The Hangman

The gallows were hungry. The hangman had to feed it its daily pasture of petty thieves and miscreants.

The hangman knew his trade was a dying one. Simon, his own son, did not want to learn it. He couldn’t blame him. He himself had misgivings. The hangman led a lonely existence since his wife had left , leaving the boy Simon, “spawn of the devil.” His only friend was a botched hanging, when he first started. Harry escaped the noose because of the hangman’s inexperience, and later was found innocent. In the process, his windpipe had been crushed and he was rendered mute, but his intellect was intact. The hangman and Harry played chess together, signing to indicate “check” or “checkmate.” The hangman was grateful for Harry’s silent companionship.

When a hanging was required, the magistrate would be roused. He would sign a paper authorizing the deed and would usually attend the hanging as well. The spectacle did not sit well with him, and so, after years of attendance, he turned to the bottle and gradually shirked his duties. He trusted the hangman’s skill – there had been no other botched hanging – and realized he could no longer stomach watching the wretched die. He used to be plagued with horrible nightmares. Now only the bottle could quiet his night.

As for the hangman, he had perfected his technique to avoid unnecessary suffering. He worked quickly, knowing from observation that anxious waiting turned men into boys. He wanted a dignified death for his charges and had a gentle touch with the noose. He was kind soul, prone to introspection, who haunted the cemetery with its windswept headstones. On older ones, the mosses had eaten away all inscriptions, creating its own lettering.

At the time of his marrying, he was a day labourer. His wife attracted mud, and bees, and sunlight, and rain, her house a disheveled collection of eclectic eccentricities, gathered like dust, no one knew where from and never to be swept away. She bore him a son, unlike either of them. Simon seemed to them innately vicious and ill-tempered. He was difficult, colicky, taciturn and moody. He cared nothing for the noose, his father’s new occupation. He was not interested in labouring. He loathed his father and his work, did not fall into it easily. He thought himself protected from harm, and boasted of his immunity. He was not well-liked by decent people, was friends with vagrants and the destitute.

And so came the day, as the hangman feared must come, when his son was presented to him for the gallows. His heart stopped, his blood froze in his veins. Simon was eyeing him defiantly, watching his strong father shrink before him. The hangman’s head was swimming as his stuttering hands were going through the motions. He could not think, only do. He secured the rope, placed the knot gently on the vertebra. He had stopped breathing, but had not noticed, overcome by emotions as strong as on his first hanging. He remembered having thought at the time, “This man is somebody’s son.” Tears were streaming down his cheeks as he secured the knot. His son was staring at him, a slow cruel smile spreading on his face. The hangman thought, wildly, “I will botch him,” moved the knot slightly, and smiled back.

When You’re Alone

Do you cry when you’re alone?
Do you let the tears wet your cheeks
The sobs rack your frame?
In the silence of your home

Do you cry when you’re alone?
Or do you stifle your screams
And harden your heart
Lest you suffer more pain and agony

I don’t scream when I’m alone
I let the pillow swallow the tears
And smother the screams
As I hold it to my face

I don’t cry when I’m alone
I let the tears flow inside
Hoping they will drown my sorrow
And quiet the pain

The Cotswold Way

Walker-ships crest land-seas
Marvelling at the buried treasures of past eras
Arrowheads of the paleolithic
Burial fields of the neolithic
Medieval agricultural ripples and
Feudal ruins shipwrecked from past wars
Their history preserved, their dead cherished

Modern-day pilgrims tread routes of old
Navigating seas from the world over
Calling to village-ports in their odd vestments
To taste foreign foods and gawk at the locals
Navigator-captains consulting routes and each other
Pouring over cryptic maps, a jealous secret
Knowledge dispensed in conspiratorial tones

Numberless rock-fish
Netted and stacked into dry walls
Sheep-white foam dot the rolling waves
They protest as we sail along
Pushed by high winds filling our lungs
The occasional haughty hoseman
Showing off to the slow-moving masses

The current sometimes veer the traveller off course
He tries to avoid going from brambles to stinging nettles
The endless soothing rain hiding his tears
The pain of the journey transcended
Old towers, solid lighthouses
Where all converge before going on their way

Alas the tame adventure comes to end
Reminiscence takes its place
The stunning plumage of pheasants
The subtle trilling of unseen birds
The loud blast of the clay shoot, the runners racing up the path
The tartness of cider
And the longing to return

Bayou II

Heaving waters through heavy rains
Trees shaking their beards
The gators stick to their mudholes
Snapping jaws at unfortunate fish
The bayou smells of rot
Green turned brown
Sticky slime and sizzling air

Spanish moss and mythical flowers
Lure unsuspecting tourists to the durga arms
Of the river goddess
Staccato Zydeco rhythms just out of reach
Calling them in further still
A trick of the light, a flick of the wrist
A tumble in the now still waters

Clouds of Milk

I wish I could fly like Superman!
My cape fluttering in the breeze
The wind not quite keeping up
Not quite keeping me up

Hoist the sails and watch her fly
Like a horse whose mane trails on her neck
Nostrils twitching with the scent
of fear
Or is it discovery?

Talkative people taking to the skies
Swarming the airwaves
Disgorging in alarm their innermost quivers
Failing to arrow or even to trot

Even the fears are losing momentum
Leaking out of my feeble mind
I’m holding on to traces of reason
Scents of the past

Racing ahead
Hoping to outrun this invisible foe
Whose steps echo all around me
No pattern, just ghosts

Muslin curtains between me and the world
A fine film blurring the horizon
Will the clouds rain down tears
Are they clouds?

These splotchy white stains
Blemishing my world
I’m hoping they will dissolve
Like clouds of milk in my tea

The Prince reincarnated

– Jared was always mom’s favourite.
– You know what mom told me? She went to the shoe store with him. They had a “going back to school” sale.
– Oh, come on! He’s starting university. That doesn’t apply to him! Plus, I can’t believe he went with mom.
– Shush! I’m telling the story. Anyways, he comes in, goes straight to the women’s section, sees a pair of low boots he likes – suede, red, low heels. He is admiring them. Mom waves at a salesperson and whispers his size. The lady is in the back, looking for the box. Jared hadn’t seen mom calling the girl or anything. He says “Can we get a servant to help?”
– Nooooooooo! I would’ve died! Everybody heard, I assume?
– With his booming voice? Yeah. They all acted as though nothing had happened. Very professional of them.
– Did he buy them?
– I didn’t ask. I was too busy berating mom for treating him like a little prince since he was born.
Susan is shaking her heading in disbelief.

– You know I believe in reincarnation, right? Don’t make a face, your turn to listen. In Portrait class, we have to research the art of portrait through the ages. I read about this painter who narrowly escaped death. He had painted a gay prince in Bavaria with his lover in a bathtub. There was a picture of the painting. Vivid kitsch colours. The prince was wearing a ruby red robe and soft red boots. Does that remind you of anybody?
– Oh, come on. That’s what I find stupid about this reincarnation business. Everybody is some type of prince or other.
– The guy really looked like Jared though. Same eyes, but the prince had extra padding, even a double chin. Did you know that court painters fleshed out their male models to make them look “healthy”? They found letters from court artists discussing the trade.
– Ha, Photoshop before Photoshop even existed. Funny how human nature stays the same through the ages. I guess the definition of what healthiness looks like varies through time, though.
– Speaking of health, I’m hungry.
– Let’s grab something before you get ‘hangry’.
– As if.

They’re walking through the mall, window-shopping. They point at high-heeled red shoes and giggle. The food court is bustling. They order thai and find a table. They dressed carefully, trendy above all. Maybe others will be hanging out. They spot a well-groomed youth, panhandling. “It’s Andy! He’s begging!” He’s keeping a low profile, approaching harried females, who presumably will be touched by his acne-riddled face and politeness as he extracts a bit of money from them.
– Who was HE in a previous life? A beggar, no doubt.
– A musician, a bard?
– What about the mother with the very obedient brainy kid at the table?
– A schoolteacher! (mimicking a stern voice) Children, sit up!
– (together) EAT YOUR GREENS!
They wave at Andy to come and sit with them. He’s bought two hot dogs and a milkshake.
– Nice hair.
He runs his fingers in the slicked-back hair, grimacing.
– What a man’s gotta do to eat in this town!
– How’s business?
– Tricky.
– You’re not eating healthy food.
– Gotta feed the acne if I want to make a living!
They laugh.
– So, girls, I got enough for some weed if you’re interested.
They exchange glances.
– Maybe. Where?
– The park across from the church one hour after I’m done eating.
– All right.

They head to the park early and sit on the swings waiting for him. On the adult side of the park, there are a bunch of clipped bushes – some type of art. Closer to them is a skateboarding bowl. There are a few guys, one who seems pretty good. They walk over – it’s Andy. He’s gotten out of his schoolboy clothes and is wearing a gray hoodie and bad boy low-slung jeans. His bangs hang limply over one eye, the other sparkling devilishly. They wave and he glides over to where they are, hopping off in front of them and flipping the board expertly, catching it as it flies up in a spin. He gets out of the bowl reluctantly.
– You know skateboarding started out in empty pools? You have to watch “Dogtown and Z-boys.”
The girls are trying to act cool, but he can tell they just want a toke. He does too, so they gather back at the swings and share a few joints. They swing, waiting for them to take effect.
– How’d you get in the begging business?
– How’d you get in the police? I didn’t know they recruited so young.
She pouts. Looks at her shoes. Looks at his shoes.
– Nice Converse!
– Thanks. We shan’t stay too late. Your friends the cop will come sniffing at sunset.
They keep swinging, looking at the wonderful colours as the sun sets the sky ablaze. The colours are incredibly vibrant, shimmering, undulating.
– I can see the light waves. Can you see the light waves?
She waves her hands in front of her. Her sister is swinging hard, Andy is standing on his swing, going high.
– Watch me go higher and higher!
They laugh. Andy jumps off. “I can fly!” He lands softly, somersaults and lies down on a grassy hill. The girls flank him, look at the stars twinkling faintly.
– I am falling into the sky, whispers one. “Me too,” says the other. They stay as more stars come out. They make up constellation names and laugh. The grass tickles them. Headlamps pick them out, a voice is heard and footsteps approach.
– Evening, folks. Enjoying the fresh air?
They come to their senses.
– Yes, officer, but it’s getting chilly. We were just getting ready to head home.

They walk home together, the three kids. At the door of the house, the girls both give Andy a long goodbye kiss on the cheek at the same time. “Thanks for the lovely evening,” as they disappear in the house.

He walks off in the sunset, whistling.

The Accident

The empty sleeve gets all the attention. I mostly try to keep my mind off it. It just reminds me of how stupid things can happen when you’re drunk.

I don’t remember the accident. I woke up to find granny at my side, angry as hell. “You ruined the pickup,” she spit out. I felt a dull ache in my arm. The right one was bruised and getting pumped with some IV solution, the left one was bandaged up to the elbow. I remember the shock when my mind registered that it was shorter than it should be. Still, I refused to make the connection. “Where’s Garrett?” “Your brother’s gone home.” “You’ve been in surgery, and everything. They told us all to go home. I’ll call them now that you’re finished sleeping. Lazy bum.”

The doctor came in, and a pretty nurse. The doctor asked me stupid questions, but I had trouble answering. He asked if I was in pain. I said, “What do you think, asshole?” He added “On a scale from 1 to 10, where 10 is the highest, how much pain do you feel?” I said “11” always the smartass. The doctor mumbled something, and the nurse played with the drip. I fell asleep again and so I missed Garrett and mom. They didn’t stay long. They weren’t allowed to smoke in the room and they started hollering at each other on my account. I slept through it and missed everything. Seems they were thrown out. Must have been a riot.

Garrett was playing chicken with me, as stinking drunk as me, and he came out of it without a scratch. Figures, he was always the lucky one. I ask him “Who turned first?”. He turns his head away and says “I turned first.” I know Garrett, and he’s lying. Lying to protect my pride. That’s when I knew I was done in. When my own brother takes pity on me instead of goading me, I’ve got a problem.

Anyway, I got some insurance money on account of having lost an arm. The fuckers, pardon my French, amputated below the elbow – I would’ve gotten more if they’d cut above. It’s no good to me either way. They’re all in it together. Poor suckers like me get ripped off every single time. It’s a conspiracy. You’d think I’d get a break what with an arm missing and everything. Can’t even get my old job back. I applied for Social Security. At least they don’t press too hard when they see the empty sleeve. I give them a sap story about the pain. That drug they gave me at the hospital was pretty decent. I’d rather booze up myself, but I must admit that did the trick much quicker.

I am pretty spooked about the missing arm. It had my girl’s name tattooed with mine in a heart. I’m a romantic that way. It got ripped off and our names with it. When I was feeling a little bit better she dumped me. It’s like some kind of poetic justice, though I don’t see the poetry in it. She said she can’t do it with a cripple. Now that hurts. Cripple. I used to tease the vets in wheelchairs to get a rise out of them. Now I am one of them.

My friend Scotty came up with a great idea. We went back to Jim, the tattoo artist, and asked him if he has a refund policy for when his goods are lost or stolen. Then I showed him my arm. He went soft, said he was real sorry, went out back and got some weed for us. He said to come back for more if the pain is too strong. We smoked it and it helped. Whatdya know. Now I hang out at his store. I’m the receptionist. Business is slow but I can help myself to his stash and he can run errands. If clients come in, and they look serious, I text him and he doesn’t lose a sale. The rest of the time, we listen to music. Best job ever. I got another tattoo, just had to pay for the ink. I’m a walking advertisement for his talent. He wants to do something funny with the stump but we have to wait until it heals properly. I got a scorpion on the other arm in the meantime.

Granny got over the mishap with the pickup. It didn’t help that I borrowed it without asking. She says my receptionist job is not good enough but she’s just saying that. I’m her favorite grandchild and she can handle the loss. She’s loaded, won $1000 in the lottery, once. Anyway, that’s my story. Can you spare some change?

Love at sea

They met underwater, snorkelling. They were watching a grey-brown nurse shark resting on the ocean floor. They had spotted him from above and decided independently to dive down to get a closer look. He was not flamboyant, did not have interesting colours. Yet, here they were, like kids in a candy store, with that peculiar excitement that comes from seeing something alien and beautiful. The rest of the group had moved on, after a selfie or two. It was relaxing to watch him munch on a coral reef, sometimes catching a fish or a shellfish. The strong jaws crunched rock-hard shells. The pair did not stay long, could not breathe under water. When they surfaced again, eyes gleaming, they looked at each other curiously.

After the activity, the group was herded back to shore and given choices for the rest of the day. They did not exchange anything more than that glance as they were shedding their equipment. He was not so much tanned as weathered. She was bleached by the sun and the wind. They both wore wedding bands but had come alone to the activity. They met again a few days later, early afternoon, each by themselves again, wearing their wedding bands. She was watching a beached jellyfish with sorrowful eyes. He spoke like the rough seas, his words cresting white on the fringes. “Those things sting,” he said uneasily. She replied, abruptly, “They’re not things.” His shadow fell on the jellyfish. “Dead or alive, they still sting,” he said in a gravelly voice. She did not answer. He started walking away. She followed in his footsteps. He was taller than her, his stride longer. He shortened it so she would not need to hurry so much. He could hear her panting. He stopped. “Maybe you could walk in my shadow? The sun is harsh.”

She moved to his side and looked at him. She was using his shadow to shield her eyes and get a better look at him. His face was craggy, distinctive. He wasn’t young, either. She offered, “My girlfriends told me to wear a wedding band so I wouldn’t get hounded at the bar.” He smiled. “And, did it work?” She smiled back, “I don’t hang out at the bar.” They had been walking in an easy silence, trying to adapt their differing strides, passing seashells without giving them a look.  They weren’t good at small talk, decided not to try, were grateful for the quiet company. They parted after over an hour, sated.

The next day, she joined him as he was watching the sun rise on the sea. It wasn’t that early, she couldn’t sleep and had decided to go for a walk on the beach. He had found a spot and was watching expectantly. She stayed a few steps back. He motioned her closer. He was wearing a plain white cotton shirt and khaki shorts, holding his sandals in his hand. She was dressed the same but her white blouse covered a blue bikini top. She looked at his wedding ring finger which was bare and tanned. She raised an eyebrow. The sun was rising, an event that filled her with joy every day. She exhaled, suddenly realizing she had been holding her breath. They let the beauty of the moment fill the space between them, the morning light bathing their surroundings. She took off her clothes and went swimming. He followed.

It took some doing after the vacation. They exchanged emails, spoke at length on the phone. It was funny that they had spoken so little when together, and so much while apart. They enjoyed those leisurely conversations. They shared the minutia of their lives, they made each other laugh and cry. It was frustrating, all this technology between them when they longed to be together. He lived near the water, she in the city. He spoke of the sea like you would a mistress. He abhorred labels, did not consider himself a surfer but rather someone who enjoyed surfing. The sea brought him much joy, in all her moods, though he knew enough to ride her only when safe. He had an app on his phone that indicated where sharks were hanging out. He was still intrigued by them, kept a respectable distance from them.

She had a sister that needed looking after, with whom she shared a condo. He was as free as a bird, having little contact with his brother, and being estranged from his parents. Over time, he had dealt with the important relationships in his life and made up his mind about the time he was going to spend on them. He wanted to be with Stella, that much he was sure of. Uprooting himself to a faraway city, that he was not prepared to do. Luckily, Stella was as eager to be with him as he was to be with her. She came for a short visit, a long week-end to which she tacked a few more days. He introduced him to his surroundings, and to a lone friend. They met him at the pier, Diego a carbon copy of Charles, except darker. Charles had a catamaran and moored her there. His lodgings were sparse, Spartan even, except for the books. He had curbed that habit, as much as he could, being a regular at the town library. He surfed, beachcombed, sailed lived simply and fully. Was there room for her? For a future together? They both thought so and resolved to make it so.

She asked for a transfer at work and got it. Her sister kept the condo, but Stella kept paying her share of the condo fees until her sister’s boyfriend moved in. The transfer went well. She had worked remotely with the colleagues at this branch and they got along. She had a place to crash, furnished, boyfriend and all. The honeymoon phase lasted until she found herself unexpectedly pregnant.  She wasn’t sure about having a baby, but he was thrilled. He confessed to having amassed enough to last them a lifetime from his previous incarnation in high tech. He proposed by the sea, on his knees, with the sun rising on the horizon. Instead of a diamond, the ring held a black pearl. Her heart said yes, her mind held her back because she was much younger. Her heart won.

They named their boy Christopher, for Christopher Columbus said one, for the boy Christopher in Winnie-the-Pooh, said the other. Christopher was home-schooled and curious. The three of them sailed together with Diego on the catamaran. Christopher loved the sea. He loved music. His loves combined into a career in marine biology. He thought of becoming a sound studio engineer, after hearing whale sounds. Pragmatism took over. He wanted future generations to experience the beauty of these behemoths first-hand, not just through music. He became their champion, pure of heart and of tongue. He begat two girls, a replica of her mom’s family. He got custody of his daughters, and she felt lucky to babysit them.

They had grown old together, united by their love of the sea. She told Christopher that she had been attracted by his father’s voice, a mermaid’s call that had enticed her to run aground in his arms. Charles confided that he had been charmed by her quiet company. His temper would sometimes flare, like a stormy sea, but she navigated expertly around the reefs, until the calm returned. There was a buried treasure in his words, a lost childhood of gold and ducats that she was privy to. She always saw it shining, even when he lost sight of it.

 

Appropriately, Charles was lost at sea, on his precious catamaran. Only the catamaran was found, drifting, with no sign of him. He would have been happy to have gone that way, embraced one last time by his mistress. Stella’s eyes grew dim, her face lined, her hair lost their shine. He had been her beacon, and losing him she had lost her way. She remembered the salty taste of his sweat, the curls of his hair, his sweet tattoo. For their 10-year anniversary, he had gotten a nurse shark, she an oyster. She had joked, “You crack me up!” Now the shell hardened, the pearl hiding deep within, with no intention of being seen. She dreamt of sharks all the time. They were tender and shy, in turn unassuming and voracious. They cracked shells and spit out their contents or swallowed them whole. Once, instead of a pearl, a green fog had filled the shark’s mouth. She woke up uneasy, wondering if his soul was at peace, what message he was trying to deliver.

She found solace in her grandchildren, especially Sandy, who looked a lot like her grandfather. They spent time together, and she was happy to reminisce because the child did not interrupt, playing intently at her feet, looking up if she stopped. She was like a sponge, absorbing all this information, asking questions days later to clarify a point she could not make sense of. They grew close, the child her old age stick. Stella seemed to regain a bit of her youth, in the child’s presence.  Sandy never tired of hearing the story of the twin tattoos. For the child’s birthday, Stella had showed her another tattoo. It was a pearl, hidden behind her ear, under her hair. “Four people know of its existence: the tattoo artist, me, your grandfather and now you. Happy birthday, Sandy.”

Nobody could beat that present. Sandy kept pirates at bay, protecting the loot fiercely. She confided in her granny when she decided to become a geologist and study fossils. She would regale Stella with her field work and her discoveries. Without Sandy, Stella would have sunk, become a bottom-dwelling being.  It was not a surprise when Sandy inherited the house and its contents. It was hers from the get-go, a house where both grandparents were kept alive, finally able to end their lives together.