The Hangman

by Arijit Sen

The hangman was very old when the letter arrived asking him to return to work. The letter was on very thin paper and printed in dark ink that bled through and there were a mass of official stamps and signatures blotting the page. The hangman had retired fifteen years previously when he felt a slight tremor in his right hand. He was the son of a hangman and the grandson of a hangman and in his retirement he tended a small patch of land that grew potatoes and okra and enough grass to feed two goats.

The hangman had hanged twenty-seven people in forty-two years. For each he required two interviews with the inmate and five weeks to prepare. After speaking with the accused he would spend a week in the hills to the north gathering his thoughts. When convinced of the inevitability he would return to Calcutta and begin preparations. He filled gunny bags with sand approximating the prisoner's weight to judge the length of the noose and the number of knots required; a process he practiced over and over again till he got it perfectly right. On the mornings of the executions he would bathe and pray and dress himself in a new, crisp white kurta. He would speak to the prisoner after the priest had and ask him for any final thoughts. When the prisoner was ready the hangman would make his way outside and prepare the noose. He would coat the rope in soap and oil before affixing it to the beam overhead. Once he had prepared the noose he would smash two bananas on it and wait for the prisoner to appear.

He had hanged twenty-six men and one woman. The woman has been found guilty of murdering her in-laws by poisoning them with kerosene, before stabbing her husband in his sleep. The men had raped and murdered and committed acts of terrorism and treason.

The hangman did not have nightmares or regrets. He did not worry about the eternal fate of his soul. He did not think his profession was a divine calling to rid the world of evil. He was the only licensed hangman in the state of West Bengal and one of only three in the country. When he had been younger he wanted his son to follow in his footsteps as all fathers do, but he had acquiesced when his son became a mathematics teacher. He had allowed his son to marry a social worker instead of the farmer's daughter he had found for him. He was old and retired and had joined a travelling theater troupe for whom he played the roles of the blind king Dhritarashtra, the deluded King Lear, and B.R. Ambedkar.

When he arrived at Alipur Central Jail the hangman was struck by the stench of stagnant water and dankness and by the rotting waterlogged asbestos and the cheap rice and lentils and flour the prisoners ate. He shuddered while walking to the prisoner's cell, his shuffling gait not agile enough to escape the cockroaches skittering in the darkness. The prisoner had been imprisoned for nine years and on death row for three while officials looked desperately for an able hangman. The prisoner was thirty-three and had been a transport union worker. He had walked up behind an electoral competitor in a crowded tea-stall and chopped his head off with a machete. He had picked up the severed head by the hair and walked with it down the street to the police station where he had turned himself in.

The hangman was eighty-four and stooped over and his skin was a dark, deep brown. He had never been tall but had shrunken further with age. The prisoner was nearly six feet and fair-skinned and though thin from his stay in jail had broad shoulders and strong legs. The prison guard let the hangman in and waited outside the cell while the two met each other. The prisoner was huddled on the floor against the far corner, looking away from the hangman. The hangman squatted on his haunches and stared directly at the man he was going to kill. He waited for fifteen minutes but the prisoner never spoke. "How are you, my son?" he asked finally but the prisoner did not reply.

"My son is older than you," the hangman said after another long pause. "He is fifty-three. My grandson is nineteen. He is studying to be an accountant."

The prisoner groaned loudly and the prison guard turned to see if everything was alright. The hangman waved at him to stay. He continued looking at the prisoner for another forty minutes. Neither of the men said a word.

When an hour had passed the hangman stood up and looked at the prisoner kindly. "I will see you soon, my son," he said, then walked out, accompanied by the guard.

Outside the sun was fierce but in the distance, skulking over the Hooghly River, the hangman could see dark clouds. It was April and the summer was just beginning. "It's going to rain," the hangman said.

BIO: Arijit Sen is a PhD student at the University of Missouri. He's originally from Calcutta (before the name was changed), though he's also lived in Bombay and Madras (before their names were changed). His last known residence was Tempe, Arizona, and he is fully expecting its name to change soon. He is often to be found pretending to write a novel, though he's probably just watching Sportscenter. He's been published in Prick of the Spindle, Fractured West, Neon Magazine and others. His co-written television script was a finalist at the 2011 Trackingb contest.