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.