The following is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress. Any feedback you might have is welcome.
Barnaby woke suddenly, gasping and lurching up from the bed. It was the same every night: the soft thunk and the creak of the wood the only sounds falling into the silence, and Adlai’s purpling face swinging from that damn rope. A curl of yellow dust, disturbed by the man’s brief fall and precipitous halt, rose into the air, against a clear sky and a sun so hot that it burned away the heavenly blue into a ghastlywhite.
The hanging of Adlai Grainger had been a humble affair. The tiny town that it had occurred in had no gallows; had never had use for them. So they had erected the tree in a rush, and with no platform, had simply stood the man in the back of a hay wagon and then taken a switch to the rears of the two horses, causing them to leap forward. He remembered Adlai’s heels dragging along the wood of the cart as it moved forward and the noose lost its slack, and then they fell into space. Only briefly, though. Then they danced in midair, the same dance as danced by countless dead men before him.
This improvised gallows resulted in a short-drop hanging… possibly the cruelest execution available to the authorities at the time. Adlai had struggled in the air for around ten minutes, his face swelling and his eyes bulging and desperate. His feet kicked and then jerked helplessly as the strength drained from him, and though his hands were tied behind his back, his shoulders jerked up and down.
Barnaby had often wondered at the fear his brother must’ve felt as his feet dragged along the wooden planks. He wondered at what those ten excruciating minutes had been like, and whether he dreamed in the five minutes after he lost consciousness but before death set in. Did he see anything? Was it beautiful? Did he get a moment’s feeling of peace before the end came?
It was the one thing he could never forget, and he felt that he knew so little about it.
It was that day, at the young age of nineteen, that Barnaby had learned about the bright line between life and death. Contrary to the ideas his mother had put in his head, there was no easing, no process of passing from life to death. One moment you were alive, and the next you were dead. It was obvious in that instant that Adlai had died. There were no doubts or questions. It was as though one could see the hole left in him where his soul had been. The spirit no longer animated the face and it was slack; even distorted by the violence of a slow strangulation, it no longer looked like Adlai. It looked like a crude sculpture of him, or like some kind of strange human-sized reptile. Like a death mask. Even the smell of shit and death and sweat seemed to hit suddenly.
Barnaby had met death before. As a young man on the bush homestead, he had been responsible for hunting, for slaughtering livestock, and during the drought, for mercy killings of animals as well. But it was different for animals than it was for people. The light in a human face was the same but so much more intense than that in an animal’s face, and the loss at seeing it so suddenly flown was so much keener.
Barnaby found the whole thing strange. After the light left his brother’s eyes, he didn’t feel sad. He did feel an immediate emptiness, a loneliness, that this familiar man was gone, but there was no fear, no grief. Just a feeling of absence uncolored by emotional overtones. He also found it strange that so many of the townsfolk had gathered to see the event take place; much like the rough cross outside the church, it seemed to engender a kind of worship of death among the viewers. Such reverence for a thing so very ordinary, and also so incredibly extraordinary.
Adlai had been hanged for murder, theft, and general marauding. After the government had been unable to offer help to their family after a drought killed off all their sheep and most of their goats, Adlai had taken to the life of an outlaw in an attempt to keep the family from starving. He kept away most of the time, sleeping out and sometimes staying among the aboriginies. But when he came back to the homestead once too often, the authorities were ready for him, and they interrupted a family meal of mutton and gravy and good bread.
Barnaby, who their mother had described as a good, solid boy, but not terribly bright, had also been arrested. He had not gone roving with his brother, but had stayed home, working to get the flocks out to pasture and toting water for the vegetable garden. But the government would not accept their mother’s word on the matter and both boys were sentenced to hang. For their mother, the farm would be confiscated, and she would likely die in a poorhouse somewhere.
They executed Adlai just a few days later. The boys had been incarcerated in separate cells in a makeshift jail at the nearest town. The morning of the hanging dawned bright and heated up early, and Barnaby himself had watched the spectacle from the back of the hay wagon, with his own wrists tied behind his back. Because if fate had not intervened, Barnaby would’ve been next. In this case, fate took the form of a slight and quick man with a flour sack over his head, who leapt onto the back of one of the horses and kicked the thing into a mad lather, escaping with both horses, the wagon, and with Barnaby.