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Photo by Jesse Ryan


The Life of the Gallows

Winner of [he Leo L1I:wak Award for u»; ScoB: LambriJis

he jester pranced onstege, the seamstress sewed the dresses, the children danced in the dirt, the musicians played the songs, the beggars begged for alms, the executioner kicked the stools, the gravedigger dug the graves, and the gallows bird rose with thesnap and landed again.

They argued, the jester's son and daughter, their arms in the air and their mouths wide, until she gave in and walked with him to the gallows and helped reclaim their father's costume from his hanging body, a mountain of torn fabric covered in rotting fruit matter, infested with maggots, and stained by excrement and dried saliva. Dogs, she said, indicating the fabric's leg that had been torn away. A crow watched from the top of the pole as they walked the costume home. She helped him clean off the smell, trying not to vomit but often failing, washing their father away until the costume was clean arid snug, and the jester's son became the jester.

He collected coins in a bucket performing in the street.

She sewed dresses for other poor folk, and they ate little. She had a cough and stayed in bed the day the castle announced

a competition for the next court jester, so he went alone. At the entrance, he saw a never-ending sea of entertainers, poets, musicians, clowns, jugglers, and magicians in countless colors

31- The Life of lhe Gallows

lined up along the grassy hill, waiting to enter the castle gate. They held each other's shoulders, swinging mugs of beer and singing songs. The sun dimmed, the moon snarled, and the castle wall towered. Everyone's skin turned gray, and the camaraderie splintered. Musicians pushed acrobats, poets kicked and bit the magicians, and jugglers thre~ everything they could find. The gate opened as he approachedand he walked through candle-

lit corridors into a small, dark room. Egged on by shadows and whispers, he danced and sang for the phantom king hidden in a lightless corner of the room. I do not have one job for you, the king said, but two.

The jester's home of mildewed wood and dusty cobwebs on decaying rafters was no home from which to turn down work. She was worried, and told him so between coughs. He assured her that he could be their entertainer and their executioner both. He could play the hero, as he slid a giant finger up the royal nose. She shouldn't complain. She had so much fabric and so little food. She buried her head in the same bucket with which

he helped her wash, and he petted her head and told her to rest. When she felt better, customers would come again. He'd use the payment from tomorrow's first performance for some medicine.

It took him eight strides to move the twenty-three planks from the back of the platform, wh-ere the pole stood straight and tall as a perch for the crow, to the edge of the small crowd gathered in the dirt. He counted them before the previous executioner was brought out, stripped, and tied up with a noose, his life supported by a little wooden stool.

He held up a white sign with black writing and walked sixteen strides back and forth along the edge of the platform, and then propped it up near the pole: The life of the gallows. The crow on the pole flapped its wings and lifted off, then landed

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again. His crimson one-piece billowed and slapped in the wind, and the bells on his two-pronged hat jingled. He flipped the sign. In white on black it said: The end of tomorrows.

He kept his eyes away from the fat and naked body in the noose. He recited rhymes and danced with invisible skeletons that rattled in the quarries of his mind. Stones and fruit landed onstage, along with the trill of cheers. He kicked the stool but

it didn't budge, so he kicked again with all his force and it gave way. It wasn't quick, like his father's was, like they all used to be with an open trap and a long drop and a snapped neck. Trade a trap for a stool and the short drop takes its time, swelling

the head and neck a pale blue, popping purple spots across the face and eyes. What did the head think, he wondered, when it couldn't feel its body? Had his father thought of himself, his dead wife, his daughter, or his son? That last thought could've held only one. The gallows bird flapped its wings and squawked, then landed again. He left the stage inflated by the sound of



He brought her fresh foods from the market, and yards and yards of white fabric found tangled in a willow tree. He peeled the shells off boiled eggs for her while fresh herbs steeped on the fire. She made the base of a mask from the fabric and

coated it with willow leaves, gluing the layers together with papier-mache made from the bark's resin, then formed it into a bird head with dead twigs. As she studded the eye slits with dry buds, he assured her of the justice he was helping uphold: they were all criminals and criminals needed to go. He fed her and cleaned her handkerchief. She fell asleep with her head sweating on the table. Against the black-leaved feathers of the crow mask, she looked white. But then she'd always been pale.

33- Ute Life of the GJlows

The beggars drank moonshine and pined for hidden girls, the seamstress sat in bed, the children danced in the dirt, the musicians played the songs, the jester pranced onstage and kicked the stools, the gallows bird rose with the snap and landed again, and the gravedigger dug the graves.

Attendance at the gallows was up, higher than it had been in years, and he was sure the king was pleased. The nameless beggar was stripped and hitched to the post, his body as white as his face, his extremities were black with layers of

, dirt, like an i~verted eclipse. The jester showed his signs, then revealed his new mask and covered the man's face with the likeness of the black gallows bird so he wouldn't have to see it. But the smell made him sick and he turned - watched the crowd members sway, their forms ghosting into each other - and then spoke the man's story.

The beggar took his day's profit, a bottle of moonshine, to the hog farm that housed the pretty girl with the purple birthmark who had watched the j ester as a child. He'd huddled

in the bushes and imagined he could see through the brick and through the sheets and through her nightgown. The hogs shuffled around him, smelling him, getting braver. The bottle was nearly empty when the largest of the hogs, the word FAMILY painted in big orange letters on its hide, stuck its nose in the beggar's face. So he cracked the bottle over the hog's head. Its dying scream woke the girl's father, who had convinced the bailiff to arrest the

beggar for manslaughter.


The jester sang of a bird in the underworld scavenging for loose eyes and lifting up the dusty skirts of female skeletons. The audience laughed and cheered and he kicked the stool

and looked away, hoping the crowd would be happy enough

watching the mask fall, rather than the face. The crowd cheered louder than ever as the face convulsed beneath the mask, and the gallows bird hopped and flapped and landed on his pole again. They congratulated him with pats on his back-"the best one yet"-as he dumped the bucket and rag of piss and vomit that he saved from the spaces between the planks. Long ago, the beggar had followed his sister and she had come home crying. She was so pale; a little violent violet would do her good, the man had said, smirking, as she lay bruised and healing at home and her mother lay quiet after a heart attack. The jester removed the crow's mask to see if the face below was still smirking.

He took his payment to the herbalist, an old and crippled man as bitter as his medicines, and then to a butcher for a shank of smoked pork that hung by a sharp and heavy hook from the rotting rafter above their shared bed. He served her slices of pork coated in powders that promised to clear her chest and thin her blood. He boiled her teas that promised to soothe her aches and calm her stomach, while she asked if the gallows made him


sick. Its okay, he said, the man was a vagrant with idle hands

and vagrants with idle hands needed to go. He held the base

of the new mask she was sewing, eyeing it from side to side before smiling and placing it on the bed. He revealed a dozen pig teeth stolen from the butcher, and hacked off dried chunks of skin from the shank, and dropped them all beside the mask. Her freckles popped like falling stars as she stitched and glued and drank her tea. When the finished mask fell from her hands, he knew she was asleep again. Perfect, he said, one for me and one for them. One play with two players.

The musicians danced naked, the seamstress sat in bed, the children danced in the dirt, the jester pranced onstage and

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kicked the stools and drank moonshine, the gallows bird rose with the snap and landed again, and the gravedigger dug the graves.

The king imported criminals to fill demand, while the gravedigger was hung for taking his mother's corpse home with him. We have no more holes in the graveyard, he complained as tourists and performers came from neighboring towns to see the jester in his porcine mask: transformed into the fat king, awaiting his victims in the underworld with his underworld crow. He lunged along the planks, poking his pig-face at the crowd, letting them cheer as a voluptuous redhead was roped to the pole. He slipped the crow mask over her scrunched face without taking his eyes off the crowd. His clogs clomped between his famous signs as he told her story.

She was a leech like the rest of them, sucking on the

fair town's crowds and diluting its culture with her songs and

her dances and tempting men with her shameless sin. She took a smaller stage in a seedy alley and sang of the stars and the moon and lifted her instrument to the sky, egged on by the hooting

of drunken married men. Her flimsy white dress lifted with it, fluttering and dangling and revealing swirls of red and white body paint as she twirled and grinned and pretended to blush until there was no dress and only air and colored skin and cheers and the gnarled and pointing finger of a married woman pointing at her bare bottom, followed by the words indecent, and whore that echoed with the last strains of Her song.

Unwashed body paint dripped down the girl's skin on a stream of sweat, leaving streaks of red and white that ran from under the bird mask, down her neck, around her majestic breasts, and past wide hips where the stream split into tributaries that

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tracked inside and out of her thick legs. His heart beat like it did as a child whenever his sister let him lay his head on her chest, before he knew those thoughts were wrong, back when the older children laughed at all the things he didn't yet know: that the leakage of the dangling corpses drips down and seeds the earth and makes the mandrakes grow; that the crows pick the bodies clean and then flap against the stable walls, driven crazy by the gallons of blood leaked by the mares each month. He tried to laugh with them, not knowing half of what they talked about until one day, his head on his sister's chest, she told him the difference between boys and girls and he'd continued the lesson by himself that night. He watched the red paint stream between the cracks in the planks and then he kicked the stool and her fat chest shook. The gallows bird stretched its wings twice, then settled down. The audience cheered and he counted them like the gallows bird might count worms.

He bought two rabbits and a bottle of perfume on his way home. He hired a carpenter to build a fence around


their home, and every week he affixed more talismans to the

wood and wire of its gate: shards of twigs and detritus packed together and stitched with twine as puppet-sized effigies of birds, bats, angels, and insects, all of which shared the ability to fly themselves and anything they carried far away and even to the archways of the afterlife. The roof creaked as he entered and steam rose around her from her bucket. She lifted her head out and mumbled something through the crust around her mouth

and eyelids. He helped her back into bed, moving a half-finished green mask with bone white buttons. This one will be of me, she said, for a baker's dozen. She asked him ifhe'd ever be, just a jester again. He assured her of the justice of his work. Its okay,

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he said, decency must be upheld. Besides, he said, you'll be better soon and able to work again too. But for now, he'd hire a specialist. She dabbed her eyes with a piece of black silk before cutting it into the shape of a heart, stuffing it with cotton, and fixing it to the side of the mask. He listened to the slow squeak of the scissors as she cut a second dark heart and sewed it to the other side. He covered her hand with his own, tracing the veins, ligaments, and bones, unable to discern how there were still muscles holding them together. Hiding a bottle of moonshine, he carried her bucket outside, cleaned it and disinfected it with urine. The pale yellow bubbles looked up, wicked and waiting, then popped.

The children danced in the dirt as the jester sewed his mask and drank the moonshine and pranced onstage and kicked the stools and dug the graves and rose until the snap landed him again, in time with the flaps of the gallows bird.

Double and triple bookings were exhausting him, the town, and the neighboring towns. With all the jails, asylums, and brothels empty, all the streets cleaned, and all th~ other stages taken down, the hospitals and homes were invaded. The jester watched the sea of onlookers cheering and swaying, wondering how there were so many left as seven nooses were affixed to seven naked bodies behind him, already masked by the handlers. He waited for the crowd to quiet and then introduced his fellow players: five gray and sagging sacks with burlap clown masks, one child with a bent spine and no voice beneath a featureless black bag, and one sister flush and fevered and coughing beneath an angel white mask. He wasn't home when they had come for her, and didn't even see her before she was masked, but neither

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absence offered him any comfort. He presented a new green mask with black hearts: the effigy of a peasant girl with a terrible grimace and dangling rags he'd sewn on himself. He pulled it over his face, covering his pig mask with the second and smelled its soap and sickness. The curly gray hair of one of the older bodies bobbed as she squirmed and groaned, and he told its tale.

She was the mother of the man who was put to death three weeks ago, who was the brother of the woman put to death five weeks ago, who was the fiancee of the man put to death eight weeks ago, who was the daughter of the father put to death twelve weeks ago who was the brother of the girl who was put

to death eighteen weeks ago for stealing a yardstick of white

silk, and throwing it into the twisting branches of a willow tree. She worked her tongue around the gag and tried to speak as vomit poured from the mask, its dark dribbling sliding down and mixing with evaporating urine. He tried notto look, not to see his sister beside her in the line. He was sure that even covered, her imploring face would prevent him from doing his job. But it didn't matter. She was everywhere: in the scents, in the bucket, in the fabrics, and even over his own face. He removed the peasant mask and covered her with it. Her second mask trembled against the first. No introductions needed anyway, he thought, and set to work.

He did a magician's reveal and showed the audience

a long thin pole, hooked a mask onto the top, and balanced it. He did the same with another, then another, until he held seven poles in the air, between his fingers, under his armpits, in the pit of his elbows, and behind his neck. With his troupe complete, his porcine king at the front, he sung about the dancing dead and the seven skeletal dancers jiggled as he shook and wobbled, everything in rhythm, wooden bones rattling in time as the

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crowd's cheers beat his back. He planted the poled masks around the stools. He pantomimed his descent into the underworld where life's representatives greeted him: pope, monk, boy, girl, and a beast from each kingdom. It wasn't a new story, none of the best are, but his retelling drove the audience crazy.

He slipped in and around his masquerade. His hands implored each mask. Loss, fear, despair, the audience read it all and gasped and clapped on cue. The ensemble of masks became a second audience, leering and glaring and wanting more, wanting whatever he had, but they were just fluids in the end, transferred/rom plank to rag to bucket. He bent down in front of skeletal 'Death teetering on the lowest stick and feigned his character's fear, shuddering and sobbing so deeply the audience became silent, then gasped as he stood and lifted his bucket. The crow flapped its wings and flew in a tight circle above the pole before landing again. He sung a lament of a brother cleansing the body of his dead sister for passage into the underworld. He soaked his rag, reached up, and squeezed it over his sister's head, his hands shaking as he washed her sweat away. Blood from her nose flecked the boards at his feet, chased by the water into the wood, the dirt, the roots, and into the hot core of the dead, dead earth. He mumbled assurances to her of the mercy of his position. I'll make it quick, he said, quicker than sickness. He kicked her stool harder than any before, hoping she'd fall quicker, heavier, but she fell with the usual tug.

The stage creaked and its planks croaked with hunger.

The force of his kick shocked the audience into silence, and

the few intermittent claps sounded like rope snapping over and over again. He watched his crowd of a thousand crows ruffle its feathers, stepping on each other with stalk legs and struggling to

see who deserved such a kick. In the dead air, murmurs floated onstage containing the word sister, followed by questions and affirmations. She convulsed and her masks fell with a clunk onto the platform. The crowd's voices condensed until one of them yelled monster and they started moving towards the stage.

Two girls jogged up the side stairs, followed by an older woman as a man in the crowd waved his arms and yelled. Cheers rose around him, pushing him, and the mass of them climbed

the stage. People pushed and pulled each other, yanking masks off the noosed and putting them on. They danced around the stage, weaving between the noosed. A group of kids followed them, then another. The jester stepped back onto the ninth plank. Someone grabbed his bucket and began beating it like a drum. ) Someone grabbed the crow mask from its pole. A couple of girls pulled skeleton masks off a boy's face and put them on. As the stage filled, the jester backed up to the thirteenth plank. A young woman cut his sister's rope with a knife and she fell on the floor, coughing and gasping and the jester fell back to the twenty-third


plank. A little boy ran up and grabbed her naked chest and she

screamed and the gallows bird flew into the air. The jester yelled and threw his mask at the boy. It knocked him in the head and tumbled between a pair of teenagers who scrambled and fought each other over it, one of them picking up his flute and swinging it like a bat. A few small girls kicked the step stools, but couldn't knock them over.

The jester reached out, but a hand grabbed his ankle and pulled him down. His hat ripped from his head, loosing a river of sweat that stung his eyes. Frantic, furious hands gripped his shoulders and lifted him, tearing his costume's seams. A boy danced between legs, wheezing through the wooden holes of the flute with the jester's oversized hat on his head. One noose was

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removed while another was fitted, and the jester closed his eyes. The seven stools fell in a rhythmic dirge and the boy in the twopronged hat recounted the tale as the gallows bird stretched its wings and landed back on the pole.


Dialle G ],azeman