Shorts

The Hangman's Daughter

“You know what I done?"

A lantern flings shadows carelessly around the modest jailhouse. Wood planks, rough hewn. Dark bars stained bright by guilty palms.

In the next cell, a girl raises her head from the cot where she wasn’t sleeping. Her door yawns, she doesn’t, sits up.

“Killed someone,” she answers. 

“A girl,” he adds, pained, bodily. He shifts the kerchief at his neck, scowls, pulls it free, reveals raw flesh. “Not yet ten. ‘Bout your age.”

She stares, the color of her eyes impossible to tell in the dimness. Rain batters the roof, drips into deep puddles outside where someone hammers brutally.

“You drowned her dead.”

“Ought to been watchin’ her,” he croaks dryly, tests his wound, “keepin’ her safe. Just held her under.” 

A booted bailiff dozes near the window, hat tilted over his eyes.

“You hated her?”

“She was my sister,” he counters.

“You’re rotten then.”

“That one, rebuildin’ my gallows, he means to murder me. He rotten?”

“No,” she leans forward so as not to wake the bailiff. “He’s got to kill you. It won’t please him.”

“Sure about that?” He clears his throat, a constricted rasp. “Would you kill me?”

She recoils. “No.”

He shushes her, waves her closer. She starts to obey, halts, still in shadow. 

“Ever kill a fly?” he asks.

“That’s different.”

“What if it wasn’t?”

“You killed a girl like she was a fly? You’re evil.”

His voice lowers, each word at a cost. She unconsciously steps closer to hear. “It would be, if a thing felt wrong, you did it anyhow. But I had to. I was,” he hunts out the word, “compelled. You know what that means yet?” She shakes her head. “You will.” 

He draws a breath, sharp as a knife, eyes welling in agony, fixing on the bucket beside the bailiff, handle of a drinking ladle stabbing out of it. She follows his gaze, doesn’t hesitate, pads her bare feet to the pail. The steady hammering blunts the bailiff’s hearing, she fishes out the full ladle, returns to him.

She extends the water through his bars, careful not to spill. His arm shoots out, a striking serpent, seizes her neck. In that last moment he first sees her eyes.

He doesn’t hear the ladle drop, doesn’t apologize, doesn’t feel the last of his strength leave him as his throat swells shut.

The ruckus of a body crashing to the floor startles the sleeping bailiff to his feet. He kicks over the bucket. The ladle skitters out. Hinges scream as a sheriff bursts in from the porch, madly clutching his rifle. Hammering invades the jailhouse. They rush to the cell.

There sprawls their prisoner, blue at the lips, still as a stone on a dry floor, alone. The sheriff grunts at the bailiff, looks out toward the gallows.

“Best tell him to come in from the rain and see to his son. First hangin’ finally took.”