The warped beams of my shack couldn’t keep out the sawing of the locust song outside, and so I didn’t hear the footsteps until they got close—bare feet scuffing on dry dirt. When would Sister Crow finally answer my prayer and wash away the wagon-trail that led people past my door?
The footsteps paused, and their owner coughed up phlegm and spat before knocking.
“I’ve come to hire you.”
I was silent but anyone who knows of me knows I can’t sleep.
“I can pay some.”
And they all know that money means nothing to me, but that doesn’t stop it from being offered. They have nothing else to give.
“And I’ve got booze.”
For years it was easier to cultivate the persona of a drunkard than face my grim reality. I pissed booze out just like water with as little effect.
“It’s not much, but—” The voice broke.
I went and opened the door. A boy stood there, scrawny from lack of food and white from lack of sun. He had a jug in one hand. How far had he walked today, alone, to find me? And how far back was his home? Had the world spread again since he’d left? Opened up its legs a bit and let new wild fields push apart the old tame ones?
“I’m not for hire.”
The boy’s free hand clenched into a fist. “You used to be.”
“That was then. This is now.” I stepped back to shut the door.
He leaned forward and put his bare foot in the door’s path. “You can have me, if you want.”
I eyed him again, leering on purpose. Steel formed in some part of him, and he stood still, without wincing in fear. Whatever he wanted from me, he wanted it bad.
“You’d be more use to me as food, if I ate. And besides, my pendulum doesn’t swing like that.” I moved the door’s edge closer to his foot. “I’ll take it clean off if you don’t move it.”
He measured me. Whatever rumors he’d heard about my stubbornness, my obstinacy, the very things in me that kept me alive far beyond my normal time, I could see him listing them now inside his head.
“But I need you!”
“You don’t need me. You need the Hangman. And he ain’t here anymore.”
The boy’s jaw tensed but he didn’t move his foot.
I didn’t have the heart to cut him—if I did, it’d take him even longer to leave. And there were things out at night these days, things that’d follow a trail of blood for miles upon miles. “Stand there all night if you want. And all tomorrow too. Ain’t gonna change my mind.”
He fished around in a pocket and pulled something out. He threw it at me and it landed on my dusty floor. “She said to use this but only if I had to. Said you’d listen to me. I told her it was dumb, that you wouldn’t listen, that you weren’t real.”
“Well, for what it’ll comfort you, you were right.” I sat down on my chair again. The boy stood in the door for a few moments more then spat again, this time inside my house, before turning to leave.
I waited two days before I moved again. For me, they passed as the blink of an eye. I might have stayed there longer had not a crow flown in my broken window and gone to pick up the trinket the boy’d left behind.
“I don’t want no messages today, woman. Shoo,” I said startling the crow, and it dropped its bounty to the floor.
I eyed it, much as the crow had. It was looped and grey and worn, perhaps a small dead mouse. I picked up what looked like a tail, so that the body of it dangled down, and I recognized it at once. A noose. Braided from grey hair. Hers.
Made by my own hand.
Damn boy. I put the talisman in my pocket and set out.
I didn’t have to stop to sleep, or eat, or drink. These things gave me the speed of a man on a horse and I wasn’t trailing a mounted man. I wasn’t even trailing a good scout—there were scuff marks, bent grass, and sleep spots too near the road that let me know I was on the right path. By the next morning, I saw the boy on the horizon. The entire time I gained behind him he never once looked back.
“You—” I said when I was near enough and nearly scared him out of his own skin. “Who gave you this?” I asked and held the noose high.
“Where’d she get it from?”
“Her mother. And her mother before her,” he added before I could press. “Been in my family a long time.”
“I’ll bet.” I looked at the boy, not sure what I was looking for. Her eyes, my eyes? The line of her nose, the angle of my jaw? Did it matter if they were there, or not? The talisman could have been stolen. Even if it weren’t—it’d been so very long ago. I had no ties to this boy, or to the family we might have shared, not anymore.
He frowned at my attention. “You gonna help, or not?”
It was a good question. Had I come out here merely to ease my curiosity? Or for action? And what did it matter what I chose, when each of my days were like all of the rest?
“Mayor took my momma. He’s gonna feed her to the train.” The boy pointed a finger up at the rising moon. “She’s got three days left, Hangman. I ain’t got time to wait.”
I put the talisman in my pocket. If I kept it, no one else could ever use it again. And if I did this chore now, for this boy, I could honor its memory. One last time.
“Why your momma?” I asked him.
“‘Cause,” he said, and didn’t say anymore.
“It ain’t too late for me to turn around and go home, you know.”
“She’s a whore,” he finally offered up. I nodded. Made sense.
“I hate the trains,” I said.
The boy nodded vigorously. “Me too.”
I started off towards the next station and the boy fell inline behind me.
The boy did his best to keep up with me but the fuel of anger and fear have an end, for other people at least.
“How old are you, boy?” I asked, trying to keep him awake.
“Fourteen. Name’s Jim.”
So short, for fourteen. I could carry him easy, I knew it.
“Where’s your daddy? Why ain’t he here doing this, instead of you?”
Jim’s silence ate up half a mile. “Don’t have a daddy. Don’t need one.”
I snorted. “I bet your momma has other opinions about that.”
“My momma says men ain’t worth nothin’. Except for me, that is.”
“Well you ain’t a man yet. Come here boy.” I knelt down a bit. “We’ll go faster if you let me carry you.”
“I can make it!”
“We’ll go faster if you let me carry you along. We’re racing a train, Jim, no time for pride.”
The boy sighed, then wrapped his arms around me. I could feel his skinny wrists against the scars that bound my neck.
“Yeah?” I lifted him up and cinched my hands together beneath his rear.
“I drank your booze. Sorry.”
“I’ll forgive you this time,” I said and soon he was fast asleep.
Clouds moved overhead like sweeping black wings. Sister Crow was on the move. It was during the Dust Time that Sister Crow rose up from the land itself—she sheltered it, and poured the rains down that made life possible again. It was only her watery benevolence that kept the ‘Tana and ‘Kotas alive. But she was a fickle goddess. She didn’t answer every prayer. And the ones she did answer, well, she didn’t always give you the answers you wanted.
Thinking on it too long made my scars ache.
I spent the night trekking across the short grasses of the plains with the howls of coyotes in the distance. I found old railroad tracks and walked along them, their empty metal bars shining off into the distance under the filling moon. No place safer to be at night these days, ever since the trains had taken off from them.
Since the Dust Time, the world had been spreading apart, some places moreso than others. Houses that had been a spit apart from each other originally, a time now that probably only I could remember, were now miles distant and going. New land appeared, new and angry, with things on it that were like they were once, but not quite the same. Mean, mean bison.
And the trains. Something about their tracks stretching over the new ground, driving over the new territories that spread out before them—it changed them. Like horses that tossed reins, or oxen that had slipped their yokes, there was no way to tie the trains down again once they were unleashed. For a time, people tried. Tried caging them, killing them, luring them into canyons and rolling down boulders atop—anything to get them to do our bidding again. And maybe that was why they hated us.
“Is it true?” Jim asked, when he woke up the next morning. What he wanted to know was the same thing everyone asked.
“We walked all night. Doesn’t that prove enough?” I said setting him down.
The boy frowned. “I only know the songs.”
I grunted. Been awhile since I’d heard any of them, and I didn’t need to again—but Jim launched into one before I could stop him.
“He stole a horse, upon a time,
They took him to a tree,
Hung a noose around his neck,
But later he got free.
“Hangman can’t we kill you?
Hangman can’t you die?
He’s trapped on earth just half alive,
Beneath the cloudy sky.
“Sister Crow, she kissed him
To keep him safe below,
Sister Crow, she cursed him
To live a life of woe.
“Hangman can’t we kill you?
Hangman can’t you die?
He’s half a man, with half a soul,
Forced to live a lie.”
He’d picked an old one, one I hadn’t heard in a hundred years or more. “Sweet Jesus and Brother Sparrow, who the hell told you that song?”
“My momma,” Jim said. He wandered off to pee, and looked over his shoulder once he’d aimed to ask, “Who’s Jesus?”
“Ain’t worth knowing these days.” I said, shook my head, and kept walking.
We reached Jim’s town as the moon rose that night. A breeze ran down the thoroughfare and lights flickered behind shuttered windows. I knew this place. My own home had been on the outskirts of it, years and years ago. Jim ran down the street and pointed at the biggest house—it didn’t look much different than I remembered, all clapboard and colors worn down by time.
“He lives there.” Jim stuck his hands into his pockets. “He’ll just see you and give her right over.”
Life was a lot easier when you were fourteen. “We’ll see.” I stepped up the old wood stairs to the Mayor’s door, and rapped my knuckles on its frame.
A man with rheumy eyes opened up the door, holding an oil lamp, wearing dirty cotton underclothes, followed by the breath of rotting teeth.
I’d had a name, a long time ago. But no one but me remembered it. “I’m the Hangman. I’m here to save the whore.”
An eyebrow crawled up the Mayor’s forehead, and he laughed, making his awful breath wash over me. “Ain’t no such thing as the Hangman. How much did this kid pay you to say that?”
I stepped forward. I was taller than the Mayor, and I pushed him back, not physically, but with the force of my will. I had will in spades. I tilted my head, so he could see the raised and rippled line the rope had left on my neck.
“So you are, maybe.” The Mayor set his oil lamp down on a high ledge. “Don’t change things. We need the train this year. Fire took the silo.” He crossed his arms. “We had a lottery. She lost. You know the way of things.”
“A lottery of whores isn’t a lottery!” Jim said butting his head up under my arm.
“You could go in her stead, little man,” the Mayor said.
“She won’t let me go. I tried!”
“None of that matters. I’m here now,” I said pushing the boy back.
The Mayor shook his head. “Can’t take that risk. Train might not come for you. They like the living, not the dead.”
“I’m only half dead.”
“Trains ain’t that smart. Sorry, Hangman.”
“I’m going instead of her.” I said. The Mayor’s mouth opened, and he inhaled, before sighing that stink back out.
“Just because you can’t die, doesn’t mean you can interfere in our affairs.”
“Not dying’s only half my art.” I offered out my hand, and he took another step back. “Would you like to see the rest?”
He shook his head, greasy hair shining under the lamp light. “She’s a whore. What do you care what happens to her, Hangman? What has she got to go back to if you save her life now, like this?”
“Living’s better than dying.” This was a thing I knew for sure.
The Mayor sighed anew. “Ain’t for just me to say. I have enough corn to make it through the winter, but I can’t take chances with the town.”
Maybe he really was a good man, despite the smell. I rocked back on my heels and I could feel fear spike in Jim, behind me. “I’ve done it before.”
He squinted at me. “I never heard that story.”
“You haven’t heard half of them, I’ll bet. Would you rather take what the train leaves you—or take everything?” I’d never met a man that wasn’t greedy when given the chance—and I’d lived long enough to meet a lot of men.
“We can talk about it tomorrow. I’ll call a town meeting.”
“Good enough.” I pushed Jim out behind me, and followed him into the street.
“A town meeting’s how this whole thing started,” Jim muttered as he dragged his feet in the dust.
“Where you gonna sleep tonight?” I asked him, pretending not to hear the dismay in his voice.
“The brothel. You can come with. Prolly get a blow for free, for all the good you done.” The boy snorted with sarcasm.
“Things don’t always change fast, Jim.”
“I know. But—” his voice drifted, and I didn’t need him to tell me what he was thinking. All the stories. All the people. All the death.
“I just said I’d help save your momma. I’m not raining vengeance. Don’t have it in me anymore.”
“You’re too old,” Jim said. “Sister Crow should pick a new Hangman.”
I didn’t say anything—I sure as hell didn’t disagree.
We went in the back door and Jim stole a lamp off the wall to lead us through. The brothel was a warren, the scent of flesh heavy in the air. Women and men snored behind thin doors—it was late enough at night for the last set of paying customers to stay on if the whore didn’t mind.
“She’s in there,” Jim gestured, with a thumb. I put my hand out towards the knob and he slapped it away. “Let her sleep,” he hissed. He crouched to sitting, and then lay down in front of her door like a dog. I stood, waiting, until he was well and truly asleep, then wandered on till I found the bar. I hadn’t been drunk in centuries, but that didn’t always stop me from trying.
Sleepy women with black-ringed doe eyes came out the next day around noon. They ignored me—it was too early to think about callers. I searched each of their faces for some trace of hers and found none. I wondered if it’d been so long I’d forgotten. But I’d know when I’d know, and I knew it. Other people get to live their lives full of purpose and decision, and sometimes I envied them. Seems like I walked through mine with a dowsing rod, just hoping to get yanked.
“That’s him—” I heard Jim’s voice, and looked up. I saw him and the woman standing next to him reflected in the dirty mirror above the bar. For a second—my heart leapt, my breath caught, and my balls ached. Then I twisted, saw them real, and illusion faded. There was a chance she was related to Sarah, my Sarah. But she wasn’t Sarah.
No one could ever be Sarah. Ever again.
“You’re here,” she said coming up to me. Her skirts were uneven, her boots unlaced, and the pupils of her eyes were blown wide—she was stoned out of her mind. Jim could have told her I was Sister Crow and she would’ve believed it.
I took her hand in mine. “I’m here.”
“I told you I’d find him, momma.”
Her other hand found Jim’s shoulder. “You done good boy. Real good. Go get me a drink, will you?”
Jim paused, trapped between adoration and dismay. “Sure momma—”
“Get me one, too,” I said and sat back down.
Holding court at a brothel was just as good as any town meeting, I supposed. It wasn’t the important people that I had to convince—the important people would be like the Mayor. The important people’s lives had had enough good in them that they could rightly assume they were due for some more. It was the in-between people, the ones who went hungry, who spent days in fields or mines hoping to earn enough to eat, drink, and maybe get a squeeze—no matter how much they felt they’d earned a chance at better things, they’d never believe it till they saw it. And a brothel was as good a place as any to be seen.
People wandered by, coming in for a drink and a glance. Boys peered in through grimy windows, and by the time the news reached the whores inside, they disappeared, one by one, to get gussied up and return to walk past the table where I sat. None of them spoke to me, though they did a lot of whispering, one to another.
“Told you you could get a blow for free,” Jim said sitting down with me.
“I’m old, remember?” I looked around. “Where’d your momma go?”
“She’s not feeling well. I told her to go back to bed.” He frowned.
“Meeting’s in two hours,” Jim shared. “And the bell goes off at sundown.”
I snorted. Trains came during the day too if called. But no one ever wanted to see what they did, so they were almost always rang at night.
“How’s people feel about things?” I asked.
“Happy and scared.” The boy played a broken fingernail up and down the table’s grainy wood. “No one wants to mess things up. We need the cargo, bad. But you’re the Hangman….”
I leaned back and closed my eyes. “It’ll all work out son. It’ll all be all right.”
“You sure about that?”
I nodded. “Done this before, remember?”
He leaned in close, I could feel his presence near, though I didn’t look. “Just because you can’t die don’t make you a good liar.”
The meeting was a rough affair in the middle of the street. The Mayor made my case for me—in the intervening time since we’d spoke, his greed had swollen like soaked corn. Made it sound like he’d gone and sent for me himself, that Jim had nothing to do with it. The boy and his momma were strangely absent from the affair but I stood behind the Mayor, my collar pulled low, so they all could see the marks upon me.
“What if it don’t work?” a man shouted out.
“He’s done it before—” the Mayor began, but I stepped forward.
“It’ll work,” I said.
“How do we know you’re the real Hangman?” asked another.
I shrugged. “If I’m not, the train’ll eat me instead, and I’ll stay dead. You’ll get what you want, either way.”
A whisper ran through the crowd. As long as some blood was involved—
“So we’re set then?” the Mayor asked. No one disagreed. The chance at all a train’s cargo, not just what you could steal while it was distracted by hot flesh—it was too good to pass up. “All right then, it’s settled.” He hit a gavel on a piece of wood and the crowd dispersed until it was just me standing alone in the street.
The sun sank down and I waited at the station. The townspeople waited too, a fair distance back. No one knew the direction the train would come from and no one wanted to be caught in its path. Jim separated from the rest of them and came up to wait with me.
“Momma’s still asleep,” he said unwilling to meet my eyes. “She—”
“You can’t let her stay on the dope, Jim. After this, you take her someplace else. Someplace better than this.”
“Where?” He looked up at me and then around at the whole wide plain. “Where can we go? And how, and—” He reached down to pick up a handful of the rocks that lay at our feet and threw them at the ground. “I ain’t got a choice. I ain’t got a chance.”
He’d been sold out by the accident of his birth, by his upbringing, by this town. And I didn’t have any good answers.
“Chance and choice are what you make of them, for yourself.” I turned around. “Don’t wait too long. Waiting’ll get you, in the end.”
The last portion of the sun dripped away on the edge of the world.
“Time to ring the bell. Me or you?” I asked him.
“I’ll do it,” he said and grabbed the hanging rope.
All the anger he had at his situation and the world he took out on that bell—set it ringing so loud I thought my ears might bleed. “There,” he said panting when he was done.
“Good. Now get back.”
Realization of exactly what he’d done settled in his brow. “Hangman—”
“Get back Jim. Don’t worry. I’ve done this before, remember?”
He inhaled to argue, but the distant sound of a howling smokestack cut him off.
The full moon let me see it coming. It raged up the path of the old tracks but it wasn’t on them. It wove across them, ignoring their boundaries, sweeping like a snake on sand. It was a long one. It’d be full of a lot of good things—nails, cotton, wood, corn. That pleased me. Made everything a little more worthwhile, as worthwhile as dying ever got.
It slowed as it approached the borders of the town. Everyone else had fled out of eyeshot but me and Jim. The train’s cowcatcher tilted from side to side, like the beak of a thoughtful bird, then parted in the middle like a locust’s mouth, to click ominously to itself.
“I’m over here,” I told it and walked forward. “I’m ready.”
The locomotive wheeled up a few more feet. Perhaps it was more used to the feminine form, the smell of fresh rope, the sound of screams. If it turned tail and went away….
“Come on. Come on you stupid thing.” I picked up a big rock and threw it at the train. It rattled and bounced off the hollow metal side. “Come on, already!”
The train’s cowcatcher opened wide then clashed together, over and over again. I nodded at it though I didn’t know how it could see me, if it saw at all.
“I’m waitin’.” I stood, quiet.
It reared back in front of me, half of the engine arcing upon itself, then sprang.
It’d been a long time since I’d died. I’d almost forgotten after the shock of the pain how nice the dark was. Only time I ever got to see it. Only time I ever got to rest.
“You’re killing him!” The rising voice of a man-child from a distance. As distant from me now as the gnawing sensation at my feet. “You can’t come back to life from being ate alive!”
Chances were, no, you couldn’t. Here’s to hoping.
“S’like you were lucky, Hangman.”
I blinked. The sun was high, but a well-placed hat let shadows fall on me.
“Never was one for luck.” I felt my fingers and my toes. Even my boots always survived with me. If I’d known that bit before they’d hung me I’d have bought a more comfortable pair. I stood and surveyed what I’d done. The train’s carcass stretched out from where I’d killed it, kinked like a pubic hair. Some of its boxcars were already scavenged clean, empty, and these would be put to use, for storage, homes, or torn apart and melted into new metal monsters, ones that might behave.
The hat belonged to the Mayor. I nodded at him as I dusted myself off.
“We can do this again,” the Mayor said. “You know we can—”
“I can’t.” It’s why I stopped helping people long ago. You showed people the gift of death, and they always got greedy. Always thought they knew who should die, who should live, and when. I wouldn’t mind so much I supposed, if it ever worked on me.
It wasn’t that Sister Crow had saved me from the noose as that she’d taken its power and given it over to me. I was the noose, now, could noose anyone I wanted, as long as I was willing to go along for the ride. Got a taste every time I did, for something I could never quite reach myself. It was novelty, at first, and then a glamour, but now I was just tired. So very, very tired, and there was no true rest in sight.
The Mayor looked at me, all of me. “Then we’ll just kill her again then the next time we need things.”
“You kill her, I kill you,” I said and shrugged. “Take what you got. And leave the whore alone.”
The Mayor inhaled nasally and spat to one side in answer, before stomping away.
A crow sat atop the dead train’s smokestack. “Maybe next time?” I asked it. It cawed, and took off into the air. “Fair enough.”
I arched my back, listened to the bones pop, and then turned towards my home.
A mile later Jim ran me down. “You’re alive!”
I looked down at the boy. “I told you, I’m the Hangman.”
Jim’s brow furrowed. “It’s not how I thought it’d be.”
“It never really is.” I walked on and he followed for a time in silence.
“I was the one that burned the silo,” he said. “It was an accident.”
He ran up around to stand in the road in front of me, blocking my path. “And she’s not my momma. My real momma died awhile back. She did take care of me though, till the dope got her.”
I waited, knowing he had more to say.
“I’m sorry she ended up like that. And I’m sorry that we’re not related after all. I wish we were.”
“She isn’t related to me, either.” I turned around. The earth had crested here, the beginning of a rolling hill, and I could see the train and town left behind me. “No one is, anymore.”
I turned back towards him and shrugged.
“I could come with you. If you wanted.” His eyes were the color of good soil, staring up at me with fertile hope.
“I don’t.” A life with me was no life at all. That’s what really happens when you can’t die—you can’t ever truly live. The last time I had lived….
“Here.” I fished into my pocket, wondering if it’d made it, through death and back again. But it was there, cleaner now, and less worse for the wear than before. A grey noose, woven from the hair of the only woman I’d ever loved. “Keep it.”
Jim held it in his open hands like a broke-winged bird, scared to touch around the edges. “Really?”
“Really. Pass it on. Don’t use it unless you have to.”
He nodded solemnly. “I won’t.” He looked from his hands and what he held, to me, and back again. “Guess this is goodbye then.”
I reached out and mussed his hair. “For you, at least.” And then I walked on.