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Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of suicide or self harm.

We had tea at two o’clock at the inn down the road from the courthouse as we awaited for the verdict. Two of the lawyers on the case, one for and one against the defendant, were with us. They spoke cordially with each other, and of the defendant they spoke with the same detached disdain. I was at the courthouse doing a confession for one set to hang the following day and there I met with Nzia. We decided to pop in for tea and there the two lawyers came in. They took off their wigs and had beer.

‘You mean to say,’ Nzia asked, ‘that the man had no remorse at all?’

‘Whether he had or had not, I don’t know,’ I said, ‘From what I could see he was dumb as to that. Yet he spoke of everything else. He rambled about his mother and some man on the beach. He refused to confess, he said nothing as to his own sin or guilt.’

‘Was he scared? Did he shiver as he spoke?’ Nzia asked. He had a gleam in his eye which unsettled me greatly.

‘Wouldn’t we all be scared? I’m sure he was. But no, he did not shiver.’

‘He wasn’t scared. Some are never scared. I’ve seen them. They stare at you in court, and then when they get their sentence, they don’t say anything. When they swing they don’t make a sound, not even a twitch after they’re gone; as though there was nothing there to begin with.’

The two lawyers listened to us as we spoke. One had a very hard demeanor about him. His name was Gregory (after the pope he said). For him court was very grim business. In his scowl and unwavering hand he defended even the worst of them, and when asked he said that they all were entitled to representation. The man he was defending on that day was one of the silent ones, but he did not hide the fact that he was scared. Gregory felt bad for him, but nonetheless he was guilty. Dura lex.

Nzia wanted to speak more about the man to be hanged, but it was not pleasant, and so the talk turned to music. An opera would be performed soon. The composer, a sickly looking man with wild hair and shallow eyes was seen stumbling out of a pub and into a carriage held up by the stage manager. It was going to be a good show they said. He had all the markings - which is to say an eccentricity of being that would have made it impossible for him to be in any other profession - of a truly great musician. A man in the grand style.

At half past, a messenger burst through the door of the parlor. Panting, he handed a paper to Gregory and rushed back without a word. Hush fell in the room as Gregory shot to his feet and made for the door.

‘What is it?’ Nzia called. He had left his wig behind.

‘The man - the fool. He’s taken his own hand,’ cried Gregory.

‘His hand?’

‘Here, I must return. I will pay my bill this evening,’ he said. He dashed out the door and made up the street hurriedly with us close behind.

Defendant maimed. By self. Come urgently, the letter read.

We hurried up into the courthouse and up a flight of rickety steps to the room where a crowd was gathered. The room had a high ceiling and from the walls hung severe and solemn portraits of judges past. At the front was the judge’s desk, raised and looking down at all the room, none hidden from his eye. Pushing through the crowd we found that the defendant was on the floor, being held down by two guards as a nurse tried her best to stop the blood. On the judge’s desk a rag lay over something leaking.

The defendant in question lay on his back. He was not at all as I had thought him to be when they told me of him. There he lay, struggling not out of pain, but a determination in his set teeth, his wide eyes, his flaring nostrils and demented expression. His eyes settled on my frock, and he fought against the guards all the more.

‘What happened?’ Gregory cried.

‘He had a knife handed to him,’ said a guard.

‘A knife? By whom?’

‘He will not say.’

‘Did you not see him? Who was watching him?’

‘I was sir. I didn’t see anyone touch the man. He just sat with his head in his hands, then there was a knife and he was cutting.’

Then the madman began to rave and only after he had said it four or five times did I hear what he said.

‘My eye, my eye. It was my hand and my eye. The left hand and the right eye. It must be put out.’

The loss of blood made him weak, and as his head lay back on the floor, lolling this way and that, the nurse tied cloth around the arm. He was carried out of the room and the crowd dispersed. Gregory remained, pacing about the pool seeping into the wood and watching the hand on the table. The courthouse was buzzing for a little while, but soon the people found something else to hold their attention, and one by one they went away to the market or the pubs or their homes.

‘You said his hand,’ I said. ‘When you left the inn you said “He’s taken his own hand”. How had you known?’

‘Hmm?’ Gregory asked. He stared at the hand, then the blood, and the hand again. The nurse returned and took it away.

I repeated myself.

‘He said it. He said he would take his hand.’

‘And the eye?’

‘He said nothing about his eye.’

We sat outside the courtroom. Gregory was in shock and deep contemplation. Few words were spoken and in the evening two ladies came by and mopped the floor and scrubbed the boards. Gregory watched them as they worked. He left only as they did, walking quietly with his furrowed brow quivering as he went. He made his way to his home and I to the rectory.

A few days past, I received word from Gregory that he would call on the defendant. He was housed at St. Francis’ hospital and there he had tried to put out his eye. He was restrained and a nurse had been injured. Gregory asked if I would accompany him and speak to the man. They said he was in a very bad way.

We were led to a room with nothing but a bed on which the man was restrained. He was unshaven and ate very little. The clothes they got him sagged around him. His left arm was now in a leather sling which was tied around his neck. His eyes had that same deep blackness they had had in the courtroom and he did not speak. His wasting away was clear in the way he turned his head, as though the movement took more than muscle, but mind and soul and being, and when he settled on me he sagged into the mattress.

The room was kept clean and was well lighted. From the window we could see the apple trees growing in the lawn where nurses and patients sat and a little further, the cemetery where the nameless were buried. The wooden crosses were in neat rows packed close together, scarcely leaving any room for more.

‘Good day,’ I said. ‘Your lawyer thought it might do you well to speak with me. Why were you in court that day?’

‘He is a robber,’ Gregory said. ‘He robbed a carriage where a woman was injured.’ He watched the man as he spoke, and his eyes hardened at the mention of the woman, as the man turned his face away.

‘What was his sentence?’ I asked.

‘Hanging.’

‘For one robbery?’

‘For a dozen. And four injured. One gravely. He worked on the road heading East out of the town, and all the way up that country,’ Gregory said.

‘How was he caught?’

‘He was not. He appeared at the courthouse, stated his crimes then demanded a trial. But at the trial, he claimed innocence.’

‘What is your name?’ I asked the man. He turned from me and said nothing. Gregory showed as much interest as I concerning the man’s name. He paced around the bed.

‘He won’t say,’ he said. ‘Only that he is innocent of his crimes.’

‘How was he tried without a name?’

‘A number.’

I turned to the man.

‘Why did you steal?’

No reply.

‘Were you hungry?’

No reply.

‘Have you no fear for your soul?’

His jaw became taut.

‘And why hurt those people?’

To this he turned to me. At once he was animated and struggling, trying to reach for his eye again. The restraints held him in place, yet Gregory held him down. It was not at all necessary, he knew, but he held him still. When the man became pliant, Gregory released him and turned to me. He was a man aching with uncertainty. The way the man was tied down, the way he was weak and broken… He steeled himself and turned to the man. They locked eyes for a long time, then finally the man spoke, a rough, croaking sound,

‘I never meant harm,’ he said. He spoke with a pained earnest.

‘They were harmed regardless,’ Gregory spat.

‘Why did you rob them?’ I asked.

‘My hand,’ the man said, looking down at it, as though seeing it for the first time.

‘Your hand is gone. You did that,’ I said.

‘My hand,’ he said again.

‘You robbed because of your hand? What of the nurse you injured here?’

‘My hand, and my eye. Please,’ he said, panicked, ‘Please, you must put out my eye.’

He begged. He whimpered. Gregory banged his cane against the floor and walked out, his composure gone.

‘Madman,’ he cried as he went down the hall.

Now, alone, the pleas became desperate. If only the eye could be put out, he said. Please, my eye, he said.

‘Why did you mutilate yourself?’ I asked.

‘My hand - my eye, please.’

‘Tell me why.’

‘I am not a guilty man. I was pleading my innocence. Please, my eye.’

‘You did not rob them?’

‘My hand, my eye. I am a good man. A good man.’

It was not madness that drove the man. Conviction poured from his lips as he pleaded innocence. He begged and bargained. For a moment, I considered his innocence, so moved was I by his pleas.

‘You killed someone.’

‘My - argh. Help me,’ he cried. He writhed and pulled against his restraints.

‘Why did you rob and hurt others? What of your soul?’

‘I am a good man! I did not want to hurt anyone. It was this hand, and this eye. Please, put it out. Then I will be innocent. I will be made innocent. Please. Please.’

He lay defeated on the bed and turned away from me. He shook with anguish. His forehead was clammy and the small raising and falling of his breast showed the bone underneath. He was sobbing.

‘If your hand causes you to sin - I am an innocent man.’

‘You know you are to hang?’ I asked.

He was silent.

‘Do you wish to confess?’ I asked.

He was silent for a long time. The heaving of his breast slowed and ceased, and he turned to me,

‘Forgive me Father,’ he said, ‘for I have sinned. It has been two years since my last confession.’

‘What are your sins?’

‘I have lied. I have been a jealous man, a covetous man. I - stole, and hurt. But I- I am good of heart. I want to be better. I have tried to be better, but-’

He turned to me.

‘I have ill used the love of others, as they have mine. I have taken the Lord’s name in vain, and with it I have done my evil deeds. I- I am a sinner.’

‘We are all sinners,’ I said. ‘It is in striving for our Lord’s favor, and in the helping of our fellow that we may be lifted from this state of sin. There is forgiveness for all those who repent. Do you repent?’

‘I repent.’

‘Do you seek always to work in service of our Lord?’

‘I do.’

‘Do you wish to say the act of contrition? Do you remember the words?’

‘I do, Father. O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you…’

After he finished I sat with him. He spoke no more of robbing, or his eye. He said nothing at all. 

‘Have you been ill treated?’ I asked.

‘No more than I deserve.’

‘You wish to repent. You deserve understanding and the Lord’s guidance.’

‘Why Father? I have sinned. I have sinned and repented and sinned again. There is no forgiveness for me.’

‘To sin is to be human. To repent is to be good. You will sin again. Of that have no doubt, but if you set your eyes and feet to heaven, then you may yet be redeemed.’

‘And what of those I have hurt?’ he asked.

‘The Lord will find peace for all His children.’

The sun set and the redness of it washed the man. He seemed hollow in the evening light. The shadows playing on his face twisted and deformed it. A nurse came to wash out the arm, and the man lay in silence as the foul-smelling salve was applied. Still he ate nothing. I sat with him until it was dark, then I had to attend my duties. We spoke as I left, and I felt that in the man there had come the peace of confession.

Three days letter I received word from Gregory, this time to meet him at the courthouse. I found him sitting on the steps without his wig or robes.

‘Have you been to see him?’ he asked.

‘No. Has his condition improved?’

Gregory rose, brushed the dust from his trousers and with that old grimness spoke, as though reading out an official sentence,

‘The man is no more. Two nights ago, when his wounds were being washed, he put out his eye. Bleeding was his end.’

We walked up to the inn in silence where thus informed, the prosecutor joined us. He was as sullen as we, as though his main goal had not been achieved. It seemed a pedantic thing, at times a malicious one, the concern regarding how the man had gone. Sed lex.

‘It is a horrid thing, a sinful thing,’ he said.

‘It does not do well to speak ill of the dead,’ I said.

‘Is it not so? Do you defend him Father? Surely not.’

‘I do not defend nor condemn. He was to face the gallows. He was plagued, that man. What it was he would not say, but it was that, and his desperation to be free of it, that led him to that end.’

‘Is it still not a sin? Why face eternal damnation?’

‘He was damned on Earth.’

Gregory, the pope, did not speak. The news had loosened something in him.

‘Did he have a family? Did anyone claim the body?’ I asked.

‘No. No one came,’ he said.

‘May he find peace,’ said the prosecutor, with a scornful solemnity.

‘Amen.’

April 01, 2023 08:42

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