Two Excerpts from a Novel in Progress
Here we have two excerpts from the novel The Lists of Billy the Kid—exploring two different periods in the life of the outlaw William McCarty Antrim. The first tells of his birth and early childhood in New York City. The second is later in his life, as he approaches the end of it.
I. A Child of Irishtown
From: The Canon of the Dun Cow,
Bound in the creature’s yellow hide upon its death at the Monastery of Clonamacnoi
Attributed to Saint Ciarran, 4 November 1122
Translated from the Original Gaelic by Donnegal mac Céilechair 1601
Velum 22, The Five Cautions and Predictions
1st: Walking backward during pregnancy will result in a runtish baby. After its birth, walking backward while holding the runt will result in colic or infantile lunacy.
2nd: Crush eggshells after the eggs are eaten; empty shells are favorite hideouts for Fairy Folk and Logherymen who emerge at dusk and sit beside the cradle.
3rd: Fairy Folk loathe both clover and objects of iron. To prevent a newborn baby from being replaced with a changeling child, put a clover into the newborn’s mouth and place a knife in its bed at nightfall.
4th: Set the child’s bed in a high place for a fortnight to thwart the approach of Fairy Folk and climbing Pookas, thereby preventing abduction.
5th: If the child be the third son to survive after two born dead before him, place an earthworm in his left hand and a feather in his right for 3 nights and he will come to know the ways of birds and beasts.
A Dab on the Dummyteat
(Also Peppermint Tea)
July 3, 1860
Irishtown, New York City
Well then. Let’s have us a look at you, Mr. William McCarty, says Marjory Darcy. She lifts the coverlet. Well hello William.
One day old and already Paddy’s calling him Billy, says Mrs. Catherine McCarty.
Then hello Billy. And aren’t you a little one.
Piddling little. He come early, you know.
He’ll catch up. A dab of the iron drops on his dummyteat and he’ll catch up.
See the ears on him?
They are a bit grand, to be sure.
They’re not my ears. Not Paddy’s neither.
Well then maybe someone in the family back aways.
No one. Nor his chin.
Dimple on the chin and the devil be within. He’ll be a scrapper, a lively little one. You’ll see.
He’s awake first thing with the birdies singing in the trees and peering all about. And farting first thing as well, same as his Da.
A touch of the colic.
Can’t be the colic. I never walk backward with him.
Colic or not, Catherine, he’ll take some peppermint tea tonight and stop that squawking.
Mostly he’s quiet as mice, sleeping in the chifforobe. Fifth drawer up.
Little Folk won’t be getting him there. And be keeping a clover in his mouth.
Every night. And a knife laid beside him. Paddy tells me don’t bother—if the Sprites want him then they’ll take him and there’s no stopping them.
Let Paddy say what he will say, but I never knowed a baby switched with a clover in his mouth or a knife in his bed.
Maybe they already switched him, Marjorie. Maybe Biddy Doro could come by.
Biddy Doro? Now what would you be wanting with Biddy Doro?
Here, says Mrs. Catherine McCarty. Put your hand here. Feel that? Maybe it’s wings he’s growing.
You mean this? This here? His shoulder bones, Catherine. Regular bones these, sure a tad more poking out than some, but he come early, now didn’t he. He’ll fill out soon enough. See now? Reaching for his Mam, strong even for a piddling lad.
Sometimes I have to pry him off me.
Alright, back to your mamma now. There you go, Billy boy. Got him? Light as a bird this one. Don’t you be flying away on us now, little man. Wings, Catherine? Biddy Doro? Whatever are you thinking?
NEW YORK MUSEUM OF CITY HISTORY
Exhibit 161: Parchment Note,
Dated September 5, 1860,
of historical significance for its folkloric content
LOW-LEVEL LIGHTING IN EFFECT FOR
Instruction In The Detection Of Alleged Changeling
First: bears new birthmark or maculation
~~ often on scalp or between the toes ~~
Second: constant hunger, peeping, mewing
~~ will feed on Graveyard Dust ~~
Third: clever and disobedient
~~ worsens despite punishment ~~
Fifth: afeared of iron objects
~~ will not hold fire-arm or knife~~
Sixth: if put into the fire He will fly out the chimney.
Catherine, do not bring your child to me.
Nor will I visit.
Biddy Doro, Fifth Sept 1860
The Lorrha Missal and Illuminated Manuscript of 792
Unearthed at Lackeen Castle 1533
Transported to The Shrine of St. Patrick’s Tooth
Folio Three: Baptism of a Changeling
Translated from the original Latin to Gaelic by Cú Cathbat 1702
and from Gaelic to English by Eogan O’Rahilly 1801
It is ill-advised to leave human babies unattended, as Sprites of all species are eager to replace them with changelings when their own offspring are afflicted with malformity. They will not abduct babies that have undergone the Sacrament of Baptism as these will not engage in their Heathenish Practices. Conversely, if a changeling has not been detected by its human parents and is baptized, Elves and other Fairy Folk will refuse to take it back and return the original baby. It is therefore essential that parents present their newborn for baptism upon confirming that it is indeed their own, and it is equally essential they avoid baptism if they suspect substitution of their child for a deformed or imbecilic changeling.
As Fairy Folk maintain immortality by their tithe to the devil in human children, all efforts should be made to recover the abducted child. Methods for effecting its return include placing the changeling in a willow-rood basket and hanging it overnight in a tree, preferably Chinquapin or Persimmon, and thereby enticing the Felonious Fairy to investigate. An alternative method involves forcing the changeling to laugh by repeatedly stroking the genitals with a feathers or hairy bindweed. If this does not summon the fairy progenitors, the changeling can be made to scream by excoriating its limbs with holly-leaf, rose-thorn, or stinging nettle. Lastly, it is possible to encounter Fairy Folk at the entrances of their abodes. They will use tree-hollows and empty eggshells as temporary shelters but take up permanent residence in solitary stones.
The access to the interior of a solitary stone is a tight-fitting door without lintel, knob, or latch, and impossible to detect until opened at dusk when a glimpse of the Fairy may be had. Be cautious in their presence, as Fairy Folk are easily offended. Moreover, they are easily amused and enjoy discourse sprinkled with puns. In the course of conversation, do not complement them on their attire. Do not speak of cats, bears, or rainbows. Make no reference to the shape of the moon. Remain differential and conciliatory. Offerings of gingerbread, butter, or butterflies are highly desired and are most likely to initiate negotiation. As would a gift of small, soft leather shoes.
Mrs. Catherine McCarty Hunts the Solitary Stone
(to Exchange a Changeling)
New York City - September 1860
She hurries along, the child—the baby—concealed in her shawl, well wrapped, nearly swaddled. This baby. This William Henry. Or Billy. Just Billy. She does not say his name aloud. He might awaken. He might free his little hands and push the shawl from his face and cry out. Though there has been hardly a peep as she travels these darkening parts of the city where the hustle of trade is done for the day. Shops shut. The fruit wagons and coal carts wait horseless, battened and tarped. Men have gathered around a barrel-fire, their upturned palms and sooty faces lit by flamelight, and she crosses the empty street, away from them. Passes the stoops where women sit with their petticoats showing and camisoles too much unbuttoned for such cool nights. She makes her way through Irishtown—her Irishtown—past the white clapboard boarding house, past the crockery shop with Utensils New & Used. Going past the TeaTime Tearoom where the chairs are set seat-down on the tables. Now the empty window of the fishmonger, the metal trays clean and stacked but still glinting with a scattering of silvery scale. Hurrying past a shallow alleyway where a shack is set, built of bare boards to the front and rear of it, but its sides simply the brick walls of the bordering buildings and its single window simply a tacked-down square of greased paper bright with a wavering of lantern-light glow from within—this she knows to be the habitation and haunt of Biddy Doro—purveyor of botanicals and consultant to arcane predicaments—though no sign-board of such be posted; her wares tied in twine, hanging by their stems in bunches across the alleyway—monkshood, bryony, henbane, poke—there for the taking yet untouched by passersby who know better. And now through the Italian Quarter, passing the windows of the darkened shops illuminated by streetlamps and the crescent moon. In the window of Tucci’s Shoe Repair, on the shoemaker’s bench sits a lone brogan presumably left behind by a giant. In Zanetti’s Bakery she sees the sloping glass showcase with an arrangement of yesterday’s pastries—cannoli, bomboloni, biscotti nibbled at the edges by the resident rodent. Passing now the establishments of tailors, lawyers, upstanding citizens formerly of Sicily turned lender and importer, merchants of olive oil and capocollo and wine. Now passing through the settlement of Jews, hurrying under hanging signs that slightly swing and creak in their brackets and in the lettering of the Israelites promote the sale of drygoods and necessary garments: kippah, teffilin, tallit with a linen lining in the color of your choice. She stops beneath a street lamp to adjust her shawl, shift the burden, for that he is—a burden, by her telling.
Now on to the perimeter of the city where commerce disperses, through the enclaves of lawlessness and the encampments of the indigent where the thoroughfares are left uncobbled, some with a smattering of gravel, most down-packed dirt crossed by footpaths leading to a shantytown of squatters’ shacks and cabins constructed from the rotting boards of wrecked barges long ago run aground on the river bank. Outposts of pigpens and rabbit warrens and garden plots where the thin soil atop the bedrock of Manhattan schist yields undersized cabbages and rutabaga and spindly beans. A ways more now to weedy fields, a boggy meadow, the environs beyond Turtle Bay. The landscape brightened only by crescent moon moonlight on the river and dispersed by the patchwork of clouds. As she goes she unfolds the shawl to see him—he has been so silent—does he still live? And she lifts the edge, the fringe that covers his head. No, not dead. He smiles up at her. His tweaked little face. He is almost always smiling. She wonders why he is. She slides the fringe down. Not a peep. He doesn’t seem to mind being covered. Hidden. Being concealed. She goes on, hurrying along on this errand in need of completion in these few hours between sundown and dark, when they—those whom she seeks—might briefly be seen before their evening of mischief commences; glimpsed at the entrances of their unobtrusive abodes: knotholes in tree trunks or tiny doors tucked between the twisted roots of the oak and chinquapin they favor, or undetectable entrances in solitary stones. No, not stones in their usual gatherings, not in a flock—not stones asleep in a river bed or thrown up along a road where a road had been cut; not stones roused from their rest by digging and piled up or cast about a ditch or the places where digging has been done or is being done—gardens, plowed fields, excavations for the foundations of houses or the consecration of bones. It is a solitary stone she seeks. You yourself have passed them many times in your lifetime, but you’ve not seen them, not likely. Have not considered that they are pieces of creation strewn about everywhere, and here for the holding. In plain sight, inconspicuous. Some sit in the middle of a thoroughfare. Some rest without their brothers in the grass. A solitary stone may turn up on a walkway, porch, or step. You’ve just not taken notice, but they are there, and some be the homes of the ones she seeks: Those diminutives in human form, all of them tiny but troublesome and oh so many breeds of them. Sprites. Fairy Folk. Logherymen. Elves. All of them clever but godless. All of them friends of the devil and most of them wingless, moving through the air by wonderment or will. And some, a very few, winged like angels or dragonflies. And some who cannot not fly at all, but hitch passage on the backs of birds and fly through a nursery window to steal the most perfect of newly born humans who sleep unattended and unawares in their cradles or the lower drawers of chifforobes. These creatures that have followed the Celts in their travels since the ancient seafaring days—sailing with them from Donegal Harbor and Inishfree Bay. Stowing away in their luggage, bundles, trunks. And finally tumbling down the gangplanks with the crowds of their countrymen to take up residence in the tenements of Irishtown, and soon enough be up to their usual tricks: spoiling the milk, tangling the sewing thread, and chewing the candlewax. And worse: slipping into nurseries at nightfall to take the prettiest and most appealing of human babies from their cradles to raise them as their own in some uncharted, enchanted land or sell them to the devil and leaving in their places their unwanted—the malformed or ill-favored. Shipboard, in steerage, the chicanery began and she knew they were afoot when she woke with her hair in tangles that very first morning at sea. But she has seen them, actually seen them, as most countryfolk have. The have been to her house. To her kitchen, to her cupboard on a cupboard shelf, skittering away in the shape of a mouse. To her windowsill in form of a pigeon peering in. And to her bed on summer nights, taking their most infinitesimal form, hovering in the air on their tiny transparent wings, their dangling limbs as delicate as eyelash, and humming as they go—humming or buzzing so close to her ear. But nonbelievers: well now and woe to them. Woe to the ones who swat Fairy Folk as if they were mosquitos, who smash them to a bloody smear on the wall and thereby tempt the legions of their tiny, revengeful kin.
She hastens along, hoping there would be trees here at the edge of the city, but there are no trees in these parts. Perhaps a bit further. Perhaps just over the next slope, but she is losing sight of the road far ahead as the land dips and then rises, and the river flows not along these low, muddy banks but far below the cut of the cliff-face up-river where the river is white and churning with the devil’s own spit and a cloud of steam from a hole to hell in the river bottom hangs above the water there in all weathers, and there the world is wild and wild things live. There are forests there, she has been told. Tall old trees. Oak. Beech. But it is far, too far, and where no one goes. She had hoped there would be trees past the edge of the city, but there are no trees here. So it must be a stone and as she goes she looks to the roadside for one that sits alone, and yes—some seem to appear in the gloom. But closer, and they are only clods, or mounds, or tangles of leaves. One, so seemingly a solitary stone is nothing but the droppings of a horse in a tidy mound. Another, once more so certainly, absolutely a stone becomes a small rabbit—ears flat to its head, and so still at her approach, so still until she is nearly upon him, then gone as if sprung from a trap. A decoy it was, it must have been, placed to confuse her and lead her away. A deception from some sprite close by. Or perhaps several of them in collaboration, a conspiracy of sprites. It is all too much: the journey, the watching, the weight of the child—all of it has tired her out. And it is colder now, much of her shawl taken up in the wrapping of the child. She does not think of him there against her chest. No, she imagines this bundle to be something else she must carry: a cabbage perhaps, or a loaf of bread. She has only to think of him there against her chest and he will wake. Does he know when she thinks of him? Does he feel her heartbeat go sickly and faint when she remembers he is there, because it seems that he does, and yes, here it comes now. A peep. A whimper. She lifts the shawl just barely enough to look at him. Oh why must he gaze up at her? He is hungry; he must be. Though he will not make a fuss. He hardly ever makes a fuss. The roadside slopes. There is a place for sitting. She sits. It has not rained today, but the earth is wet. The sky has clouded over. Now no moon. It is dark enough that she will not be noticed. She unfastens the buttons at her neck and on her chest. Yes, he is hungry. Must she feed him? Perhaps a little. Just enough to keep him small so he will not overtake her. The buttons undone, he reaches for her. His tiny hands. Dear God, are they claws? Or is it just a trick of the darkness, the lack of moonlight. But plain enough: that pinched face. Those dreadful ears. That devil’s dimple on his chin. That small mouth. He eats and all the while he watches her. He is disgusting. He is a small animal, not hers, not hers. She hears the workings of that narrow mouth. The sound of his lips, his swallow. The slight movement of his ears—those ears—with every suck. How bats must nurse—oh the very thought of it. She looks away from him. She peers around. There is firelight in the shacks and cabins. The spaces between the boards are bright. From some comes singing. From some come shouts. Hovels though they may be, there are women there who rejoice in their children. This she knows. This too she had hoped. Or, now she thinks, she hadn’t hoped—not for anything—at all. She had married and the babies had simply come along as babies do. Had come and gone. Two dead, and now this one…this one. A dog barks. The pigs grunt in their anguished sleep. Rats stream single file along a wet ditch and disappear single file down a hole in the road bank. Something dark and silent overhead drops and rises lifting the last in the line, the straggler—into the air. She must get on. She pulls the child away from her chest, though she knows that he has hardly gotten his fill of her, but that is enough. Enough. She could pinch his nose closed with her fingers now and the same moment, stuff the shawl into his mouth. Oh yes that would do. That might do. Though he might snap at her hand as she does it. And then he would know what she was about. And his knowing, what would that bring? Friends from other realms, perhaps. Or a chance at her when he is grown, perhaps. No. She will not. She adjusts the shawl to cover him and cover what she can of herself. The muted hooting of geese comes from somewhere above her, and she looks for them—it is good luck to see geese in flight, to count geese in a flock, but they are flying above the cover of low, rolling clouds, and are not to be seen, and the sound flies away with them. A cat trots along the footpath with something small and dark squirming in her mouth. Faintly squealing. Then still. Then silent. The child too is still now, silent. Not a peep. Perhaps he has choked on her, suffocated himself dead. If she uncovered him, would he be there gazing up at her, alive or dead? Would he know she had wished him gone? No, she will not look. There is no reason to look. There is no sound. There is nothing in the road. There is no nighttime rush of wind, no flutter of leaves. There are no trees in these parts. They are long gone to fuel and firewood. There are no homes in knotholes or hollow trunks and no gnarled roots that hide small rooms. The sky has clouded over. There is no moon. There is no wind. There is no stone. And the shawl is not nearly warm enough.
THE MUSEUM OF IRISH NEW YORK
Exhibit 66: Parchment Note,
dated October 31, 1860.
Found in the personal effects of Catherine McCarty Antrim,
Mother of William Henry Antrim, AKA “Billy the Kid”
LOW-LEVEL LIGHTING IN EFFECT FOR
Catherine: I have seen you outside my door with your changeling child. I tell you this now and for the last time: that there is only one way to be rid of him. On Monday next, the day of the Moon, take a large root of bryony and wrap it in a scrap of a dead-woman’s winding-sheet. bury it in a place you have seen a
dun-yellow dog deposit its feculence. You must use a silver serving spoon for the digging. Every night thereafter water the spot with pig’s milk in which three brown bats have been drowned with their bat-pups still Clinging to their teats. On the night of the next blue moon Dig up the root. Dry it in an oven heated with branches of devil’s walking stick, then grind it to a powder and boil it into tea. Pour the tea into the udder of a cow that has died from blackleg or bloat. Starve the changeling for 3 days prior so it will drink the tea. This will rid you of the changeling child. knock at my door thrice and then twice and i will give you the bryony root.
do not try to look in my window.
4 dollars for a small root.
7 dollars and 90 cents for a large root.
2 dollars for a branch of devil’s walking stick.
I also sell silver spoons. Inquire as to price.
Do not bring me the child, nor will I visit.
Biddy Doro, thirty-first October 1860.
2. Before the Hanging
The New York Museum of City History
and personal items, a. through c.
belonging to Catherine McCarty Antrim,
mother of William Henry McCarty,
AKA Kid Antrim,
AKA Billy the Kid
a: family bible, leather-bound, open to frontispiece
b: teacup, Blue Willow pattern, manufacturer: Spode
c: crow, pencil drawing on paper, signed “Wm. H. Antrim”
Gift to The City of New York from the private collection of Macallister “Mac” Gilcrest, descendant of Joseph Antrim
* EXHIBIT 60 CURRENTLY UNAVAILABLE FOR VIEWING
Historical Artifact Stolen in
Daring Daylight Robbery
— The New York Tuesday Tribune
New York—A leather-bound bible that once belonged to Catherine McCarty Antrim, mother of William Henry Antrim, AKA Billy the Kid, was discovered missing from its display case in The New York Museum of City History, when museum security guard William “Poots” Pootrick returned from lunch yesterday. Museum curator Quinten “Van” VanNortwick described the heist as “a smash and fast grab operation” in which the bible was removed from the glass case where it had been on display for years. VanNortwick doubts that the bible will be returned, commenting that “there is a thriving market for Western historical items, especially anything related to Billy.”
The bible bears the only known notation of the birth of Billy the Kid, as well as that of his younger brother, Joseph. It is believed that the Kid’s mother who recorded the birth of her sons, as was the custom at the time.
Notations such as births, wedding, deaths—when written in the family bible chronologically—were considered legal proof of important events. As most children were born at home and statewide registration of births was not required until 1880, no other record of his birth exists.
Exhibit #60 was a favorite among museum visitors and included two other items on display: Mrs. Antrim’s Blue Willow teacup and a crude drawing of a crow, believed to have been made by Billy. These items were left behind by the bandits, who appeared to have knowledge of the Bible’s historical and financial worth.
No arrests have been made and at present there are no promising leads. It appears that the theft was an inside job. To that end, police are seeking information as to the whereabouts of one Morty “Axe Man” Axelrod who had been assigned to the museum in a janitorial position through a Department of Corrections work-release program and is now described as a person of interest.
The security guard on duty the day of the theft had been previously reprimanded for leaving his post unattended but was not dismissed due to the support of his union, Local 979 Federation of Uniformed Museum Workers. On the afternoon of the robbery, Mr. Pootrick had taken a two-hour unauthorized lunch break at “Bobo’s Bar & Barbeque” one block south of the museum. He has been temporarily suspended from his duties, pending further investigation, and was questioned by Police Chief Sean “Shawny” Flaherty as to involvement in the theft. “He’s not a suspect,” said Chief Flaherty.
“He’s an idiot,” said Mr. VanNortwick.
Lincoln County Courthouse and Jail
April 28, 1881
Lincoln, New Mexico
As he sat hatless and shackled, he would recall that summer afternoon of so many years before when he was swayed to sleep on a limb of a persimmon tree, an infant squinting at the spangling of light through the weave of leaf and bough around him, and he could see himself as he once was: vigilant, even then—watchful of all that passed before him, a child that some might call delicate: slight in the shoulders and pale as a dinner plate—not given to fuss or struggle—so easily had his mother wrapped him in a coverlet and tucked him into a wicker-work basket that ever so slightly swung when the wind rose and the twigs clicked. Or he seemed to recall. Or did not recall but instead assembled a memory from a mother’s story. Or is it that the entirety of a life does not play out at the moment of death as it is said to do but unravels instead in the hours or days before what looms ahead. He lies belly down the wall-hung bunk, wrapped in the rough serape they have given him against the high-desert cold of the New Mexico night and morning. The sun seems slow in its rise above Las Montañas Mescaleras, their cerulean shadows darkening the town till nearly noon, and in these early hours the sky is cloudless, luminous, and before-the-daybreak blue. Stones and seams of alkali in the wash-bed banks seem to glow. The desert floor is cool. Denizens of the hardpan head homeward—carrion bug, darkling beetle, pinyon mouse spied by a hunting ground owl who extends her feathered leg and without struggle or deceleration bears it aloft the clutch of her taloned toes while the brood of mouslets begin to die in their den. Now too the sounds of a Sonora morning: trill and chatter in the ocotillo and smokewood of pipit, wren, sparrow. Awakenings in the coop at the rear of Pablito’s Egg & Produce: soft clucking, (though this small choir was diminished when just last evening a leghorn hen was spirited away in her sleep so swiftly that her sisters roosting beside her slept soundly on during her departure, and presently she remains only as a single feather clinging to a fox’s snout.) In the livery, early stirrings: the snorting horses, a bleating mule. A lone dun-coat dog trots past the storefronts and along the walkway boards but pausing once to sniff a pair of frayed bloomers that had been tossed from a second-story window of the Cards & Kinship, and once to water an ex-patron of said establishment who is sleeping off the evening. In the rooms one flight up, the ladies roust their stinking, half-dressed clientele who lie snoring in a rumple of dingy sheets damp with a night of sweat and spilled liquor and whatever else has leaked out of them, most with their unbuttoned denims and unbuckled chaps puddled at the ankles—so hurried were they to service their peckers and spend the remainder of the night drooling into the mattress ticking.
The desk-clock chimes on the jail house desk. The jailer jerks awake and tips his chair forward. You up Billy boy? he calls.
Yes he is up, Billy boy is. Daybreak birdsong always wakes him. He sits. He puts his feet on the floor. They have not taken his boots: low-rise ropers, square-heeled, missing stitching at the vamp. But his hat, yes. They have taken his hat: a black, brimmed drover, crown imploded. He’d been fond of that hat, that particular hat, his father’s as he liked to say: belonged to my Da—though this be a fabrication, and anyway, said hat was most recently appropriated as the sheriff called it, when they took him in and set the hat just where he could see it on the sheriff’s desk atop on a plaster bust of Custer. Soft hooting. He looks to the window above him—the bars there solidly set into sandstone and adobe, and beyond: the morning moon, a cloud adrift, the top of the courtyard cottonwood where a twosome of desert doves the color of weathered wood roost and call.
A slate-grey bird arrives at the window ledge—all fidget and dance, a wounded lacewing twitching in its mouth—then flits off nearly as soon as it is seen, and again he is remembering the summer day in the persimmon tree and the bird that lit on the basket’s rim and he reached his hand to it as if to take it for his own, this marvel, this wonderment—birds being God’s own seraphim—what his mother liked to say when she sang to herself, and the song now comes back to him—what she called a Timoleague tune, though once in a tavern years later he asked a favor of a fiddle-man to play it, but the fiddle-man said he did not know it though he be from County Cork himself, born and raised, but sorry lad, not that one—never heard of it and neither did any other Irishman Billy would ever meet in all his life and travels:
Feathered angels at your cradle,
One to keep you safe and able.
And when the final bell does toll,
One to bear away your soul
and he recalls that this seraph lit on the basket’s wicker rim but crouched when his hand went to it, as if readying for flight, then raised its tail and shot a fetid stream upon the coverlet, while others flew over him branch to branch and out of reach, their shadows straying over him.
The child waits, but no one comes to fetch him. Clouds now and the day goes cold as some summer days will do. And colder still. He waits. The wind rises, a hiss of it that sets the leaves to clattering on their leafstalks and turning out their silvery undersides, but no one comes to fetch him in, not even with dusk and the arrival of a sparrow flock come to roost unafraid of the intruder in the tree. They huddle to their twiggy perches, hunched against coming dark. The child waits. But no one comes to fetch him in, not even as a light rain falls and the drops slide down along the leaves and the light dims. Not even as the sky clears so he can see the motions of a rising moon through the portals between the leaves and his small face shines ghostly in its light, and then in shadow, then moonlight, then shadow and at last the moon sets to a sky sprayed with stars. The Great and Little Bears lumbering over him. Cygnus, too, but unlike any swan of this world that follows the flow of a shining river-trail, it sweeps along the spill of the Milky Way. The child sleeps. Or something like sleep—the wary sleep of journeying cormorants and kittwake gulls as they wing for weeks—months—above the open sea. Dawn. Color in the east as the sun recommences its circuit. Daybreak bird song wakes him: warbler, catbird, others. Warmer now. The boy waits. No one comes to fetch him in. Not even now as he pisses himself. And shits himself and pisses some more, soaked from below in it and from above with last night’s rain that rises steaming from the coverlet and the bright, wet leaves, the hanging drops. Little prisms, these. To watch, to marvel. At last there are voices below him, shouts from below—his mother. And his father—his Da telling her You left him where? Up there? – and there they are, down, there and pointing up at him hanging there in his basket. Jaysus woman have you lost your mind?— that summer day in a persimmon tree, his Da reaching up, up, and saying with a softer voice than anything yet he’s said: Ah there, poor lad. Your Mother might nearly to kill you and his Da’s big hands around him: Why your as cold as a clam, toted down on his Da’s shoulder, Woo! And stinking to high heaven, your nappie full up of your coodle but not so much as a peep from you, the basket left hanging, still a smidgen of a lad that you may be but a doughty one for certain, that summer day or was it some other day. Or some other bird. Or likely some other song.
He swings his legs to the canvas cot and folds himself over waistwise, reaches past chain and shackle-cuff to his bootheel, the well-worn sole bearing at its perimeter a line of cobbler’s nails. One nail-head brightly galvanized, bigger than the rest, and loose in its footings, a pivot he lifts with a fingernail. He twists the heel and it swivels open: there the hollow keep of a parchment scrap folded and refolded to matchbook size, pressed in place with a pencil stub set in cross-wise. The nub is blunt. He scrapes it to point with short strokes along the sandstone wall. He carefully unfolds the scrap. It is a list, the writing miniscule, in a cramped but upright hand. Bigger letters Billy! And hold your pencil proper now. What is wrong with you boy? Are you an ijit natural born or did the Sprites switch my Billy for a dimwit, which? He grips the pencil stub schoolboy style, the picture of concentration with tongue mashed between his teeth and protruding just a bit. 36 dove. 37 gnatcatcher. He blows away the dust of graphite and lead. Beyond the window, the crown of the cottonwood lifts and pitches in a gust of foothill wind—smell of dry juniper and blue sage. Paolo verde. Somewhere the ocotillo is in bloom. Fleecewood is budding. Gunfire somewhere near. A shudder in the treetop: twigs shattered, leaves dispersed. Birdsong silenced. The doves rise and wing away. Replaced by a bird dull black as lampsoot but for its head, the color of rust. 38 cowbird.
Breakfast was to be whatever he wanted, as is the custom for the condemned—for who can say what sustenance is offered in the hereafter or who the chef may be. Or if oblivion even keeps a kitchen.
What’ll it be Billy boy? says Tim Bob Twinkles, Ancillary Turnkey, Assistant to the Assistant Deputy, jailhouse janitor. (How curious are the living to know on what the doomed would dine.) Whatever you want, Mille—that’s the Sheriff’s missus—Millie’ll fix it. How about a beefsteak? Or chicken-in-a-pie? Likely as not we fed the last of the beefsteak to the posse that brung you in. But chicken, we always got chicken. Me I like my chicken-in-a-pie with okras mixed in but some folks get put off by the slime. On account of okras being second cousins to slugs. But cook em correctly and you cut down on the slime considerable. You cook em whole and cut em later, see. Seals in the slime, see. Not entirely eliminated, mind you, but cuts it down considerable—and he stops and he raises a finger. There is a faint scrambling on the roof tiles, then a soft coo-cooing. He looks to the ceiling. Hear that? You hear it. Doves. Nesting soon somewhere around, likely that big cottonwood out front. Damn easy shooting too. Missed em this morning but I’ll get em. Fuckin doves. Good eating, doves. Put em in a pie if you’re scarce on chicken but you best watch out for the birdshot. Broke a tooth once not watching out. Mille won’t fix em. She says: Tim Bob—you shoot em—you dress em. That Millie she…
Billy is face down on the cot. He mumbles into the canvas: Good God will you not shut your god-damned gob-hole.
What’s say? says Mr. Twinkles?
But Billy will not say. And Billy will not eat this morning, preferring to avoid releasing a pantsfull of piss and shit to drip into his boot as there he dangles. So having no special request, no answer at all, he is served the same as any detainee be it fugitive or hooligan, cut-throat or drunkard: cornbread, cabbage, posole—served up in a redware bowl covered with a blue-checked cloth. Pewter spoon. Though Millie the Sheriff’s missus has sent along a bottle of cherry pop: what a boy would want—this outlaw just a boy, after all. Or was one, recently enough.
The sun lifts above Las Montañas Mescaleras. Bluffs aflame. The rising heat. Smaller forms know what is coming. Tracks in the sand close and delicate as stitching—the tiny thoroughfares of nighttime travelers scuttling to their bits of shade in dens and crevices. The dung-ball beetle. The Jerusalem cricket. The doves whistle in from somewhere, one trailing a strand of barn-straw in its beak. One with none. Side by side in the cottonwood. Jailer, calls Billy. But softly. No sense in getting his gander up.
He stands. The chain clinks. The leg irons slide. They are meant for a bigger limb, a bigger man. A leg has been rubbed to raw and weeping where the shackle-cuff rubs the boot shaft and the chain attaches. An axe would be handy. Pix ax. Or a farrier’s hammer – that being big enough to split links. Or even, ever hopeful: the key. Assistant Deputy Twinkles keeps a ringful belt-looped and his pistol hardly ever holstered and sometimes waved about careless, cocked, rightly pointed and he never turns his back on Billy. No, no key, not just yet, thinks Billy. He looks again to the window. Will it be that cottonwood that does me in? he wonders. High enough sure, by the look of it. Though the hanging he’d seen as a small boy straddled on the shoulders of his Da did not go well, no not so very well at all. Watch now, his Da had told him, pointing to the gaunt and downcast man with his hands bound up behind him being pushed through the crowd as those in his path step aside to let him pass by. A horse waits. A newly-broke roan, skitterish. A crate is placed beside the horse. How about a hand here fellas, says the man who had been doing the pushing. Men in the crowd step forward and hoist, most clumsily, the bound-up man upon on the newly-broke roan. He sits upright in the saddle and slightly rocking as the roan shifts leg to leg, impatient and pawing at the earth. The noose is placed. Adjusted. The rope is thrown over a big bough—a sycamore. Bits of bark fall. The man on the newly-broke roan turns his head too look about as much as the noose will allow: there the boughs above him, the dangling seedballs of the sycamore, the nickering horse under him, the red earth road leading out of town and away, away to the green mesa beyond, and then the crowd—he gazes out upon the crowd, and was it our Billy he spied among those other faces, our Billy on the shoulders of his Da, higher than the rest? Billy, who took ahold of his Da’s hair to steady himself and raised his hand in hello at the man looking back at him. Hidy, called Billy. Quiet now, said his Da. A black-suited man steps up upon the crate and produces a small gunny sack, frayed at the open end where it has been cut down to the size of a man’s head. Attempts are made pull it over the head of the man astride the just-broke roan, but he thrashes, squirms. The black-suited man with the sack in his hands puts on a face of weary disgust and turns his head and spits. Come on now, he says, let’s just get this over and done with. But the writhing, the thrashing continues, and he smacks the man on the just-broke roan with the back of his hand. You better settle down now, he says. He waits. The man on the just-broke roan speaks. Or what? he says. And he does not settle down. He bobs and twists. Well goddamn you, says the man with the sack and he takes the shredded edge of the cloth with his two hands and gives it an angry and final downward yank, and roughly stuffs the excess folds under the noose. He turns to the crowd laughing and shaking his head: Ornery cuss aint he? he says stepping down from the crate. Go ahead, he says to the second man, standing by. I’m done. You go on and do whatever it is you do. The second man, hatless, steps up, a bible laid open in his hands. He looks into the crowd, waits for quiet, and it comes. He reads, not nearly loud enough, almost to only himself, so all lean bibleward to hear it, and some do and some do not, but it is nothing no one in the crowd has not heard before: the thieves that hung beside Our Lord, the choice of repentance or eternal stewing in the lake of fire, take your pick. And turning to the man on the just-broke roan says again: Take your pick. And then he waits, but no response is forthcoming and then he reads on. The noosed and gunny-sacked man sits silently in the saddle, shifts with shift of the restless roan. The sack begins to move. Then somehow begins to shrink, and then to disappear. The crowd now murmuring. No one sure what they are seeing or could know what spectacle may come. The cloth gathers in small tight folds at his mouth-hole as he takes it in his teeth, taking it in, untucking it free of the noose, swallowing the sack bit by bit as it slides forward over his head and now down over his eyes so he can look out upon the crowd once more, and there he is again, there is the child, that boy again waving to him. Mister, cries Billy, holding tight to his father’s head. Quit it now Billy! He says, Leave go you little shite. But Billy does not leave go and he is pulled down screaming, a tuft of his father’s hair in his fist. Laughter of neighboring onlookers looking. Scrappy little feller, says one man. Get him back up there or he’ll miss it, says another. And although both magistrate and mob believed the bough to be quite sound, it unexpectedly did crack clear through when the desperado was relieved of his seat on the saddle cinched to the newly-broke roan who snorted and reared, his eyes rolling back to white, and then prematurely bolted, being spooked by the ignition of a packet of short-fuse pyrogenics expertly detonated by two schoolhouse truants crouched behind Smiley’s Dry Goods, and resulting in a brief interval of mid-air suspension before both tree limb and felon were flung earthward, and despite the immediate attempts of those in attendance to pry open his mouth and dislodge the tote sack (though succeeding only in tearing out his tongue) and to unravel the rope (the knots made more knuckle-busting by the forward thrust of the frightened animal, combined with the increased tensile strength of hemp when wet—oh yes, it had started to rain), the cause of death according to the circuit coroner (officially summoned in this instance of bungled execution) was reported as the “concomitant effects of cranial contusion caused by a bough bashing in the decedent’s occiput and windpipe hindrance due to ingestion of a gunny sack” as reported in the evening edition of The City Sentinel which also noted “a full ten minutes of choking sounds and twitching of the limbs.”
And let us not forget the men who cut the rope away from the sycamore limb, and as they lifted the body into the buckboard, piss and shit dripped and they held their noses: Whew, Jim. If I’m ever strung up for something remind me not to have breakfast.
No, it did not go well, not well at all.
The newly-broke roan would later be found in the lot behind Wo Ping Best Washy eating daisy fleabane in the green patch where Ping dumps his laundry water, there the soil wet and the flora lush for these parched parts.
So, then. The cottonwood. There it stands. Certainly, thinks Billy, a public platform, even one hastily wrought, would better serve. Though he’d heard no hammering. No rhythmic hruff hruff hurff of saw. And no mob, no angry gaggle hoisting torches would likely assemble. Perhaps a transfer was in the planning. Maybe they would haul him away in a traveling pokey heading out for Carrizozo, the county seat. Or Ruidoso, a good bit bigger. After all, a crowd would certainly amass. Requiring a plaza to accommodate the ruck and rabble. Space enough so spectators needn’t be perching in the trees like crows for a look-see. Space as well for picnics—tablecloths and old bedding spread with what country folks tote to a necktie party: crumb-fried chicken, mayonnaise potatoes, lemonade pinked with sumac, frosted cake. Everyone arriving with their reasons. Some spouting eye-for-an-eye scripture. Some come to someday tell their offspring that they’d witnessed the string-up of a celebrated assassin. And some—a very few, or perhaps just one among them come to look upon a man about to die and then a man dead, in preparation of his own time come. As if such preparation is possible. Oh yes, Billy is certain that many will make the trip in from the territories and districts afar for the demise of the desperado, choked to death on this to be his last day on this earth. A day so the same as his first when newly born and so similarly noosed. Or so it had been told. Or so it has been said.
From: Doctor Arthur Broadwater’s Guide to Pregnancy and Birth
2nd edition, July 1851
Chapter I: Strangulation in the Womb
The Strangled Infant is a sight disturbing to even the most experienced of physicians: the dusky cast to its features, the protrusion of the tongue, the bulging eyes, and alas: the tiny lifeless hands that continue—even in death—to clutch at its neck—a futile attempt to free itself from umbilical cord that had become a noose! Persons in attendance—husband, siblings of the diseased—will attempt to console the distraught woman with the comforting explanation that the occurrence is God’s Will. But this is simply not the case. Nor is there any evidence that such a death in the womb is the result of wearing a daisy chain around the neck or strangling barnyard fowl during pregnancy. On the contrary, in every instance of stillbirth due to Cord Strangulation, the mother recalls that at some time during her pregnancy she had raised her arms so that her hands were lifted above her head. Such a Maneuver causes the Umbilical Cord to migrate upwards (“Umbilical Cord Migration”) producing a Noose Formation around the infant’s neck, resulting in Suffocation. After my relentless questioning, the woman will without fail finally confess to causing the death of her child. Even an Innocent Activity that requires reaching upwards, such as pinning laundry on the line, or wielding a broom to sweep cobwebs from the ceiling or taking a jar of jam down from an overhead shelf, can result in dire consequences. Only once, upon the delivery of a Strangling Infant, did I manage to untangle the Murderous Cord just as the child emerged, thereby permitting spontaneous respiration. As is usual in such situations, I questioned the distraught—but relieved—mother about her activities. She recalled that one autumn afternoon during the early weeks of her pregnancy, she had reached upwards into the overhanging limb of a Persimmon Tree in an unsuccessful attempt to capture her escaped canary where it had momentarily perched. In this particular case, the infant—a male child—did indeed live, but never grew to a full-sized man. Indeed, during both his late adolescence and even into adulthood he was referred to as a “kid”, in reference to both his age and stature, and by all subsequent accounts, died young.*
*The aforementioned lad was actually felled by gunshot, but given the location of the wound, it is likely that he would have survived the assault if not for the anatomical impairments he had suffered at birth.
Pamela Ryder is the author of the novels in stories Paradise Field and Correction of a Drift. And the short story collection A Tendency To Be Gone.