Prison trustees and outside contractors dislike entering the storage building. They speak of shadows moving, especially in the corner where hangings are staged.

Prison officials 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 hands.

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 said.

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.

Reporters commented 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.

Sheriff Harris 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.

Without ceremony, the hangman then pushed the sheriff back a pace and pulled the lever.

Some hangings 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.

Reporters flashed cameras.

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 not there.

“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.

Parly weighed 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.

Several times 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, watching them.

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 the guard.

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 pose.

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 them.

Sam Hawkins knocked on the door, standing on the porch. The others waited on the ground.

Parly watched them talk. He nodded.

They fanned out to search.

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.

That Saturday the market was subdued. Posters for the missing boys blossomed on poles and walls. People handed out sheets of paper with every purchase.

Parly, bright 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.

The sheriff’s 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 pants.

Finally he walked up to the farmhouse porch.

He knocked on the screen door.

Its rattling echoed.

Footsteps brought John Jacob Parly.

The sheriff touched the front of his hat’s brim. “Afternoon, Parly.”

The farmer just looked.

Shifting weight, the sheriff said, “You ain’t seen three boys out this way, I guess? Older boys, sixteen, seventeen?”

Parly shook his head.

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.

Parly glanced 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, when necessary.

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 again.

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.

Forearms split 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, gathering others.

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 the house.

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 skin.

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.

Some approached 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 no interest.

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.

Parly’s first 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.

Without friends 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.

It served.

Alone at his dinner—was it true he ate oatmeal most meals, mixed with unsold vegetables—names did not affect him.

Unless the presence whispered, “John…”

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 moonlight.

Under it, his parents moldered.

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 again.

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 parents’ deaths.

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.


# # #

Murder Knife by Samael Gyre
originally published in the Winter 2011 print edition



Samael Gyre’s recent credits include the magazines Tales of Moreauvia, Terra, All Possible Worlds, Scared Naked, and Talebones and the anthologies Bitten, Northern Haunts, Ruins Metropolis, Barren Worlds, Love & Sacrifice, Jigsaw Nation, Cold Flesh and Poe’s Progeny.

For more of Samael's work,
visit his Big Pulp author page


This feature and more great
fiction & poetry are available in
Big Pulp Winter 2011:
Interrogate My Heart Instead

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