Fiction: Underground Mutton

Tommy had tried to find different work, but nothing had been right for him. His hands ached from a lack of work, and he missed the smell of the stones.

The quarry he had worked at had closed down for six months. The nearest one hiring was 80 miles away on an island off the coast. When he’d told Diane of his decision to move temporarily to work there, she’d cried. Their son, Conner, was three, just going to nursery, what was she supposed to do without him around? But they needed the money, she agreed with him on that.

When he left they threw a party for him and waved him off from the doorstep. Conner had made a card on thin paper, tracing letters drawn in pencil by his mother. On the front, Conner had drawn a dog, but Tommy thought it looked more like a rabbit. He’d folded the card and tucked it in his wallet to keep it with him. The island was barely 4 miles across. The quarry sat towards the far end, set back from a coastal path which was littered with chunks of stone left behind due to faults or blemishes. Some of them were stacked in to walls or leaning towers, creating an alien landscape on the cliffs.

After his first day, some of the quarrymen took him to the local pub to celebrate him joining the team. As he paid for a beer, the card Conner had made slipped from his wallet to the floor. Griff, the foreman, bent to pick it up and return it, glancing at the paper curiously.

‘Just a card from my son’ Tommy explained. ‘It’s meant to be a dog. Though I think it’s more like a rabbit.’ He smiled at the crayon image, but Griff coughed, loudly and obviously, pushing the paper back in to Tommy’s hand.

‘Can’t say that round ‘ere’ he whispered. ‘Never say that round ‘ere.’ Tommy was perplexed. ‘What, rabbit?’ he said innocently, and Griff waved his hands, hushing him.

‘Bad luck.’ Jeff, another worker, said from his other side. ‘We don’t use that word.’ He took a sip from his glass, heavy eyebrows furrowed together as he watched Tommy above the rim.

‘No. Underground mutton we call ‘em. Furry things. Bunnies.’ Tommy would have laughed were it not for the deadly serious look on the men’s faces. His foreman regarded him even more seriously as he explained. “I mean it mate, and if you so much as see a whisker of one o’ them furry little bastards, you raise the alarm. Too many men have died in the past after seeing a rabbit in the quarry. Anyone sees a rabbit, we’re not working.’

‘You don’t work?’ Tommy asked, putting his wallet away. Both Griff and Jeff nodded.

‘Not worth working when you seen one o’them. Best to put your tools down and go home.’ Jeff nodded again, ‘They run when the rocks gonna slide. Rabbits appearing above ground in the day time is a sure sign there’ll be movement.’

It made sense to Tommy. If rabbits were making warrens in the rock face, they’d be first to know about any landslides and make for the surface.

‘Anyway, have you been up to the marina yet? There’s some good fishing spots, if that’s your thing.’ Griff carried on. Tommy was happy for him to change the subject.

Tommy enjoyed the walks to the quarry. The nearest car park was a few hundred yards away, but instead Tommy drove to a tourist café further down the coast, and he’d stop to get a coffee before heading up the stony paths, enjoying the peace. No angry commuters, no busy roads, no traffic held up during the school run, just him and the sea and the stones.

It was Spring, and the days were getting longer and warmer. Hardy little flowers were starting to peer their heads above the mossy outcrops to look out at the sea. Tommy stopped at a cliff edge to admire them, the water a turquoise jewel below, waves tipped in soft white foam. He watched the nodding flowers dance, the waves receding gently from the rocks.

As another wash of water pulled away from wet stone, a small, furry figure appeared, chasing the water away. It stopped, its ears twitched. Tommy noticed the left one was torn, maybe from a fight. It circled the stone, then turned its tiny brown head to look up, directly a him.

He nearly dropped his coffee when the rabbit made eye contact with him from the shore below. He could hear his heart in his chest as it crept forward, staring. Its claws gripped the stone. With a crash of water, a wave hit the rocks behind it, and with a shake of its head the rabbit ran back beneath the ledge and out of sight.

‘Don’t be stupid’ Tommy said out loud, to no one but himself. ‘It’s just superstition. I’m still a mile away from the quarry.’ He straightened his jacket and took another glace over the cliff face, to the rocks below. Nothing, just another wave receding from the rocks where the rabbit had stood. He carried on towards the quarry. Once or twice he stopped, turning around to look about him, unable to shake a feeling that he was being followed.

A fork in the path led to the quarry heading in towards land, and the coastal path continuing alongside the cliff on the other. As Tommy approached, the rabbit emerged from behind the large lump of granite between the paths, a few feet in front of him. It hopped, slowly, and came to a stop in the middle of the quarry path. It sat and stared at Tommy, who froze upon seeing it. It’s left ear was torn. His mouth went dry. The rabbit tilted its head at him curiously, then took a slow, deliberate hop towards him. Tommy quickly took a step back. He looked around, wondering which way to make an escape. Back the way he’d come? Or cut across the rocks to his left, inland. He decided left, moving slowly, not taking his eyes off the rabbit.

It followed, mirroring his steps. Tommy heard small angry grunts come from the creature as it gained on him. He wanted to laugh at the idea of being chased across the rocks by a bunny rabbit on his way to work, but most of him was afraid. The whites of the rabbits eyes showed as it continued its pursuit, hind feet thumping the ground like a drum in Tommy’s ears. His back hit a stack of rocks that wobbled beneath his weight. He dodged around them, tripping over himself to escape and hitting the floor, grazing his hands on sharp stone. The rabbit dodged the other way, startled by his sudden fall, and Tommy saw his opportunity as it rounded the stack. The rabbit was heading for his face, mouth wide, baring it’s yellow teeth. Tommy kicked his foot against the tower of rocks. The stones had stood almost as tall as he was, formed of three separate chunks of granite, and as his foot connected with the middle one, the stone that sat on top toppled sideways. Tommy watched in horror as it fell towards the rabbit, who realised at the last moment what was about to happen. It froze in fear, looking up at the falling stone, and then it looked at Tommy. Its mouth opened again in a scream, piercing and almost human and cut short in to silence. The stone crushed the rabbit with a wet crunch of splitting skin and broken bones.

He’d been holding his breath, watching as a thin stream of blood ran from beneath the stone. It gathered like water in a rock pool, dark and shining in the dim morning light. A few minutes passed and he stared until all he heard was his own breath again, short and loud. Then, with a sudden need to leave, he scrambled to his feet, his clothes covered in dust and moss, and shakily made his way to the quarry. He wouldn’t need to tell Griff about this rabbit. This one wasn’t coming back.

The rain came in shortly after Tommy reached the quarry, making it difficult to work. They moved slowly, cranes lifting large bulks of rock from the pit to the upper level where it was cut and loaded. The ground was slippery underfoot, and the machinery struggled to move over the heaps of chipped granite on the quarry floor. The smell of stone dust was in the air, mingled with sea salt and sweat and the heavy wax of their rain coats. Tommy spent the morning on edge, each shadow caught in the corner of his eye was a rabbit, distracting him from his work. He was relieved when Griff called it a day, the weather getting the best of them.

Even locking up was made difficult, the boarded gates blowing in the winds that had risen from the cliffs. Tommy and Jeff pulled them tight as Griff tried to get the chain around them. As he struggled, Tommy looked up into the quarry, and what he saw almost made him let go of the gate. Sitting upon a granite block, the rabbit from that morning was watching them. It’s torn ear twitching in the wind, dark eyes meeting Tommy’d through the gap. It nodded at him and Tommy yelped as Griff caught his thumb in the chains.

‘Sorry fella, mind yer hands’ he yelled over the wind, one final pull securing the gates with a heavy thud of the padlock. Tommy looked back through the gap, but the rabbit was gone. Now he wasn’t even sure if he’d seen it at all.

***

That night, Tommy didn’t sleep well. During the evening he’d nearly dialled Griff’s number three times, in order to tell him about the rabbit, each time he was held back by the thought of being out of work again. It was just a rabbit, but the islanders took it so seriously. That morning’s events had left him disturbed, and each time he’d closed his eyes, the dark pool on the rocks and the noise of the rabbit under the rock returned. He’d gone to bed, not hungry, not really tired, but not knowing what else to do.

As he lay staring at the ceiling, illuminated by the blue light of his alarm clock flashing three zero four, he heard a noise from outside. Something at the front of the house, a thumping, like a toy drum, rapidly being beat. Then silence. A few moments later, it happened again, the beats going on for longer this time. The pattern repeated. Rapid thumps in the dark, followed by silence. Counting the seconds between beats made it even worse, waiting for the drumming to begin again. He got up from the bed and made his way to the window, needing to know what was outside.

The moon was full, and the dark lawn was bathed in its light. Tommy realised the nearest street light was out, and the shadows were darker than usual. The thumping started again, and he squinted through the dark down to the source. A rabbit sat in the garden, motionless. Then its hind leg would flap, thumping the ground. The usual drum beat of danger sounded more threatening in the dark street.

The rabbit stopped again, still in the shadows. Another shadow slipped across the grass and joined it. It was another rabbit, a smaller one, and it sat up next to its kin, waiting. Another joined from the bushes, then two more from the path. Soon, there were seven rabbits in the garden, motionless. Then in unison, they all thumped their back legs.

More rabbits joined the group in the garden. Every thirty seconds or so, the silence was broken by the drum beat. Soon there must have been forty or more rabbits, looking up at his window in the dark, in the silence, before the drumming began all over again. Tommy had watched, gripping the windowsill as they continued to fill the lawn. The neighbours’ windows were dark. He wondered for a moment if anyone else was witnessing this.

The rabbits stopped thumping. Tommy counted to thirty, then to forty. They remained motionless in the dark. The silence the continued was worse than the noise had been. Tommy lost count. A hundred eyes reflected in the moonlight, they all looked up at the window. They all looked at him because they knew he was there. The first rabbit, the one with the torn ear, took a small step forward. Before he’d stopped, the others followed as one. The rabbits moved together towards the house. They funnelled in towards the front door, and Tommy heard claws begin to scratch and bodies pressing against the wood and making it creak. He backed away from the window, wondering how he’d escape.

He crept down the staircase, which ended opposite the front door. The noise was louder here, clawing and thumping against the wooden door, which seemed to bow inwards under the pressure. As he reached the bottom step, the wood creaked beneath his feet, echoing into the hallway. The rabbits at the door stopped, and then doubled their efforts at the door. Tommy heard their frantic grunts and squeals as they pushed over one another.

He moved in to the kitchen. It was silent and dark, and he made for the back door, pressing his ear to it to listen. He heard nothing. Turning the key slowly, it clicked in the lock. Working the handle to open it as quietly as possible, Tommy glanced back over his shoulder to the front door. Paws continued to scrabble at the foot of it.

Turning back to the open door in front of him, he was pushed back by the sudden force of more rabbits as they flooded in. They’d been waiting for him. They ran behind his legs and tripped him up, his head hitting the floor and making him see stars. Teeth and claws found flesh as they swarmed his body. The weight of them running on top of him, busy teeth tugging at his clothing and his skin. He opened his eyes to look, and one with the torn ear sat upon his chest. It’s dark eyes glowed maroon in the dim light. It was the last thing Tommy saw before he passed out.

When he woke up, he was cold. Something dripped nearby. It splashed on his cheek, and echoed off the walls of wherever he was. He smelt stone and sea salt and blood. He opened his eyes to a dimly lit cavern, where water crashed somewhere nearby. He figured he must be near to the sea. In a cave maybe. More noises echoed, scratching and snuffling and dripping throughout the cave, across the floor. He sat up, finding his hands tied together in front of him.

The light was funnelled from a hole in the roof of the cave, about three feet wide. It was daylight outside. Looking around, shadows moved across every surface and ledge. As his eyes focussed, he realised the floor was alive with rabbits. They sat and scratched and snuffled and some stared silently in his direction before hopping past, disinterested.

Tommy pulled himself further upright. He was sore, his skin stinging with tiny cuts and bruises. He tried to get to his feet, but found they were bound together tightly at the knee and ankle. The rope was dirty, turned green with moss, and his clothes bore tiny tears and holes where the rabbits had attacked him. Struggling against his binds, he grunted in frustration. The knots were tight, and he couldn’t wriggle his way out of the rope. In anger he thrashed against the rock, nothing working to loosen the ropes grip.

‘Let me go!’ he shouted at the rabbits. Some stopped and looked at him for a moment before moving on. ‘Look, I’m sorry okay?’ he looked for some sign of response from any of the furred bodies around him. Then he screamed. Getting no response from the rabbits, he hoped someone above ground would hear him. ‘Help! I’m down here!’ he shouted at the hole in the roof of the cave. The rabbits seemed unbothered by his attempts, and eventually he dropped on to his side, exhausted and tasting blood on his lips.

A different sound came out of the dark then. A dry shuffling of skin of something larger than the rabbits that moved around him. Tommy peered in to the dark corner where it came from. A shape, larger than a man, moved in the shadows. A pale expanse of something covered the wall behind it as it moved. The rabbits parted from the corner and whatever was hidden in the darkness shuffled its way forward towards the light.

Tommy’s mouth dropped open in shock as the light exposed what was coming towards him. Two white and unnaturally long hands reached forward. The figure brought its back legs up behind it in a slow, heavy hop on elongated pale feet. Sharp yellow toenails scraped on the rock beneath them.

Heavy, dusty skin sagged from its bones. It was hairless, mostly, save for whiskers around its misshapen face. Two bucked teeth protruded from the mouth, and a squashed flat nose sat beneath beady eyes that were too far apart.

It looked human, but couldn’t be. No human had ears that hung from the sides of its head, furless rabbit ears that dragged on the floor. The great folds of skin flopped forward as the thing lurched in a twisted, hopping gait towards Tommy. Its stomach, all loose skin and liver spots, swung between its legs.

It stopped, a few feet away, the nose wriggling up and down at him. Tommy saw the eyes were white, peering straight through him rather than at him. It was likely the creature was blind. It raised its nose to the air, then back down at him. It could smell him. The rabbits in the cave began to swarm around its legs. Some hopped with excitement, flicking their legs in the air, grunting and gnashing their teeth. The rabbit-man stepped closer in another distorted hop. It took hold of Tommy’s legs and pulled itself further up his body. Its back feet straddled him and it’s long hands gripped his shoulders with curled, stained claws. Tommy felt the pain as they dug through his shirt and into his skin. Its hands felt as cold as it was white. The rabbits began to move closer, digging around him, sharp strong teeth nipping at his skin. He could feel the bruises forming with each bite.

Helpless, unable to move from the weight of the thing above him, as he watched as the creature leaned closer. Its breath was like old tombs, the teeth yellow and crooked. It opened its mouth wide and bit down on to Tommy’s shoulder. Its teeth so powerful he felt them snap his neck. Paralysed, Tommy stared up at the patch of blue sky through the hole. Birds swooped back and forth beyond it. The sea continued to crash against the walls outside the cave, and Tommy screamed.

He opened his mouth and screamed, as the rabbit-thing pulled back, parting flesh and tendon, warm wetness flowing across his shoulder to the floor. His scream grew louder. The other rabbits, whipped to a frenzy, opened their tiny mouths and screamed with him.

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