It was a good day for a hanging. Blue sky, white clouds—hotter than a sticky bun in the sun. Even the dirt they kicked up hung low on the road, too sapped by the heat to rise any higher. There were a lot of people walking into town today. Wagons rolled by, pulled by sweaty horses, and up ahead Mattie could see a crowd already gathered outside of town.
It was Mattie’s first hanging. Pop finally agreed he was old enough. His brothers had been going for years, and they went often. They’d been to even more hangings than Pop now, who didn’t go very much anymore. But Mama still wanted him to wait.
“Just another year, Frank. He’s so much smaller than Tip and Benny were.”
“Smaller don’t mean anything,” Pop said squarely. “Fair’s fair. Them both was eight. Now that he’s eight, if Mattie wants to go, he can go.”
And Mattie did want to go, very much, so he went.
Uncle Jeb said it was about damn time. “Y’all don’t know how to raise real men around here.” His voice sounded like pebbles caught in his throat. “Time I was eight I seen half a dozen hangings.”
“One of ‘em was your brother’s, and that don’t count,” Pop said a little angrily, a little wearily. Mama made a tiny scream sound and walked away, not looking at Pop.
“Sure it do. Should count double, shouldn’t it?” Uncle Jeb barked again.
“Well, seeing’s Mattie don’t got any kin’s been hanged, that’s two less he should have than you,” Pop grumbled.
At this point Tip had puffed out his cheeks and crossed his eyeballs in the spitting image of Uncle Jeb, and Mattie had laughed. Uncle Jeb laughed too, a great gravelly mess of hacking and coughing, and said, “You’re ready, son. Laughing’s the first step to gettin’ pleasure out of anything.”
Now Mattie could hear laughing from further ahead on the road. Tip and Benny had run up to say hey to some school friends. The unspoken agreement was that Mattie wouldn’t bother them, so he stayed by Pop’s side and skipped a little to keep up. In the late morning glare they couldn’t see their shadows yet. Mattie picked up a stone and threw it ahead, nicking one of the wagon horses’
legs; Pop told him to quit it or he’d get a good slap. So he just kicked up more low-lying dust and trotted along to the town’s edge.
The gallows was by a pair of big oak trees near the schoolhouse where Mattie went whenever there wasn’t work to do at home. It was not as big as Mattie thought it would be. It creaked as the hot wind blew ladies’ skirts around their legs and sent hats spiraling down into the dust. People were bunched up in little groups nearby, talking and twittering and glancing around. Some were carrying picnic baskets.
Mattie wondered which were the criminal’s family; Benny had said that the families of the hanged men sometimes came to watch, like Uncle Jeb had done. He said the mamas and babies always cried; that was how you could tell. A woman in a blue bonnet was holding a handkerchief over her mouth; maybe she was kin. Or the crying little girl in the white apron? No, she had just fallen in the mud; that was why she was crying. He turned all around, scanning the gathering crowd with narrowed eyes. He’d probably be able to tell once the criminal came.
“Mattie!” Benny was tugging on his sleeve. “We found a good spot right up by the front!”
Mattie felt a little thrill shimmy down his spine.
“He can stay right here with me,” said Pop, leaning against one of the oak trees.
“But, Pop, he won’t see nothin’ back here! We got a good spot,” Tip insisted.
“You can come too,” Benny added.
Pop smiled a little. “Ah, go ahead. I’ll stay back here in the shade’s what I’ll do.”
Tip and Benny beamed and took off like shots. Mattie dashed after them, almost falling flat on his face in the dust, but Pop grabbed him at the last minute and set him back on his feet with a good-natured kick in the behind. The twins didn’t wait; their friends Will and Albert were already at their spot, right in front of the gallows. Mattie secretly felt very proud that he was finally worthy to watch a hanging with four twelve-year-olds.
“Hey! Hey!” muttered Will. “I think the cart’s coming.”
Mattie spun around and faced the town. A thrum of excitement was rising from the gathered crowd, and standing on tiptoe Mattie could see a small wagon pulled by a single horse with four
people sitting inside. It lurched forward patiently, and the man next to Mattie grunted, “No one’s gettin’ no younger over here.”
The criminal was sitting between the sheriff and the reverend; Mattie could tell it was him because he was dirtier than the other men, and he was looking down at his boots the whole time. When they pulled past Mattie could see his hands were tied up with thick brown rope. The sun made the sweat on his face glimmer. Mattie gasped with delight.
“There’s him,” he said aloud.
“Hush up,” said Tip, licking his lips.
A wrinkled apple soared through the air and hit the criminal on the head. Mattie grinned; his brothers had told him about this part! He looked around for something to throw too, but Benny put a hand on his shoulder and whispered, “Not yet.” Then the reverend held up one of his hands to the crowd, and Mattie understood. Later was the time for throwing. Now the criminal was still wheeling up to the gallows, shining in the sun.
When they got to the foot of the steps leading up to the main platform, the cart stopped. The sheriff got out, and then the criminal, and then the reverend, and then the other man that Mattie had never seen before. He was taller than anybody Mattie knew, with thick arms and slightly hunched shoulders. He was carrying something. More rope. The noose! There it was, in the man’s arms!
“Who’s that man?”
“The hangman,” said Tip.
The hangman! Mattie tingled and stamped his feet as he stared. His face sagged a little, like stretched leather, and his round yellowy eyes looked tired. But how big he was! He was a lot taller than Pop, and probably a lot stronger, too. And his hands—oh, his hands! They were the biggest, widest hands Mattie had ever seen, with long brown fingers and veins half popping through the skin.
He towered over the sheriff and the reverend and especially over the criminal, who seemed tiny now, but didn’t look at anybody. He just slouched up the creaky steps with the noose in his great big
hands and started tying it to the top post, tall enough to reach it without going on his tiptoes. Mattie clapped his hands with pleasure.
As the criminal walked up the steps, Benny threw a fistful of acorns into the air. They landed with little clacking sounds around the criminal’s feet. Someone behind Mattie threw another apple, and a great surge of shouts and whistling rose up with it. Mattie couldn’t see a single thing to throw, so he scraped his fingers in the dusty ground and threw a handful of dirt at the criminal as
the sheriff led him along the platform. Most of it didn’t reach the gallows but spread out in the air like a whispy cloud, blowing back
into the crowd’s shouting faces. Benny started coughing on it and smacked Mattie’s ear as punishment.
The sheriff started speaking to the crowd, but Mattie wasn’t listening; he was staring up at the sweaty, dirty criminal in awe. He was skinnier than Mattie had originally realized, and younger too,
with dark eyes and hair that stuck up like a haystack. He was still staring down at his boots, but Mattie saw those dark eyes flicker up a few times, looking out at everybody there. Mattie hoped the criminal would see him! He knew what he would do; he would stick out his tongue.
The sheriff stopped talking, and the reverend moved forward and put his hands on the criminal’s shoulders. The criminal looked him in the eyes and nodded a few times. Then the hangman came up behind him and slipped the noose around his neck.
At first, it didn’t seem like the criminal had even noticed. Then his chest started to rise and fall faster and faster and faster, and his knees buckled a little, and Mattie thought that he was going to
fall down. The reverend squeezed his shoulders and stepped back, and the criminal lurched after him. But the sheriff grabbed him by the arm and held him in place while the hangman tugged on the rope. The knot didn’t budge.
Benny nudged Mattie and wiggled his eyebrows excitedly. Mattie grinned back but he really just wanted to watch the criminal, who was now visibly shaking as he stood. The hangman came up behind him again with a white sack and started to drop it over his head, but at this the crowd began to shout even louder.
“No hood!” a deep voice boomed from behind.
“No hood! No hood!” echoed Will and Albert.
Then Tip and Benny joined in, and the two ladies next to them, and almost everybody after that. Mattie bobbed his head and shouted too, and the hangman looked at the sheriff. The sheriff
shrugged and nodded. The hangman pulled the sack off the criminal’s head and let it fall to the platform floor. Then the sheriff walked back down the steps, and the reverend followed him, and the hangman turned toward the wood lever by the edge of the platform.
The criminal was crying openly now, pretty pearly tears falling down his young face. A dark spot was blooming on the front of his trousers.
“Ah, he’s pissing himself!” Albert groaned with relish. “Take it like a man!”
“Take it like a man!” Mattie muttered. “Take it like a man!”
The crowd was laughing and whistling and calling. One of the ladies next to Benny was pointing at the criminal’s crotch, giggling, while the other looked revolted. Another apple smacked into the criminal’s wet face and exploded in a shower of red, and then Mattie realized it wasn’t an apple at all, it was a tomato, and the criminal’s face was turning red like the tomato had been, and then the floor opened up and swallowed the criminal up to his waist. Above the shrieks of the crowd Mattie heard the dull thwang of the rope tautening, and suddenly he was staring into the widest set of eyes he’d ever seen, still leaking tears, the little veins exploding in tomatoey showers of red. Those eyes bugged out of a purple face, perched crookedly atop this dancing, jerking body that wriggled
and twisted like a hooked worm out of water, banging against the trapdoors that had opened just a second ago but held eternity inside.
“He’s still pissing!” Benny’s voice was a mix of wonder and disgust. But all Mattie could see was a face a hundred thousand miles wide, filling every inch and corner of the world. That churning face, leaking tears and sweat and spittle and snot, still glowing in the sunlight like a hot coal burning and burning but not hot enough to burn the noose away. And those eyes, those dark flitting eyes, had locked onto Mattie!
Mattie opened his mouth to stick out his tongue, but nothing came out, except for a strange high sound that sounded like a little girl. A baby. A baby was screaming in his mouth. And the criminal’s mouth was gaping open too, so they were both staring at each other with open mouths and wide eyes and the criminal was shaking all over and Mattie was shaking all over except there was no rope around Mattie’s neck. But then somebody’s hand was on his shoulder and oh it felt like a rope!
“Mattie! Quit that racket, will ya?” Benny shook him and clapped a hand over his lips. And Mattie wished somebody would clap a hand over the criminal’s lips, wagging and puckering like a leech’s, but nobody wanted to touch him. He was dancing slower, spinning in little half circles inside the trapdoors with an ugly graceful beauty that Mattie suddenly hated. Round and round he spun as people whooped and coughed and cried—the ladies next to Benny were covering their eyes with their cloud white hands—until the rope was still, and the criminal hung limp, only twitching a little bit now, his bubble eyes still locked without seeing onto Mattie.
Until the only moving thing on the platform was the gentle rise and fall of the hangman’s shoulders, his Goliath hand still resting on the lever.
Will spit into the dust. “It’s done,” he said dutifully.
Albert and Tip and Benny spit too. “It’s done.”
“God rest his soul.”
“God rest his soul.”
Mattie couldn’t spit. At first he thought maybe it had dried up, but then Benny pulled his hand away from Mattie’s mouth and wiped it on Mattie’s sleeve, asking him just what did he think he was playing at by slobbering all over his hand.
“Ah, look, fellas! Mattie pissed himself too!”
Mattie looked down and saw a big dark splotch running down the legs of his trousers. Will and Albert just about laughed themselves silly at this, and Benny grinned a little, but Tip cuffed him gently on the ear and told him not to worry about it; they’d be going home soon.
“BENJAMIN! THOMAS! MATTHEW!”
“Well, there’s Pop,” said Benny. “Sorry, fellas. We’ll come for Sunday dinner one of these weeks, I bet.”
The older boys shook hands and parted. Mattie had in mind to follow them but his legs didn’t seem to be right. He looked up at the platform again. The hangman was reaching up his branch-like arms to untie the noose, fingers working nimbly but not making any difference; he reached into his belt, pulled out a knife, and with a few sharp jerks sawed the rope away. The criminal’s head whacked against the trapdoors as he followed his feet to the ground with a crumpled thud. The hangman plodded heavily down the stairs and bent low under the platform; the sheriff joined him and together they picked up the criminal and carried him out into the open air.
Most people were leaving, or had moved underneath the oak trees for some shade, so Mattie could see the odd little group staggering under the criminal’s dead weight—heavy for such a tiny man!—and drag him over to the cart again. The sheriff dropped his feet for a moment to retrieve a big burlap sack, and the hangman scooped up those skinny legs and carried the criminal by himself all the way to the cart. Carried him like a bride. And all the while the criminal’s bubble bug eyes stared straight up at the hot sky until the sheriff came back and helped the hangman slip him into the sack, the noose still cutting into his red hot neck.
Something grabbed Mattie by the collar, and he screamed because it must be a rope. But it was just Pop, who yanked his hand and said they were going home for dinner and that he’d better change his trousers real quick before Uncle Jeb could needle him. Before he whipped around Mattie saw the hangman wiping his hands on his trousers and following the sheriff into the cart again, one giant hand resting on the sack that carried the criminal away.
On the way home Tip and Benny said they didn’t think the criminal had had any family, not around here anyway, but then Tip remembered the two ladies who couldn’t look at him dancing and
said maybe they were kin? Then Benny said no, they were laughing at the start and nobody’s kin laughs at a hanging, that’s just for other folks. And Tip made a terrible hacking sound and said he wondered if Uncle Jeb had laughed at his brother’s hanging when he was a boy, and Pop told him to shut it before they got home because their mother wouldn’t stand talk like that.
Tip looked into Mattie’s face and asked him if he was feeling any good. Mattie nodded. Pop clapped him on the shoulder.
“Justice is justice,” he said. “It ain’t pretty, that’s the truth. But any man in this country has got to know what justice is, what it looks like, so he always knows what the rules are. There’s rules, always rules, and you gotta follow ‘em, and you gotta ‘nforce ‘em.”
And Mattie realized he had gotten justice all wrong in his head, like he’d misspelled it or something, except with the meaning not the writing. And so he said the word over and over, inside and
outside, justice justice justice, as they walked home in the heavy heat – shadows lengthening before them – and all through dinner, and all through the afternoon, and all through supper. Justice. Justice. Justice. He wrote it in the dirt by the barn and whispered it to the pigs, trying to see it in his head the way he saw words like barn and pig in his head when he thought about them. And when Tip and Benny asked him to be the chief in their Sheriffs and Indians game, he picked the name Justice. But when it came time for the chief to get shot by the sheriffs, Mattie had to punch Tip because his brother didn’t realize that you couldn’t kill Justice!
“Yeah, but you’re not justice,” said Tip angrily. “That’s just a name. You’re a man, and you can kill a man.”
Then Benny tied some string around Mattie’s neck and said that Indian chiefs got hanged under the law because there’s rules, always rules, and you gotta follow ‘em, and you gotta ‘nforce ‘em. He told Mattie to jerk around like he was being hanged, and Mattie tried, but when he saw the criminal dancing in his head he felt like he’d get dizzy from all the spinning. Uncle Jeb came out and saw what they were doing and laughed his messy, coughing laugh.
“Learned a few things today, didn’t you, boy?” he growled. “What we do with crooks and criminals who don’t live by the law.”
“Justice,” said Mattie.
Uncle Jeb laughed again. “You sure seen some justice today! Nothin’ like a hot drop and a quick stop does the job.”
Mattie wanted to ask when he had seen justice today—what it had looked like—so he could remember it and keep it in his head, but he didn’t want Uncle Jeb to laugh at him anymore. He thought about it as he lay in bed, listening to Tip and Benny breathing. He thought about the sheriff and the reverend and the hangman, how big the hangman was, how strong, how sure, how steady his hands were on the lever. That was justice! The hangman’s brown-fingered hands.
But in Mattie’s dreams those hands turned bright, bright red as they pulled the lever, like the tomato had exploded on the hangman and not on the criminal. The criminal began to dance and sway to the music of Mattie’s own keening; he tried to stop making the sound, clapped his own hand over his mouth, but the screaming music continued rising up from inside of him. Tip and Benny and the other boys were spitting onto the ground, singing “it’s done, it’s done, it’s done,” but their spit looked like blood. Hot wind whipped up the skirts of the two ladies who covered their eyes, and Mattie felt something trickling down his legs, and he saw something trickling down the dancing criminal’s legs. But the criminal kept spinning, and Mattie kept screaming, and the wind kept blowing, and all the while the hangman kept that lever pushed down, looking at Mattie with patiently angry eyes that glowed like fiery justice!
He woke up covered in piss and sweat and spittle again, and he went out to relieve himself. When he came back Benny and Tip were awake and asked him what was wrong, but when he opened his mouth to answer he felt like he would throw up, so he shook his head and crawled onto his wet cot, shivering.
In the morning Mama shook him awake because it was Sunday and they had to go to service. She wrinkled her nose at the smell of urine but didn’t say anything about it, which Mattie thought was so nice he almost wept with relief. He was very tired and had a hard time staying awake in service until he noticed the big cross on the back wall and suddenly envisioned a noose hanging from one of the posts. The preacher was talking about the merciful justice of God. Mattie wondered why God would be merciful when He could have justice instead. Justice on people like that criminal who were so bad, terribly bad, that they needed the glorious hand of justice to take them away. Mattie realized he didn’t know what the criminal had done but that it must have been really, really terrible. Awful. The worst thing. And it was good that such a man got justice.
And then he wondered what Jesus had done to get justice so bad that He had to have nails in His hands and feet. It seemed like Jesus had done nice things and hadn’t hurt anybody and was God’s
Son, but He must have done something bad. And Mattie wondered why everybody was so sad about Jesus dying like that, because He only could have died like that if He was like the criminal, because only criminals get justice, and oh Jesus didn’t that cross look like a gallows!
He shook and shivered in the pews. He wanted to leave, because staring at that cross was making his head hurt and his stomach ache. He didn’t want to think about the dancing criminal anymore, but every time the preacher said Jesus he thought about him, and every time the preacher said justice he thought about the hangman’s hands. Benny and Tip kept looking over at him with frowns on their faces, but he didn’t say anything to them, didn’t move a muscle until it was finally time to go and he could half-run out of the church into the scalding sun outside.
It was hotter than a lick off hell’s whip. Uncle Jeb, who didn’t go to church, was waiting for them when they got back for dinner. Pop complained that just because he was his wife’s invalid brother didn’t mean he couldn’t help out with a few things round the place, but Mama insisted that nobody would want to eat Jeb’s cooking anyway, and Pop told Jeb to help set up the table but Jeb said he was no little girl, have Mattie do it. Mattie forgot to tell Uncle Jeb that he was no little girl neither and set the table.
“Mattie’ll make a fine housewife one day,” said Jeb as he sat his great girth down in a chair, watching the preparations with beady eyes.
“Let off him, Jeb,” Mama warned.
“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that,” Jeb continued. “Takes plenty of skill, don’t it? Lots of skill, no strength, perfect for smart little Mattie here.”
“ There’s plenty of good choices for boys with skills,” said Tip kindly. “Mattie’ll be a doctor, I bet.”
“He’ll get strong, just you wait,” Benny added, nudging Mattie in the ribs. “He’ll get bigger and stronger than you, Uncle Jeb!”
“ Eh? Boy! What do you want to be someday, when you’re a big strong man like your uncle?” Jeb sneered.
“A hangman,” said Mattie.
And Uncle Jeb leaned back his head and laughed and laughed, his belly shaking and his chin dancing as the sound of pebbles and coughing filled their kitchen and bled out into the hot blue sky.