This is a short story that didn't get published at the two places I submitted it
That word again—side. I am not on any side. And I would never leave you. I would never even hold this conversation outside of these walls, but I will not like the stares implicating you, through me, of guilt, next day I go to the market or when I walk the children to school.
So this is humanity? Others, present others, I should add, brothers in guilt can just go home after the incident and wash their hands and pronounce themselves clean. If a man judges you or I, it is because his own guilty conscience wishes to rid itself of the burden of guilt all present should feel. They use me as a scapegoat.
Perhaps you speak the truth, but even if it is a lie, you will be held responsible. And even if another might have done it, another didn’t. They can now rationalize that they wouldn’t have, convince themselves that they would have shown mercy where you showed none. Friends, however, will stand by you and defend you until the end. But they won’t view you the same as the day before yesterday.
Friends are friends. Leave them be. Let me ask you, my precious wife, if a man is called to war by his country, and he wishes not to go, but still has the obligation to serve his country, understand—It’s either betray your country, keep your convictions, but die like a traitor, or serve your country, abandon your convictions, but live as a betrayer, which fate is worse? Betraying his country, he shames his family, but dies in peace, buried with his convictions in a pauper’s grave at some crossroad. Betraying himself, he honors his family, maybe merits honor to country, but lives a life of guilt and remorse, and doesn’t enjoy another moment for the rest of his life. Not even the birth of his children.
This is an unfair case. I would rather see the young man die for his beliefs than betray them; of course, but your situation is not that of the young man. Never did choice leave your side. You’ve got me using that word. Regardless of the pointiness of the goad that led you on, you could have just as easily walked away as walked on.
Oh I see. So when the workers leave the stove, when my closest friend sets his trowel down and tells me to come along and see what is going on, when we find out they have finally found the culprit, a vile evildoer, a pederast responsible for three murders, and when I am swept up in this crowd of my fellow citizens, when I find myself near the front, when we circle this convict, his teeth thrashing, mouth spitting, nose crinkled up in wolf fashion and his eyes mere black dots of the demons possessing him, when I stand face to face with this animal figure responsible for such atrocities, was that the time I should have just walked away? You see, with a crowd there isn’t a choice and the voice of one speaks for all, and that mass wanted blood, and that voice cried out, ‘kill him. Kill him. Someone kill him.’
You miss much when you let impetuousness guide your actions, and even your retelling is clouded by not simmering down enough to think the whole thing through. The man is or was accused of these crimes, not convicted. The crowd’s final yell, even in your retelling specifies that someone not everyone must actually shed the blood, and I think it best to say without the guidance of some individuals who thought their actions rode on behalf of all, but once separated from the crowd stand alone, they, the local crowd, would have waited the scene out. Maybe they would have beat him, a little, or even cursed at him the foul things they thought, but to say that someone else would have taken your position is impetuous and might not be true. Acts acted can’t be reenacted. And finally, you act as if this beast could have sunk his teeth into anyone of you when in fact he had been bound to a pole and stood as helpless as the crucified. You could have waited.
And let justice tie slipknots around its own bureaucratic throat where the scene played out could last months and some loophole could set the maniac free? Or have him sent to hard labor. I think not. You play the fool, my wife, when you think the law has been taken from the common man’s hand and placed in systems. True justice spoke, and maybe it spoke then tucked tail and ran, but Peter and I would never tuck tail. We balanced the scales for all those who inwardly wanted to see death but overtly howled louder than they dared bite.
Answer me this then, if you pretend to typify justice, why do men view you as unbridled and place guilt so heavy it tips the scales over now? Do you think your open act causes discord in their mind, where as the actual murdering of the children, hidden and performed in the woods, away from the town center, allows them to place the crimes at the periphery of their conscience or consciousness? From the details, I gather the entire scene pullulated with such grotesqueness the images will never leave those simple men.
What have you been reading in my absence? Your reasoning verges on European. Have you taken to reading French authors again?
Only Zola, and I hardly think it matters.
It matters immensely. European consciousness would move the discussion to one of justice and the public killing rather than what is appropriate action when mob mentality is the mentality of everyone present. One person certainly cannot be responsible.
Peter took action for his responsibility. He shot himself yesterday morning. Why would he do that?
Peter’s constitution never allowed him to finish anything. You know that. God rest his pious soul. And as for answering you, precious, guilt and justice tolerate each other’s presence so much the two could be joined at the hip. Where a man seeks justice, he may find it, but even if just, guilt will still haunt his decision. Next, no, no, don’t interrupt me. Next, the openness of the act further exonerates me. We didn’t hide anything. Your only point is that the grotesqueness of the events may coax them into hating me and believing the brutality, and only the brutality, should make me feel guilty and a target for their own guilt.
May I interrupt now, my brute husband? Since Peter shot himself, God bless his petty soul, we do not know whether he killed himself from guilt, although we assume guilt, but as to what degree and what kind, we never shall know now. One thing we know. The town, still placing guilt on you and your actions, has freed Peter of all guilt with his death and actually sorrow for his extreme measures. What this means is something beyond my comprehension, but penance seems to be key somehow.
Yes, we know this, dear, but why should I seek forgiveness for something I did on behalf of others. The way things stand, the entire crowd should go to the priest and ask forgiveness together, or else none of us should because we were only doing what needed to be done. I did not feel inspired or uninspired at the time, so I unable to honestly say guidance led me to do what I did. I can only validate the emotions to feeling drunk but in utter control, a reasonable madness took over me and I thought in syllogism: this man kills boys. I have two boys. If I kill the man, he won’t kill my boys. I possessed a rational knowledge that what I did I did for everyone with children. They can divorce themselves from the matter if they choose, but I can’t, and my seeking penance presupposes my guilt, and if other’s claim innocence or ignorance then I claim the same.
How did the events occur? I have heard it from the secondary mouth of gossip, which we know to cling to exaggerations. I want to hear you describe the event as it occurred.
Very well. As I said, the cry of the masses called for blood. Peter stepped forward holding a barn lantern. He doused the man from behind. Someone handed me Congreves and a piece of sandpaper came from someone else. It amazed me how all these instruments showed up, as if one person brought this knowing it would be useful and another that. It is unclear to me whether they subconsciously carried these things with them or if they knew they might be useful. I ran the sulfur-tipped splint through the sandpaper fold and it ignited. The maniac stared at the flame and said nothing. I threw the splint at his face, and it lit the kerosene. Within seconds his entire body covered with flames, and the man screamed as if the flames wounded his animal spirit. His piercing howl penetrated our ears, ungodly, and many covered their ears with their hands so they didn’t have to hear the screams. As the flame began to die down the screams increased in decibels. It seemed obvious the man wouldn’t die from one dousing. I yelled at peter to throw more kerosene on the man, but by this time the flame had gone out and the man’s flesh smoked, and the smell horrified me. I took the lamp and broke it and poured the kerosene down the crown of the man’s head and lit another splint and went to throw it at the man. He gnashed his teeth at me and closed his eyes. I lit him on fire again, but the flame only burned from the chest up, and the singed flesh began to stink, and it appeared obvious that we would witness another failure. I grabbed a brick from Ivan and ran at the maniac. It is hard to say who screamed louder—he or I. But I could stand his pain no longer. I sought to end the terrible scene. I crushed the brick over the maniac’s head and avoided his open mouth. The blow knocked him out, but he still whimpered. I took the broken brick, and placed the sharp edge out of my hand and held the rest sort of like a hilt to a blade. I drove the sharp edge into the wound from the first blow and it sunk into his brain and stuck there. Blood slowly oozed over the maniac’s blackened face as I backed away. The whimpering died, and so did the maniac. The scene appeared so gruesome. Most people slowly walked away, back to work, pretending nothing happened. After a minute, Peter and I stood by the body alone. Peter cried out and ran off. I waited for the authorities and reported all that happened. They let me go and said they would be calling on me within the next few days. I left without looking at the dead body again.
How awful. I imagine you still see this man in your dreams. So you did have accomplices other than Peter?
As I said, the crowd participated willingly until they saw the outcome then they divorced themselves from the scene and placed the guilt on Peter and myself. And yes, I see the man burning and hear his screams even now. I do not have to sleep to reproduce the images and sounds. Isn’t that punishment enough? In the Bible it says He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abominations to the Lord.
I did nothing but condemn the wicked and justify the just, and I would think that mercy should be applied to me.
But how can someone who showed no mercy merit mercy?
But I am not the wicked, I am the just, and my actions were those of everyman, not mine alone.
Then you seek mercy from a crowd that might not be able to be merciful. If they condemn themselves for being present, surely they condemn you, and if you represent them, then surely you represent their guilty conscience. I only pray the authorities understand the situation and show mercy rather than justice, and I can only hope they don’t single you out when the entire crowd had at least a part in the scene.
If they condemn a just man and show me no mercy then a curse to this town, and my acceptance of the verdict, my public hanging for justice’s sake will haunt them forever. I will not wear the sack. I want my last vision to be that guilty crowd, and I want my eyes to pierce each man present.
The verdict has been reached.
And how did they find my husband. Is he guilty or innocent?
The judge stood up, quieted the crowd and said, We find this case very hard to have judged, but we cannot give mercy where none has been shown, we require that you live out the law and demands of justice by full penalty. The hanging will be held tomorrow afternoon. Until then, lock him up. We are sorry for your family and know that the town will be merciful upon them.
So he will be hung tomorrow.
Yes. Tomorrow afternoon. Will you go?
No. I’m afraid that I will not be present at the killing of my husband.
But he will seek you out one last time to say goodbye.
I’m afraid he will not find me. I will carry the image of him I already possess. I do not wish to see him dead.
But where is your mercy?
Where was theirs?