October 29, 2016

The Hanged Man's Touch, By Adam Knight


Who was Jim Gurty?

The question began as a scholarly one. As a researcher from Cambridge, I have long studied the folkways and superstitions of the Irish people, specifically those in County Clare. As a killer, Gurty’s notoriety—just like his morality—had no boundaries. Over time, my morbid curiosity about Gurty grew into fascination. Naturally, when news came over the telegraph to my office that Gurty had been captured, and his spree of carnage brought to an end, I knew I must travel to County Clare to observe his execution. I knew this to be my one opportunity to encounter the man who was the locus of my obsession.

But Fate, being either cruel, callous, or fickle, would not let me achieve this desire. Due to some mishap involving missing documentation, I helplessly sat on the creaking deck of the ship, clutching my leather case of research materials, tapping my foot, staring through the fog at the verdant shore. When we were finally cleared to disembark, I knew Gurty had already been hanged.

I entered the town of Star-on-the-Hill shortly after nightfall, in want of a warm bed, a hot meal, and a stiff drink or four. Star-on-the-Hill was known as a welcoming, quaint, port of entry. Yet when I arrived in town, I found the dirt-packed streets empty, the taverns and inns dark, and the doors of the huts firmly locked. The superstitions of County Clare, which I had so assiduously studied for years, were to blame.

According to the locals, a newly executed man’s soul wanders from dusk until dawn. During that night, the body is not cut down from the rope. The wandering soul yearns to latch on to a hapless victim, either through physical touch or by taking a possession. If he succeeds in finding such an anchor, he lives on, roaming the streets without restraint. Thus, no mortal answers a knock on the door or call from the window, lest it be the ruse of a hanged man’s spirit. If the soul fails, it returns to the gallows at dawn, the structure is burned, and the soul is carried away over the hills in clouds of smoke.

So I doubly cursed my late arrival. Of course when I knocked on doors and called out for hospitality, I received no reply, as all the townsfolk were suspicious that I might really be Gurty’s ghost. Truth be told, I quickened my step as the evening darkened. Wandering strange streets at night is distressing enough. Sharing those streets with the ghost of a murderer can make even the most skeptical academic shudder. Undaunted, I knocked on dozens of doors and shutters, pleading my case. “I am a traveler, a teacher from Cambridge University, come to learn about your County. I mean no ill.” But my cries went unanswered.

That is, until I knocked on the door of Branderson’s Buckle Tavern. The first three times that I pounded on the door, I was met with silence. But finally, I heard the shuffling of feet and clicking of bolts being thrown open. At last!

The interior had a rustic look that all tavern keepers seem to think will impress visitors, when in fact it only felt shabby. Rough hewn wood tables, smoky interior, a straw broom propped against a wall. Long benches ran parallel to dining tables. The host and I were alone.

"Can I pour you a drink, sir?" he asked me, shuffling back to the bar.

"Why did you let me in?" I asked, grateful but wary. The fellow stopped and turned to me with a crooked stare. He was a man of average height, perhaps a bit shorter, as most Islanders never reached full stature, given the poor diet. He was a scarred, scruffy knot of a man. His eyes sparkled with malice.

"Why do you bear me such suspicion? Perhaps what they say about Englishmen is true."

I crossed my arms.

"What do they say about Englishmen?"

"You must be one if you have to ask," he said. "The English only trust us enough to get what they want from us. Land, women, livestock—"

"I don’t want any of those."

The barkeep showed me a baleful glare.

"You can pour your own drinks."

I did. I sat at the splintery bench while my host set a dusty brown bottle in front of me and slid me a dirty tumbler. From a leather case that belched loose pages at every turn, I withdrew my notes. The case contained the sum of my research, and it was dear enough to me that it never left my sight.

The host sat across from me. His scruffy, grizzled visage was an enigma of conflicting expressions.

"What do you wanna know, and why do you wanna know it?"

'Who was Jim Gurty?" I asked.

"Ask me something else."

"Why? It is an innocent question."

"No such thing, not from an Englishman—"

I downed the entire whiskey in one gulp, and punctuated it by slamming the glass on the table.

"No. I am not from County Clare. But I am no invader. I do not represent the military, the monarchy, or the Church of–"

"If you are a Englishman, you represent all of them."

"I am simply a teacher, a man of learning. My quest is scholarly. I am investigating the folklore of Ireland for a book I am writing."

"Let me see your notes."

He might well have demanded to see my mother’s undergarments, or peer into my dreams to see the dark symbols acting out my fears and desires. As he reached out, I curled my arm around my bag, like a petulant child, muttering about raw data. The host shrugged.

"And the purpose of this book?" he asked.

"The betterment of mankind.’

‘Hmph. What will mankind get?"

"Knowledge," I said expansively. I refilled my glass and drank. It was then I began to realize the folly of not having so much as a heel of bread to eat. "Insight into your little-understood culture."

"And what do the Irish get?" he asked, leaning in. Now his voice rumbled with menace. I was ready with the parry.

"Finally, you will be understood. The world will know of your beliefs and your ways."

"What if we don’t want the world to know?"

Excellent riposte. My jaw went slack.

"England hasn’t left us much of a life here, but it’s ours," he went on, "and we want it kept private. Any other questions?"

My mind ranged about, straying further from its path with each drink I poured.

"I return to my original, then. Just tell me about Jim Gurty."

The host smiled now, and folded his arms. He peered across the table at my notes, which I barricaded with my arms.

"What did you say you teach at the university?"

What did I teach? Too much whiskey, too fast, I thought. This did not deter me from having another. When I gave him only a tongue-tied stare, he went on.

"Lemme ask you: what town did you grow up in? What was your mother’s name? What is your darkest, innermost secret?"

The room began to spin. I could articulate, could think of, nothing. Who was this strange man, so prying into my knowledge, yet so stingy with his own?

"Who was Jim Gurty?" I said weakly. The host leaned back. He stared at me for some time, until all the little strands of observations and threads of evidence converged into a single cord, a whip that cracked me across the face.

He was Jim Gurty.

He had to be. Why else would he be so cagey, and why else would he be so eager to get hold of my notes? I pulled my papers in closer to me. I bolted up right, clarity slicing through my burgeoning drunkenness.

Jim Gurty was a killer and a scoundrel," my host went on, speaking as though he were recalling some long-dead acquaintance, and not a man still warm and swinging from his rope. "But above all, he was a liar. An inveterate liar, the best liar, the king of liars. Took so long to nab him for killing those two little girls because first he’d tell the investigators one story, then a different, give them one name, then another. Made up elaborate characters, wore ‘em for a while, then made up a new one. Slipperier than a greasy eel on a frozen pond. 'Time’s a-coming,' he’d always say with a laugh, like he couldn’t believe his own audacity, and knew it were only a matter of time ‘til he were caught.

"Gurty lied to his friends, to his family, to his own mother and father. Most of all, he lied to himself. Jim Gurty weren’t afraid of nothing, certainly not hanging, but he were afraid of truth, and he stole the lives of others to hide from himself, and the more he killed, the harder he hid. I do believe that if Jim Gurty ever saw truth and faced it openly, it would destroy him."

The silence that hovered between us, I cannot describe its richness and texture. The questions unasked and accusations unsaid could fill volumes. His smile was wicked, devious, withholding.

"I suppose we’re through here," I said. If he were indeed Gurty, I could not risk his presence any longer. I pounded back the final whiskey—whether it was my third or fifth or tenth, I couldn’t recall—and leapt from the bench. I threw a fistful of coins at him, not daring to let him touch me. I dashed for the door. The host did not move.

"I hope you find what you are looking for," he said, his words low, as though they were not for me.

Outside the tavern, I pulled my cloak closer around my face, and looked down the empty street. No doors would open for me. I left Branderson’s feeling drunk and dissatisfied.
How close had Gurty come? He had not touched me, and a quick survey of my person revealed nothing missing. I had given Gurty nothing, not even my name, and thus I believed myself to be free. Yet as I wandered the streets, I could not shake the sensation that Gurty was clinging to me like a late-day shadow. I had come so far in his pursuit, and just as I faced him, I had turned my heels and fled.

I stopped. My legs trembled. Perhaps there was no shame in running from a ghost. It seemed a very human reaction.

My drunkenness fostered a sense of philosophy. What was I even doing in County Clare? Why had I uprooted my life in England to come here? After awhile, the questions became literal, not rhetorical. I could not recall anything or anyone I had left behind. There seemed to be no substance behind my memories. I taught, but what did I teach? I wrote, but what did I write? I lived in England, but where? I did not know whether to blame the whiskey, Star-on-the-Hill, or some power of Gurty’s.

Gurty. Though he was already dead, I needed to learn about him before his gallows were burned. The truth could not wait for dawn.

All night long, I wended my way through the streets. Perhaps I sang out. Perhaps I was silent. I trod every road, knocked on every door, peered into every window in Star-on-the-Hill, desperate for a little knowledge about Jim Gurty.

I looked down. My bag, which I had protected so ardently, was missing. A sickening, bottom-falling-out feeling struck me. I had not dropped it, nor had I set it down. I had carried it out of the tavern.

Or had I?

Had I even had it in the first place?

My mind, now intoxicated more by the mystery than by the alcohol, staggered to even recall what the bag looked like or what it contained.

My wanderings brought me back to Branderson’s Buckle Tavern, only this time, I approached the building from behind. Fixed to the stone was a bronze plaque, with an inscription and a bas-relief face.

Here we honor Walter Branderson, Finder of Good Company.

The face was the undisputed likeness of my host.

I read the date of the plaque. Eight years past.

The host was not Jim Gurty. He was Walter Branderson, or some spectral remnant of him.

Then who was I?

Come on, you, I goaded myself. What is your name?

But it was no use. The only name in my mind was Jim Gurty. I had never met the scoundrel, yet he was taking everything from me, even my own name.

As dawn’s blush filtered into the eastern sky, I found myself at the village green. In my peripheral vision, I saw Gurty hanging from the gallows. I approached, no longer in control of my stride.
I stared at the dead man with no small degree of loathing. He, a lummox, a big, dead backwoods brute, with a long, heavy jaw and hairy knuckles. I, a sophisticated intellectual, refined by English civilization and breeding. And yet, there was some level of sameness between us. I stared and stared at the lifeless face, bruised from all the broken capillaries. I drew closer, moving in spite of my feet’s reticence. I was inches from him.

Who was Jim Gurty?

Who was I?

The two question spun around one another, whining and whirring with centripetal motion until they collided and fused. I reached out and touched my fingertips to his cheek. 

The union between us was electric, instantaneous, and perfect.

I laughed at the audacity. I had my answer. I needed to search no more.

There were no books, no notes, no Cambridge researcher. There never had been.

Who was Jim Gurty?

I.

#

Sun’s up now. Couldn’t run from bein’ Gurty no more. I hear the hangman coming, only this time he has himself a torch and bundle of wood. Can’t run no more from what I done. Can’t drink no more to forget, nor use another man’s name. I guess my time’s a-coming after all.


Adam Knight says: "I am a writer and teacher in northern New Jersey. My stories have been published recently in the online magazine Body Parts and The Were-Traveler, as well as in several anthologies, including Song Stories Vol. 1, The Big BadTold You So, Extinct Doesn't Mean Forever, and Villainy. I have also ghostwritten a non-fiction book and am writing a novel based on the life of a Holocaust survivor."

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