I woke with a start, not realizing that I had dozed off, fearful at once I was dead, but no. My breath came in ragged gulps but it came. They were gone. I listened in the dark for a noise, any sound at all, but there was nothing but the sound of my heart pounding in my ears. I needed food, water, and most of all sleep, but beyond the door of my bedroom was either life or death, and on this side of it, for now, was life. I held up my hand and I could see the outline of it, see the fingers of my hand and the darkness outside was less than it had been a few heartbeats ago. I hoped that the light was that of lanterns, perhaps, but I knew that was false hope, wild imagination, and hopeless. All was hopeless. There might be a dawn today but tomorrow there would certainly not be. I held up my hand again and flexed my fingers. Yes, there was more light now, and I wondered how it felt when a condemned man looked out of his cell and saw the rope where he would be executed? How many men had strained to see the rope, knowing that as soon as dawn arrived they would die, and knowing that if they could see the rope, then dawn was nigh, and so was death.
How many times had I rented a room above the square, with a good view of the gibbet, and listened to the sound of the felines mewling for their meal, they and I disinterested in the life of the man about to die, and watching only the process? And what a process that it was! The cell of the condemned was situated in front of the wooden steps so that the condemned might step out of the cell and onto the first step. The best room was even with the chains, yet a full story above them, and I usually was able to secure book there. I would stay up all night, writing about what I saw, and felt, if there were some of those wronged by the condemned that would gather to taunt or ridicule or curse him. Some piled firewood and brambles high and heated the chains. The condemned might plead of beg for mercy but more often he would retreat back into the cell and wait and wait and wait. I waited for the light of day so I might live and they hoped for darkness for the same reason. I knew now what it meant that the turning of one into the other, darkness into day or day into darkness, meant the same wait.
Of all the men I saw die there only Earl Putman fought them. He wasn’t the largest man I had seen nor did he look the part of someone who might escape by sheer force alone, but Putman fought for his life and he fought hard. Twice they dragged him up the steps and twice he fought his way to leap down and only the crowd restrained his flight. The third time he was knocked unconscious by one of the jailers but they waited for his return to reason before reading the writ of execution. A man named Dawa, who held no surname, or no first name, cursed in some noisome language and even when he was screaming in agony he seemed to be articulating the curse. Dawa was convicted of killing a child, and no one knew what country from which he hailed, or what language he spoke, but he was dark of skin and wooly of hair, and wore the tanned skins of some beasts that lived far from our own shores. He screamed for his gods or his devils but his skin was no different than any others when the time came, only his voice. Nearly all went meekly and fearful, shaking and sobbing, to their final end.
And now I curse my idle curiosity, and my writing, and the newspapers who printed my stories of the men who, one by one, make my living. I fed off of their misery and spoke of the moment that each of them realized that the process, the unfolding of their lives’ end was now, at that second in time, and each of them faced it in some way that cried out as their own. Yes, I lied about some of those moments, and I created out of my own head some of the events, and I made sport of those who blubbered or fell to their knees to be led like dogs to their deaths. Yes, I did all of this, and more also, but those sins did not reach out to me. Those sins would have waited for some judgement that I might have repented long before my time was due, but I wanted more than just to observe these men and record and create their stories. I wanted to speak to them after they had died and I wanted to tell the world that I had done so. Now I can and I will, but I fear the written word will be all that is found of me when it is over.
I spent money, good money, money I had made in watching death come to the condemned to find anyone and everyone I could that might open the door to death so I might look inside. Immigrants from the darkest corners of the world I interrogated and cajoled. Always hoping that I might find someone who knew how to speak to the dead and how I might find those I had written about, I haunted the opium dens and the drunken dives. Always there were candles and smoke and incense and nothing more than silver thrown away for a show. I learned that there were many people wishing to speak to the dead; their sons, daughters, husbands, wives, lovers, but none spoke back with any accuracy. Years passed. Men died screaming. And my work grew to the point I was recognized on the street by strangers. I exposed fakers and seers and those who threw bones on the ground for what they were and men died knowing I might enhance their story or belittle it.
Hubris. The arrogance of the man who was well liked by others begins to believe there is something good and worthy of this admiration. I knew at once who was a charlatan or a faker, or so I thought. I treated those who came to me with disdain, for I already knew there would be no speaking to the dead, but I wanted it known that I looked. What price to be paid, I never gave it a thought in passing, for trespassing into the land where only the dead reside? I tossed pennies to those who burned feathers and jerked upon the floor, and I wrote of their ineptness and worthlessness.
Never, in all the turbaned brown skinned and colored scarf wearing Gypsies, was I ever asked if I knew there might be danger in what I was doing. A man appeared one day, and he was one of the most outlandish yet, with his rawhide clothing and his wide hat that nearly covered his eyes, he was the one who asked directly, “Do you know what to do if you open the door?” And I assured him the silver was of the best quality and he could take my price or he could leave it. He nodded and spoke no more. Days later he returned with a simple wooden key, fashioned out of some twisted vine, most cleverly, and it seemed to sparkle if I turned it in the light or disappear of made of darkness itself. I marveled at this so when he asked me where I would retreat to, if I had some need. I answered him directly, before I thought of my words and told him there was a house in the hills, in a small village of Baden, where my grandfather once owned a mill. He told me that the dead would speak to me, but I could only tarry in the graveyard for as long as the key burned. Once it burned out, I would be at their mercy. He stopped and looked at me with one eye squinted and said, “Ye cannot sleep with the dead at your door. In the light of day they return to the grave but at full dark they will come to you, and in your sleep they will take you away to their world and there you will not die, but you will live with the dead, until time ends” and with that he turned on his heel and looked back not at all.
Now, even as I write this, I realize that the condemned man Tawa, at his trial, was dressed like the man who sold me the key. They drape the condemned in white cloth before the execution, but now, now I realize where I had seen that manner of clothing before they had draped him. I took the key to the graveyard where the remains of those I had written about were buried and struck a match to it. Instantly, without warning there were dozen, perhaps hundreds of voices, and I felt myself in a whirl wind yet I could hear each one distinct. Yes, that one I watched die, and that one, of course, he yelped in pain, and this one, I remember well, laughed with hysteria in his cell all night, and this one, oh yes, he was proved innocent less than a week after his burial. I tried to remember their words, I tried to put faces and names to the tales and then I looked down and the key had long since turned to ash.
Yet none of them threatened me. None of them made any move to laugh or mock me. I left the cemetery at dawn for they retreated before the light of the sun. I went back to my home and slept. But as soon as the sun left he sky they appeared in my room and they spoke without ceasing. I grew weary of writing, of trying to record the waterfall of words, and I nearly dozed off late that night. Instantly, I felt as if someone were stuffing a dry sheet down my throat. I awoke with the start but the voices did not stop. To sleep was to die and to join them, yet not dead. I waited the dawn with an urgency.
I slept until noon and then rented a carriage and four horses. To the mill house I drove the horses, all of the day and all through the night, with the voices and the wind whipping at me. I stopped for nothing. I could hide here, I thought, gather my senses, then try to find someone to remove the curse. It would take time, surely, but it would not be impossible. With the stories of the dead to support me, I could make enough coin to hire those who might search for the man who had cursed me, and perhaps buy him to remove it. I drove the horses until dawn and collapsed upon a dusty bed. I was already fatigued and when I awoke there was a light in the east and in the west. Confused, I went to the window to see the sun setting in the west. This was a dire sight for I was still tired. But to the east there was a sight to paralyze my senses; someone had set aflame the only bridge leading away from the mill house. The river could not be forded for many miles to the north. I went outside and watched the flames grow and then saw the barn door had been opened. The horses were gone. But now I knew what had happened and why it had happened. I had to return to the city. I had to return the gallows where my only hope lay.
I ran down the road like a man possessed. I chased the sun through the sky and hope that it caught me or that some fell beast stopped to devour me, or the gods might strike me dead. The first farm house I came to I stopped long enough to steal a horse, and that was enough to seal my fate for to steal a man’s horse was a capital offense, still. I rode the horse until the lather was flung from his mane and then I drove him straight into the city.
The Officers of the Court knew me, and knew me well, and most liked me. Yet when I stormed into their office, still astride the horse, they dragged me off of the beast and beat me. I confessed, I confessed to stealing the horse and to the murder of a woman whose name I did not know, and the murders of her children.
Suppose you knew a man, or didn’t know him, really, but you knew of him, had seen him or had nearly spoken to him, but came within ten feet of the man, what do you owe him? Of course, as al beggars will tell you, if you can get someone to stop you might get them to listen and if you can get them to listen then you might get them to give, and if you get them to give once then it might be possible to play them again. I’ve always hated beggars and I never have stopped for them. Poor acting on the public stage, some with their wooden signs with crude paint or etching with a religious message or some plea for hard earned copper to be tossed into the bottle as soon as enough has been made. I’ve despised the creatures and as my fortune turned upward I despised them even more.
When I first sought employment as a mere newspaper reporter, there was a runner, a young man hired to rush back to the presses with stories, named Percy Willows. I thought the name more apt for a woman, and Percy had no business being a runner for he was clumsy and oddly, got lost in the city in which he lived. He was set on his way, of course, when he wandered with one of my stories and other than that one incident, I had not heard his name before and might have never heard it after. But I did remember his face; his skin tone was tallow looking, a blend of white and yellow in some way that suggested that Percy had the drippings of some beast in him, as if he was part barnyard animal.
Then, had it been seven years, he came to the office one day and our secretary forbid him to enter my office. He had heard that my writings of executions were selling well, and he thought, because he had come within ten feet of me seven years ago, that he might enjoy the fruits of my labor for having none of his own. I had started to step out of the office, and when I saw him I retreated, but I think he saw me. I think he realized I was in, but not wishing to speak to him. He took his leave immediately, but politely, and I might not have ever heard his name again, but his wife and his children were murdered.
Please, whatever you do, make no judgment of emotion here. Percy and his lived in the most wretched part of the city where hope was far more scarce than money or work. Rats traveled there in thick packs waiting for some languisher to drop from starvation or overdose, or having just been murdered for his shoes, and they would swarm over the body until there was nothing left but bones, and the liver, which often was far too poisoned to eat.
Percy had arrived at his hovel to discover his wife and children dead, and a knife sticking out of his wife’s chest. He withdrew the knife, and he screamed in anguish at his fate, and to frighten away the rats which were coming in like a filthy grey wave. The Officers of the Court happened to be making a rare pass through that part of town and when they entered the house they discovered Percy with a knife in his hand, and a dead family. He was arrested at once. Fate was brutal to him. The secretary remembered him not at all for a dozen creatures like him in a day come to our office hoping for an audience with a working man, claiming to have a story of some drama, or wishing to be fed from our sweat. The woman knew my mind in this and she knew I brook little involvement in the affairs of the street folk whose alcohol induced madness and matings were of little value to anyone.
In the courtroom he told of his fleeting involvement in my business and how he had seen me, and I had seen him, and how I would tell this to be so, but my secretary truly did not remember him and I was not called. I knew what would happen now, and from my perch I would watch a man innocent be executed. You think this base or evil? You and I do not know for a certainty that he did not kill his wife and children then head directly forth to my office hoping for an alibi. You do not know that he did not sell his wife to someone and when they came to collect she fought with the person and was killed for it. You and I only know that Percy Willows was in my office on the same day of the murders.
I meant to tell you this and halt, but I think now I must tell the truth.
The night before his execution I spoke with the man. I went to his cell and told him that I had not seen him and that he was mistaken. He screamed. He cried. He cursed me in the name of his god, and I have always wondered why the condemned pray to a god that had allowed them the gibbet. Oh such a terrible death! Yet many a man prayed for mercy before the first match was struck.
Even as the man screamed his last breath I was writing the story of how I had interviewed him the night before his death, and he told me of the depraved murder he had committed, and the sexual deviance that had led to him killing his wife and children. Percy Willows propelled me into a new economy. And I never regretted it for a moment, yes, that is the truth I sought to hide. But we still do not know if he committed the crime, do we? You can say, and rightfully so, that I did mean to let an innocent man be executed, but was he?
The night I spent in the cell was one of total silence. I waited and waited for them to come, for Percy to come, but their last cast was to leave me be, and perhaps allow me to sleep, and cheat Death of me, and me of Death. But perhaps, even more cruel, they knew my penchant for writing before an execution. And even now, I can make this confession fiction for I already know the gallows. I cannot record my own walk there but I can feel it, smell it, taste it, and tell you what each step will be like. Thirteen of them, steep and sharp, reach into the foul air that hovers around each execution. The steps and walk of the gallows are stained with the urine and waste of men who have finally collapsed and befouled themselves in terror, and there had been nothing but rain to wash away the stench or its source. There are scratches in the harden wood where men have tried to claw their way off the gallows and left mark, and even their nails in the wood. The nails go for a premium after every execution and it is said the executioner had paid for the nails of vagrants to sell at executions, for after all, who is counting? Even as I pen this, with quill and ink smuggled in, paid for with gold that means nothing, nothing, nothing to me anymore, I can see the rope. It will soon be time and I will be able to sleep.