Thursday, February 4, 2010

Shadow of the Noose - #fridayflash

Dawn pinked through grey clouds sending shades creeping along the base of the tall courtyard walls, with the gallows' long shadow serving as a grim sundial. It was almost time.

A light breeze cooled Nathan Hamilton's face through the bars but did not stir the heavy noose that now held his gaze. His eyes traced the curve of the rope looking from heavy knot, around and back again. The unexpected trill of a bird's call startled him back to awareness. His hands slid from the stone lip that barely jutted under the window and he turned back towards the man who was sitting on the rough cot that lay against the opposite wall.

"Are you tired, father?" Hamilton asked, his voice hoarse.

Father Maskie shook his head without looking up. He sat there without further movement, his hands clasped against his chest. After a while he raised his face to look at Hamilton, showing eyes that were reddened and damp.

"Is it morning already?" Father Maskie asked. "I'm sorry, my son, I should have let you rest."

Hamilton gave a derisive snort that turned into a cough. "Plenty of time for rest later," he said.

Father Maskie nodded solemnly. "I'm glad you agreed to talk to me," he said.

"I could hardly refuse you, Father," Hamilton replied. "By all accounts this will be the last execution they ever hold. The Italians have no stomach for a hanging."

"Are you certain you won't join me in a prayer?" Maskie asked. "Or I could take your confession."

Hamilton shook his head. "With all due respect Father, MY father would turn in his grave. He never cared for the Papacy."

"And yet here you are," the priest said.

"Aye," Hamilton nodded. "While my father was in the army back in England, he became acquainted with an Austrian mercenary by the name of Spenzler. He cashed himself out and served under Major Spenzler during various scuffles with the Prussians and the French. When he'd made enough for a stake he sent for mother and the rest of us. He said he chose to put down roots in Italy because there were too many old scores waiting to be settled in Germany."

"Soldiering is a hard life," Father Maskie observed, leaning slightly towards Hamilton.

"All life is hard," Hamilton fired back. "A man must become hard to make his way in life." He wrapped his arms about his body dramatically. "The comforting blanket of religion is neither broad nor deep enough to warm us all, Father."

"Indeed?" Maskie raised his eyebrows. "Perhaps the comfort of religion would have set you upon a path that was..." The priest's words trailed away.

Hamilton's eyes narrowed and his hands bunched into fists.

"Have a caution, Father." Hamilton spoke cooly, though his body trembled. "I know well the black pit wherein my stony heart lies and I have no need of your forgiveness nor your puny judgements neither. Do not presume to ease the guilt I feel for lives ended by my hand. Rather ease the weight of clouds from off the sky."

Father Maskie clenched his eyes shut briefly, then held his open palms towards Hamilton. "Oh sweet Lord pity this foolish man for his conceit. What arrogance he has. He would claim to fly like a bird while yet he falls into sin. Nathan Hamilton, have you no regret? Do you feel no shame?"

"No more!" Hamilton was shouting. "Nor yet again, Father. There is no contrition to be found here." He slapped his hand on his chest.

"Only because you refuse to let what IS there free, my son." Father Maskie's own hands were white-knuckled fists now and they shook alarmingly. "You MUST let me help you." The priest's body was bent almost double, his arms tight against his sides, rigid, his gaze fixed on Hamilton.

Hamilton's chest swelled with the breath to fuel strong words but he was cut short by a loud banging on the cell door. It opened and a guard entered, while another loitered in the corridor outside.

The guard sheepishly pulled his cap from his head, nodding at Father Maskie as he traced the sign of the cross on his chest. His eyes darted towards Hamilton then back to the priest. "It's time, Father. You must leave now."

Father Maskie lurched to his feet, but instead of approaching the door he went to Hamilton and grabbed the other man's arm in both of his hands. "I forgive you," he said, his voice rising. "God will grant you his forgiveness too if you'd only ask him for it. Don't be an arrogant fool. I can save you, my son."

"ME?" Hamilton shouted. He wrenched his arm away from the priest, sending him into an off-balance stagger that was only prevented from becoming a fall by the swift action of the guard, who gathered Father Maskie into his arms. "What about your sins, Father? Who will forgive those?"

Father Maskie strained against the guard's grip. "I am a righteous man, sinner, with clean hands and a pure heart. I perform the Lord's work." He shook his clasped hands in Hamilton's face. The black chains hanging from the manacles about the priest's wrists danced. "I didn't do anything wrong. I'm innocent!"

"That's what they all say," Hamilton sneered. He retrieved his black cloth hood from where it lay crumbled at the end of the prisoner's bed. "The Lord executeth righteousness and judgement for all that are oppressed. Nathan Hamilton executeth the rest."


  1. Oh, well done, well done. You crafted this piece so expertly that the ending surprised and shocked!

    Loved this line (among others, of course) "The comforting blanket of religion is neither broad nor deep enough to warm us all, Father."

    Last line? Powerful.

  2. The deep, immovable cynicism of the executioner was well presented. I pity both of them.

  3. The opening paragraph was just beautiful. I stopped myself, reread it just to savor your description.

    Powerful story. All through it I was wondering: if Nathanial was so derisive, why did he listen to the priest all night? Even with that nagging question, the ending surprised me (and I got my answer).

    This one will stay with me.

  4. Fantastic opening Anton that set up a very well-told story. I felt so much empathy for both Nathaniel and the priest, and what a great twisted ending! Bravo!

  5. Oh, I meant to say - love the new look!

  6. I also reread your opening paragraph, relishing the words and the images they brought to mind. The whole piece is made of gorgeous prose. NICE surprise ending! Very well done.

  7. The layers of backstory unavailable, yet hinted at are staggering. I'm marvelling at how well this works as a piece of flash with so much depth. Excellent.

  8. Very well done *clap clap*! I shudder to think of what the priest did that deserves a hanging, yet he feels he is justified. Interesting...and how he is trying to use his last breath to judge and save someone else instead of himself? Denial,arrogance,self-deception...all shifted from one character to the other in the end. Brilliant.

  9. Well, worth the wait, Mr. Gully.


  10. Well, well, well... quite a turn there. Anton, just a superb story. Peace, Linda

  11. Excellent story. Turning this on its head and twisting who was being executed was a brilliant twist.

  12. The first paragraph was pure song. Great twist and I loved the last line. I like Nathan, he's my kind of guy.

  13. Many thanks for the kind comments folks! My ancient mother figured this one out about half way through, but she's had to put up with my devious nature for the past forty-something years. Kat figured it out too. Anyone else?

    There WAS a back-story, involving the summary of the trial, recollections of life growing up in a small Italian village in contrast to the harsh life of the seminary. A young child violated and murdered - the first of a string of killings that terrorized the whole country. But I only had about 90 words to play with and I'm pretty lazy, so...

  14. Laura - Nathan only uses a rope, not a flaming sword!

  15. Very good - I'd like to see a longer version with those back-story elements added.

  16. Nice reflection. Good delivery. Many ways to wrap hands dramatically. Could have more detail, but already pushing the word limit. Strong ending.

  17. I was actually wondering if all was as it seemed, but I was enjoying your story so much I didn't want it to end, never mind wanting to know the ending. That Nathan Hamilton dude is one cool customer, somebody I don't really want hanging around on my bunk.

  18. "Many ways to wrap hands dramatically."

    I seriously have to check out the emotion thesaurus. It's a handy resource.

  19. You asked me to give you feedback sometime. It’s been a long few days for me and I’m low on brainpower, but I wanted to give your due. Hope this is helpful...

    You know I'm a minimalist editor. Incongruence and needless words distract me. In the second paragraph you describe a "light breeze" and then say "but did not stir the heavy noose." Well if it's a light breeze, of course it didn't stir a heavy noose. One being light and one being heavy make that apparent in a way the sentence structure doesn't reflect. I’m not nitpicking so much as trying to give an example of something I notice in a lot of your stories: it often feels like you have more details than appropriate places to put them. That also stands out in Paragraph 2 where you spend three sentences describing a noose when we already knew there were gallows, and have Nathan disregard it when he’s distracted by something as little as a bird twittering. It would be more salient if we returned to some of these images or items, like the breeze getting stronger or Nathan meditating on the noose during the conversation, making the early descriptions more important to the rest of the narrative. There was a period where I did this sort of thing all the time (and I still do it some of the time) – let’s say I wanted the light breeze and the heavy noose, I jam them together. The big question in description is usually what a detail gives to the story. What is the importance of the light breeze? The stone lip? Eyes being both reddened and damp, where neither detail is particularly original and either can express his long night and conflicted emotions? The question is compounded when potentially extraneous details follow the beautiful scene-setting description in the opening paragraph. It feels like you have more details than you know what to do with because after using Paragraph 1 to describe the world, you go back to describing the way it is Paragraph 2, even if 2 is about more immediate details. You might pick one or two more things, describe them under the influence of the cloud-light and “grim sundial” turning, before going into the dialogue.

    I don’t have much feedback for you on the dialogue. I’ve commented in the past that it’s the main attraction in your stories, sometimes the delivery mechanism for all the information, usually flowing more smoothly than the non-dialogue narrative to the point where non-dialogue just gets in the way. It didn’t feel like non-dialogue got in the way much when this got going. Good flow, with the primary quality being how many things work on a re-read.

    My instinct was to re-read the story to test the strength of the twist. That the Father asked to see his executioner was great. "And yet here you are," carries totally different meanings, at least to me, on first and second readings, which is also great. On the other hand, there are his hands. He's described as having them folded across his chest. Later he extends them to Nathan. Especially given that the story isn't minimalist, it feels like you cheated in describing his hands and arms multiple times while omitting something that was big, black and would probably make noise if not at least hinder any gestures he tried to make. It sprang to mind at the end and was confirmed when I read back over it.

    I do not, however, find the lack of explanation for whatever Paskie did to be a cheat. That is fair in building to the twist. It’s immaterial to the present of the story, to what happens in the cell, especially since Paskie puts emphasis on his executioner, not his own life. It speaks to the character, based on our stereotype of the confessional priest and the re-read of the priest-as-criminal. Rather than activating as a questionable part of the twist, it activates as a fun reason to re-read the story.

    Alright Anton, I hope this was helpful. If not, then I hope at least you see the amount of words I put into it as time spent trying to show you respect as a writer. Cheers!

  20. I love Wiswell's visits. [eyes above]

    Well, everyone covered anything I would say. The point is I read it all. I had the AHA! moment just like everyone else. And you know, I had a little smirk when I realized you didn't let me down. It could have been cliche as a priest talking to the condemned, but that is not the way of Anton Gully and that is exactly what keeps me coming back: the unexpected.

  21. John I'd happily write nothing but dialogue. I truly love doing it, but what I've been trying to do is a bit more scene-setting.

    Your point about more details than places to put them is well made. I do feel like I'm just throwing the odd sentence at the story and hoping it sticks. My natural instinct is to write sparse but nothing I read reads like that so I try to fake the detail.

    I hadn't written anything for a couple of weeks and I needed something quick to get me back in the habit. I gotta admit, I liked how it turned out but I should really try to polish more.

    As ever, many thanks for your comments. I understand what you're saying, the hard part is going to be implementing it.

  22. I thought this was a really enjoyable read. Many good things going on, even down to the excellent character names.

    "My natural instinct is to write sparse but nothing I read reads like that so I try to fake the detail."

    You should write true to yourself. It is always good to take feedback and try to improve, even to be inspired by other writers. However, if you feel like you're faking it you're going to lose what makes you special and unique as a writer. I say this as someone who has had to learn this delicate balance in one too many workshops, and as someone who sees a danger (totally outweighed by the benefit) in Friday Flash. I think there might be a certain tendency to write for the particular audience, as opposed to trusting our intincts. Anyway, this is actually a long-winded way of saying you should trust yourself.

  23. Like this Anton. Lyrical first line and it keeps getting stronger. I thought the priest would pull something but hadn't expected that.

  24. Save that man for more stories! I like Nathan. I want him to flee from the noose and live on.

    Straight From Hel

  25. Eeeeeexcellent
    You certainly got me, very nicely done

    Aside: I think my natural instinct is to write sparse too.

  26. Great piece Anton with a neat end. Well done.