Writings & Whatnot by Rob Hill
It was the morning of my execution. My head was throbbing from all the drinks I had, perhaps unwisely, downed the night before. I’d made the rounds of the bars in the village and everyone, knowing it was to be my last night alive, bought me enough drinks to drown a battalion. It was quite the occasion. Instead of my usual sorry rags I wore a tailored velvet suit made especially for the event and everyone was most impressed with my striking appearance. But as I lay sprawled on my bed blinking in the stern morning light, my brain stuffed with wet starfish, I regretted not having exercised a little more willpower.
Heroically I made it onto my feet and staggered to the sink to splash water on my face. I squirmed into yesterday’s clothes, now splotched and rumpled, and stepped outside, shielding my eyes from the stabbing daylight. No one along the street said a word, but nodded respectfully as I passed. Often I had felt shunned by the villagers who considered me a mere wastrel with nothing to offer the community. But today was different. Today I was something of a celebrity.
There hadn’t been an execution in the village in a very long time. Generations, in fact. Which meant no one was entirely sure how it was supposed to be handled. Tradition had it that the subject was to lie with his head resting on the rail that ran through town square as a steam train was driven over him. However no one was old enough to recall actually having seen this occur. This sounded to me like an especially gruesome way to die and, though I hadn’t spoken against it out of deference, secretly I hoped an alternative method could be settled on before the hour came.
I made my way along the narrow town streets, bidding a silent farewell to the places that had been my home for so long. The rows of stone buildings seemed distantly familiar, as though I’d known them only through secondhand descriptions and was now seeing them for the first time in person. Mr Pilsner leaned out the door of his barber shop and nodded in my direction. I’d gone to him since I was a boy but didn’t remember him having such a prominent scar on the crown of his bald head. For the first time I pondered the peculiarity of having your hair cut by a man with no hair of his own.
I watched two slavering dogs chase each other in and out of a blind alley, stirring up dust. As a little kid, I was convinced this alley contained dead bodies. I would refuse to pass in front of it until one day my exasperated uncle dragged me in against my will and pointed out to me that the lumpy shapes which had so terrorized me were just discarded bags of sand left over from the flood season. I passed the bakery where as a boy I had perfected my pilfering abilities. The woman who owned the shop wore a glass eye, which unnerved the other schoolchildren but never bothered me. While she cursed her indecisive customers I would walk out with a whole loaf smuggled under my coat. Early mornings I would often loiter outside, inhaling the narcotic aroma of baking bread.
After crossing a stone bridge, I followed the winding street until I reached the cobblestoned town square where my friends Mink and Pulse greeted me. Both wore wrinkleless grey soldier uniforms. Mink had her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. Pulse looked impassive in dark sunglasses. Already a crowd had begun to gather near the fountain of a urinating boy, but kept at a respectful distance from me. The town hall clock indicated it was a quarter to noon. High overhead the sun glared down without mercy. I went over to the train tracks and crouched beside them. Gazing down the tracks I saw the dark spot of an approaching train far in the distance. Vibrations coursed through the steel rail. I imagined resting my head upon the steel and calmly waiting as the great mechanical beast bore down on me while the earth trembled and the engine screamed. At once I decided my nervous system was simply too fragile for me to be executed in such fashion. Tradition or not, we would have to find another way. The crowd began to close in. I could sense their anxiety. They were eager to watch an execution but unsure of what to expect. There was no one in charge to oversee the proceedings. Mink and Pulse stood on either side of me to protect me in the event that the unsettled crowd decided to take matters into their own hands. A hot noon sun has been known to stir up violence in the restless.
As the train clamored into the square I saw that it was filled with grimfaced soldiers, some hanging out the sides, and knew they had come to ensure I didn’t attempt to escape my fate, something I would never consider. But the villagers milling around me were confused by what was happening. Some suspected the soldiers had come to rescue me and deprive them of their spectacle. Or even to attack them. The iron beast screeched to a halt and the soldiers leapt off. The anxious crowd of villagers knew better than to rush the soldiers but were insistent not to yield their space. The air was tense and ripe for violence. This really was poorly organized.
The soldiers took their positions and the crowd glared at them. The soldiers had no leader either and were following no strategy other than their instinct to appear imposing. The crowd was a breathing entity. I recognized none of the faces now, though as individuals I had known them my entire life. Mink batted away several hands that reached toward me. Leaning toward Pulse, I suggested in a murmur that, should things get out of hand, he should be the one to execute me by firing a bullet into my brain. He didn’t like my idea, not even when I suggested he make it look like his pistol accidentally discharged while he was protecting me. I worried that without his intervention, the impatient crowd, feeling cheated, might lose its senses and viciously rip me apart. I felt I deserved a more dignified end than that.
I heard several small explosions but was unable to tell from which direction they had come. Among the surging crowd I spotted several pistols which had been drawn from waistcoats. A sudden pinched sensation at my side made me realize one of the shots had struck me. I looked over at Pulse to see if he had changed his mind and fired the shot, but his sunglasses hid his expression and I was unable to tell. His pistol was in his hand but it was pointed towards the ground. I felt a warmth spread through me, as though several quickly downed shots of vodka had suddenly kicked in. I slumped forward and people stepped back to make room. I hit the cobblestones lightly, as though gravity had lost much of its reign over me. Lying on my side as the onlookers fell silent, it occurred to me that the thoughts now swarming in my mind were to be my dying thoughts. And, somehow, I knew that these dying thoughts would be recorded in the annals of the universe, in a great memorial library of the cosmos where all dying thoughts are filed for posterity.
And what coursed through my mind at that moment, I recognized with dismay, was a nursery rhyme I’d learned as a child. I couldn’t remember the words. They were probably insignificant. Something about a greedy fish that gobbled up more than it could eat. Or maybe it was a bird. I couldn’t remember. It was a ridiculous melody caught in my head, like a ribbon threaded through a confusing series of clockwork.
This then was to be my contribution to eternity.
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