I can’t have been much more than a child when I saw my first execution; a hanging in the town square, a murderer, I believe. Townsfolk gathered. I was with my Uncle Clyde. Naturally, this was before his untimely incarceration years later for robbing that liquor store with Grandpa’s gun. Wasn’t even loaded; make of that what you will. I was towards the back of the melee; when the Sheriff read off the man’s list of crimes I struggled to hear, what with everyone hollering and cheering. What struck me most was the condemned boy’s eyes, the fear, the despair. But that was only fleeting. Right before the hood and noose swallowed him, the executioner stepped close to the man and whispered something into his ear. The prisoner turned, and all that fear, it drained out of his face like pus from a gangrenous wound. He looked serene, calm, ready to meet his maker with a smile on his lips. And meet his maker he did; only moments later he was twitching on the end of that rope like a bird caught in wire. And I couldn’t stop watching the executioner. Eye bluer than gemstones, he had tidied away his ropes like a musician putting away his instrument after a show. He climbed down from the gallows and smoked a little without speaking, before melting into the crowd.
What had he said to the doomed man in his final moments? What could give a man such peace at a time when Hell was tap tapping at the door?
As I grew older, I dreamed about those unheard words. I took a job for the prison service, and I witnessed three more executions. Times had moved on from the rope. I saw a mean cop killer go to the electric chair in 1927. You might have heard of him. He had looked real scared too. Had even been blubbering. The warden said something into his ear that, for all my straining, I simply could not discern. A warm cloud fell across the man’s eyes like jungle rain, and he sat back, content, and rode that lightning with all the concern of a pony-riding infant. The other two fellas went to the gas chamber for some botched bank robbery in Kansas City. Both times, the guards had dragged them in; wailing like oversized babies, barely able to place one foot in front of the other, until the warden entered the chamber. His lips moved close to each man’s ear, soothing a hurt dog or a bucking horse. Even stroked their hair. Made me think of my Mama in our handful of years together. Those boys went easy after that. Like they were going to a beautiful slumber.
How I wanted to know what you could say to the doomed man to get him to calm like that. It consumed me. My own life, like many others, fell to pieces; my job and marriage disappeared like that first hangman all those years ago, and I longed for those words to come to my ears, for someone to rest a hand atop my head and lead me into the light with a forgiving hand.
Now it’s my turn. They’ve strapped me to a gurney. My arm has been swabbed with alcohol. There’s a viewing gallery in front of me where sad and angry faces have come to watch. I have no interest in them, nothing to say. They could never understand. I only have eyes for the warden. He stands close and speaks to the room. I hear the truth of my sins. I remember it all. I only did it to get to this very moment. I wait for him to speak to me. My body crackles. Sweat builds. The lights are so bright, and… and I am afraid. I’d be shaking if it wasn’t for the restraints. I need those words now.
The warden kneels at my side.
He grips my shoulder in his hand, gentle. Reminds me of my Uncle Clyde in that screaming crowd all those years ago.
I feel his breath on my ear.
And then he speaks the final words that I will ever hear.