Jim Towns, Fools at the Feet of a Hanged Man

It had been so long since it had rained, that no one could remember it now.

A shrill wind blew across the barren terrain, washing over its featureless expanse- empty but for a lone, lopsided gibbet. From the gibbet the body of a hanged man dangled, swaying in the sporadic gusts.

A small group of people dressed in ragged black clothing huddled at the feet of the hanged man, gazing up. They muttered and murmured, shifted and shuffled. A wizened woman muttered through cracked lips:

“Such a shame…”

“It’s better than he deserves.” spoke a man nearby.

Yet another man muttered: “I’m hungry.” To which the old woman replied sharply:

“You’re always hungry…”

One by one, the people began to slowly drift away, until there was only one figure left. Wearing the patched, motley garments of a fool, he was hunched and misshapen, and a part of his face was palsied.

He crouched near the dangling legs of the hanging man, looking up from time to time, as if waiting for something.

Nearby, the Constable was lingering, rocking on his heels, and watching the Fool with obvious suspicion. The Fool finally turned and gave him a big wide innocent grin, displaying many missing teeth. The Constable sneered and turned, walking off after the rest of the crowd.

The Fool made a face at his back.

The Fool waited a bit, staring up at the sky with its sun shrouded in rapid clouds, and occasionally looking to see if the Constable had, in fact, wandered off. Occasionally he’d scratch himself in impolite areas. Finally, he plopped himself down in the dirt and produced a pair of crude dice from the folds of his clothes. The Fool shook them, held them up to his ear to listen to them rattle, and then cast them upon the ground. He got nine. He repeated this action over and over, shaking, listening, throwing– every once in a while looking up at the swinging corpse, then going back to his dice. He got six, then twelve, then three and then six again.

He seemed not to notice the Girl at first, as she came towards the gibbet from the opposite direction that the crowd and Constable had departed. She was young, slender and attractive. Her dusty hair hung almost to her waist and her threadbare and ragged clothing hung off her shape to a degree that was almost indecent. She came slowly closer to the fool and the hanged man on silent bare feet.

Carefully, she stretched a pale arm over the Fool’s head, reaching for the hanged man’s pocket. Without looking up from his dice, the Fool reached up and grabbed her tiny wrist in his giant hand.

“Not yet,” he whispered.

“What?”

“I said not yet.” He jerked his head towards the dead man.

“What, him?” She nudged a dangling leg. “He’s dead enough…”

“Mind the Constable.”

The Girl squinted at the tiny figures in the distance, then nodded towards the swaying body above them.

“He’s a-ways off. And this fellow– he is. Dead enough, that is…”

The Fool squinted up at the Sun again. “Not nearly… why, his soul’s barely had time to reach Heaven… He’s likely to wake up and grab your little hand. Would you like that? To feel the grasp of a dead man? Maybe he’d take you with him…”

The Girl shook herself loose of the Fool’s grip, but she eyed the hanging man with suspicion now, as though he might do what the Fool predicted.

“Bloody Hell…”

The Fool nodded. “Trust me… I saw it happen once outside of Lepig. Horrible… the screaming…”

The two ragged characters watched each other for a few moments before the Fool finally spoke again:

“What makes you think he has money in his pockets?

“What makes you think he does?

“I asked you first…”

She smiled coyly: “I’ll tell if you do.”

The deformed man shrugged: “I knew him when he was alive. We used to rob men and ravage women together. Good times, they were… then he went and died — owing me money.”

He cast his dice again. Seven. “So I sit here, waiting- – waiting to collect the debt my friend was thoughtless enough to leave unpaid.”

He looked up: “Your turn.”

“He jingled when they dangled him.”

“Hmm.”

He went back to his dice. He got two, then eleven, and finally one, which should have been impossible. Silence fell over the trio for a while. The Girl strolled around, not-so-subtly trying to distract the Fool with little flashes of skin showing through the tatters of her dress. He grinned at her with his missing teeth, and went back to his dice.

She was growing frustrated:

“Move.”

“Pardon?”

“Move-out-of-the-way…”

The Fool shifted his bulk slightly, watching as she crouched down in the dirt right below the hanged man, scratching at the ground with her fingers.

“No money down there…”

“Idiot. I’m not looking for gold down here.”

The Fool, confused, hobbled away a bit on his twisted legs. He resigned himself to watching her backside as she dug.

The Girl turned, seeing him staring: “Do you mind?”

“Not a bit…”

She turned back to her digging. He went back to his dice, glancing over at her posterior from time to time.

She finally gave a sharp yell of success, making him jump.

“EUREKA!”

“What?”

She produced a small gnarled root. The fool squinted at it.

“A root?”

The Girl brushed the loose soil from her prize.

“Mandrake.”

“What’s it do?”

“It grows where the seed of hanged men falls… boil a bit of it, feed it to a boy, and he’ll think of no-one else but you…”

The Fool attempted to comprehend her explanation.

“Where the–?”

“–the seed of man.”

“You mean he–?” he mimicked ejaculation: “When he–?”

She nodded, grinning.

“Bloody Hell, you’re a witch.”

The Girl tucked the mandrake away in the folds of her flimsy robes with a little laugh.

The Fool squinted at her with new respect.

“So there’s a young boy you fancy?”

She nodded, smiling bashfully.

“You wouldn’t fancy an older man, by chance? Someone with more — experience?

She laughed a bit cruelly at that: “You mean you?” she asked. “But you’re just a big lumpy thing… and you smell like a barn. My boy’s tall, his teeth are white, and his hair smells like the sun in summer.”

The Fool sneered at that, looking up at the sky:

“Almost time now…”

The Girl was growing desperate: “Let me split what he has with you.”

“Not a chance.”

“I’ll yell for the Constable…”

“In which event you won’t get any of his money either.”

“Hell.” She bit her thumb.

He rolled his dice. Ten.

“Perhaps you’d fancy a game of chance?”

She looked him up and down with a sly smile.

”Game of chance, you say?”

“Simple. Two dice… hand-carved by yours truly from the finger bones of my first enemy. The winner gets what’s in old Rollo’s pockets. The loser…“ with his fingers, the Fool pantomimed the legs of someone walking away in defeat.

“What do you think, witch?”

She pondered: “I think you’re a shifty creature, whatever your name may be.”

“Don’t ask… I’ve forgotten.”

The Girl knelt down across from the Fool.

“Fine. Roll.”

“Ladies first.” He handed her the dice. She took them, closed her eyes, whispered a secret prayer, and finally rubbed them against her breast, much to the Fool’s delight. Then she cast them. They both stared at the outcome.

“Four? FOUR?” he pointed at her bosom: “They didn’t bring you much luck, did they?”

He cackled with laughter, falling over, and seemingly out of nowhere the Constable appeared again.

“Get away from there, you two!”

The Fool held up a pair of placating hands. “Just an honest game of dice, sir…”

The Constable growled, and moved back off a ways.

The Fool had finally recovered from his fit of hilarity: “Alright… it’s my turn, you fetching young creature.”

He went through the motions, shaking, listening, and finally throwing.

“HA!” the Girl squealed.

“Shh!!!”

She quieted down. “Sorry. I got excited.”

She stood up and brushed herself off: “Well, where I come from four is greater than two– so unless I have my sums mixed up…”

“Enough…take it… take it all…”

She bowed. “Thank you.”

She reached up, feeling around the contours of the hanging man’s trousers, and finally fished a few clinking coins out of his pockets, tucking them safely into the soft declivity between her breasts. Then she prepared to depart.

“You’re a strange creature… perhaps I’ll miss you. Probably not, though… Well, good-bye.”

She began to stroll off past the Fool, when the misshapen creature suddenly hurtled himself at her ankles.

“Wait!” he wailed, “Please, don’t! I don’t care about the coins… now that I know you, I can’t bear the thought of not having you near me anymore!”

The Girl tried in vain to shake the Fool off her leg: “The Constable!” she whispered harshly.

“To Hell with him! Don’t take the money back to your sweet-smelling lad… please stay with me!”

All her struggling to free herself helped her not at all, except to further tear her dress and expose even more of her figure.

“Let go! I’ll curse you!”

The Fool cried piteously: “No, please, I’ll love you like he could never do! I will worship you! I will bathe you and rub your entire body with sweet smelling oils! I swear it!

“I said stop it! Stop–”

She fell down in the dirt, wrestling with him as he clutched at her.

Finally the Constable appeared again– roaring with displeasure– and pulled the Girl free from their entanglement, giving the Fool a few good strong kicks to teach him a lesson.

The Fool yelped in pain and ceased struggling.

The Constable nodded at the Girl, satisfied, and marched off once more. Once he was gone, she made a half-hearted attempt to straighten her rent garment, started to go, came back, gave the Fool a good strong kick of her own, then stalked off in the opposite direction, muttering little curses to herself.

The Fool lay still for a long moment. Then, slowly, he seemed to return to life, crawling into an upright position. He sat for a bit, catching his breath, and feeling his sore ribs. Then after a moment, he opened his hand and jingled the coins that had previously been nestled in the Girl’s bosom. He gave himself a little smile, rose to his feet, and limped off in a direction neither the Constable nor the Girl had taken.

The wind picked up again and the hanged man swayed back and forth in it, silent.
A few drops began to fall from the sky.

Jim Towns is an award-winning filmmaker, artist and writer. He lives in San Pedro, CA with his wife and several mysterious cats.

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