By James Butt
Nate supposed it’d been the circus owner Charlie Sparks’ fault, with his hanging of old Murderous Mary, but that’d been a hundred years ago and Nate couldn’t understand the wisdom of doing such things today.
“I like the card stock it’s printed on,” Elijah said. “Something you’d see for a carnival, or a fancy show.”
Nate snatched the Order from his nephew and tossed it in the trash. “Time to focus. I want to get this over with.” He’d only been given the past week to prep the old rail derrick, it being the only thing strong enough to hold the weight.
“Hey! I never seen a presidential decree before,” Elijah said, rooting in the garbage after it. “Why’d he choose Tennessee for the hangings?”
“The man’s got an affinity for the past, I’d say, or maybe he’s making a liddle point.”
All week, Nate had unloaded shipments coming in from every corner of the country. The military escorts would always ask, “Where you plan on storing them until the hanging?” Nate would simply nod toward the abandoned factory along the rail yard.
“Bet you pass out from all that stink, having them stuffed in there like that.”
“You get used to it, like you do everything,” he’d reply.
The last truck had been yesterday morning. For a job huge as it was, Nate had been surprised at how smooth things had gone. When he argued he wouldn’t have chain large enough for an elephant’s neck, it wasn’t a day later before a special delivery arrived with the anchor chain of the USS America. He was thankful Elijah stuck around to help, too, what with Paul getting canned due to his moral objections.
The crowd had begun to gather the night before, milling around outside the rail yard fence.
“Come help with these extra barriers. Crowd’s getting too big,” Nate told Elijah.
The media started to call supporters, Pro-hangers or Anti-phants, not really agreeing on which one better suited the occasion. Nate figured them all for crazy.
“I don’t get this part,” Elijah said, staring down at the decree.
“Which part is that?”
“‘It takes true daring and acuity to ensure the safety of all, and therefore, by decree, all elephants must be hanged until—.’ Seems odd, talking about elephants that way.”
“You can’t ever know what an elephant is apt to do, is all that means. They’re too unpredictable.”
“You poke at anything long enough and you never know what they’re apt to do. Take Keddy, at Jim Mitchell’s party last year. Everybody kicking and swatting at him, no wonder he went savage. Ain’t no one decreeing to hang him for it, though.”
“Keddy’s a dog. Ain’t nobody going to hang a damn dog. Especially a dog from around here.” Nate headed over to the derrick. “You gonna hold, old girl?”
The platform vibrated underfoot as the throng of onlookers pushed forward. It was nearing showtime, and nothing drew crowds quite like a hanging.
The first elephant was booked to be hanged at noon, and a chant had started to float out from the masses: “Let them hang! Let them hang!”
“Almost time, Elijah. Let’s start bringing them out before the crowd gets too wild. I’ll get the chain ready for the derrick.”
“What are we doing with them, when, you know … after?”
“Order was to burn them, so their ash can be taken out to sea. That way no more elephants would come here searching for their bones.”
“Jesus. I’m not sure I can stay for that, Uncle Nate.”
“Let them hang! Let them hang!”
“Never mind your whining. Just go get the first one before the crowd rushes us.”
Elijah hopped on the flatbed, while Nate climbed into the cab of the derrick.
“Let them hang! Let them hang!”
As Elijah pulled up under the crane with the first elephant, the crowd erupted. They screamed and jeered, hurling bottles, rocks, signs and garbage.
“Just stay in the cab, Elijah!”
“Just stay there!” Nate moved quick to loop the chain around the elephant’s neck. The roar from the crowd shook the entire platform, but the elephant made no move to flee.
He started the winch. The slack slowly disappeared as all lines went taut. One elephantine foot lifted from the bed of the trailer, followed closely by the other.
“Hand her! Hang her!”
All feet soon cleared the truck.
Above the frenzied crowd rose the mournful wail of the suspended elephant. She sobbed deeply, her cries much too human. Nate stopped the winch.
Some in the crowd screamed in horror and covered their ears, shielding them from the sorrowful bawls.
Frozen, Nate left her hanging as she was. She continued to wail, the sound fraying against her chain. She swung in a circle, and the suspended weight proved too great a strain for the old derrick. The wooden frame buckled, and the arm holding the elephant cracked forward, tumbling down, narrowly missing Elijah below.
With her feet back on the ground, the elephant escaped her noose and rushed toward the factory. People fled in all directions, their screams overcome by the pounding of elephants slamming against the factory walls. The sheet metal bowed from the weight pressed against it, collapsing outward. The elephants ran into the streets.
Freed from his cab, Nate moved to help Elijah from the truck.
“So that’s it, then,” Elijah said. “Maybe they can just go be elephants, now.”
Nate watched the remaining herd slip out of sight. “I’d like to think so. But I just don’t believe we’ll let them.”
James Butt lives in Nova Scotia, spending his days attempting to reconcile the realities of the News world order within the framework of his past perceptions.
Photo credit: Fraser Mummery via a Creative Commons license.