The Hanger and the Hanged, short story – 1 November 2015

Adina Manwell was arrested for first degree murder two months before I graduated. The body, when exhumed, didn’t seem entirely together. Prominent bones were missing. Some of the investigators even believed that the body shape suggested a female. Had it not been for my mother’s plea of guilty, they wouldn’t have been able to prosecute her. She seemed ready to be thrown in jail. She spent three weeks at the Davashar Memorial prison. The Davashar Disaster took place in the late twenty-second century when a military cargo plane crashed into a school carrying highly volatile explosives. They built a prison in honor of the victims.

     Her brief stay in the Davashar prison was quiet and uneventful, but she was soon transferred to a maximum security prison in Golan Heights. Everybody agreed that her case was a classic case of retaliation against an abusive, alcoholic husband. After years of abuse, it was assumed; mother murdered her husband Herman Luther Manwell, Jr., and buried him under tiger lilies. How did her son not notice the overwhelming stench coming from under the house? How did he not notice the pungent strands of spray-on odor-be-gone and potpourri? These questions had to be cleared up with the authorities so they’d stop pursuing the theory that I allowed it to take place and refused to testify or inform on my mother. Dr. Salas had to testify on my behalf at the hearing.

     “Roger was born without a sense of smell,” he said. “He’s never smelled anything and never will.”

     Mother Earth was blind for millions of years before the first animal became capable of vision and, from what I’ve heard of odor, I consider it a blessing. When those ran down detectives asked to hear my side of the story, they had expressly ignored my mother’s cautions against trying to speak with me. Letters in my mother’s hand had found me, in which I was encouraged not to “run my mouth.”

     I sat in the detective’s office with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth. The room was bare, sparsely furnished, with a desk covered in papers in front of me, behind it a plush red chair, behind which was a window. Bookshelves lined the sides of the room. A violin shaped clock ticked on the wall beside mounted degrees in law.

     A man in a brown business suit came in and locked the door behind him. He handed me a steaming cup of coffee. I refused it with a wave of my hand. He sat a rubber bound folder on the desk, propped up his feet on the desk and put his hands behind his head.

     “Well,” he said, thumbing at his mustache, “tell me what you can.”

     “Would you arrest someone for eating olives?” I asked.

     A thick eyebrow rose. “Excuse me?” he asked. “What do you mean?”

     “Would you arrest a man for jerking off in his wife’s coffee?”

     “Wait a minute…”

     “Just answer.”

     “No,” he said with a sigh, taking his feet of his desk, leaning forward. “I don’t agree with it though. Jerking off in your wife’s coffee is never good.”

     “So why is my mother under arrest?”

     “I think murder and jerking off in coffee are two very different things,” the detective said. “I don’t see what you’re saying.”

     “Well, that’s because you’re a moron. But that’s fine with me, I’m sure you have a good life. The connection is clear. Both actions serve the same base motives.”

      “How dare you insult me in my own office!” he yelled. “How dare you!”

     “I’m not the type of person that looks at a turd and tells you it’s a rose. I look at you and see a turd. So I tell you. We’re not here to talk about you, though. Now be a good boy and take my testimony.”

     “Go ahead,” he mumbled. A pencil in his left hand seemed about to break.

     “Natural instincts. Jerking off services a base desire for sexual release, right?”

     “Yes,” the now wounded looking detective agreed. “I guess.”

     “To protect yourself, is that a natural instinct?”

     He stared a moment. Then he shrugged, and turned, flicking off his telephone.

     “It’s instinct to preserve your life. Every organism is biologically bound by instinct and inclination to protect their own life. Every creature has this drive. Would you accuse a lion of murder if he killed a lion that was trying to kill him? Would you arrest someone if they took a life to protect their own? It’s stupid. It’s in your DNA. My mother knew this. Every animal on Earth has the natural desire to live, except maybe the Germans, and to arrest my mother for defending her life is a mockery of justice. When a cat is cornered, the cat will strike. There’s nothing to think about. This isn’t a moral issue. It’s a survival issue. It was her, or him, and she chose to save her life. She had to preserve herself.”

     “You’re trying to defend the murder of your father,” the man said. “How can you defend that? Something is wrong with your head.”

     “Yeah,” I said. “I use it. That’s the problem with you fuckers. None of you use your brains. She knew that sooner or later he would end up killing her. He was a drunk, an invalid, and a terrible father. He hit her. He choked her. And you’re putting her on trial? You’re a real cracker jack group of fuckers. Is it a capital crime to defend your life? Hey, you, yeah, you tubby, listen to me. There will be more donuts. Speaking of, would you put a man on trial for eating? That’s the same thing you’re doing to my mother.”

     “Sir!” the man stammered. “Eating is a lot different than bludgeoning someone to death with a statue.”

     “It’s a bust,” I said.

     “What?” he asked.

     “It’s a bust, not a statue.”

     “All right…”

     “You’re right, though,” I said, leaning back with another cigarette. “Eating is a lot different than bludgeoning someone to death with a bust. But in this instance, both actions serve the same purpose. People eat to survive. Some eat because they enjoy it, like you. Don’t look at me like that. You’re fat, it’s cool. We all have problems. Look, if I swore against food, would I survive? No. You have two choices. You can eat, or you can die. Look at it like a train track. You can walk one way, to live, and the other way, to die. You eat or you die. There are no exits. No detours. You eat, or die. In her situation, she had to fight, or die. This hearing is a pot of camel pussy and you people are retarded.”

     “Sir,” the inspector protested, “I’m not allowed to strike you until you’re in custody. Remember that.”

     “Noted.”

     “Anyway,” he shuffled through papers, “have you ever considered that it might not be your father? All of the teeth were missing, and due to the advanced state of decay, seems like years, there was no way to make any definite analysis on the body. A coating of some sort of chemical on the bones makes it impossible to trace back to anyone specific. It could be your father, or it could be a fisherman that docked just to buy goods in town. Your mother has murdered someone and claims that it’s her husband. We can’t even tell if it’s a male or female. Is it possible that it could be someone else? Did your father ever disappear for long periods of time?”

     “Yeah,” I replied. “But not for years. And he always came to dinner when mother made peppered chicken.”

     “Did your mother ever directly state to you that it was your father under that house?”

     “No, but that was my father under there. He wouldn’t just abandon us for no reason, not for years. Sure he was a drunk and pretty much worthless, but he liked watching his game shows. He liked his bed. He was a bad father, but he wouldn’t leave us unless something happened to him. Why are we even talking about this? She confessed! She admitted it. She signed a confession. What more do you want? She’s going to be killed to satisfy some primitive sense of revenge for defending herself and you people are squabbling over the skeleton. This is a fucking mockery of justice. A mockery. You have children don’t you?”

     “Yeah…”

     “I hope they’re hit by trains.”

     “Wait one minute,” he tried. “If you…”

     “Why are we still here?” I asked. “Are you people that stupid? If she hadn’t done something, she would have died. I know that. You are putting her on trial for protecting her life. Do you have your recorder on?”

     The man shook his head.

     “Turn it on.”

     With a quiet click a recording instrument came on.

     “You might as well put her on trial for breathing. Don’t get me wrong. I’m against murder. Sure, it’s entertaining. But it does us little good as a species. Sometimes, however, it’s necessary. What do you do when someone in your brave military splatters someone’s brains at one hundred yards? You give him a medal. And for an old woman that tries to fight for her life? You give her the gallows.”

     “Sir…”

     “No, shut up. Some old woman is sitting on a bicycle in the woods of Tibet and you blow her head off with a T-Z01 automatic and nobody says a word. People eat their ice cream and read the papers. Nothing! I saw those pictures of that stringy haired old woman too. She didn’t have a jaw, but she lived. What happened to the man that shot her? Honorable discharge due to combat fatigue. Now you’re going to hang my mother for self defense. That’s retarded. If my mother is put to death, I’ll set this fucking building on fire. You, fat ass, look at me. I will set this god damn building on fire if something happens to my mother.”

     “Murder is a capital crime,” he said. “The sentence is death.”

     “No matter what?” I asked. “No matter the motive, murder is a capital crime and the sentence is death?”

     “Yes, sir. There are no exceptions.”

     “Who’s going to hang the man that hangs my mother? Who’s going to kill the killer, hang the hanger?”

     “What do you mean?”

     “It’s just like in that story ‘The Hanger and the Hanged’ by Oren Henschel, my uncle. It’s a philosophical satire originally published in Hebrew.” I looked at the two other men who stood against the wall in suits, holding cups of coffee. “Any of you ever read it?”

     The gathered men shook their heads, looked around at one another, and shrugged.

     “The first page, a paltry list of ancient origin: the Ten Commandments. In the story, a young man, a young man that owns a simple fruit stand, commits an act of blasphemy and is overheard by a clergyman exclaiming, “God damn!” The society in which he lived followed the bible law for law, no exceptions; so it was assumed that he was atheist. Only an atheist in a purely Christian society would take the Lord’s name in vain. So, he was considered an atheist; atheism was a crime against God. And, seeing as how God couldn’t enforce the punishment for his broken rules, the sin was punishable by death. Because he was a blasphemer, and assumed atheist, they destroyed his fruit stand, put him in a dark prison, and finally hanged him. They murdered him for breaking the rules of god. But, in this act of punishment, they commit murder–another act of blasphemy and direct violation of the Ten Commandments.”

     “Got what he deserved,” the bald man against the wall said. “He broke the rules. Breaking the rules has consequences, Roger. One day, you’ll learn that.”

     “That’s not the end of the story, retards. Don’t you see the paradox?”

     They glared at me a moment. The mustached man at the end of the table glanced at his watch, sighing, and asked, “What’s a ‘paradox’?”

     “For breaking a commandment they kill him. Isn’t thou shalt not kill a commandment as well? Yes it is. A townsman brings this news to father abbot of the church’s main administration building. This is a fictional town, mind you; the town of Bali, a fictional city that exists far in the future after Antarctica has unfrozen, allowing people to colonize and explore the region. Of course, the missionaries are first to go in and set up the town of Bali: the ideal world for Christians. Evolution wasn’t taught in schools; women are subservient; homosexuals are stoned to death; heretics are burnt at the stake; women can’t leave home on their periods; the Earth was only thousands of years old; Genesis was literal fact. Every rule was followed. It was the realization of what every Christian strived for.

     “This townsman is an archaeologist that digs on the other side of one of the unfrozen mountains. Now, Bali only came about after hundreds of years to exist as a perfect society for Christians. They weeded out all literature they found unholy, all television, and all the music. The clerical administration controlled everything. The archaeologist had moved there to live in the town of Bali in the perfect Christian society. Then, at a council meeting, he asks why the young fruit salesman was put to death.

     “They tell him that he was hanged because he broke a commandment. The archaeologist asks them if thou shalt not kill is a commandment. They tell him it is. He points out to the clerical council that the hanger broke the commandment of thou shalt not kill and thus had to be put to death. The council deliberates and reconvenes. Their ruling is final: the man at the gallows pole had to be put to death for breaking a commandment. By putting the atheist to death, the executioner broke a commandment, and thusly had to die as well. So they hang him, the hanger, for murder because he killed the atheist. Then the man that hung the executioner is put to death for hanging the man that hanged the atheist. The man that hung the man that hung the atheist is then put to death for breaking the commandment. One by one, in a long line, the entire society lines up behind the gallows pole. All of them kill and are put to death when they finished. It repeats. The hanger hangs and then is hanged. It repeats until the entire civilization is destroyed. The archaeologist, at the end, kills himself for killing the last person.”

     They looked around a moment. The mustached man behind the desk said, “Murder is a crime. The only person guilty of murder was the man who killed on behalf of himself. The other men killed on behalf of God. You’re only a teenager. I wouldn’t expect you to understand. The Bible says obey the law of the land.”

     “What if the law of the land was to burn bibles as it was during the Italian civil war against Rome by the lower regions and Sicily? Should that ‘law of the land’ be obeyed? Stop being a moron.”

     “Well,” he stammered, “that’s different. You twist words around. You speak too quickly; stop trying to deliberately confuse us.”

     “All of my words are pronounced clearly,” I said. “Is it my fault you have trouble keeping up?”

     I felt a hand on my shoulder from behind. The only man that seemed to listen to me, with a bald head, graying spots of hair above his ears, spoke in calm, soft words. “You’re a clever young man, Roger. You’re just misguided. I don’t deny your intelligence. I deny your cause. You’re just going to get yourself arrested.”

     Sweat beaded off my forehead. I understood then: I couldn’t talk my mother out of prison. But I kept trying.

     “It’s nature,” I said, about to cry. “Is it not nature to preserve oneself? It has nothing to do with morals or ethic when there’s a knife to your throat. How was she supposed to react? A cornered cat will scratch. You people are ridiculous. You’re going to kill a sweet woman just for defending herself against a drunk? Fuck you people. I’ll see that your children are sodomized for this.”

     Two weeks in jail.

     Time well spent.

My mother was in the cell across from mine. I sat there under a ragged fan, back against a cement wall, a clock behind me hung on a nail. A yellow mattress was on the floor beside the toilet, an aluminum circle, and that’s it.

     At night my mother poked her sobbing face between the bars and reached to try to take my hand. We were always a few inches too far away to hold one another. Shadows of policemen walked the walls from one end to the other, small at first, and then grew larger as they passed through the exercise yard door. If I had known that night would be the last time I’d hear my mother, I might have thought of something better to say.

     The long shadow of a yawning guard stretched across the dull gray corridor. A torch hung beside my mother’s cell, to the right, casting little shadows around the hollows that were once her lively eyes, now dull, listless, and spotted with one troubled wrinkle after another. The guard coughed, shuffled his keys, and the shadow, with a small echo from a creaking door, dwindled to the shadow of a mouse and disappeared. The door slammed shut.

     “Roger,” mother whispered, “you’ve turned into such a handsome man. Look at how you’ve grown. Those shoes don’t fit, do they? The ones you got two weeks ago?”

     “No, mama,” I said. “I sold them in the market.”

     “For olives or for cigarettes?” mother laughed an uneasy laugh, a tired heave. “I’ve never known someone to eat so many olives. Did you sell your shoes just for olives?”

     I was crying then. “Yeah, mama,” I said. “Just for some olives.”

     She reclined against the cement wall behind her. Her eyes were hidden by the dark; the torch lit her body only to her neck. Her arms had grown pale, spotted with veins, and her tired hair hung listless around her bony shoulders. I heard her sigh. Her black hair spilled into the light as she cupped her face inside her hands.

     “Remember that toy duck your father brought from Israel for you?” she asked. “I’ll never forget that. We put you in the shower, and you had to be only two or three years old. You ran through the house as naked as the way you were born. I said ‘what’s wrong, Roger?’ You said, ‘the duck is going to drown!’ Oh, man! I don’t think I’ve ever laughed that hard, before or after. Those were funny times, better times, when it was alright to laugh, or smile.”

     “Why did you confess?” I asked. I gripped the rusted bars, leaned into the corridor. “Why did you confess, mama? Why?”

     “Remember that baseball glove your uncle Matthias got you for your tenth birthday?” she asked. “You looked so funny trying to put it on. Your uncle Oren kept saying, ‘but, ya putting it on ze wrong hand, boy!’ Oh, that was funny!”

     “Yeah! He bought me a right handed glove, the kind that goes on your left hand so you can throw with your right hand. I guess he just assumed I was right handed.”

     “You and your uncle Oren are the only lefties in the family, I think. You sound like him sometimes, you know. That man never shuts up. He’s a clever man.”

     “You have pictures of me with that bulky glove pushed down on the wrong hand, don’t you?” I kept laughing, but it hurt.

     “We’ve got it on video. You stood there on the porch, thanking him, trying to smile. Then you threw it down and said, ‘there appears to be a malfunction with the baseball glove.’ Your father nearly died laughing when came through the living room. He put down his beer. ‘I don’t think the glove fits,’ I remember him saying. Oh it’s so funny. I’ll never forget about that.”

     “Sometimes one happy memory is all you have,” I said. “I don’t think of that event like you do. I’ll never forget how stupid I felt standing in the bathroom with that god damn…”

     “Roger! Don’t you curse.”

     “…You could have left ‘you’ out of that sentence and it would’ve been fine,” I said.

     She glared at me.

     “Now isn’t the time to be a smart ass,” she said.

     “I’m sorry, that glove. You knew it was a right handed glove, didn’t you? You told uncle to get it just to trick me, didn’t you? You kept laughing at me. I thought I just couldn’t figure it out, like I am with trash bags and microwaves.”

     Mother laughed so hard that tears had crept into her eyes. “I’ve never understood you, Roger. How in the world you learn things, so many things, but you get confused as to how to work a microwave. Remember when you first tried to figure out a straw? That’s my dim little Roger. So smart he can’t figure out how to work a trash bag. Ha-ha.” She smiled the kind of smile that only sad mothers can use. “My little Roger isn’t so little anymore. How tall are you? 6’8”? Your dad would be so pissed if he saw how tall you were. He’s always been so short.”

     “Why did you confess, mama? Please, tell them you didn’t do it. They don’t know if the skeleton is from a man or woman. All they have is his stained shirt, a partial skeleton, evidence of attempting to cover up a smell, and your confession. Why did you confess? Why?”

     She just smiled. Those tiny tears, like droplets of rain, swelled in the corners of her eyes. She reached from the cell again, easing her face into the faint light of the torch, and stretched her hand as far as she could. I did the same. She strained and I strained until the tips of our middle fingers touched for a slight moment, just a moment, and I still remember how cold her fingers were. She kissed her palm and held up her hand. She rose from the floor and walked with her head down to the yellowed cot in her cell. The yellow mattress squeaked when she lay down.

     From the dark, with only her toes visible, painted with homemade rings around them, she began to hum that constant song for me.

     “I always wanted three children,” she said, “but you were more than enough for me. Roger, do you remember our song? The one we hummed before all this bad stuff happened? When we could laugh. Can you hum the song?”

     “Yes, mama, I can still hum it.”

     “Then hum it for me so I can go to sleep,” she said. “It has always calmed me down.”

     “Yes, mama,” I said. “Mama…” I paused. “Please don’t go to sleep. I want to talk to you. Just one more minute, please? One minute. Then I’ll sing.”

     “Did you brush your teeth?”

     “Yes, mama.”

     “Did you comb your hair?”

     “Not yet.”

     “Goodnight, Roger. I love you. But don’t forget to comb your hair. ”

     “I love you too, mother.”

     “Smile Roger,” she said. “Never forget how to laugh, and never forget to comb your hair.”

     I was silent.

     “C’est la vie,” mother whispered. “C’est la vie.”

     And the minutes from the clock went too fast as I hummed those songs for her. Most people feel that prison time is slow, that it plods along indifferent to their boredom, but not when the clock is ticking on the life of a family member; nothing seems to keep that dreaded hour away. That clock ticked a steady rhythm behind me; the shadows walked up and down the hall, small at first, then large on the gray walls ceilings; quiet rats scurried under the beds; mother’s calm breathing came from her cell to mine; and through all of this, in concert with this, I hummed. It was all that was left for me to do. I combed my hair. I brushed my teeth. I plastered on a fake smile that she couldn’t see through the night.

     And I hummed for her. I hummed for her those songs she often sang to Galilee. During the night, when the rats had gone quiet, when the stalking shadows of the guardsmen had faded, my mother began to sing. She sang in her sleep until the sun woke up.

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