Úna knew better than to laugh at that joke. Nothing about the old ritual was allowed to change.
Her mother hovered next to her now on the front step, the pair of them sheathed in their dressing-gown furs. The air outside was well below freezing, making white of their goodbye breaths.
‘You’re a gorgeous girl,’ her father croaked as he leaned down for a kiss.
It took all her strength not to beg him to stay. But she had to remember that at least this year it wouldn’t be so bad, because this year there was a secret plan that meant she would see him again in June. Plus, she had been making her own secret plans for while he was away.
When she got inside, she would check the mousetrap again.
The Butcher embraced his wife one last time then ambled slowly out the gate. He looked so giant as he moved – big enough to be a myth himself. The fields around were raw with silence, the hillsides stony pocked and sparse. It was a wonder anything would ever grow again.
And Úna was so distracted she almost forgot.
‘Love, your shoe?’
But as soon as her mother spoke, she took her slipper from
her foot and flung it hard; watched it arc through the air then land in the shimmering frost. It was another custom meant to wish him luck on his travels. Her father didn’t turn, only removed his hand from the pocket of his overalls and raised it high in acknowledgement.
Úna stayed out on the doorstep watching, her left foot slowly going numb, until she saw the manshape blacken then shrink then disappear. Eventually her whitebreath faded too as the moon bowed out and the sun arrived instead, hurling itself cold and radiant into the morning sky.