“That’s your new home.” The executioner pointed to the gibbet and laughed. “You’ll swing until the birds finish you, until your bones drop, then the dogs’ll get what’s left.” He seemed almost jolly, talking to me.
I was afraid. I had reason to be. My family always said I was no good and would end up at the crossroads hanging for all who passed to see what bad blood and bad deeds came to. I was not surprised my life led to this death, but I was still afraid.
“After you’re dead, She’ll come for you.” The executioner wasn’t laughing now. I shivered. I knew Who he meant. His mind on Her sobered him for his work.
A holy man of some kind was supposed to see me out of this life, but either I was not important enough or something else was more important. No one had offered the coins to persuade him, anyway. Only the cart driver who brought us here on this cold, fading day would be witness. I would die alone and friendless at the crossroads, without a word of farewell or a prayer, swinging from the gibbet.
The executioner held up the hood asking if he should cover my face. I shook my head. I wanted to see the sky, the trees, the grass, and the roads away from this place as my last vision of the waking world.
My hands were tied behind my back, so the executioner lifted me onto the bed of the cart. He was a huge man, and I was not so big, no real effort for him. As he prepared the noose he grew jolly again. “What did you do, you slip of a thing, to come here and give me work?” he asked.
“I killed a man.” I didn’t say it proudly. I had done a terrible thing, and I would pay a terrible price.
The executioner looked at me with a little more respect. Reassuring himself that all was correct, he finally slipped the noose over my head. He asked almost kindly, “Are you ready, then?”
I wanted to scream and cry, but I nodded and stood still while he made certain the noose was tight. Then he jumped down from the cart and waved his hand at the driver. With a cluck and a snap of his whip, the driver urged his bony horse forward. The floor of the cart went out from beneath my feet. The noose held me and tightened still further, choking the life from me.
The cart driver and executioner left as I hung, dead, my spirit dropping out of my body, lingering. Shadows lengthened as the sun went below the horizon and the stars came out. The moon would not rise tonight, on this darkest night of the month.
I waited for what I knew was coming, filled with terror. If I still had knees they would have knocked together in fear. If I still had eyes I would have wept.
Then came the sounds of Her company, the baying of hounds, the banging of drums, and the wails of others from all the crossroads where gibbets stood. All who were unmourned, all who had no Gods, no recourse, no prayers. The criminals, the lost, the abandoned.
As though I had eyes still, I saw Her torches, one in each hand, as She led Her people nearer and nearer. Two huge beasts, great hounds, ran in front then behind, around the host, baying at a moonless sky. All the trees had gone black, and no breath of wind stirred, the only sound coming from this company of the Goddess of the Damned, Hecate.
When She came to the crossroads, She stopped and all Her company. The silence was more terrifying than the din that it replaced. Her eyes turned to the gibbet and my body that hung there. Then She turned Her face to me. If only I could have fainted, run, died from this death, but there was no escape. Only Her eyes upon me.
“Why were you hanged?” She asked, Her voice as quiet as a tomb.
I wanted to lie and knew I could not. There was no hope for me. No salvation, no escape. “I killed a man.”
“Why?” She asked, surprising me.
No one had asked in all the time since I was taken for the crime.
“The man I killed,” I would have swallowed if I still had a throat, “he was beating a child.”
“Why was that your concern?” All the host leaned forward to hear my response.
I remembered that broken, bleeding child lying at the man’s feet. “My father beat me when I was young. I thought I might save someone when no one saved me.”
“So you killed for pity? And for empathy?”
“And for love?”
I thought of the child that might have been me. If I had eyes I would have wept for him.
“Come, child. You may join my company. Behold those whom I gather to myself.” She turned to show me Her company. I saw now that the great hounds were young and boisterous, their antics due to joy and play. The entourage struck their cymbals and beat their drums, blew great brass horns and raised their voices. They danced and cavorted and laughed.
She turned Her dark and kindly eyes upon me, speaking clearly above the joyous noise. “I gather unto myself all who are unmourned, lost, uncared for, and I give them a new home, a new family. You are mine, now and forever, and I shall never abandon you.”
If I had lungs I would have shouted for joy, but even without lungs, I found I could sing. Without legs, I could dance among my new family. Without fear or sorrow I could follow my Goddess into the night and away from the gibbet crossroads.
The Gibbet Crossroads, Copyright 2018, Marilyn J. Evans.
Image: Manual of Mythology, Alexander S. Murray, 1898.