“Gallows Hand” by Claire Loader

Softly creaks the weighted bough
Toes that shake like leaves
That seek communion with solid ground
Not the mortuary of trees

The night hung like a dark cloak, the mist its damp companion.  The muddy trail to the great cedar tree snaking in the pallid moonlight like the tracks of a glistening beast.  It was no time to be out, well past now the hour of gentlemanly tasks.  And thus, it was the perfect time for Hedrick’s, as blade bid farewell to its leather casing and set itself to work. 

There was a quiet satisfaction to the flickering scene, the skin peeling like bark, the flesh as it swayed still warm to the touch.  His was an errand of particulars – hands always the most sought, yet the list was long, and by the time each cloth had welcomed its prize, the birds had begun to sing.

He patted the man as he readied to go, thanked him as the stiff body swung gently at his touch.  “All this for a spot of poaching.  We are not so unalike.”

The mists began to lift as Hedrick made his way towards the slowly waking streets of the town, through the ramshackle houses, until he reached the apothecary.  Slipping inside the narrow laneway he tapped three times at the side window, slinking then to the back as he awaited the small door to open.

“Come, Father has been expecting you.”

The light was dim in the small alcove, brightened only by the wide smile of the old man as he greeted him in the shadows. “Ah Hedrick, you have come at last.  This way, we must move quickly.”

Hedrick followed him into the adjoining room – a cave of bottles and vials, the eyes of dead animals staring at him from decaying skulls.  He placed his bag carefully on the table, lifting out first the ears, then the feet, then the tongue of his midnight acquaintance.

“The hands? You have the hands?” 

Hedrick smiled.  “Show me coin, old man, and you can have it all.”

Hedrick lifted his hood as he snuck away from the narrow street, patted his weighted purse as he walked past the line now forming before the healer’s door.  Word had got out.  One false move from a farmer’s hand meant it was free to imbibe the illness of the many, to cure the ailments of those brave enough to allow its fingers to caress their living skin.  Only the hands of a criminal would do, freshly hung on tree or gallows, the remaining appendages not wasted as they made their way into potion and tonic.

“Nine strokes from west to east, the same from east to west.”

He could hear the old man’s voice as it trailed him from the town, as he rode his old mare out past the shabby gates.  There was no one reason people sought the limbs of the dead, no one condition that wasn’t said to be aided by them; wens, pustules, the King’s Evil.  The practice was outlawed but that didn’t stop demand, didn’t stop the few like Hedrick willing to risk their neck for the flesh of another. Hedrick didn’t believe in the curative properties of a petty thief.  Death felt always but a breath away, with no need to seek its touch before time. He didn’t have to believe – superstition rife, his purse always heavy – he just had to get there first.

He slipped out of town as quickly as he had come, moving on then to the next one.  This night he would pay for a bath, for a woman’s legs to rest between, for as many tankards of ale it would take to send him far from the coin which had bought it.

When he awoke the next morning the whore was gone, his money departed with her.  He sat hunched in an alcove of the marketplace, listening to his pounding head, to the chatter of the gossiping crowd, hoping to hear where next he might fill his pockets.   

“Stop, thief!”

Hedrick slipped his foot out as the young man ran past; the broach concealed in the boy’s pocket spilling out to land on the busy street.  He watched as the guards hauled the thief to his feet, noticed his smooth hands as they bound them thick and tight.  Patting the knife in his pocket Hedrick went in search of a place to rest.  It seems he would stay in this place a little longer yet.

Claire Loader was born in New Zealand and spent several years in China before moving to County Galway, Ireland.  Her dark fiction has appeared in various publications, including The Sirens Call, The Ginger Collect, Massacre Magazine, and Dark Moon Digest.

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