Conjunctions:45 Secret Lives of Children

The gallows is the highest thing for miles. I empire the sky. It’s gray as brains, puzzled by breezes.

     Below, it’s gray too, but simpler. The field is monotonous with thistles. A thong of schoolchildren in uniforms trample them, socks mud starred. Their heads are thrown back, mouths open. It looks like they want me to feed them, sounds like crying. Really it is speech, a reduced language consisting of the names of letters. These are long, difficult words. Pronouncing them correctly takes a child’s full strength, though they sound only two notes, sometimes rising, sometimes falling, like the names of lost dogs. These calls have no answers. This is good speech for solitude.

     A name like a smoke ring floats up: O. After it is all over, one thick-waisted girl hunches over, bubbling wetness from her nose. O sounds the way my head feels, like a hole the day deflates through. I have no face, only some edges for what I’m on the outside of. I am hollow and round, like a mouth, a mouth making that disappointed sound, O.

     I would like to say there is no hangman, like this is between me and the children. But there is always a hangman. In a hood, what else, with the requisite trinity of slits forming a sly QED, balanced on its fulcrum. He has an answer for everything. “No,” the hangman says.

     The thick-waisted girl wipes her nose, her face blank.

     In front of the gallows, where a thin shadow ticks and tocks, there’s a hole in the ground the size and shape of a door. Inside, torso, arms, and legs. Breasts, too, if I’m not mistaken—splayed mounds. Already I’m sure she’s beautiful. Even the kids feel it.

     Wrong once already, though, they are uneasy. They look up and to the side as if hoping to crib answers written there. Their feet treadle, moiling the mud. Finally, a long girl with thick, trembling knees pushes her hair behind her ears, clears her throat, and gins out a reedy E. Her chin turns pink and dimpled. She jabs it upward to give her guess a final push, then sinks back. Her oblong cheeks go spotty. She blushes birthmarks, then hurls herself out of the crowd to retch.

     But she’s right. The hangman descends the stairs with the iambic pace of a bride, one tow, one two, settling both feet together on each riser before venturing the next step. There is a noticeable pause to aim before the final launch into the thistles. The hangman’s long despondency is rolled up the calves and secured with red rubber bands, a practical measure against mud and thistles. The bare ankles are thick and yellowish. A thorn has signed the recto in blood.

     Groaning delicately, the hangman stoops over the grave, unhooking from its holster a small whisk broom. The hangman is, I decide, a woman. Some ease in the hips upon bending establishes this for me.

     Only the first row of children can see into the grave. But I, aloft, have a clear view. As the hangman frisks the straws back and forth, she gradually bares a pair of muddy young breasts, surcurves red, undercurves pale. Their nipples have been harried to hardness by the bristles. When every clod has been chased to one side, the hangman stands up, hooking the broom onto the belt again, and stumps back up the stairs.

     The children surge forward all together, to the very edge of the grave. The front row brace their legs and link arms, though they, too, are craning their necks. Two breasts look up from the dirt.

     Earlier, I breakfasted with the kids in the communal eatery, and we tucked into some buckwheat pancakes. The hangman moved among the tables, already hooded, whisking her skirts around her more vivaciously than seemed fitting for the occasion. She had her favorites among the children, stooping over these maternally and seeming to whisper, though when I too felt her long sleeves brush against my back, she merely nudged and pointed, nodding vigorously, at the pancakes. I nodded. The children nodded. Nods all round. Sixty-some shoes knocked on wood. It was convivial until I passed the syrup, remarking, “Syrup, unusual vowel patterns. Tricky.” After that the children ate in silence, barely cracking their jaws to admit the buttery forkfuls. Please, they seemed to say. We can handle this.

     Earlier, I said, but that must be a lie. With what mouth would I eat pancakes? With what stomach digest them? I’m just a zero on a rope. I empire in the sky? It empties in me. The light, if there’s light, passes right through me.

     A breeze comes up and the rope smacks the riser. It snags on a long splinter.

     “I,” someone shouts, like a volunteer. A bony boy’s eyes widen. He looks surprised to be speaking. “I?” he asks. “I,” he answers, putting all of himself into it. His lips peel back. His teeth air-dry, his gums go white. The other kids fall silent. His solo, a siren, is thin as my body: a naked spine, or a plumb line showing which way down is.

     The hangman jerks the rope smartly, freeing it from the snag. “No,” she says, but I don’t need her to tell me that. It’s all there in the letter I, the word that starts as a sigh and ends as a scream.

     A flurry of rain dots the muddy breasts with pink.

     Here’s what I think: she’s buried treasure, tricky with glyphs and gold. She’s salt of the earth, sugar and spice; she’s a brick outhouse, with curtains; she’s a long stretch of unmarked beach where something great has washed up. She’s ridged like a palate, and her wet parts are tongue colored, but she’s not just a rubbery friend for the mouth. Name your pleasure: gobs of honeyed poppyseed, form-flattering swimwear, aviaries, a radiant plastic bag flouncing in a tree, rumps being cornholed, sardines: that’s her. You have no idea how big she is. Even naked she never unfurls all the way, though you curry her till she purrs. 

     But the name escapes me. I look for clues. Sometimes I study the gallows itself: its simple lines off true, its thin splintered beams, of some cheap untreated wood, never meant to last, though it has obviously been standing a long time already, since the wood, maybe pine, has gone a bluish gray from exposure and is probably rotten at the core, just pulp; I can in fact see it bend when I swing, and can’t help hoping it will crack, though I know it won’t.

     My attention moves on to the rope: an appendage, or the riddle itself? The knot: the knot?

     The hangman: her large dry hands, her somewhat scaly ankles are familiar. I might have thought I knew her from somewhere, if I had ever been anywhere but here, on this rope. Together, we face the children, and there is almost a companionable feeling up here on the gallows. I wonder if she could possibly be an ally, but then she slaps the rope against the upright and bellows, “Come on, kids, take another stab at ‘er!”

     The children resume coughing their guesses against the alphabet. A girl sinks to her knees, and stays there, as if in prayer. I acquire an arm, slant as the side of an A, the scapegoat word that singles one out of a crowd, but not by name. The rope tightens. A big boy with a varnished coif sits down with his back to the crowd, sloped shoulders shaking.

     She acquires an arm. If she gains a second, it means I do not. If I do, she doesn’t. Ordinate abscissa, we are each other’s complement. Everything she isn’t, I am.

     The kneeling girls tilts. I acquire an arm.

     The kneeling girl falls.

     To figure out her name, it would suffice to figure out mine. But we don’t have that much time.

     The children are wary again. Raindrops blister their foreheads. Slowly, they begin to ready themselves for another round, hawking and spitting. Finally, a girl with curvy, accomplished hair rises to her toes, stretches her pink throat from her Peter Pan collar, thrusts her neat ribcage, tenses her curved arms like a flamenco dancer. She poses so long like this that the children nearby bundle their ties into their mouths and look at her. “J,” she lilts, jaunty and facetious. Her voice is almost inaudible, but the lull buoys it up like rising water. A little blood pearls in the setting of her nostril, then melts down her upper lip. Her tongue comes out and takes it carefully as if she needs it. It is a strange and risky guess, but she seems calm. When the hangman shakes her head, she smiles.

     J is a barbed letter. Teeth come into it. It can be perpetrated through clenched jaws and a dental smile, the one she wears like a badge as I shake a leg that’s hooked at the end like a J.

     With a leg, I find, I can swing, or rather twist, and this movement gradually intensifies until I am rotating from side to side a full 180 degrees. I see that the plain is forested with gibbets, each with its partial scapegoat and moaning crowd, that the muddy ground is gaping with graves. Here and there a school bus idles on a paved roundabout.

     In the next grave over, a beautiful girl hears her name and sits up. She brushes dirt off her lashes, shakes her hair, reaches up a small hand to the disappointed but courteous hangman, and rises out of the dirt, naked and clean as a crocus. Look, her ribs flare, her diaphragm flutters. Her small hairs rise with the wind. She lives. 

     I envy her? Yes. I would like to staple something. Dice a hard green apple. Ants: do they taste nice? I’d like to familiarize myself with the way things get smaller as they go farther away, so they fit inside smaller, closer things, like the chinks between fingers or the slits in an executioner’s hood. But there are only two possible endings to this game. 1. She leaves me hanging. 2. We both die.

     Now, at the next grave over, one of the children is stepping forward, shouldering gamely out of his too small navy blue school jacket, unbuttoning his white shirt, baring his cotton vest, but wait, he has forgotten his tie, garroting him now; we all see his fingers slow on the knot; he is thinking, I am sure, of the noose, so much tighter than the tie that is already unpleasantly constricting his windpipe; his blood beats in his temples, a headache flares up behind his right eye, his ears redden; his fingers pluck and figure, they yank the still tie flap through; triumphant, he beams; his thin shoulders are revealed, his narrow chest, the ribs trembling; he unfastens his belt and his trousers slide down in one movement; with a magician’s smoothness, he unties his shoes, kicks them off, steps out of the sideways 8 of the pangs, pulls the white briefs down his hard, skinny flanks; he has pubic hair, a little; his penis is retracted from the cold; he plucks at it surreptitiously, to coax it into proudness; it responds, sufficiently; he walks to the edge of the grave.

     He takes off his socks, drops them behind him.

     He waves away the hangman’s extended hand, jumps in.

     These are also words: hangman, gallows. Grave is a word. Death is. But that does not make them any less mortal, though mortal is also a word.

     A patch of light races toward us from far away. In an instant we are in it and everything slows and is golden and outlined in light. The gibbet and its incomplete burden is inked on the ground below. The shadow of the hangman in her hooded robe is the shape of a tongue. It moves back and forth as if trying to find something to say.

     The children cry out. If one of them says my name, perhaps entirely by accident, does that mean I am forgive?

     The hangman’s shadow grows, as if it ate guesses. It stretches across the grave. It laps at the children’s feet.

Shelley Jackson is the author of Riddance (Black Balloon), Half Life (HarperCollins), The Melancholy of Anatomy (Anchor), hypertexts including Patchwork Girl (Eastgate Systems), and several children’s books, including The Old Woman and the Wave (DK) and Mimi’s Dada Catifesto (Clarion Books). She is known for her cross-genre experiments, most notably SKIN, a story published in tattoos on 2,095 volunteers.