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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The abbé stands beside me whispering prayers and the man from the court asks again if I have anything to say and I look up and see the people crowded in the square and in the windows and on the rooftops under the sleet-gray sky and I tell him no. The man from the court nods and the executioner stretches his arms then takes the pincers from the coals and first tears a piece of flesh from my chest and then from my arm and then from my thigh and then from my calf and every time I yell the people cry out and cheer. Then the executioner burns my right hand with sulfur and after that there is a quiet moment because he is having a hard time again with the pincers and my flesh isn’t tearing as it should and I hear an old woman go Oh ho ho and even as the abbé whispers it’s all I can hear that Oh ho ho but then the pain comes again and I beg for Jesus’s mercy.
I came from the country with a cart of cheeses we had aged in the cellar all winter, and, because I am a bad son, after I sold them in the market I stayed in the city, going among the taverns and the whores. But when my gold ran out the tavern keepers mocked me saying I had goat dung behind my ears and the whores no longer took me except for Nanette but she was older and her body was covered with sores. I am an easy man but I carry my hurts one atop another, and in my despair I remembered how the king’s soldiers hung my grandfather from an oak tree and stole his pigs during the last war and so in the middle of a good drunk paid for with some silver pieces I had earned butchering calves I stood when the king’s carriage came by and followed it with the people cheering and shouting. Soon the carriage stopped because of the crowd and I worked my way past the others and I took the knife from my sleeve where I had hidden it and I stabbed it through the carriage window: I missed the king, his jeweled head pulling back, and only stabbed the carriage’s silk upholstery.
Still it felt like killing it did the way the silk tore.
In the Bastille the guards led me around like a donkey and thrashed me with sticks. One of them gave me bread and meat to eat and told me he pitied me because my torments on the scaffold would be nothing to my torments in hell.
When the executioner finishes with the pincers he pours hot lead into the wound on my chest and hot oil into the wound on my arm and hot resin into the wound on my calf and hot wax into the wound on my thigh. Then as the people cheer and shout the guards bring the horses up and take my body from the scaffold and bind each of my limbs with rope. The abbé gives me his crucifix to kiss and I ask him to tell the men with the horses that I do not despise them that I know they must do what they do for I have wronged.
The abbé lets me kiss his crucifix one more time and then the horses gallop off and tear my limbs from my body and I’m not sure when I die but there’s a moment when I feel my mother’s palm warm on my brow again and hear again the old woman say Oh ho ho and then after that the people fight past the line of guards and tear at the pieces of my body and one man dips his shirt into my wounds and another gnaws at a strip of my loose flesh and a woman breaks off my teeth with a shoemaker’s hammer and I know I am dead because I feel nothing. Then my body is burned and my ashes brought outside the city and cast to the wind and nothing is left except the teeth the woman sells on the church steps and the children who carry them through the streets.
Ben Stroud’s stories have appeared in One Story, Electric Literature, Boston Review, Ecotone, and other magazines. His collection, Byzantium, recently won the Bakeless Fiction Prize and will be published by Graywolf next summer. He teaches at the University of Toledo.