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 hanged? 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, 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. It would take many days now, and many nights, for me to travel to the city again. I had little provisions and no one lived near this place. I was trapped.
So now I write the words you read here. I wait for dawn to arrive so I might leave. They are here but they have fallen silent. They know my plight and they wait to collect me. I might wander the woods until lost, starve, become injured, but I had to stay awake. Now, with the coming of the dawn, I realize what the words of the man meant, that if they take me I will remain with them. I must not be taken. In the barn there is a rope, a rope very much like the one seen by the condemned at dawn, and I intend to use it as such.