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Fiction

This story contains sensitive content

** Capital punishment.**

 

The paint was not of the most recent and neat, but the Tic-Tac-Toe’s Xs and Os staining it resembled fine embroidery. Flies found death in the old wall’s cracks and printed their last shadows on it, like stamps on a postcard nobody is pleased to receive.

The four walls surrounding him had the night sky as a roof and dark stones as a floor. Handy was not sure it was night but if it was then that night was the longest the world could expect. Thirty years. Thirty years in the dim light of something that looked like a distant lit candle steadily blinking at him. The flies were buried on the wall they crashed into and the candle was all for him, who was buried too but not dead. Not yet.

On the wall another X followed an O in the game he always won and he always lost.

 ‘When you play against yourself it happens,’ Handy Stan though.

Was Handy Stan his name? Hard to remember after thirty years. There was another thing he kept forgetting, if ever he had remembered or… even known. Why was he there? What was he waiting for?

Under one hand his other hand felt very old, almost ancient, crossed by deep cracks like those running on the wall. It felt dry. And skinny.

*

On the wall another X followed an O in the game he always won and he always lost.

From the long-lasting dark sky over his head a handful of dust felt on him. It was the usual boot that came once per day -if a day still existed. - After the dust followed small stones you'd better avoid and a handful of food you'd better catch.

The man went away bringing with him the squeak sound of his boots and of his laughs.

That was also the time - if time still existed- when for one second or two the light from the distant candle became brighter before fading in its dim light. And the bell rang. Ding, ding, ding, ding!

Handy Stan had forgotten many things but there was one thing he relied on. The bell meant something; he knew it as he knew that he often had dreams and more often nightmares.

In his dreams he was a cobbler in a small village, and he had a wife and a daughter. In his nightmares he was a cobbler in a small village, and he had a wife and a daughter he could not meet anymore. He could feel their sadness and he knew they missed him as he missed them. They tried and tried countless times, but they never managed to pull him back from the dark well he had fallen in. The bell rang, ding, ding, ding, ding! while both his wife and daughter wept for him.

The bell meant something; he knew it.

Dreams, bad or good, were all he was left with. In a dream he saw an old man standing on top of a tower.  After lighting up a candle -likely the one he used to see in the distance- the old man lifted a little bell from a box and shook it. Ding, ding, ding, ding!

‘A jingle of joy,’ Handy Stan thought in his dream.

 ‘Bells are a good sign,’ he went on thinking it over.

Not always. Not in the small village where he was caged in a dark room since decades, more than three but in Hendy’s mind they seemed three.

*

The Bell Keeper was one of the most respected men in the village.

He had a great duty. A duty is always a duty, but this one was peculiar, and of high honors. It had to do with the maintenance of the tower little bell and, as the saying goes, behind little things big things are hiding.

The big thing was that if the bell got rusty or damp the village’s reputation would be impaired. Reputation is everything in the only village of the county keeping the habit of the bell, especially if the reputation loss involves a job loss for the Bell Keeper. Not when the end of the year is approaching, when money buys the New Year’s Eve dinner and fireworks to please the family.

*

On the wall another X followed an O in the game he always won and he always lost.

Handy Stan’s dream vanished in another over-lasting night.

Food floated from above. Boots came and went away with dust and laughs.

“Soon it will ring for you,” were the words Handy believed to hear.

*

The Bell Keeper unrolled the parchment the guard standing on his door handed him, and read the name printed on it.

Fifty years had passed since Handy Stan was locked in the village main dungeons. Five decades since Handy was convicted of theft of the Town Hall treasure. A ten five-year period since no evidence was found against him, but this subject had to be kept secret. Yet the Bell Keeper knew Handy Stan’s story. The story of a cobbler who, to buy New Year’s Eve dinners and fireworks to please his wife and daughter, repaired old shoes from dawn to dusk.

In a village imposing life sentence for common theft and death penalty for theft at detriment of the ruler Handy Stan was quite unlucky, especially because about that theft he knew nothing, as he said to the judge several times a long time ago.

The bell had to ring, one more time. This time for Handy Stan who about the theft of the Town Hall treasure did not know at all, nevertheless of the treasure there was no trace.

*

On the wall of his cell another X followed an O in the game old Handy Stan always won and always lost.

Next morning he had to play the final game; he knew it and somehow he knew it not.

*

When the little bell rings from the top of the high tower then and only then the head rolls from the neck.

He knew it very well, the Bell Keeper, as well as he knew that if damp wetted the bell the melody of death could not be played. It never happened before. Not in this world where stood the only village keeping the habit of the bell. Not now that the New Year’s Eve approached to the next day, the day of Handy Stan’s death and the day the Bell Keeper’s family expected a delicious dinner and fireworks shot from the courtyard.

He went out after the sunset. “To oil the bell,” he said to his wife.

And he went. Not to the Bell’s Tower but to the Town Hall’s Library.

The key was in his pocket as one of the honors coming from his role as a Bell Keeper, and it turned in the keyhole as easy as he expected. Not so easy was the task he had set for himself; it had to be accomplished before the new year started, and this was not easy as the hands of his watch suggested from the cloak’s pocket.

Out of the twenty-five rooms of Town Hall’s Library two were reserved to the ruler. Out of these one admitted the Bell’s Keeper too and that was the place where he was heading, following the light of a wax candle he carried with him.

He spent all the night leafing through heavy old books until he found what he was looking for.

A few hours were left to the execution. One hour was left to December 31st.

He took the parchment with him, carefully folding it in his pocket. Fresh ink oozed from it. But by the time he reached the Bell’s Tower the ink was dry and looked old, almost ancient if not outdated as were the lines it erased… and amended.

*

The last day of the year entered the world of the village. It was not the first time and neither the last. But it was the first time Handy Stan was in front of the man whose boots had spread dust and food over his head for many years.

The man did not say a word when grabbed him by an arm and pushed him outside.

It was cold outside, more than in the cell.

Snow was falling over the roofs surrounding the square of his village. Squinting his old and almost blind eyes he recognized the corner where once stood his cobbler store. For one second or two he believed seeing his wife’s and his daughter’s faces too and he thought they were not only a dream.

Suddenly he remembered the day that changed his life, when ten guards stormed his store and locked him in jail. He remembered the trial… and the verdict.

Finally, they had found him not guilty!

‘Truth sometimes takes decades to shine but in the end it does,’ he thought the old cobbler who barely was able to speak and stand up.

*

The old cobbler struggled to keep the balance on a wood stage, surrounded by guards. There was no curtain although the sighs raising from the folk gathered around looked like expecting a red one opening the show.

In the crowd his wife and his daughter' s eyes escaped from his own eyes, bringing their hands to their faces, to hide the tears.

The guards seemed nervous, as waiting for something that was taking too long to happen.

The bell.

When the little bell rings from the top of the high tower then and only then the head rolls from the neck.

A man wearing a dark cloak appeared from behind the wood stage. He climbed the steps, and he was on the stage. Yellowish parchment reached his hand from the cloak’s pocket; it handed it to the chief of the guard.

*

“Under the supervision and the responsibility of the Bell Keeper, the bell is declared out of service,” the chief of the guards read clearing his throat from disbelief.

“Under this unpleasant and more then rare circumstance the Bell Keeper, in accordance with the paragraph 22 section 3 of the Bell’s Act, declares the today’s death execution as cancelled,” the chief of the guards went on clearing his throat more and more from bewilderment.

“The section 2, paragraph 81 of the Bell’s Act lists the only case ruling the abolition of the death penalty in the village. Being the today’s event under the circumstance listed by section 2, paragraph 81 of the Bell’s Act, the Bell’s Keeper declares the death penalty abolished from the village. Approved and signed by the Town Hall’s Ruler as on today December 31st,” read the chief of the guards with one hand on his forehead and moving his eyes to meet those of the Town Hall’s Ruler.

The eyes meeting was held in unbelief until the Ruler approached the Chief Guard and whispered to his ear that, yes, it was unbelievable, and that, yes, he never got the idea to read those paragraphs of which he ignored the existence. But if this was the law, then law had to be.

*

From behind the dark hood of his cloak the Bell Keeper knew two things. The first one was that in the world of his village the last day of the year was coming to an end. It was not an ordinary end but the end of a bell that rang too many times wiping out people’s lives. By mistake.

The second thing was that a bunch of seconds was left to the new year. That was a really new one where Handy Stan and many others won a game that saved their life.

Happy New Year, Mr. Handy Stan!

December 25, 2021 21:16

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13 comments

Fatima Jawaid
18:49 Jan 03, 2022

There was a dark, bleak, aliveness to this story that I really appreciated. The flow of the words, and the world you built really hooked me in. I could feel the despair and confusion cloud Handy Stan so viscerally! A little bit of constructive feedback if you are open: The piece could use a quick edit. There is a thought that is missing a t, Handy is spelled Hendy on occasion, and some unnecessary spaces. Also, some of the punctuation choices worked really well, but some broke up sentences in a way that I had to re-read a few times (commas,...

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Santina Forlenza
15:47 Jan 04, 2022

Thanks for the feedback, Fatima. For the edit tips, too. *I've read your most recent story "New beginnings" and found it captivating in its plot and well written. *

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Robert Obszanski
11:02 Feb 02, 2022

Great story, reminds of what happened to Dostoyevsky combined with Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery", but in reverse. The small detail descriptions really gave the story life.

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Santina Forlenza
15:53 Aug 01, 2022

Thanks Robert, I must confess I haven't read Dostoyevsky yet. And, yeah, I will have a look at Jackson's 'The Lottery' as well. Thanks for the tips!

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Ruth Smith
21:59 Jan 30, 2022

I enjoyed the flow of this story, it was perfect for the theme and the plot. Nicely done!

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Ellen Oh
15:11 Jan 16, 2022

Hi Santina, I loved this story! I feel like your writing is very "lean". You allow the reader to discover gradually the horror Handy endures without strictly dictating it. And the repetition of the tic-tac-toe game was very effective. Cheers to you!

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Santina Forlenza
21:05 Jan 16, 2022

Thank you. So glad you liked it. And once again, Ellen, congratulations for your story " Tea for Two". I would recommend it to other readers.

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Anna Nonymous
19:30 Jan 11, 2022

Santina, I really enjoyed this. I absolutely loved the imagery with the flies in the beginning, and particularly enjoyed the almost mythological quality the bell took on in this little village. And I love how you intoned its importance by giving us peeks at its very own act, which with at least 81 sections must be a pretty important document! I could see this village, and the bell, being part of a longer work. As for editing, I agree with a lot of what Fatima said below. Additionally, I felt it was a bit disjointed at times. And although I ...

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Santina Forlenza
13:37 Jan 12, 2022

Hi; thanks Hannah, both for the comment and the edits!

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Felice Noelle
03:24 Jan 02, 2022

Santina: I was all in after the first two paragraphs. They were amazing. The concept was unique and creative. A couple edits; it or he handed it and perhaps some missing commas. Loved your story. Well done. Maureen

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Santina Forlenza
16:26 Jan 02, 2022

Thanks Maureen! I always wanted to write about capital punishment but never found the way. Until the weekly prompt gave me the push and hint I was looking for. Thanks as well for the edits advices. * From my side, I've really enjoyed one of your stories, "Buster Brown Ain't a Game for Kids. " Well done! *

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Gip Roberts
19:09 Jan 01, 2022

This moment before an execution was truly described with brilliance. "Boots came and went away with dust and laughs." I could easily picture Handy Stan's feelings of helplessness and doom with the well-placed repetition of that sentence throughout the story. Then it was a pleasant twist seeing the execution cancelled at the end.

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Santina Forlenza
15:50 Jan 02, 2022

Thanks for commenting. The boots, yes, they meant both the extension of a miserable condition through food and also the sarcasm of laughs announcing the end of the miserable condition. None of them were in Handy Stan's set of wishes. * I've also read one of your stories, Gip, "The Dark Cloud" and truly enjoyed it. Well done!

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