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Fiction #100
(published September 19, 2002)
The Hangman's Salon
by Tobias Seamon

With the advent of the Executioner's weekly salon, the opening of that year's social season was immediately spectacular. With his work completed and on display, as the market stalls closed and the shuffling farmers led their donkey-drawn carts away, the Hangman began to hold a late dinner and aperitif upon the scaffold. Serving the finest vintages in Waterford crystal, with Meissen plate accentuating a Wedgwood setting for eight, the Executioner's conversation was brilliant, witty, engaging with never an awkward lag or dull turn of phrase. Using all the influence of their reputations, artists, generals and aristocrats vied savagely to secure an invitation to the gallows, and it became all the rage to be seen dining and cavorting against the backdrop of sobbing widows and blue-faced corpses. Hoping to entice the black-hooded Hangman towards marriage, as he quickly ascended to the role of most eligible bachelor in the city, mothers bought their daughters the most au courant fashions, perfumes of pure musk, and gypsy love charms. All attempts to entice the Executioner into attending parties or the theater proved futile, however, as he would always modestly decline, saying only that he possessed no evening clothes. Nevertheless, the salon remained the highlight of the season, as artists congregated with their easels at the foot of the scaffold, and that year's exhibition contained at least two excellent views of the scene, both resplendent with pastel gowns, golden epaulets, shimmering cutlery, the hooded Hangman, and callous rooks feeding voraciously upon the dead.

Then the Plague struck. The city gates were barred, the houses shuttered, and the marketplace abandoned except for wheezing orphans and one-eyed mongrels. Silence and reek ruled the day as gangrenous mists drifted down the empty, eerie avenues. Thus, at first, when the Executioner's crimson-bordered, gold inked invitations went unreceived, the highest circles considered it only proper. As the weeks passed, however, and the salon's guest list wasn't announced, rumors abounded but none had the courage to venture into the carnage of the pestilential streets. Finally, a sprightly young Lady of the Court and a thrice widowed Contessa-in-exile were unable to staunch their curiosity, and they sallied forth to see if the Hangman was still about his business.

Donning fluted bird masks filled with rosehips, lemon peels, and slips of Holy Scripture, the two women walked through the charnel stench to the dais of the gallows. Where once gauzy frocks, philosophical witticisms and punning laughter had reigned, now only the Hangman's black mask remained, hung limply from a blunt halberd, eyeholes downcast and empty as a phantom's. Beside that read a small sign, "Help Wanted." Taken by the Plague, his fate was obvious.

The women left and walked along the quays, past the bloated, entangled corpses clotting the sluggish river. At the sight, the young Lady began to whimper. Unable to stifle her tears, she wailed, "These are such terrible times!"

At this, the Contessa, who had survived tragedies both similar and different, tore the mask from her own face and flung it to the river, having known all the while its futility. Staring straight ahead, the Contessa responded fervently, "We shall be lucky if we live to see worse."

The women continued slowly, not seeing as the lemon peels, rosehips and scriptures eddied in the current, clutching for a moment at the anonymous visage of their beloved Executioner, relieved finally of his disguise.

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