Fiction - Dropping Balm, The Absinthe Literary Review

Reviewing the Execution
a short story by Tobias Seamon

Although the scene is unpleasant and has a human appeal which I deplore, it is necessary to dwell upon it a little longer…

— Vladimir Nabokov, describing the death throes of Nikolai Gogol
  

In the course of recent executions, few have shown as much panache, flamboyancy, and concern for detail as Daniel Owen Gaff. Displaying an aptitude for performance on the grand scale, Gaff’s previous executions, so widely publicized and praised, are known to all. His exquisite chivalry when leading the craven adulteress Mme. Lascivia La Crepe to the chopping block, his cultivated scorn when disemboweling Ernst Fugue, the notorious Cannibal of Hamburg— these moments epitomized Gaff’s grace in the limelight. Indeed, who can forget his perfectly timed clowning with the matches during the auto-de-fé of the foppish Emanuel Bruschetta, the Milanese ducal bastard who so ineptly attempted to set his half-brother aflame two Christmases ago? These deaths will be famous for years to come because of Gaff’s deft handling of character, situation, and pace. Despite the rabid crowds, the journalistic throngs, and the overwhelming uproar that occasioned these executions, Gaff’s hand seemed all the steadier and his poise all the more radiant. In short, he was a master artist in absolute control of his craft.

Gaff’s most recent execution, however, is startling in its contrast to his previous accomplishments. Renouncing the royal, the wealthy, and the sensational, Gaff instead focused on the rather mundane strangler, Henry Farley. Lower middle class, an apothecary by trade in the rural hamlet of Wattlesburg-On-Brackfall, Farley was hung this Saturday last for the murder of his devoted wife, Kate. Farley, apparently gone temporarily mad on absinthe, choked his wife of ten years during shop hours after she asked innocently enough if they would need any more cocaine that day. The crime, committed flagrantly in front of two witnesses, a certain Mrs. Hagglesbottom and the Widow Egge, caused little stir outside the community, and how Gaff became concerned with the Farley case is unknown. Judge Simeon Lash reported that it was Gaff who contacted him, not vice-versa, and that he, Lash, considered it an honor and a pleasure to let the esteemed executioner conduct the ceremonies.

Arriving in Wattlesburg, I couldn’t help but wonder why Gaff had chosen such an innocuous setting for his performance. Perhaps there was more to the Farley murder than met the eye, but one glance at the villagers gathered in their Sunday best—Saturday worst in any civilized city—revealed little. Gaff has always been idiosyncratic to be sure, declining this time as during all others to be interviewed, keeping his personal life at arm’s length from his art. His paramours seem to be selected as much for their closed-mouth reticence as for their beauty, and the actual location of his home is still in doubt, though rumored to be in Cornwall and sumptuous at that. As for Farley, the strangler was absolutely unexceptional, of middling stature with straw hair, a stubby nose and small hands. Inquiring discreetly, I learned little of interest regarding the Farleys’ marriage except for the consistently noted fact that they remained childless after ten years. Whether the wife was barren or the apothecary infertile from his own wares I really couldn’t conjecture, nor did the villagers offer any more information, seeming to regard the entire affair, including my presence, as an affliction upon the community.

If the venue disappointed, lacking any baited bears, howling mobs or costumed children, Gaff certainly didn’t. Dressed in his usual ornate raiment—it’s easy to forget the man single-handedly created the much copied haute couture of hangman everywhere—Gaff more than made up for the desultory surroundings. With his billowing silk shirt, glittering silver skull studs, polished dragoon boots, fawn trousers, and a black scarf disguising the upper features, Gaff offered a typically striking profile though the villagers seemed entirely ignorant of the magnitude of his presence.

Bereft of proper gibbets, the hanging took place from a large oak tree located just outside town, on a hill named, with the usual rural creativity, Gallows’ Hill. The true spectacle of Gaff’s presence could be seen clearly during the slow procession from the Green to the hill. Leading the forlorn Farley upon a bay mare, the noose already dangling around his neck, Gaff ‘s design began to clarify itself. The silence of the villagers, the suitably cadaverous visage of Judge Lash, the crows picking at the chopped corn in the field, the cats following behind the hedgerows pretending to hunt, all these images, so stark in their nature, trailed in the wake of the glamorous Gaff, and I began to suspect I was in store for his greatest execution yet. Placed in the backwaters of the known world, before an audience of the uninitiated, God Almighty, and myself, Gaff seemed on the verge of unveiling the beautiful concept that, whether it be the pathetic Farley, the ghastly Fugue, or the lovely La Crepe, all were equal and alike in the dignity of death, provided of course there was the perfect executioner.

Unfortunately, the denouement didn’t live up to expectation. By venturing into uncharted territory, Gaff left himself at the mercy of the unpredictable, and Farley’s death degenerated completely into a spectacle both anti-climactic and gruesome. With the strangler slumped on the mare, the noose cinched from a thick limb overhead, everything seemed to be perfect, but for the first time in his career, Gaff slipped. Using a crop handed to him by the Judge, Gaff slashed the mare’s flank, but the drop wasn’t steep enough. Friendless, with neither kith nor kin, Farley was abandoned to twitch, writhe, and choke, soiling himself in the process. Gaff’s reaction was as out of place as the sordidness of the lynching. Perhaps succumbing to the squalid atmosphere that he himself had fashioned, Gaff leapt up and lent his weight to the flailing Farley. The idea of Gaff being forced to tender a service so below his rank was compounded by the livid enjoyment that Gaff displayed as he yanked and clawed at Farley’s legs, screaming with laughter the whole time. Even during the tomfoolery of his capers at the Bruschetta execution, never did Gaff strike such a pedantic pose, and it was a shame to observe the almost intentional loss of composure. To fully inform you, Dear Reader, of the complete extent of Gaff’s failure, all I can say is that I could not bear to remain and watch what had to be the terrible let-down of Farley’s actual death. If Gaff took his customary bows afterward, I did not witness it.

In the week since the botched (there is no other word) execution, I have attempted to ascertain some sort of method to Gaff’s performance but meaning has defied me. If meant to be a farce, it wasn’t funny, while if the intention was a didactic lesson in the horror of crime and punishment, it wasn’t edifying. If it was supposed to be an example of the inherent savagery of the profession, it wasn’t convincing, and the events seemed far too contrived to be a foray into the bleak realm of realism. Everything about the Farley execution seems to point at something gone completely awry. The only saving grace of the debacle is that it occurred so far away from the unforgiving public. Even now, I have heard that Gaff has been requested to attend to a Flemish Jew accused of blood libel, and it would be the perfect opportunity for Gaff to revert to form. I can only hope, as I’m sure all of you do as well, that the next time Daniel Owen Gaff makes an appearance, it will be on a stage appropriate to his still-considerable talent, and in a manner befitting his previously untarnished reputation.

 

© 2002 Tobias Seamon

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