Another of my “short stories”:

The Master of High Works


I am not greatly loved, it is true. Spoken of, known in some rough way, dreamt of, feared, obscurely worshipped, but not, one would say, loved. I and my crew are given official welcome in each town, we are hosted in the finest and also most remote and secluded lodgings, fêted to the degree I allow, but certainly not loved. As we approach the town, packs of children howl about our wagons, running frenziedly to and away, cocking clods of excrement and rock, the hand coming up, never quite daring to hurl, and oftentimes my assistants leer and beckon them closer, or toss oranges, sweets, worthless coins, or offer them the horrors much loved by children (severed heads, eyeballs, stuffed kittens etc.) – and yet thus far none has come within arm’s length of our wagons, on our approach.

Nothing formidable to our wagons – ordinary constructions, ordinary beasts, and my capering assistants look to be grinning empty-headed fellows, without a care or thought in their heads save the varying prices of beer and wine, the quality of the local girls-for-sale, the weather, etc. And I? I am much as other men, I could be a workman, a smith, with my tools, my large hands and broad wrists, my adequate frame, my face hooded against the sun. We do not ride on huge black horses with flaming eyes, wielding weapons of murder. No no, by no means, we are simply men about a job.

We are expected, ushered quickly into rooms as far as possible from the bustle, fed and watered, offered the usual services of a town, and then I settle to the task. First, I require court proceedings, witness accounts, confession if any, and naturally full details of the crime. These I consider.

Then to the gaol, and here I make my determination. A sorry lot, in the main: low-born drunks missing their front teeth or an eye, demented children born in violence, deserters and bravos; then there are the poisoners: housewives cradling their hands together as a kitten, greybeards with ink-stained fingers and a look of great probity, magered students in once-serviceable rags, 10-year-old girls folded on themselves in horror, all varieties of killer. Not all are guilty, but all will be served. They are all put under my rule, and I can offer no reprieve. However, those I perceive to be innocent (of this crime) will receive an end commensurate with innocence. How could it be otherwise?

I am no hangman or head-chopper or gut-ripper. I am the master of high works in these our Lord’s kingdoms. The small authorities understand little of my work. − He must burn! they inform me, or, − His bowels to be eaten by dogs, after dismemberment! and he see it all, and screams! And so on. They presume to instruct me, as if mess and pain were my art. No no, sir townsman, you understand nothing at all. Let the barbarians indulge in spectacle of this sort, I have my own art.

I am feared, in some sense, and well-received, honoured. Death there must be, but how? That I master, a death apt to the life. My work is known throughout my Lord’s kingdoms; there are even, as I hear, imitators, though naturally doomed to mediocrity and disappointment. Death is no light matter, though common; easy enough to dispense, it is yet a subtle and coy matter. Some look askance. At my supposedly peasant and taciturn manner, in my old hat, my giggling assistants. Yes, they caper and jape and are lewd and hideous, but that is their own way; I need say only, − The women’s rope, and they will bring me the casket, with all my tools of finer hanging. And I care not how they act otherwise, they can go whoring, and drinking, and they can dance on tables and do all manner tricks and devilry, telling vile tales (some true), singing songs not heard in a good many century, songs to dead or at least greatly altered persons, they can feign to fly and sorcery, I care not so long as they come when I call, and bring what I require.

Japing there may and perhaps must be, outside the moment. At the time of my work, I allow no frivolities, no uproar, no cruelties, nothing unneedful. Oh yes, these local authorities are all for the needless. − My good sir! they tell me, these fine-silked folk, − We will a bear torn by dogs first, and jugglers, and there is a fire man from the South, he will bring his firebrands and then the man of whom we are talking, the evil man, he be brung forth and whipped, and all spit in his face, and he –

And I say, − No.

And they say, − No?

And I say, − No.

Mine are simple affairs. Generally the noose or axe or spear, sometimes sword, sometimes even poison though it is not to my liking as covert and imprecise. The man (or woman or child) comes forth, and the crowd keep silent – because this is my will – and the man stands before them all, and I read the crime and the judgement, and then I execute.

None play the fool in my work. The whole town stand and are still. I do not permit them to look away; and thus they perceive the death as it rightly is. All the customary japery is merely to distract from death, and thus I forbid it. There will be no tortures or maimings or shrieking in my work. For all the variety of subjects and ends, it is always the same: he or she stands, accepting, bare; and then there is death. And there is always a moment, somewhere in the work – I could not rightly say just before, during, or just after the moment – where the death is a picture of his total life, his death makes it total, and then the death becomes all that surrounds, all that life is not but by which is determinate, incalculable and so.

Afterwards, the people are still, and go their ways so. It was not what they had expected.

Then I dine with the family of the condemned man, if any there be. A custom begun many years ago, when parents of a young killer invited me to sup, and they said, in thank, − You ended him rightly and well.

It had become custom by the time our wagons came to the next town. I do not expect it, but always someone – a parent or sibling or cousin, or just friend or co-criminal – will invite me to sup after the high work, and they seem, as best I judge, honoured. All is clean and bright and the wine is the best to be had, and they either speak, for hours, of their friend or son or brother or sister, or they are silent in unhomed peace, and they say as I leave, − You gave him a greater end.

− No, I would say; but do not. I gave him an end commensurate with his purpose. For the people see only crimes and failings, I see further, and I grant an accordant death. They are ushered from life to death by my hand, and even where the freight is heavy, the passage is light. Thus am I master of high works.

Naturally, word spreads and becomes stranger still. So I hear there is a cult of sorts, grotesque portraits of me and my demon crew riding through the land with a giant scythe. Some worship and take me for a god, for that is the abiding perversity of man. My assistants, naturally, were delighted, and constructed an entire puppet theatre of the Evil Executioner, myself as a red-eyed puppet with an axe in each hand, slaying the unholy with menacing growls; and I was forced to endure their rehearsals and performances on our long rides from town to town, they chirping, − How would the Evil Executioner end this ungodly slaughterer? And I, − I know not. Silence, you trash. And they laughing, − Then the spear! The spear it is!

And as one would expect, they taught these shows to the people, and so it took on and complicated my work.

Over time, any great work becomes rumour and spreads in fantastical shapes. My assistants delight in their puppet theatres and whorings, for myself I do gallows work and no more. Often, the only ones to understand are those I visit and execute. For indeed, by the end we must have a perfect sympathy and with-thought, to achieve the high work together. Some are ready to die, and with such I merely discuss technique, feeling out the right method, and they have a good death without much fuss. Some would defy, with rage, threats, and lies, and this then is hard work; I must bring them to see and take their death, to accept their own lives & deeds, and complete all on my gallows. With riddles and tales they are beguiled, as one would persuade a child to sleep, on a wild summer evening.

Then there are those who fear, and piss themselves and shriek, − Do not! I will not die! as soon as I appear. Bah. Now, my work is not possible with fearers and tremblers. The man must stand there, and accept his life and its end, and then I take his life and give him end. I will have no tremblers about me, for fear is undecorous and loathsome and unbequem indeed. And with these, I must work hard. I assuage, I comfort, I will be to them a good father, the good master they had not, a quiet shepherd of frightened sheep, I all grim and hooded, with spear to ward off wolf and all, I must in a sense rob them of their fear – since it is often all they have, that to which they above all else cling, more even than life. And for all their original fears, when I am done their end will be the same – a high work, a brave day, a good death without fear, a life made perfect and bright, in hall of my many slain.

This, I judge, is why the families would sup with me – I redeem, as they see it. There is no fear in death; and death is little picture of life, so life itself is a fearless work, to be taken and given and surrendered to me, the master of all high works.

And the body is removed, the place cleaned. I dine with the family, those who loved what they could, I sleep soundly, and then we are onto the wagons with my clowning assistants, to the next town, the next death and high work of life.


Walter Aske

6 August 2016