The following is fiction. It is also a big step away from my usual kind of stories, and from the light-hearted game show format that is particularly popular. This is not because I dislike such stories or got bored with them, but an idea popped into my head while listening to Radiohead and here we are, with an experimental piece. Beware if you dislike gross wam, are a vegetarian, are religious, scientific, conservative, liberal, a history buff, or a carpenter.
Even when I was caught, I assumed I’d get away with it. They’ll wag their fingers, cluck their tongues, preen as I hang my head in the expected show of contrition. This isn’t real, I told myself. This is a dream, a fantasy, some dark imagining. This is not truly happening. This is not how the world works.
Not for one second did I think that being trussed up and paraded to the town square would end exactly the way that had been promised. I held my head high when they came for me, made a show of shaking my shackles as they pinned my hands behind my back. I spat at their dour faces and rankled as they pushed me toward the stake.
It is a curious thing to me now, to imagine that this is a thing. An industry, even. Stakes are crafted by carpenters, hewn out of the wood of a tree cut down in its prime. They even sand it to avoid splinters. It is a thing designed for a purpose and at every stage that purpose is kept in mind. It is the same with the shackles, shaped to contain a human’s hands, built out of sturdy stuff to ensure they remain trapped.
Trapped was not how I felt when they hoisted me up, mad hands of the rabble gripping and shoving like a tempestuous sea. In the blur of limbs and faces, I could not be sure who it was that pulled my hands over the shaft, or what enterprising little sneak cupped my backside. Before long, my feet were tied too, and my restraints were threaded like a needle over the wooden pole. The crowd held it inches above the muddy ground. There I dangled, hair trailing in the dirt, like a boar heading for the fire.
Something burned in this village, but at least it would not be me. The roast would be metaphorical; we had evolved beyond the beasts and the boars. Perhaps not the bores, though. The parson’s voice droned on, as he had done since this whole thing began, wailing and lamenting about my heinous crimes. Boots sloshed in the mud, murmurs of disapproval rippled through the crowd, as I was carried to the village green.
Green is a generous term. The summer heat and winter frigidty left it as sparse as the parson’s head. Sad tufts poked from a greasy ground; there was little for cattle to chew on but somehow they had left plenty of their own parcels anyway. This filthy patch of earth would be my place of atonement; a withered wreck, still somehow remaining the focus of all the town.
The crowd fell silent now. The only noise was the roaring wind, whipping my robe around my body. They had stuffed it over me before shackling me, knowing already what the sentence would be. The garment of shame, they called it, because of course they had to have an outfit for this sort of thing. All things had a purpose, and so many hands worked to fashion them for those ends. I wonder if they enjoyed it. I’m sure some enjoyed that it was far too big, spilling widely open at the front, drooping off one shoulder.
The parson squawked again. This time I listened to what he said, as he put on his pantomime for the rustic rubes, warning of the dire consequences of allowing indulgence to go unchastised.
“Before us stands a sinner of the highest order!”
Stands, sure. Not much else I could do when trussed up against a post.
“She has been caught red handed in the most wicked indulgence, and knowing well that it was wrong and sickens the soul of all, she tried to hide her crime among the straw of the barn!”
Well, naturally I wanted a little privacy. And I can only assume the same of the two boys who caught me. What else were they there for? Mucking out the long dead pigs?
“A woman who lies in animal bedding has taken on the aspect of the animals! And we are all familiar with that sort.”
As if stage-managed, the crowd gasped and murmured at the word ‘familiar’. A nice double-entendre; the parson was something of an artist. I was almost tempted to play along, to call for an animal companion to come to my aid. But I’m not really a cat person.
“It is unbecoming, and unproductive, for any member of the whole to think solely of themselves. This form of self-indulgence cannot pass without consequence, and consequences there will be!” thundered the parson. Boy, he was really getting into it. I wouldn’t be surprised if his heart was racing, like mine was while I ‘self-indulged’.
The parson nodded to the crowd, from where three young men stepped forward. They had already been selected, their role known, their use expected. It wasn’t as if this good little community was blindsided by the sudden need for punishers.
“And those consequences will be doled out by those representatives of the community who are productive, who do their share of work, and provide for us all that which we need to remain cohesive and civilised! The butcher, who feeds us with nourishing meat. The baker, who fills our bellies with bread. And the candlestick maker, who gives us light to stave off the terrors and temptations of the darkness.”
The men came closer, and looking them over from my perch, I could not avoid seeing the sly smirks on their faces. Oh, they moved slowly, dragging pails as though they were heavy burdens for their beefy arms, heads bowed in solemnity appropriate to this terrible ritual. But each time they glanced up at me, imagining the next step, their eyes sparkled and those rotten little teeth of theirs spilled out of their taut lips.
I never wanted to show any fear, but I gulped in a breath now. I was not too proud to at least try to avoid the stench of that first bucket, raised toward me by the butcher’s boy. And he was a boy; the town’s butcher had long ago dropped dead of dystentry, and the shop was run by his widow, who at least knew how to cut meat. Meat was pretty much all that filled his head, and when he was alone at the counter the line ran out the door as we all waited far too long for hacked up dinner scraps. Nineteen years at his parents’ side and he still hadn’t learned the difference between a flank and a shank. That was what they called productive. Still, I bet he’ll be good at this part.
This lengthy mental tangent unravelled through my mind as the bucket lip tipped higher over my head; it felt as though perhaps I could follow the thought forever, right up until reality struck, a split second before the slop did.
I’d like to say the cheering was the worst part, but as unedifying as it was to hear the entire town’s jubilation at my squirming, nothing really matched the gross squelch and greasy dripping of the butcher’s bucket. Blood, guts, fats and oils, I closed my eyes after the first chunks hit my feet to avoid really knowing what else was in there. It stank, it streaked down my skin, and I could almost swear the clots and clumps matting my hair seemed to move of their own accord.
And that was just the first bucket. Number two hit as a surprise. It jolted my eyes open as the cold and wet mess of flour water and eggs struck my chest and shoulders. The baker had just mixed up whatever he had to hand and tossed it right at me. I suspect he had been aiming for my face, but though he missed he did not look disappointed as he set his bucket down and ran his eyes up and down the mess he’d made.
I sucked in more air, and my ears turned to the evening song of the birds, twittering with more sense than the cackling crowd. One more left, and then we could move on with our repressive little lives. Whatever it was, I doubted it could be worse than the putrid, sticky gloop that already coated me, that still slithered down my back and ran under my arms and rolled into any crevice its clammy tendrils could find. Though, come to think of it, I wasn’t really sure what a candlestick maker could find that would fit in a bucket. Was he going to poke me with some scraps of metal?
My answer came in the form of weight. Slowly, almost like a hand stroking my scalp, the stuff pressed into my scalp and smeared its way through my hair. I would say it ran down my neck and over my face, but ran is far too quick a word for the sluggish advance of this thick gloop. At first I had no idea what was happening, but as lumps dropped from my hair to my shoulders, and an oozing river dropped off my nose, the scent finally told me. Wax. Candlewax, of course, made from the fats and soaps and crusty discards of our little village’s little industries.
The laughter brought me back. It was louder now, harsher. I realized I must have been writhing, and my wrists and shoulders hurt from the effort exerted, trying to wriggle free of the post. They were so happy to see me in this state, so excited to see the artificial balance redressed as a dirty sinner was sinfully dirtied. They were glad of this community spectacle, drawing them closer as they worked together to punish that damned outlier. Or so they acted. How many performed in this pantomime, only relieved that it was not them up here, that it was not them caught and chastised in front of all the crowing rest of them? But let them laugh, cowards and cravens all. The joke’s on them. I know who I am. While their bellies shake, my toes curl and my parts quiver. They think they have punished me, but I perversely enjoyed the punishment for perversion. They’re going to have to do this to me for a long time, and every time they do, I am going to win.