Yet Lord, instruct us so to die,
That all these dyings may be life in death.

- John Donne


Sometimes the flayed things have spirits.

In death, the knife feels like a whisper, whittling down to the whiteness of bone. She regained consciousness as the spurts from her jugular began to slow, and the snick and slice of the blade were dreadful caresses. Her skin fell away like a sluiced dressing-gown, the slick of blood congealing as it spread towards the drain, the air thick with the rusty smell of haemoglobin. There was no instant rush of distress – just a rising tide of realisation as her carcass swung from the hook, and the mottled marble of muscle and adipose tissue glazed over, exposed to air. Her eyelids had been hacked away the moment before the skin fell, and she had no choice but to gaze unblinking at the last trail of venous blood after it had guttered down her chin, and over her tongue, twining to the floor, warm, dark and hypnotic.

The knife was still at work. Her liver and lights came away in a gush with the intestines; thorax and abdominal cavity opened out, revealing traceries of ribs, vaulted with a line of vertebrae. Sometimes, the knife’s thin glistening flashed in her cornea; then it went about its work, whittling, stripping, hollowing – working to the rhythm of the lullaby which the stropped steel sings to those who can never sleep again.

He was there in line with her right eye for a moment, his white apron strangely free from stains. The Butcher was nothing if not meticulous.

It took time for her to realise that he was gone. The lights went out. The air grew cold. She hung and waited – if it can be called ‘waiting’, exactly, when there is no choice but to wait – and stared, because she had to stare, into the perfect dark.

*

The footsteps were hesitant; the drawing back of the bolt – furtive. As the door opened, light gleamed wanly down the staircase and into the cellar. The woman’s feet were bare, and already, cooling blood oozed between her toes. The soul inside the carcass looked at her, because there was nothing to do but look, and stripped of eyelids, the expression was one of the most pathetic soulfulness, and a big-pupilled trust. The eyes of the animal were like those of a child. But she was only the last in a long line of flensed things. She could not catch the woman’s eye.

The white undergarment had ridden up around the woman’s thighs. She was wearing nothing else – just this single, linen slip. Her dark hair was in a fringe, her lips a smudge of redness, as though she had bitten them in her anxiety. Timidly, she advanced along the gutter, ankle-deep, like a toddler paddling, pausing at each carcass, as though testing for breath. Once, twice, she reached out a trembling finger to touch one of the dead things on the flank, leaving it swinging infinitesimally. After each one of these movements, there would be a twitch in the corner of her mouth. It might have been relief. When she came to the last in the line, she stopped, disconsolate. She let out a little gasp, suppressed tears, visibly pulled herself together, like a marionette on tightened strings. She did this self-consciously, catching a glimpse of her own little wraithlike reflection in the wide, ever-seeing eye.

“Little lingering one, why couldn’t you leave?” It was barely a whisper through lips that scarcely moved, uttered into the dark knot of mess that was once an ear. For more than a moment, she looked as though she might walk away, but then with a moan of piteous desperation, she grasped the carcass round the empty waist, and reached with her other arm up to the steel hook from which she was suspended. Moments later, she was slung over the woman’s shoulder, one eye gazing up at her. The dead thing would have done so, even given the choice to look the other way. She could see that the woman’s quivering lip was smirched with blood.

The woman caressed the carcass as though it were something fur-clad and appealing, apparently oblivious to the smears of grease and blood. Rocking her hips as though comforting her newborn, she let the head slump against her breast, wearing the body like a bleeding shawl. Redness spread through the linen like opening flowers. She seemed to pause undecided, inclined her ear to listen at the place where the creature’s lips would once have been: now, there was the involuntary snarl of bared teeth and gums. As though in obedience to a whispered wish, she began to ascend the stairs, avoiding the third and the fifth because they creaked, doing all with a practised silence. A few more moments, and they were out on the street in a puddle of gaslight, and she knelt and set the dead thing down on the cobblestones.

The woman took a measured step backwards. Her own flesh was white in the light of the street-lamp, like the inside of an oyster; her slip was mottled, sodden, lurid. Her mouth sighed a stream of pale steam. She watched, expectant.

Cloven hooves scrabbled for a foothold on the cobbles, and there was a ripple of clacking articulations down the spine. The creature stood, tottering by her bare leg, as a calf, newly-born, stands unsteadily beside its mother. The woman inclined her head, as though in blessing, and whispered, “Speed well.” Turning a blinkless eye once more to gaze on her, the thing of bone and muscle floundered off into the mist-hung street, enveloping itself in darkness.

For the first time, the woman looked down and seemed to notice the crust of drying fluids smeared up the softness of her arms. She gave an involuntary shudder – perhaps it was the cold – turned back towards the doorstep, and willed her blood-flecked feet across the threshold.

She looked up the staircase to the upstairs chamber – anxious for a moment – but nothing stirred.

She stared out into the yawning street, listened. Nothing – and then, out of the darkness, a remnant of a sigh: “You will be repaid.” The Butcher’s Wife seemed to smile wryly, smeared her mouth with the back of her hand, and closed and bolted the door.