Exclusive excerpt from Vorrh 2 by B. Catling
OL LONGFELLAR, ADAM AND A PREVAILING BREEZE: AN EXTRACT FROM THE ERSTWHILE, VORRH 2
Execution techniques vary widely and cultural preferences do not always travel well. Such was the case in Essenwald. The twentieth century’s fashion for enclosing the act and making it clandestine and elitist was not well-receive d among the ancient tribes of the African continent. They wanted, demanded something more theatrical, lavish in its spectacle and democratically available to all.
This was, of course, perfectly acceptable for the execution of slaves and black-skinned criminals, but abhorrent in the case of European felons. No civilized man should expect to face a savage, non-Christian mob, no matter the crime. The first time a white condemned man was dispatched, it was behind canvas screens. There was a near riot. The denial of the public ritual was stronger than the sense of racial injustice, but each amplified the other. Four died during that night of outrage that so threatened the tenuous stability of a far-flung empire. Two days later, the anticipated spectacle had returned and the wooden platform of the scaffold shook with the impacts of the eleven murderers receiving their punishment. These were followed by a series of tense debates between the colonial overlords and the tribal elders; even some of the distant kings sent representatives. This was a very important matter and the balance of empire had to be readdressed. The unspoken acceptance and continual cooperation of subject and master had to be verified in the importance of execution. Deadlock lasted a tense week, the potentates and militia sweating under the wheezing fans. One day was dedicated to the discussion of the means of execution, drawing attention away from the heated argument about accessibility. It was during this period that the force of visual ceremony was recognized by all.
The most popular device ever employed in this outpost was the Guillotine, which arrived with the fifth wave of settlers in the young Essenwald. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. The aboriginals marveled at its ingenuity and mechanical elegance, at the wonder of elaboration; a distinguished gin to do in prolonged minutes what a man with a sword or a rusty knife could do in seconds. The operators of the machine behaved with a polite indifference, performing their task with a remote, reverential authority. No human hand would touch the neck or the blade. The divided body would be instantly slid away as if it had never been united, or even existed at all. The barbarism astonished them and left them in awe. Truly these white beings, these Men-Without-Substance, were a terrifying new species.
The Guillotine had existed in mainland Europe and the United Kingdom for over five hundred years. The sharpened head axe and crushing weight had scuttled down between its long verticals to messily separate life in all manner of different forms and variations. Its distinctive profile reached into many dark and gloomy skies long before it obtained the lasting nomenclature of the good doctor Guillotin. Seeking a fast and humane method of dispatch, it was he who unwittingly signed his name in blood forever on an instrument of fearsome horror. Its dramatic simplicity came to represent the Revolution’s repetitive slaughter, turning it into the dripping icon of The Terror. Germany had a part in the French prototype. A highly skilled harpsichord maker named Tobias Schmidt crafted the penciled designs into functional reality; some say the gleaming, oblique forty-five degree angle of the blade was his own personal refinement. The speed and efficiency of the new ‘gin’ or engine was infamous. With its endless supply of clients, a new manner of operation was needed, an almost industrial, conveyor belt mentality that kept it over-stoked. These earnest labours caused even greater performances of bizarre fact and elaborate fiction to dance around the juddering leaky basket, which Dumas tells us had to be changed or mended every three days because the wicker bottom would be chewed out by the growing number of furious, chattering heads that thrashed in their narrow containment.
Better-documented but equally weird accounts tell of experiments carried out to ascertain the consciousness of the severed minds. The most elaborate of these was conducted by two young doctors who waited at the foot of the engine ready to receive the falling head. Once grabbed, it was run to a nearby carriage and attached via its arteries and gutta-percha pipes to a pump that in turn was connected via more tubes to a living dog, itself strapped to the carriage floor. The horses were geed up and the carriage sped towards the doctors’ laboratory, the cobbled streets sending loud shockwaves through the passengers, who swayed and steadied themselves while frantically hand pumping the dog’s hot blood into the flushing head. All the while, the young physicians would shout the victim’s name aloud and slap his cheeks over the deafening noise of the hard wheels and the whimpering dog. Some success was recorded: a partial opening of the eyes, a shudder of the lips. One hour and one fresh dog later, after the head was decanted to an attic laboratory, ‘some slight agitation’ was observed.
The model that had been imported to Essenwald to deal with criminals and runaway slaves was based on the Hamburg Fallbeil, a more sophisticated device than its Parisian ancestor. Prior to its celebrated arrival, hanging and garroting had been tried, but with little enthusiasm or effect. There was something about the dignity and slowness of the ‘Longfellar’, as the Fallbeil became known, that caught the public’s attention.
It took several executions to clarify the cause of its popularity. Like so many things around the Vorrh, it was a manifestation of paradox. The aboriginal and drifting tribes had experienced and relished all manner of prolonged and excruciating ceremonial murders, the rawness of these events being the clarion of its rightness. The Longfellar did the opposite; it enfolded its victim into its structure and asked them to wait in its bed of death. When the blade eventually fell, the corpse instantly disappeared through the floor, the head tumbling down a canvas chute and the body tipping through a trap door. This and the waiting is what gave it its heightened sense of conjurors’ magic, the illusionist’s flourish. The very fact that the blood was almost entirely concealed heightened the barbaric mystery. For a society that saw everything, that lived with life and death hourly, that witnessed all the traumatic stages in between, this obscuring was a fetish of great power.
So when the deaths of the first white felons was screened off and the magic conducted remotely, the gathering crowd felt cheated and excluded. Merely hearing the sounds were not enough. Disappointment turned to anger which turned to crime. The talks continued and it was reluctantly agreed that, unless a satisfactory substitute could be found, then the next white execution would indeed be conducted publicly and given to ‘Ol Longfellar without the canvas screens.
The militia and the guild sent out a discreet request for a suggestion to solve the problem. A new thought or compromise was needed, because they had no real intension of displaying the death of the superior race; that might lead to much sterner and undermining problems. They waited months, yet nothing came back apart from the fanatical ravings of the lunatic fringe and a pedantic three-page letter from a French intellectual. When a possible solution did arrive, it was from the most unlikely source of all.
* * *
Ol’ Longfellar was to have a companion, a symbiot that would connect to its erectness whenever necessary. This deus ex machina took two years to build, during which time the magisterial system showed great leniency towards white criminals (if forced labour alongside the Limboia, enough to rot brains and willpower within the first three months, could be seen as lenient).
The new mechanism was kept in felt-lined boxes, away from changes in temperature and humidity. It was made entirely of wood, a combination of ebony for the finely engineered mechanism and black walnut for the outer claddings. A hand-crafted tree with highly stylized branches was bolted to the left-hand stanchion of the Guillotine. It shared its uprightness and stretched its branches over the height, touching the release mechanism of the blade in the process. Many of the hundreds of wooden leaves on the tree were hinged and articulated, connected through their slender stems to the branches and then to the elegant trunk.
Beneath its canopy and leaning slightly against the trunk was a lifesize manikin of the imaginary Adam, standing directly on the planked floor of the scaffold. One of its hands touched its chest, while the other held the apple of disobedience. The detailing of the figure seemed adequate but unremarkable, its rough-hewn outer casing giving the impression of skilled but rustic craftsmanship. Its face bore small signs of satisfaction and its downturned eyes seemed focused on the apple. The true genius of the sculpture was hidden in the layers of sliding mechanics that filled its head, limbs and trunk. Beneath the scaffold with the waiting body-sack were a series of dangling weights, each on a taut cord wound around a wooden drum. These were the power source for the figure’s movements and expressions.
The first customer of the novelty was a child killer called Ralf Beisner. It took all night to set up the contrivance, lights flickering behind the canvas screens. At dawn, a great quietness fell over the platform. When the cathedral clock sounded eight, the screens were removed and a sigh arose from the already gathered crowd. The Guillotine had been loaded with the condemned man; at least, it was assumed to be a man. Every inch of his body was covered in a suit of wood, a flexible, tight, shimmering layer of pale and lustrous Ohia.
The paleness of the prone figure stood out against the darkness of the surrounding machine, but that was not what caused the audience to gasp. Nor was it the first view of the black tree, its thin, strong leaves moving in the light breeze that crossed the stage, or the standing ebony man sheltering beneath them. Their eyes popped and their tongues froze, but it was not because of this. Rather, it was the fingers of the timber Adam that made them point. They tapped gently on its chest, as if drumming time. The other hand turned the spherical wooden apple in its flexible fingers. A bite could be seen missing from its solid body. As it rotated and passed into Adam’s gaze, his lips and jaw moved. The layers of oiled wood that made the muscles of his face slid into a hard sneer that twisted into a look of horror. Suddenly the fingers and the facial expression slowed and stopped, as did the leaves. The wind held its breath and the entire mechanism ceased, awaiting the next shift in atmospheric pressure. During this lull, some agitation could be seen in the prone, condemned figure, a struggling against its restraints, creaking against the resistance of the bascule.
The breeze picked up again, followed by small, irregular gusts. The leaves became agitated and flapped with a sound not unlike that of the keys on a mute piano. Adam again became engaged with the apple, his sliding face looking even more perturbed. Word had spread and the crowd had now doubled its previous size. Those at the very front of the scaffold were forced against its hard surface and lost an overall view of the proceedings. The newly arrived were told by those already in attendance exactly what was happening and how the wind passing over the leaves encouraged the wooden Adam to move and face the consequences of his forbidden action.
After an hour or more, during which no lack of attention had occurred, another movement was seen among the leaves. A carved spiral appeared from within the foliage and wound its way along one of the straighter branches. As this hitherto unnoticed element progressed and revolved, the greatly excited audience pointed furiously at the slinky serpent’s motion. When it reached midway there was a sudden and sonorous click; not from the tree or from Adam, whose head had started to turn towards the direction of the noise, but from the uppermost part of the Guillotine. The sound emanated from the crossbar, which contains the grab, the jawed mechanism that holds the heavy Mouton and blade in place. Adam’s head had now entirely turned, along with the heads of those watching. The attention of the crowd was fixed on the glimmering axe.
The wind dropped again and the wooden flurry of clacking leaves were still, as was everything else, save the bound figure below, who still clenched himself taut against his restraints. The eerie quiet was broken by a pox-faced youth at the front of the crowd. He started to blow at the tree, in the manner of one attempting to extinguish a distant candle. Then, out of the stunned silence, others joined in, until the entire audience was violently puffing at the stage. A few leaves twitched and the excitement increased. They blew harder and harder, some turning scarlet and purple with the effort. Then a great breeze came, spinning out from the Vorrh, as if it had decided to join in the sport.
The tree rattled and a further stressing could be heard in the latch of the blade. Suddenly and with great force Adam’s head sprang back to confront the crowd, the hand holding the apple shooting up to his mouth where it embedded. His other hand grabbed at his chest. The snake had now twisted the entire length of the branch and come to a halt, its head now clearly visible and glaring at the crowd. There was a sharp cracking sound as the head of Adam began to break breaking from his body, wrenching open his chest. The grab of the blade parted and sent the splitting knife rattling down. Adam’s chest flew open, exposing all the inner organs in a bright array of varnished colours. Beisner’s head could be heard scuttling down the canvas funnel into the unseen sand box below. The bascule tilted and sent his shivering, wood-clad body noisily through the trap door. Adam’s head was now completely removed from the body, attached only to his hand via the apple, as if the jaw had locked onto it. Slowly and with sedate deliberation the internal organs began to slide out of the chest cavity, where a viscous substance had kept them in place. They began to slither forward from the tilted figure, gaining a heavy momentum against the honey-thick slime. Gradually they tumbled and fell languidly on to the resounding hollow stage. A long stream of mucous-like jelly bridged the floor and the open body, gleaming in the morning light and now providing the only movement in the jaunty breeze. The leaves, and all else, moved no more.
The audience, some still frozen in the act of puffing, stared in disbelief, their eyes like saucers. The spell was broken by the discreet snake spiraling back into its position of invisibility. The crowd went wild. They bellowed, they whistled, they clapped and hooted. They all started talking at once, explaining to each other what they thought they had just witnessed. Some tried to climb the scaffold to collect a souvenir or just touch the carved bright heart or the varnished white lungs. They were quickly repelled by an armed guard who entered the stage with five other men to unfold the canvas screens that shielded the apparatus from view. The crowd dispersed to bars and shabby halls and continued to celebrate all day.
Behind the screens, the business end of the Guillotine was doused in buckets of water. Adam’s organs were lovingly collected, cleaned off and put in their holding case, as was his body as it was gently taken apart. The brilliantly engineered head was cleaned and reset for next time. The remnants of the snapping bar of brittle wood, that had produced the horrible sound effect, was removed from his neck and thrown away. The tree was fastidiously disassembled, its fragile inner moving parts padded and locked down to avoid damage in transit. All the individual parts of the machine would be polished and oiled before they were bedded away in their camphor smelling cases. They all worked with diligent attention for the next two hours while the wooden suit was stripped from the corpse below the stage. It would be hung by the city gates, empty and bloodstained. The birds would lovingly pick and splinter it until all sustenance was gone. The remains of Ralf Beisner were shovelled into a thick canvas sack and dragged to an unmarked grave, half full and thirsty with lime. There, the body would be reunited with the head, still locked in its wooden mask.
The inventors, the Commandeer of police and Deacon Tulp, had watched the execution with anxiety and growing relief. Their wind-triggered machine, which relinquished a great quantity of responsibility from the authorities, had worked perfectly and the mob had relished every second. Tulp opened champagne and joined in the party atmosphere. They engaged in conversation about the machine’s future; how somebody must be trained to be the overseer and technician, how adjustments for seasonal variations should be set into the control box beneath the scaffolding. This was very important because in the rainy season, with its storms and typhoons, the whole event could be over in minutes. This premature triggering would ruin the accumulative tension and destroy the crescendo of the theatrical finale.
Two floors up, with an even better view of the scaffold, Vladimir Krespka sipped at his specially imported Masala, while a black courtesan sipped at his temperamental but demanding erection. She had watched the entire event on her knees while servicing the old man’s appetite. He had wanted it that way. He could observe her response through the filter of distraction, feel her nips, pauses and other administrations that signalled her involvement with the actions on the scaffold below. He had seen and felt her become aroused. Not with him, of course – his wealth had long since replaced his vanity, at least in this particular enterprise. He could not be bothered to watch with the rest of the gaping horde. He was far too old to separate fleeting pleasure from tiresome business. He had arranged his napkin daintily around his member, having no intension of ruining another good suit with bothersome, embarrassing stains. It would have been good if he had climaxed in time with the ritual below, if the wind in the machine had also timed his ‘little death’ to match her disguised breathing, and the auto de fe below. But he needed longer these days and had to be satisfied with her now desultory manipulations, long after the great outburst in the crowd.