Prison trustees and outside
contractors dislike entering the storage building. They
speak of shadows moving, especially in the corner where
hangings are staged.
do not tolerate superstition as an excuse to avoid work.
Still, plans exist to demolish the old building and build
a new administration wing, now that the prison is in private
No one who has
worked in the building admits to the song they hear as they
try to sleep. The song about slashing, stabbing, and slaughter.
A few years earlier,
during excavation on the old Parly farm, which had been sold
to a commercial developer intending to parcel it for houses,
old human bones were found. This stopped construction work
while an official survey was made. They feared another Ed
Gein situation but only two sets of bones were recovered.
They were unofficially identified as Parly’s parents.
Knife marks on
them told a silent tale.
“Any last words,
son?” the pastor asked, a sorrowful look professionally displayed
on his face if not in his eyes. He leaned to make sure Parly
could see him talking.
They knew he was
deaf. They had known since before the trial. They also knew
he had never learned American Sign Language. He did read
lips reasonably well.
Parly shook his
head. Then, as the black velvet hood was lowered onto him,
he said, “No one knows.”
That was all he
A small group,
shivering in predawn chill, gathered to witness the execution.
The hanging took place in a shed used to store crates of
food and other supplies used by the prison.
The gibbet stood
in a shadowed corner.
how makeshift it all looked.
Parly was led
in, already hooded. He was walked up the stairs by the masked
hangman and the sheriff. The pastor followed.
On the scaffold,
Parly’s knees trembled.
was seen to lean in and say something, to which Parly nodded
despite being already hooded and unable to see the sheriff’s
lips. Some said it was a curse.
The pastor began
jabbering magic spells.
The hangman placed,
tightened, and adjusted the rope.
the hangman then pushed the sheriff back a pace and pulled
use weights tied to the hanger’s feet, so the drop need not
be as long. This was not one of those.
Parly’s feet were
tied, to keep them from dancing wildly should strangling
be his fate.
That is how pictures
of the event were captured.
When Parly fell,
he was not there anymore. The rope tightened for an instant,
then sprang back as if he had slipped the noose.
But he was simply
“What the fuck?” the
sheriff was heard to bellow.
The pastor dropped
his Bible and stepped on it in his haste to leave the gibbet.
A search was made.
He was never found.
The pictures show
him falling, halfway through the trap door’s opening, and
he is not there in the next picture. No fade out, no gradual
vanishment, marked his passage.
It was spoken
of only among those who had seen it, and although a rumor
spread, it was denied angrily by officials, and Parly’s coffin,
plain pine, was buried in Potter’s Field outside town. His
grave was left unmarked.
Some rumors say
the empty coffin was actually reused.
A hangman must
account for body weight, length of the drop, speed attained,
and the angle of the knot in order properly to snap the neck.
Too short a drop and the hanger strangles. Too long a drop,
the head pops off. Just right and the neck breaks, leaving
the body either still or twitching mildly as it sways a pendulum
of life’s last moments.
132 pounds, seven ounces.
The drop he required
was factored into the gibbet.
It was built by
men who worked for a man who had lost a son to the killer.
They did a thorough job.
It would be burned,
along with Parly’s blanket, clothes, and effects, immediately
following the execution.
A dawn’s bonfire,
to signal with smoke that justice had been served.
during his trial, Parly seemed to be absent for moments at
a time. One reporter even got a photograph of his empty chair,
as the defense attorney, a young man arguing his first murder
case, gestured an objection.
Each time, court
paused while a search ensued.
Each time, Parly
was found in the defendant’s chair, where he should have
been all along.
The judge ordered
the public barred and the jury sequestered.
A guilty verdict
came back an hour after closing arguments.
Twice the prior
day there was a panic when someone looked into the cell and
failed to see Parly. Both times he was in his shadow clot,
Both times, after
a frantic search, he ended up sitting on his metal cot. The
sheriff developed a worry line between his eyes. He doubled
They took him
in the sheriff’s car into town, to the sheriff’s office.
He sat in the holding cell watching them talk, gesture, and
Some were angry,
some cried. Some glared at Parly, others refused to look
at him. One gagged and spat.
They fed him stew
from a can, a hunk of corn bread, and water. He slept in
his clothes on the metal tray that was bolted to the wall.
He rolled the blanket for a pillow.
Earlier that day,
a group of men from the farmer’s market drove out to Parly’s
farm. They came unofficially, although the sheriff was with
Sam Hawkins knocked
on the door, standing on the porch. The others waited on
them talk. He nodded.
They fanned out
At one point,
someone noticed Parly gone. No one could find him. The search
shifted for a few frantic moments.
He stood in the
middle of the barn, in his dark clot, watching them. Then
the clot lifted.
They saw him.
“He wasn’t there
a second ago, I just checked,” one man swore. Others agreed.
The sheriff stood
beside Parly after that.
When they found
the remains, Sam Hawkins had to be restrained. He came at
Parly with a hand scythe. When other farmers caught him,
he threw it at Parly.
The blade cut
Parly’s left knee.
He did not react,
not even to wince.
The sheriff picked
up the blade, looked at its stains, and said, “God damn it,
Sam, this is evidence.”
When the sheriff
read him his rights and cuffed him, he was patted down. They
found the matches, candle stubs, and his knife. An old Buck,
his father’s hunting knife, honed and stropped enough to
have altered the blade’s original shape.
the market was subdued. Posters for the missing boys blossomed
on poles and walls. People handed out sheets of paper with
and early as always, unloaded his crates and burlap sacks
at the Hawkins stall as Sam and two of his sons looked on.
They looked worried.
Finally Sam said, “You
haven’t seen my boy Jim, have you, Parly? Out by your place
what, Wednesdy or Thursdy?”
Parly looked the
man in the eyes and shook his head.
“Well, here, take
this, it’s a good likeness, graduation picture, Jimmy was
gonna go into the marines, we was proud—we’re proud of the
boy.” Tears glittered.
Parly took the
handout along with his money from last week’s market. He
put it into his pocket with the money.
As he got into
his truck to drive home, he saw one of the remaining Hawkins
boys slash a fist in the air as he frowned and spoke angrily
to his father, who was slowly shaking his head.
Both then looked
at Parly and, instantly, looked away.
car skidded to a halt in the gravel.
Big, he rolled
from the car, then stood straight. He adjusted his gun belt.
He leaned in, snagged his hat, and put it on. He tilted it
just so. He brushed imaginary dust from the front of his
Finally he walked
up to the farmhouse porch.
He knocked on
the screen door.
Its rattling echoed.
John Jacob Parly.
The sheriff touched
the front of his hat’s brim. “Afternoon, Parly.”
The farmer just
the sheriff said, “You ain’t seen three boys out this way,
I guess? Older boys, sixteen, seventeen?”
Parly shook his
Nodding, the sheriff
said, “Thing of it is, we found the Cobb boy’s old pickup
parked, well.” He turned to point toward the dirt road, and
a clump of trees. “Just there, in your apple orchard.” Calling
the irregular stand of Northern Spy apple trees an orchard
was a kindness.
that way, then back at the sheriff.
“Well, tell y’what,
Parly. You let us know if you spot ‘em. I figure maybe they
came up here to maybe tease you a little, or for a look-see.
You know how curious kids can get.”
Parly simply stood.
The sheriff thanked
him for his time and went away. As he got into his car, he
glanced up at the house, then squinted.
Was that a shadow
at the uncurtained window?
“Yes, go. Now.”
He could talk,
He pointed off
his property, at the dirt road that passed two hundred yards
from his front porch.
The trio of town
boys, teenagers egging each other on, stood their ground.
They had been in his barn when he came out of his house to
care for the animals. They had led his old milk cow to the
middle of the barn floor and had tipped her, once she had
fallen asleep again, which she did easily in her dotage.
He had sensed
something wrong. The barn door had been ajar, for one thing.
For another, the dark clot of air had slipped into the barn
ahead of him. It rarely left the house.
The boys were
afraid. He could see that. This made them more dangerous.
None would show weakness in front of the other two.
“Go.” He pointed
They taunted and
mocked him. They did not know he was deaf and his refusal
to answer back goaded them.
None was larger
than him. One was taller, but skinny.
When they rushed
him, he saw the darkness leap from the rafters. Doves scattered.
and bled. Mouths made round shapes.
Slit throats gushed.
He watched them
fall through a penumbra of night defying the day in its eagerness
to feed, in its lust.
When they lay
still, staring all three at nothing anyone can see, he moved
them. He left them for his chores.
It took effort
to help the milk cow to her feet.
He was behind
in feeding the animals, watering them, letting some loose,
It cut into his
chore time to dismember the dead boys.
It was late afternoon
before he paused at the stone trough. Spring water flowed
into it, overflowing into a terra-cotta drain. He washed
away the red.
He then went into
Not alone but
not together. That is how it felt. A presence filled the
old house but nothing showed. Not for passersby or the rare
visitor. No glimpses teased the eye, no cobweb touched tickled
Parly knew, though.
He lived with
the presence all his life. Neighbors said he lived alone.
He never told them. In a dozen years a dozen words might
have been exchanged. He did his work, sold his crops, and
kept to himself.
him. Once a mailman drove out to ask if he wanted rural free
delivery. He shook his head and walked back to the barn.
The mailman left and the town, when it heard, shrugged.
“It’s not illegal
to isolate yourself,” the sheriff said. No trouble meant
Some of the town’s
women wondered who cut his hair or mended his clothes. None
found his scowls or stains alluring enough to venture near
him on market days.
He let Sam Hawkins
sell his corn, apples, squash, and so on. He never said a
word as he unloaded his wares at Hawkins’s stall. He never
counted the money from the prior market Sam handed over.
He shoved it into his pocket and drove off.
He never came
to town to shop and was not spotted in adjacent towns. Without
mail, electricity, or telephone, he did not mail order. Some
said he wore his father’s clothes. No one knew for sure when,
or even if, the father had died. His death was presumed by
his absence, and the son’s presence.
name was a matter of debate. Since he was Jacob Parly’s son,
his surname was known. He worked the Parly farm and paid
its taxes. His first name, though, was not generally known.
to use it, this mattered little.
Visits to the
prothonotary’s office over the years by this or that curious
person revealed only a letter, J. He was J. Parly on official
documents. Was he Jacob, Jr.? The few kids who said, “Hey
Jake,” never got a rise out of him on market day.
Parly was all
they called him.
Alone at his dinner—was
it true he ate oatmeal most meals, mixed with unsold vegetables—names
did not affect him.
Unless the presence
He would not know
if screams, let alone whispers, filled his dark farmhouse
each night. He was deaf.
He had been born
hearing but infections had robbed him of that sense as a
child and neglect kept him deaf.
John Jacob Parly
had never been examined by a doctor in all his forty-seven
years. This was unusual in rural Minnesota at the time, but
by no means unheard of.
Moving his bowl
and spoon to the sink, he pumped some water and washed them.
Placing them in the rack, he sighed and peered out into the
night. The yard behind the house lay dusty and dim in pale
Under it, his
He walked through
the dark house, navigating by familiarity. He carried matches
and a few candle stubs in his pocket, in case he needed light.
He climbed up
rickety stairs and went to his childhood bed. It sagged almost
to the floor when he sat on it. He removed his boots only,
then lay back. The bed swayed for a few seconds. Its joints
squeaked. He sighed again in his silent sleepiness. He yawned.
Just before he
fell asleep he felt the room change. The presence was there
He grunted and
shut his eyes. Soon he snored.
Meanwhile a dark
form hovered over him. It resembled the shadow of a cloud,
a clot of darker darkness. Moonlight entering his one window,
with no curtains to block it, cast a shadow of the dark form
on the wall by his bed. He had seen this many times.
As a child, he
had been afraid of it. He knew it wanted to smother him.
When it never
did, he trained himself first to mask his dread, then not
to feel it. He became able to yawn at it and to sleep even
when he knew it was there.
It predated his
It continued after.
In his deafness,
he never heard it telling him to slash, to stab, and to slaughter.
All night it sang this sibilant song. So simple, so seductive:
Slash, stab, slaughter.
The dark clot
was knife murder condensed.
It was memory.