Liz Swain 4:24 p.m., May 24
All My Heads Come Back To Me (short fiction)
They say I should do the interview with the television lady. That it will help humanize the job, and thus the Law. I don’t know why. It is as human as anything else, whether I comment on it or not, but I suppose I have to. Most simply, my job is no different than the man who delivers the packages. Merely a task in life which must be carried out by someone. That I carry out a task most would find physically revolting or mentally impossible, or that I work for the Department of Superior Justice, an institution that most people fear, I do not consider a burden, any more than I consider my allergies a burden. Merely a part of life that one must endure. What must be done must be done, as it is decreed by the Laws of Existence. Our powerful Instigator – creator is too magical a word for me, forgive me if you must – is the One whom nature bows down to, which I humbly do in my job as executioner.
Currently I am training my youngest son to follow me into the profession. My eldest son is weak and rebellious, he only cares for rap music and his clothing; but my youngest is a good boy, the best of boys, the joy of any father and thankfully so, since this job is a family tradition. To separate the heads from the bodies of the condemned, I use an axe (three hundred years old, it is said), with a long and overly curved blade, which my father wielded in more than a thousand acts of justice during his service. The dark wooden handle is worn into the shape of his palm, oiled with the secretions of his skin.
“Axe” and “acts.” They are so similar. This gives me comfort, though you shouldn’t think I require comfort, only that sometimes it is better than a sedative at night. My allergies often make it difficult to sleep, you see. There is a certain dust in the municipal square, where my duties are carried out, and it is my belief that this dust contains a high concentration of the particles I am allergic to. While my doctor, with all his blood and skin and saliva tests, says he can find no specific allergen (I do not like that word), I am certain it is the dust from the square that gives me my symptoms. My doctor says science cannot support my belief. I do not care. My doctor also says he believes my body can be negatively affected by my job, in ways I may not be aware of. As if I don’t know what I am feeling in my own body or mind. He says he treats soldiers for the same things, but he is a fool. I know what I know. They cannot even cure the common cold, in 2012. There are some things for which doctors are useless.
My father gave me his axe the day he retired. It was a double execution that morning. He chopped the first head, then handed me his most prized tool, and I chopped the second. Having him there eased my nerves, and at the same time he rattled them, too. After all, what boy does not what to make his father proud? So I took my practice stroke, eyed my spot on the back of the neck, bent down and whispered in the condemned’s ear: “Do not move and there will be no pain. May mercy beyond be with you.” (I always say this, as my father had passed it on to me. And it is very important the condemned remain still, as any slight movement can bring quite messy results. Just ask the man who slid back a few inches as I brought the axe down, and I cracked him in the skull like an islander splitting a coconut. It was a ghastly affair, and I do not wish to speak about it further. Let me have a sip of water now.)
Back to that first time. I offered the condemned man those final words, then I took one deep breath and confidently, forcefully…WHACK!...I brought down the blade, and the head sliced away from the body, eased down the axe metal, and onto the ground. It is a surprisingly gradual progression, all things considered. By that I mean the head separates and falls more slowly than you would imagine, this I learned from practicing on dead pigs and sheep. A butcher with his cleaver would know the feeling, a slaughterhouse man even more. The only thing that startled me was the squirting of the blood. The tumbling head splashes blood in whatever direction the neck is pointing, while the skin on the body where the head has been removed slackens, pulls back onto the shoulders, widening the hole where the head had been. Here the spine sticks out and blood spurts forth in unpredictable ways as the body lurches. That time, my first, dressed in my professionally laundered and pressed white robe, a gush of living red came directly at me, and I had to leap away to avoid it. My father chuckled.
“It happens every time,” he informed me. “You might as well just get used to it and relax. This is why they make bleach, my son.”
* * *
I live my life simply, though I am rewarded quite handsomely by the Department for my work. Small house, reliable car, modest furnishings, nothing fancy, that’s me. I’m really just an ordinary man. My wife is a quiet woman, the daughter of a church official, the perfect wife for a man in my position. Were she more excitable or less steady in her peaceful demeanor, I would have had a much more difficult time carrying out my employment duties, and those of husband and father. She bears her burdens as if they are gifts. Besides picking the correct wife, I am also good at saving. This is where I am not ordinary. Saving for a bad day, for old age, a child’s wedding, a revenge bounty, whatever I need is mine because I saved. Once my brother, a more educated man than I am, who has gone to business school and has run corporations, once he said to me “Don’t you understand the math? The market? You aren’t getting enough for all that money you store away. The interest rates favor speculators and risk takers. You cannot save all that money and allow yourself to be robbed by the system. Give it to me, and I will make it multiply like ants.”
It is a good thing I have never liked my brother. Love goes without saying, we must always love our family, but it is simply beyond the realm of human possibility to always like them. As such, I did not give my brother any of my money, and he is currently bankrupt, living in a small apartment in an undesirable part of the city, shamed by a scheme he was prosecuted for. Though he was acquitted on a technicality – the technicality being that our father, the former executioner, called in a favor – he has lived alone and in shame since. His wife moved to San Diego with their children, where it’s said she accidentally took up with a Mexican cartel man, a real gangster, whom the children call father, and whom she is terrified of leaving. There is no worse shame than that. His children calling this man father, I mean, not that he is a gangster. At least to me it's worse. We all have our own prejudices.
* * *
There is a question I have heard often, usually from foreigners: “How do you sleep at night with such a job? Aren’t you haunted by nightmares?”
“No,” I always reply. “I sleep quite well. And I’ll tell you something else: when I dream, all my heads come back to me, and often they are laughing.”
They talk to me about their families, their children, their crimes, sometimes they tell me they are innocent, but I do not believe them. They are chopped heads in my dreams, what kind of insight could they possibly have? But they are almost always laughing. It is quite odd. One time I dreamed I was naked in a bathtub, full of my laughing chopped heads. They were biting at me, chewing on me, cursing me and my family, but laughing just the same. When I awoke, my wife was applying a cold towel to my forehead. I had blacked out at a family gathering, my temperature topping out at a hundred and five. This is why I had the nightmare, though I would not actually say that it was a nightmare at all, the heads were still laughing in that bathtub, after all, no matter their biting or chewing or cursing, they were still laughing, they know they got what they deserved and they’re happy about it, their souls are, this is what I truly believe. But I was sick with a terrible fever, so maybe that is all it was and nothing greater. Illness and fever make their own movies, for their own reasons. Not for mine.
* * *
There has only been one condemned man I didn’t like. When he was brought my way, blindfolded and bound, put down onto his knees by the guards to be chopped, he insulted my wife, called her an ape and a whore. (This was a few months before they began giving sedatives to the condemned an hour before their executions, which has resulted in much calmer prisoners.) Because of his insult, he became the only one of the condemned I have purposefully made suffer. First, I made sure to cut him with my practice stroke, just enough to inflict pain, but not enough so anyone would really know. The second stroke I meant to be an aborted real stroke, but not before I went a little deeper, just into his spinal cord, partially paralyzing him, though not completely, and it had to be agony for him, a jumbled mess of chopped nerves, maybe his arms were paralyzed but his dick was on fire, who knows. Then I paused and looked at my axe, pretending that something had disturbed my routine. In truth, I did this so I could hear his animal sounds of agony, his body jerking and spasming involuntarily. I asked two attendants to hold him steady so I could finish the job. I even took an extra few moments to wipe down the handle of my axe, extending his suffering. Only then, when he had endured small eternity of semi-paralyzed horror, did I come down with the final blow, separating his pitiful head from his disgusting body.
Later that afternoon, when my supervisor asked me about my hesitation and the botched stroke, calling me in for a special meeting about it, I told him that the sweat on my hand had made the axe handle slippery, causing the first bad stroke, and I had to wipe it off for the final stroke. My supervisor replied that he understood, it made complete sense to him. He apologized for having to inquire, but his superiors had requested it. I was sneezing throughout the meeting. He offered me tissues, for which I thanked him. I told him the theory of my allergies being related to specific dust in the square. He thought it quite possible, suggesting a non-prescription medicine I had already tried and found insufficient. He suggested that perhaps my problems were related to barometric pressure, reminding me that the rainy season is upon us. I pretended to be intrigued by his possible diagnosis, complimenting him on his knowledge.
“And you will be getting your scheduled bonus this month plus a little extra,” he informed me as I rose to leave, still sniffling and congested. “The Department is very happy with your performance.”
I thanked him again and returned home, where I devoured an entire chicken for lunch. I stopped sneezing as I ate it.
* * *
The last woman I separated from her head, to tell you the truth, was the first time in decades I felt anything more than my usual vocational feelings of get-the-job-done. Not guilt or regret, just something more than I should have felt. She was an older woman, seventy-three I was told later (though she looked much younger, and familiar to me in some way), the oldest person I have ever chopped. She had been condemned for murdering her boss, the man for whom she served as a maid. He had been assaulting her, she said, had confiscated her passport so she could not return home to the islands. That she was lying, or at least not justified in the killing, I do believe, but it was something about the way she knelt before me. She may have been tranquilized, but she was proud, happy, ready to be separated from her head, from this life. There have been crazy people whose heads I’ve chopped who had practically danced their way to their beheadings, but this woman was not crazy. As the dust in the square aggravated my allergies, I leaned down to her after my practice stroke, and for whatever reason I said an extra few words to her, and I like to think they were merely channeled through me by the Instigator.
“Do not move and there will be no pain. May mercy beyond be with you.” Here I took the briefest pause as the Instigator filled me, then I uttered those additional words. “Often in this life mercy is lacking.”
But don’t think that I believed this, because I didn’t. Or that I owed her anything more, or that this life did, but I believed with all my soul that she deserved to hear it. She was an old woman, I could indulge her in those final moments. When I said it, however, she defiantly mumbled something in her native language and then spit on my feet. This is what I got for my kindness, I should have been offended beyond repair. And yet, when I chopped her head, as it slid off my blade and into the bin, it was the first time that I leaped back from the squirting blood since my father had laughed at me during my maiden chopping. I did not want this woman’s blood on me. I do not know why.
Or perhaps I do know why. As I picture her now, I think it was because of her face. It reminded me of a film actress from the sixties and seventies, I do not remember her name, it has been so many years, but she made several circus dramas, always playing the trapeze beauty in distress, and I watched them on TV whenever I could as a child. My mother forbid it, but my father liked to watch them with me, so I could often sneak them in. I fell in love with that actress, and I should have remembered her name. Suddenly it strikes me that, perhaps, the condemned woman had been the actress, that she had lost her looks, had gotten too old for films, and she had been reduced to servitude. I wish I could say, of course, that this is impossible, that it could never have been her, that I would have no way of knowing what the actress looked like as an old woman. But something in me refuses to drop the silly thought.
I am just sentimental like that, it is a weakness. But her face was so dear to me when I was a child.
Nadia Teroov, is that her name? Was it? Maybe, it sounds right, but I’ll never know without looking it up, and I hate looking things up. I should give my older son the assignment, he’s so fast on the computer searching, if I can get him away from his rap music crowd, that is, and those stupid fashion magazines he devours. Nadia Teroov. I keep saying the name in my head. Teroof maybe? Teroon? Is that it? I’ll never remember. Every night for the last week, however, I have dreamed of that old woman’s chopped head. In the dreams she is not laughing as so many of the others are, nor is she crying, she doesn’t say anything, she is just there, looking at me with eyes that still belong on a body. They are angry, but forgiving at the same time. But why would I need forgiveness? I have only carried out the Law, as dictated by powers far more wise than me. My father always told me I would have difficult feelings about my job from time to time. “Everyone gets these feelings,” he reassured me, “no matter what they do, whether they carry out the stern punishments of the Law or deliver packages for a pencil company. Do not make more of it than that.” These were his most valuable words to me. Do not make more of it. “When we make more of things, disorder arises. You will dream of your heads, that is enough.” Yes, even this was passed on to me – my father dreamed of his heads, too. I do not know whether his heads laughed like mine did, much less regularly. I wish I would have asked him before he died.
* * *
This nose of mine and my sinuses, I have no doubt, these are going to be the death of my head. Though I don’t keep track of it, I would not be surprised if I spent ten percent of my pay on facial tissues. And this, of course, is a luxury only possible because of my special position in the Department. I hope, dear children, that you do not inherit this allergic trait from me. It is the last thing in the world I would want to pass on to you. Pills have not helped it. Nor would they help you. It is unique to my body. And may it remain secluded there.
Still, I suppose this means I am getting old and soft, too much for the job anyway. It is probably a good thing my son is almost ready to assume my post. It will be a beautiful day when I can give him the axe for good, perhaps as my father and I did, with a double chopping. How nice that would be. But nice isn’t the right word. Satisfying. Fitting. These are better.
Having spoken here with you, I do not think I will do the interview. I know I won’t. I have said enough into my wife’s recording machine. My wife will type it into the computer later this evening, and she will make my words read much better than they sound here, flying wildly from my lips. My children can read this someday, when I am long dead, and they can know I did it freely, of my own will, without a journalist trying to put words into my mouth or ask questions with tricky answers.
* * *
I need another box of tissues, my eyes are red and watery now, in addition to my nasal congestion. I must have brought home dust from the square on my shoes. It is very light and floats in the air as soon as you kick up a little in the house. And with the crowds who come to watch me chop heads, there are sometimes a thousand feet kicking up this special dust. It must be this, it can be nothing else. So…it is time to retire.
May the Department of Superior Justice and our loving Instigator bless my insignificant soul. I am done. Now we must eat. My wife makes the best lamb you could ever taste. I must remember to have her pass down the recipe to my nieces, as we have no daughters. My son who will take over for me, he does not like to cook. In fact, he is on a radical vegetarian regimen where the only foods he eats are raw. I think it will serve him well in his new career. Raw is a word that very much describes the territory. It might be the most suitable word there is. A freshly sharpened blade slashing through living flesh, there are few things more raw than that, and you can certainly trust my opinion, it is the only matter in which I am an expert. Though my wife also says I know a lot about backgammon. But I am just a hobbyist.