August 20, 2009
Jonas sat at the dinner table with his mouth watering. This would be the first scrap of food he had consumed since sunrise.
“You get the big one because you’ve got a big day tomorrow,” his mother said as she spooned a large boiled potato onto his plate. “All done with you’re apprenticeship. We’re so proud!”
“Now Mary, don’t get the boy too excited,” Jonas’ father reproached. “You know how he get’s when he’s nervous.” He began to chop at his potato haphazardly, his hands shaking in mock nervousness. Jonas’ face reddened with embarrassment. Nineteen years of age was late for a man to become involved in a trade, but the profession he had chosen required a bit more physical strength and mental fortitude than others.
“Tomas! Stop that!” Jonas’ mum laughed. “You of all people should be brimming with pride. After all tomorrow will be our son’s first officially sanctioned execution. He’ll be following in your footsteps after all. And take your mask off at the dinner table! You’re not at the gallows any longer.”
Jonas’ father pulled his black hood off of his head and tossed it gently in the corner. “Sorry dear.” He mumbled something else then went back to his potato, cutting it in half and yanking it apart. The starchy contents splattered into his bowl with a wet thud.
“Now that’d be a terrible way to go eh?” Jonas’ father asked. “Have your guts spilled out? All in front of everyone like that. No sir. A good old beheading is the only civilized way to dole out punishment. Quick and painless for all involved.”
Jonas winced and tried to divert the conversation to something a little bit more refined.
“Have you heard about the stained glass murals at the Kingsbridge Cathedral?” Jonas was always interested in the Holy buildings of the earldoms that surrounded his city. They were to him an explicit manifestation of God’s justice, cold and rigid, but beautiful nonetheless. “Supposedly the walls look more of glass than of stone. I believe they used some type of technique that the Normans invented. You see, they take shards of colored glass and heat them to the point where…”
Tomas stopped slurping the potato broth from the dregs of the bowl. “Now don’t get started with all that artisan nonsense again. Your hands were meant to wield an ax. You know executing is in our bloodline. My father was a executioner and his father was an executioner. It is our place in this world. Some people cannot live by the rules of the Church or the King and when their infractions are great enough to warrant death, we are the ones who must give it to them.”
“Yes Father.” Jonas took a bite of his salty potato. His giant hands gripped the fork tightly. He was barely a man, yet he had his father’s frame: immense and packed with muscle. He required lots of food to feed the bulk. He would be an intimidating sight tomorrow even if he wasn’t confident in his own mind.
“May I have some butter, Mum?”
That night brought a fitful sleep for Jonas. His bed was hot and no matter which way he contorted his body, it still felt uncomfortable. Tomorrow would be the second time he would take a life in his new profession, the start of a long and prosperous career in the murder business. It would be a graduation ceremony of sorts. No barrels of spiced cordial would be opened though; no flower arrangements. It would be an event only in his mind, the end of one journey and the beginning of another longer one.
He thought he had always wanted to get into the family business. His mother had taken him to see several of his father’s performances over the years. It had always amazed him how his father could make the people that gathered for those grim events do anything he pleased. If he wanted them to become silent he would fold his arms and remain motionless, his eyes steady through his black hood. If he wanted to whip them into a frenzy he would perform lavish movements with his ax, twirling it and spinning. The sound of the metal edge of the ax hitting a chopping block as it passed through a sinner’s neck was like a church bell sending waves of joy through the mass of witnesses.
But in recent months Jonas had begun to doubt the morality of these onlookers. Throughout with teenage years he had gained a clearer understanding of the information he was presented from Bible lessons. He wavered in his belief that the executioner was carrying out God’s will. Could death be a deterrent for those would be sinners? He thought so at first. But even as fresh heads rolled off of the stage he would glance around and see townspeople stealing bread, drunken workers making passes at frightened women, and worst of all, he saw a twisted joy in the crowd’s eyes as the criminals soul left the Earth for Judgment.
He was asleep, but his dreams made him even more conflicted about his big day tomorrow. His victim would be Jack “Silver-Tongue” Bakerson. He was known throughout the Wessex as the most deceitful and cunning thief the land had ever known. He had swindled hundreds of small churches and abbeys all over Kent, Sussex, and Dumnonia. He would promise to deliver bread, collect the money from the monks, and disappear. Bakerson was able to evade capture many times by talking his way out of the situation, thus the Silver-Tongue. There’s no doubt he deserved punishment, but perhaps the gentle Men-of-God calling for his death were being a tad hypocritical.
Jonas’ dreams were invaded by the foggy memory of his first “practice execution.” He and the other apprentices had practiced their ax strokes on a group of Scottish barbarians that had been captured for pirating commercial ships on the Irish Sea. Since his father was the Master Executioner, and thus the instructor of the class, he made Jonas go first.
“Go ahead my boy,” he said motioning to the head of the restrained Scottsman. The prisoner looked as though he had mouthed off to his captors one too many times. Specks of dirt freckled his mangy black hair and his face was swollen and bruised.
“Lop it off. Remember: your right hand should be near the blade head throughout your entire upstroke. When you begin the down stroke, your right hand should slide down to meet the left. This will give you a smooth and accurate kill. It’s just like chopping a piece of wood.”
“Yes, Father.” This wood has a face though, Jonas remembered thinking. And probably a father somewhere.
He paused momentarily letting the weight of the ax-head rest on the platform. His fellow interns shuffled in anticipation. Jonas picked up his instrument.
“Go on. Don’t be nervous. Swing hard, my boy!”
He raised the blade over his head, his giant arms flexing. This is what he wanted after all, wasn’t it? The glory of the kill. God’s will be done. He closed his eyes as he brought the ax down.
But the dull clack of the sharp edge on the chopping block was followed by a horrendous scream. Jonas shut his eyes tight, not wanting to see how badly he had faltered. It had begun to rain. The warm drops fell on his face. Maybe that is what caused the stroke to presumably slip. He looked out and realized that his blow had fell far short of the middle of the man’s neck. It had instead clipped the side artery, which caused blood to spurt high into the air. He wiped the red fluid from his face.
He hacked again with his eyes closed, not wanting to look at the Scotsman in pain. He could see some of his classmates turning away from the scene. They were stone-faced when the kill was clean, but this botched execution caused them visible anguish.
His father grabbed the ax from him and finished the job quickly.
“That’s OK my boy! You won’t make the same mistake twice I’m sure. Practice makes perfect.” The Scot’s head lay in a woven catching basket. Jonas’ eyes met those of the freshly deceased savage. He felt the blood drain from his own face, as though he was sympathetic to the dead man’s condition. Jonas’ peripheral vision faded away into a yellow and purple tunnel and he collapsed.
Jonas jumped up in his bed. He felt the sticky warm liquid on his brow again. He wiped his forehead with his hand and brought it reluctantly down to his face. It was only sweat. No blood. Not for a few more hours at least.
Daybreak came sooner than he had anticipated. Jonas needed to get to the gallows as soon as possible. There was a long day of bloodshed ahead of him. He and thirteen of his fellow classmates would execute their assigned criminals. There were many to choose from, mostly traitors and war criminals. At this point, what English citizen couldn’t be considered a war criminal? When Empress Maud had gained the upper hand during the civil wars, all of King Stephen’s followers were traitors and when Stephen’s troops claimed a victory, all those in Maud’s court were guilty.
Still though, Stephen was King of England, for now at least. The Church had said so. Stephen’s punishments were as good as God’s punishments, even though Stephen’s were significantly more straightforward. It was those who defiled his reign who would be put to death today.
Jonas grabbed his own black hood from kitchen table and ran out the door to meet his father, who was assuredly at the gallows by now, sharpening the blades.
There was a crowd present at the courtyard and they were already out of control. They were the ones that made all of this necessary. It was the spilled blood that made them remember their own mortality and would perhaps frighten them into taking the righteous paths in life. Each stroke of the ax was a wag of the finger to the crowd. Tsk. Tsk. But many were so drunk on heavy beer or their own bloodlust that they often forgot the lesson.
“Jonas!” his father called out from just behind the gallows stage. He was in his formal executing attire: black hood, a metal-studded straps across his bare chest, and his ax. His Father’s ceremonial ax was a thing of beauty. It had a thick oak handle, nearly the length of sapling, with a double-edged serrated blade. Jonas’ was simpler, but still quite nice. It had a smaller handle, but the blade was oversized and rounded at top.
“The crowd is a bit rowdy today. But as long as you make a clean stroke on this criminal’s neck, we can get on with the day. Remember: quick and fast, before the crowd knows what hit them.”
“Are you ready? Put your hood on.”
Jonas shoved his head into his black hood, which made him more aware of his own breathing. His newly assumed anonymity made him feel more like a ghost than a person. The crowd roared as the Sheriff brought Jack Bakerson out of the clink and knocked him to his knees. An assistant tied the criminal’s arms to a post in front of the chopping block to keep him in place.
“You have no grounds for this!” Bakerson screamed. “I stole from the King’s monks, yes. But King Stephen grows fat on the throne, while we starve! He’s a man who’s never known hunger nor shown any mercy!”
The crowd laughed at his ramblings. Jonas looked out at Stephen’s citizens. He could see a drunken whore being groped by four men at the corner of the street. A fat monk took a gold coin from a blind man and made the sign of the cross. Filthy children pushed their way to the front laughing and calling for blood in the most vulgar of manners.
“Please don’t!” Bakerson screamed.
The King’s law was God’s law and it looked to him as though the people were not abiding by either. They needed a reminder. His will be done.
Jonas lifted his huge blade in the air and shook it. The crowd roared again. The anticipation for a bit of blood filled them like steam in a kettle.
Jonas walked over to Bakerson’s post and squared himself to make the cut. His gigantic arms raised the ax-head high in the air and the morning sun reflected back onto the crowd. It looked as though an archangel had given this tool to Jonas in order to perform this duty.
“KILL HIM!” the crowd said, as though in unison.
Jonas brought the ax down with a heavy swing. His eyes remained open this time. And still the ax missed its standard target. The blade sunk deep into the right shoulder of Bakerson. His solitary scream drowned out the thousands of people gathered to watch. They slowly quieted as the criminal writhed in agony. They were not used to hearing and sounds of human pain. With a normal execution, the head comes off and no sound is heard.
Jonas wriggled the ax free with a sickening crackle. He remembered his Father’s potato. He raised his blade again and this time swung it in an upward arc and made contact with Bakerson’s stomach. The blow nearly split the criminal in two, like a piece of wood. The entrails hit the deck with a sloppy thump. Now the terror-shrieks from Bakerson were the only sounds echoing off the courtyard walls. The crowd had gone completely silent. The men feeling at the whore had stopped to look; one fainted. The monk giving Absolution for money hid his face in his own habit, shielding his eyes. The children’s dirty toothless smiles all faded away and they stood aghast at what was happening. Perhaps they would wake up tonight covered in warm sweat.
“Jonas!” he heard his Father say. “Remember: quick and fast? Hurry up and get on with it! You’re making these people sick to their stomachs.”
Jonas again lifted his short handle and peered out into the crowd. Some people were crying for mercy. He saw at least three in the front row had already vomited from revulsion. He scanned the crowd with his arm raised. He took one hand off of his ax. He pointed at them first then made a slitting motion along his own throat. With one hand he brought the ax down on Bakerson’s neck, ending the gruesome ordeal.
The crowd did not stay for the next execution; most of them shuffled off to their respective dwellings, shaking their heads as they went.
“Well look what you’ve done,” his father admonished, as the rest of the peasants left the courtyard. “Why couldn’t you just take the bastard’s head off with one stroke like I told you?”
“I’m sorry Father. I thought this was a more civilized way of doing it.”
“Well it’s not!”