A Headsman's Tale

My name is Tom,
And I am the executioner.
I've seen so many, many men,
And at nightfall carried them down to the river.

They come to me, weeping, trembling, writhing,
Some held fast by the King's men,
Others stumbling wearily forward with their eyes fixed on the ground,
All to kneel before my blood-stained block.
I can read their crimes in their eyes:
     Conspiracy—shifty eyes, twitching with terror.
     Thievery—tearful eyes, pleading to God for mercy.
     Murder—the eyes I know best—cold, detached somehow. Killing does that to you, you know.

My father was a hog farmer, a hard-working man.
Every winter, we'd brave the deepening snow and lead the fattened hogs
Into that dingy shed for the day of the slaughter.
One by one, with quick, calloused hands
Father would tie up their hind legs with a strong rope,
And with a long, jagged-edged knife
He'd slit their throats and hoist them to the rafters
To drain the blood from their squealing carcasses.
I stood ready with a spear should the beast slip from Father's grasp.
There was much to do on these days;
Father and I would skin and clean the dead hogs,
Cutting away slabs of fat and inedible organs,
Leaving only the meat to be cured,
And, of course, the head which we saved to make headcheese.

I never had many friends; everyone made fun of the hog farmer's boy.
     Pig boy! Pig boy! they'd shout.
Laughing at my shabby shoes and oversized clothes.
Just a crude peasant, a simpleton, they thought me,
A stupid rough who'd never make it anywhere in life.
I learned to hate them, those spoiled little town boys,
Their sweet tongues, their fine clothes,
Their pretty, unscarred hands and faces,
Their dreamy, idle ways.
They all had a name,
But to them, I was just:
     Pig boy!

Fourteen I was when I saw my first hanging.
A murderer he was, and a festive crowd
Had gathered in the town square to watch his execution.
While Father had gone to market,
I slipped away, wading through the crowd to the gallows.
I was a curious lad, and I had never seen a man die until that day.
The crowd parted and then I saw him,
Guards standing ready at his sides as they led him to the steps.
The look in his hard, criminal eyes, was it fear or resignation?
He shuffled towards the steps in a heavy march.
The crowd roared and hissed; this is what they'd been waiting for.
Up the steps he climbed with the guards behind him.
Waiting on the platform, I saw another man,
A gaunt, bony creature whose face was hidden from all by a black hood.
Suddenly, the condemned man began to break down sobbing,
Shaking and straining to escape.
The two guards held him by his arms and the hangman began his work.
Quietly fixing the rope around the man's throat,
He smartly wrapped the thirteen coils around
To fashion the knot which would break his neck.
By the time the hangman had finished the noose, the man no longer struggled.
The crowd grew silent and swiftly the hooded man pulled the lever.
The condemned man fell through the floor and the rope jerked taut.
I heard a snap, and then cheering from the crowd.
Dead and limp, the murderer hung,
His eyes wide and frozen with horror.
I stood silent, staring, filled with a sense of wonder,
For I knew then that there was justice, and I had seen it on this day!

And now I work for the King.
Gotten a-head in life, you might say.
They kneel before me, all of them,
These damned fellows,
Stretching their napes across the bloody block.
It seems I am still a swineherd,
But now it pleases me.

My name is Tom,
And I am the executioner.
I see so many, many men,
And each night,
I carry more of them down to the river.

George Chadderdon © 1994