The Condemned

All the while they strapped him to the board and placed his neck beneath the blade, the condemned concentrated on his task: to blink three times, once his head was off, to show that he was still conscious. It was all settled. The officer of the guillotine would retrieve the head from the basket where it fell, hold it aloft—not by the hair, since the condemned was, for all intents and purposes, bald, but by the ears—and, joined by the physician and his assistant, would observe the eyes closely to determine whether, and for how long, consciousness remained.

It was good that the condemned approached the event with a sense of purpose; otherwise, what lay before him might have overwhelmed, depressed him. As it was, he was filled with curiosity—curiosity, and determination to reveal, with whatever resources remained to him, the full experience of decapitation.  For once in his life, he would accomplish something real and lasting: he would add to the fund of human knowledge, for whatever good that new knowledge might serve. The ramifications were unknowable, but he did not doubt they were profound.

"Blink, if you can, three times.Slowly. Deliberately.  And look straight at us as long as you can," the physician had told him. "Your eyes are the only expressive instruments that may remain under your control once the knife has severed…" The physician paused, then added, "You…understand."

The guillotine crew was quick. In no time, his arms were pinioned behind him and very tightly bound; he tried to meet the officer’s eye, as if searching for recognition, but the man was preoccupied. Perhaps he had no desire to acknowledge their shared mission. The condemned experienced a moment’s panic: what if the officer had changed his mind? What if the experiment had been aborted? But then he caught sight of the physician and his assistant waiting of to the side—just as the board was raised and he was lashed to it with thick straps; two men on each side lowered the board so that he lay prone, and the slot through which the blade would fall was placed across his neck and locked.

He found himself staring down into a wicker basket. Odd; he hadn't foreseen wicker. He'd imagined something more substantial, a vessel, steel, maybe, or tin, to contain the spurts of blood that would exit the torso in huge splashes till the heart subsided—but by that time, he wouldn't feel the heart anymore, its final, desperate palpitations. He felt sorry for it, beating away there in his chest right now, soldiering on as usual, dutiful and healthy, without the slightest hint that these were its last moments. He felt sorry for them all: the liver, the stomach, the lungs, the brain. None of them deserved this. The liver and lights. Someone said that once. But who?

He heard the blade rattling down and suddenly the wicker basket rose and swallowed him. No pain. He felt his arms, his hands, his back, his legs, his feet and toes. Everything as usual—not quite: a weird, electric tingle. Then he rose, floating upward. He felt his jaw fall open; I must look silly, he thought.  He felt the air move across his tongue. His ears were filled with a strange hiss.

Three faces swung into view, staring at him closely. Who were these people? He felt a sense of euphoria, as if he had been injected with a powerful drug.  The way good alcohol lifts you on a wave of light and warmth before the heaviness sets in. 

Well, anyway, what were these faces looking at? He thought he should remember, but he felt too good to try. God! The best feeling of his life! Why hadn't he always realized he could understand the world this way? Whatever these people wanted, he couldn't give a damn. Let them stew, yes, stew in their own juices.


He had places to go, people to see. Important people. The hell with all the rest. The hell with you. And you. And you.

He suddenly felt thirsty. Thirsty and very tired.  A dull pain rose from his neck. A nap. Yes. A good nap. A dream.

He bobbled in the tide. A cabbage. Overboard. His mother would be very proud. A long wave lifted. Lifted. Lifted.

A long wave lifted him and carried him to shore.

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