“The Executioner’s Son”
by Kris Baranovic
“At yesterday’s execution you forgot your mask and made one out of a potato sack with eyeholes cut in it. Your axe head flew off at the top of the swing and tumbled into the crowd, killing two little old ladies. Two. How you killed two old ladies with one errant axe head I’ll never know. Since you hadn’t checked your axe like I’ve told you since the day I accepted your apprenticeship, you followed through and clobbered the victim’s neck with the axe handle. I also can’t figure out why you continued to mash the wretch’s head instead of getting another instrument.”
Saul slouched in the wooden chair, his head slung chin-to-chest and concentrated on picking at the unidentifiable black substance embedded deep in the nethers of his fingernail. “I got nervous again.”
“Well, at this point I’m hoping the bloodline skips a generation because you didn’t get one stitch of this talent.”
The first execution Saul ever saw was performed by his father. Perched upon a wobbly cabbage crate, his view skimming the shoreline of pebbled heads, Saul struggled to recognize the man who’d taught him to throw a rock, the man he knew as ‘Papa,’ up on the surface of decking, honing a sword the size of a horse’s leg, face cloaked in black wool. Saul could recognize the arms, ropey and gristled, the same arms that hammered at loose shingles. that waved at the neighbors, that wrapped around his mother sometimes. But up on that platform, the rest of his father had been swallowed by a mountainous black-clad goliath, more implement now than man, rigid and at rest and alert, like upturned tree leaves before a storm.
His father readied himself beside the condemned, wheeled the blade around, and with a whir heard all the way in the back of the crowd, the victim’s head dropped away in a spray of fluid, viscous and dark and final. Saul, unable to look away, watching his father accept the compliments from the town’s sheriff, overheard the commenting peasants as they shuffled back to work in the fields. This was a good execution. Last time the guy needed three swings. The screams were terrible.
The chair groaned as Saul shifted his large frame. “I’m sorry. I’ll do better next time. I swear –“
“Next time? Saul, this is the sixth person you’ve mauled. I had to call in a favor to get you the last job. Even the army won’t take you, and they take anybody. I don’t understand. I traveled continents, sailed to the furthest reaches of the known world, to lop the heads off of deposed kings and disgraced queens, and I meted out the fates of countless murderers, rapists, thieves, and barbarians along the way. People called me an executive gift of God Himself, put on this Earth for the sole purpose of dispatching social undesirables with a quick and gorgeous knock through the neck and brief spat of blood, the eyes of the still-blinking noggin beaming with joy, ever so grateful, even honored, that I was their executioner that day. You have managed to hack at five people and bludgeon the last one.”
“True. By having his fucking brains showered over a crowd. Which triggered the mass vomiting. Between butchered old lady smell and the rot of half-digested gruel on bare feet, the magistrate of Trowbridge is understandably outraged. Saul, I’m old, and I want to pass the mantle, but in the interest of the profession, I gotta let you go. No more chances.”
“Can I at least get a letter releasing me as your apprentice?”
“No Saul. You’re terrible. I cannot in good conscience allow you to continue to be an executioner. Find something else to do.”
Saul left the house that evening, his belongings bundled in a handkerchief and tied to the ratty axe he carried slung over his shoulder. As he dragged his feet through the silt and stone of the evening road, Saul considered his options. With the option of the army gone, his qualifications scattered. He didn’t know anything about farming. He couldn’t sail, couldn’t fish, couldn’t think of anything to sell. Only life of inglorious manual labor lay ahead. He envied the evening birds singing their calls from tops of the pines, their lives brutal and tragic, destined to die at the drop of drought or disease or old age or the slightest mistake, but at least they knew what to do, each of them born with the instincts to eat every bug and berry they found, fashion as many offspring as possible, and avoid colliding with trees or foxes in the process. Birds never saw challenge to their role in nature, never faced disappointed parents, never got fired for doing a so-so job as birds. Saul found himself barred from his instincts, a bird whose forest had been cut down for timber. His father raised him to do nothing else but hack skulls from necks of the condemned and guilty. Suited for nothing else, Saul saw his fate bleak and his father’s wrath bleaker.
The sun sank behind the trees, sipping at the light until the stars took their places in the sky. Saul guided himself by the kick of gravel under his boots, content to wander in the pitch until his worry dissolved with a flicker of destiny. The torches of a monastery blinked up ahead. A monk’s life, a slow existence stuffed with days of quiet thinking, comfy robes, and steady meals. Tracing the stacked stone walls up through the glow of the firelight and above to their dark rooftop silhouette abrupt against the starlit sky, he decided that if fate took his place away, it was fate’s job to saddle him with a new one, and he rapped on the door.
The next morning, Saul left his cell dressed in the robe Friar Bill gave him before bed and wound his way up to the galley. Friar Bill fed him a wad of bread and an onion, and invited Saul out to the garden.
“You’re sure you want to join the Order?” said Friar Bill.
“Got no choice. Can’t be an executioner, can’t go home,” said Saul.
“By trade I’m a pacifist, and so prefer shepherding the wayward towards more peaceful trades, but have you considered the army? That seems a bit more fitting for your skill set. And your moral pliability. And your size.”
“Can’t. I’m bad at killing people.”
Friar Bill scratched at his beard. “That sort of makes you eligible. I can’t just turn you away. Let’s get you started on something. See what you can do.”
Friar Bill took Saul to the calligraphy cell, but in less than two hours Saul ruined six sheets of parchment, fifteen quills, and spilled an entire jar of ink on two months of finished pages. The lead calligrapher raked at Saul with a torch just to get him away from the gold leaf. Friar Bill tried Saul in the choir, but Saul’s chanting was so poor it pulled every monk out of key. The choir director batted at Saul with an incense scepter just to get him to stop touching the apocryphal hymnals. Friar Bill led Saul to the galley to wash dishes, but by the afternoon Saul had fractured an entire stack of hand-made clay plates and soaked two burlap bags full of flour with spilled dishwater. The cook threatened Saul with a knife, so Friar Bill took Saul back out to the garden.
“Saul, maybe this isn’t working out,” said Friar Bill.
“Can I try brewing beer?”
“This isn’t that kind of monastery, I’m afraid. The neighborhood’s a little rough and we don’t want to attract the wrong crowd. Maybe you can cut some firewood but —”
“I can cut firewood,” said Saul, and he hulked over to the axe embedded into a felled tree. He knocked through the trunk easily, and within minutes he had a full third of it split and stacked. Friar Bill walked up to the mess of wood chips and lumber.
“Saul, why aren’t you an executioner? It takes us monks a full day to get that much wood. It’s like you’re born to swing an axe.”
“I get nervous. Wood stays still. It don’t flinch. It don’t breath. Wood waits. People get jumpy and afraid, which makes me afraid. And when I get afraid I get nervous and make mistakes and bash people’s skulls in or knock off an arm. This one time I missed real bad and this guy —”
“Stop, stop. My pacifism makes for a weak constitution and just the thought is making me ill,” said Friar Bill, raising his hands. “I have an idea. There is a pig farmer up the road that hates to slaughter his hogs. Would you mind helping him out?”
Saul agreed, and the pair walked up the road to a dirty shack surrounded by pigs and mud. After a brief talk with the farmer, Friar Bill and Saul shushed a couple large sows around the back of the house to the killing field.
“Let’s see what you’ve got,” said Friar Bill as he tied the first pig to a sapling.
Saul readied his axe above his head, and the pig began to yank at the rope, violent and enraged. Saul tried to wait for it to calm down, to find his window. He could see the faint neck vertebrae, trace them to the conjunction of the third and fourth disc, but his target juggled in and out of stillness. Saul panicked, and brought the axe down on the pig’s shoulder, nearly cleaving it clear through to the hoof. Friar Bill clutched his stomach at the gore and the smell and the scream of the gaping pig, but turned away to vomit as Saul took a second swing and finished the deed.
Toweling the bile from his mouth with the cuff of his robe, Friar Bill choked and coughed. “Saul, let’s discuss what went right and what went wrong. You followed through well. It was a clean cut. But why did you swing the axe when you did?”
“It started fighting, so I panicked.”
“Right, well, try again with this next one, except when it starts to pull away, stop for as long as you need to. No rush. Breathe in deep, and breathe out your fear. Nice and slow. Let the axe fall when it needs to. Alright?”
Friar Bill tugged both halves of the first pig out of the way and fastened the second to the sapling. It began to scream and squeal immediately, and kicked at the remnant spills of its former companion. Saul raised his axe and held it, breathing deep, watching the contorting spine beneath the flesh of the brute, and held there until his arms began to shiver, still breathing, the pig still twisting and jerking, still breathing, still breathing, then a trenchant thunk. The pig’s head flung off mid-wrench, sending the twitching carcass flailing with the fading light of its sympathetic nervous system while the head remained tethered and gasping in the sapling’s shade.
Saul spent a calm month of wood cutting and butchering at the monastery, slow-sliding into the cozy rhythm of monastic life. While aware he wasn’t the brightest initiate of the Order, the other monks often complimented his brevity and his aptitude at physical labor, but above all they remarked upon the peace the brutish Saul brought to the monastery: not once had any bandit or thief harassed the monks or the monastery during those weeks. Until the day a courier came by with a wax-stamped letter for Saul, which Friar Bill read for him.
“Saul, the Archduke of Frappshire requests you for an execution. It seems a rather awful criminal has been brought to justice, and the Archduke wants a terrible and spectacular death. He heard about the Trowbridge incident and wants you to perform the honor.”
“No, Saul, you don’t understand. This is your calling. The Almighty has granted you these gifts. We’ve tried everything, and as much as it pains me to say it, you are built for ending lives. It’s what you’re here on Earth to do. And the letter is from your father. He’s not asking.”
“I dunno,” said Saul, examining the shrapnel of a torn and flakey callous near the heel of his palm. “I like it here. I like the birds. And cutting wood. I like you guys. You’re my best friends.”
“Give it one last try,” said Friar Bill. “You’ve had a lot of time to think. See how you take to it after a bit of a break.”
The following morning, Saul and Friar Bill arrived in Frappshire to a drab and terrible mob of peasants, all clamoring for damage and justice. The shadow of a chill shimmied up Saul’s spine, germinating the familiar sprouts of public-performance jitters in his belly, yet he found his thoughts placid and absent despite the spastic phantoms erupting in his innards. Friar Bill led him to the platform and vanished into the bedlam, leaving Saul to prepare. Saul’s father met his son at the steps, arms folded refusing to look at his progeny.
“Don’t fuck this up. Redemption comes rare in this industry,” he said, and handed Saul a folded black mask.
The magistrate lugged the convict from a cell beneath the keep onto the deck and lashed the man down, neck flush to a rough-hewn log, knees prone, head naked, eyes glassy and focused on the distance. The cries from the crowd grew vile, festering with obscenity and hate. They cried for the convict’s suffering, pleading the executioner to slice him away a piece of meat at a time, that their dogs were starved, that the crows craved the blood of the devil, and this man was the devil incarnate. They began to throw rocks at the convict, demanding the souls of their children be salvaged and the virginity of their livestock be returned. Women and men, young and old, cursed the man’s lineage, cursed his name, cursed the air he breathed, and cried with joy for the long-sought vindication of their fallen loved ones. The magistrate could not calm the crowd to declare the list of crimes and announce the guilty verdict, and the priest could not read last rites due to the cloud of thrown debris.
But when the magistrate gave Saul the signal, the missiles of stone and feces ceased, and the crowd howled louder. They praised the masked executioner, calling out for his worst. They shrieked at Saul to make this man pay for his crimes. They wailed for peace. They bellowed for this villain to suffer a worse pain than they suffered for so many years. Saul heard none of their noise, his focus levied upon the man bowed before him, bound and crying and pure. The man must have done terrible acts, acts so nasty they brought an entire community to agree they’d all be safer with this man dead, but not nasty enough that the crowd would take it upon itself to tear this man to bits. They requested a professional, and they got Saul. As he cocked his axe overhead, all voices fell silent. Saul breathed, holding the weapon high, studying the twitching creature before him, his eyes trained on the ideal target three vertebrae below the skull, the Fold as it’s called in executioner’s terms. Saul breathed. He could hear the convict’s whispered appeals to his god, the squashed huffs of a man in desperate panic who could not fight and could not fly. Saul breathed.
His swing came down swift and exact, a muscled flash, quick as a blink, cleaving the flesh so clean that the head hesitated falling away from its body. The crowd held in awe like a snuffed candle, smoldering and still. Saul’s father stood next to the magistrate, mouth agape and eyes wide at the placid, headless corpse before them. The crowd reignited and roared with renewed fury, incredulous that such a despicable wretch was allowed such a peaceful and humane death. The magistrate’s attempts to condemn the purity of Saul’s kill drowned in the din of indignities foaming from the mob. Saul’s father seemed incapable of response, stuck slack-jawed and stunned. Saul took it all in, the gravity of his failure tying knots in his chest and wringing every last bit of moisture from his tongue, until he saw the good Friar Bill, deep within the depths of the seething throng, dancing with fists above his head in victory and an ecstatic grin etched across his face. Saul beamed beneath his mask, victorious and oblivious to the mob’s stormy rage, as the downpour of rocks and shit filled the sky above him once more.