Nightmare Presents: Six Hangings in the Land of Unkillable Women by Theodore McCombs
Happy February, everyone! It’s the first Wednesday of the month, and you should know what that means: a new installment of horror fiction courtesy of Nightmare Magazine! Our selection this month is “Six Hangings in the Land of Unkillable Women” by Theodore McCombs. If you prefer, you can listen to the podcast version instead.
Dig in, and let us know what you think of these monthly offerings in the comments section below.
SIX HANGINGS IN THE LAND OF UNKILLABLE WOMEN
1899, Jan 20th.
Sidney Lewis MILL, 36 (Vengeance)
Mill—a charmer and a rake of no respectable talent whatever—insinuated himself into the home of the widow Annie Holcomb and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Alice. But Mrs. Holcomb turned him out, once she realized he’d been gallanting Alice as much as her. Mill spent the next four nights chanting obscene tirades under her window and left a dead rat in the mail slot on the fifth. Night patrols chased him off park benches; friends robbed him. Sleepless and humiliated, he broke into the house and strangled Mrs. Holcomb with her tin necklace, and when it snapped, with a pajama cord—and when that failed, he dragged a kitchen knife over her throat—and when the knife chipped, and the shard cut Mill’s eye, Mrs. Holcomb ran into the street calling for help, towing her bewildered daughter by the wrist.
Mill pled guilty. Alice Holcomb wept profligately through his sentencing. On the scaffold, Mill’s last words were, “Finally—finally.”
• • • •
It was a muggy, yellowed May morning on Willow Street, Boston, the light tawny and thick with heat and soot. Edith Smylie’s husband, Gerald Smylie, Superintendent of the Police Department’s Bureau of Homicides and Homicide Attempts, having finished breakfast, sat bothered at the window, watching two blackbirds harass and chase a hawk over the rooftops. Edith cleared the plates and ran a crumb catcher over the tablecloth, thoughtlessly at first, and then, when she saw how it irritated him, with a perverse little violence, scraping at the fabric so that it sent a thin, linen whistle needling into his ear.
“Look, do you mind!” Gerry snapped, and Edith stopped at once.
She was a lean, dry woman of stiff and careful movements, auburn-bunned, tending to gauntness, and in her high-collared brown wool dress, she looked like a telegraph pole. “It’s the Barrow girl bothering you, isn’t it?” Edith said.
Edith came round and settled by her husband. He sat with his shoulders pushed forward in his sack coat, the way he did, Edith had observed before, when he felt the world had skipped off its rails. She knew which case had kept him sleepless, so many nights now. She knew, and resented that he hadn’t asked for her advice.
It had been all over the papers, inevitably: Liza Barrow, of North End, having reared alone her five-year-old son, that winter had starved the boy to death keeping him tied to his bed with nautical rope. It was an outrage; it was a hanging offense. The jury would have rioted, had the judge ordered any lesser sentence. What the papers didn’t know—what Edith had suspected, and what Gerald now confirmed to her—was that Miss Barrow refused to hang.
The rope broke, the first time. The second time, the noose wouldn’t even tie, but squirmed and shrank from the frantic hangman like a centipede wriggling out of a child’s clumsy fingers. They’d tried a firing squad and the bullets never turned up, not in Miss Barrow, nor the wall behind her. They’d tried the chair, and she’d sat patiently in a blue halo of St. Elmo’s fire, grinning like a perfect demon, teeth crackling. Since the emergence of the Protection, there had been some small number of women killers like Miss Barrow and discreet committees of lawyers and churchmen had convened to litigate the metaphysics of an execution. If the crime were very bad, surely. If she were immured in a tomb with no air, surely. They never found an exception, and Massachusetts’s prisons hadn’t either. Gerry had sworn his officers to secrecy, but sooner or later, he admitted, the public would realize, like Miss Barrow had realized, that her sentence couldn’t be carried out.
Edith listened carefully while her husband unburdened himself. Her sickle nose traveled slowly up as she deliberated.
“The solution is unfortunate,” Edith said at last, but with a certain pride of achievement. “Liza Barrow,” she said, “must hang by a woman’s hand.”
It had never occurred to those discreet committees that women might enjoy a power denied to men. It had occurred to Edith, however. There had been reports in other cities, all confused, all unverified, of women having managed, with difficulty, to murder their husbands’ mistresses or to poison their mothers. Edith had kept careful account; had pondered them in her heart well before this morning. And women still did manage to kill themselves, after all.
“Obviously, she must wear a hood,” Edith said simply. Gerry raked his fingers through his hair. An uneasy smell of potatoes in oil lingered in the room. “And there’s no need to flounce around in petticoats for a hanging. No one need ever know.”
Gerry stood, and his shoulders pushed to his ears. “I shouldn’t like,” he said, “I shouldn’t like the woman who’d willingly undertake that duty.”
Edith shot him a look: he should know better than to make such declarations. She gazed into her gathered hands. For one sour moment, she wondered if she shouldn’t have said anything. “It is a duty,” Edith reflected. “And I am prepared to satisfy it, if no one else will.”
• • • •
1899, Mar 1st.
Samuel HEWITT, 24 (Jealousy, Drink)
Hewitt lost his job as a toolmaker and was reduced to asking Mary Rowledge’s father for work; he and Mary had just become engaged. Bedeviled by shame into resentment, Hewitt grew suspicious of Mary’s friendship with her family’s boarder, a Mr. Robert “Black Robby” Freedman. Hewitt, morbidly drunk, accused Mary of an affair, then declared he’d not gone to work at all at Mr. Rowledge’s shop that week, and that he would hang before he did. After more words in the same line, he bashed in Mary’s head with a hammer and wrote “I OWN YOU” over her forehead. When Mary woke the next morning, Hewitt had fled, but police found him blacked out in a brothel only blocks away.
Mary testified with an ink smear still visible on her rubbled brow. Hewitt protested his innocence to the very moment of his execution.
• • • •
Edith visited her daughter Caroline in the afternoon for tea, though Caroline took none herself, as Peter, her husband, had forbidden stimulants of any kind. Caroline was pregnant with her first child, and she sat petting her belly with a look of satisfaction and preening as if she’d eaten a whole pie.
“I wish you’d let me open the curtains,” Edith said, glancing at the muffled bays, then the hissing gaslight sconces. “It’s an extravagance—it’s a vice, in this sun.”
“Peter doesn’t want the city air to get in,” Caroline said serenely. “It’s unhealthy for the baby.” She drew out the last word, bay-bee, as if teaching it to Edith.
“Nonsense,” Edith announced.
Somewhere behind her, Peter was lurking; in the hall, in another room. Peter was a wealthy husband—worm’s wealth, Edith added a little savagely. He imported silks, and that ethos of vulgar display traveled through the house like a burnt smell. For instance, the andirons flanking the fireplace: brass nudes in the shape of long-suffering caryatids, their breasts more expressive than their smiles. Edith hoped, in a few years, she could persuade Caroline to have them hammered into napkin rings.
“Mother,” Caroline repeated, and now the word sounded very different, “Peter told me about your—your intention—” She frowned, baffled. “I wouldn’t like it. It’s out of the question, really.”
Ah, Edith thought. Ah; that was why she’d been summoned to tea, and why Caroline had begged her to wear her black frock, despite the late spring heat. She’d actually sent that with the messenger boy: “I beg you.” For Peter’s sake. Peter definitely wouldn’t like his mother-in-law’s hangmanning, and so Caroline must dislike it too, and persuade her out of it. The list of things this child had arranged to dislike about her mother, in twenty-one years, was extraordinary. She didn’t like Edith’s hands: red and muscular, farmgirl’s hands. Caroline, twelve, had once asked Edith to cover them, even in the house. But Edith liked her hands. They looked like her grandmother’s hands twisting chicken necks with a sharp, musical pop.
The week before, Gerry had had the Police Commissioner and the Governor’s lawyer over for brandies. After some stiff pleasantries, Edith had disappeared around a blind corner in the hall and listened.
“It’s out of the question,” the Governor’s lawyer had said. “You know how scandal has its way of getting out—how long do you trust your men not to tell that one over drinks?” He wiped the rim of his snifter with a silk pocket square after each sip. “The hang-woman. No. A week? A month?”
“Why would Edith even want to, is what I don’t understand.” The Police Commissioner sounded unsettled. “Why on earth, Smylie? Is she a cruel woman? Is she unnatural?”
“But she’s right,” Gerry said. “You know Edith, sir. When she’s right—well.”
“Well, what then?” the Commissioner said. “It’s not so damned obvious!”
“I think of it as a mercy on her part,” Gerry said coolly. “Look at our alternatives. Bury Liza in concrete? Like they did in Minnesota? We don’t want to be the next Minnesota, do we? We aren’t monsters.”
“Just fry a body on the chair and tell the papers it’s the Barrow woman’s,” drawled the Governor’s lawyer.
A dreadful silence.
“Gentlemen. I was being facetious.”
Edith had smiled to herself, then had frowned, severely, at her own smile.
In Caroline’s sitting room, Edith sensed Peter behind her again. She didn’t hear him, for the rugs in Caroline’s home were shagged so thick, one’s shoes sank into them like mud. But he came in and out like a draft over her shoulder; nervous, irritable, smoky. Edith felt herself sit a little more stiffly upright.
Caroline did not, of course, persuade her mother to give up the duty she’d solemnly taken upon herself to satisfy. How had Peter found out, anyway? Edith wondered; then she recalled the Governor’s lawyer was some sort of cousin of his. A silky conspiracy—it was almost flattering. Edith thought, as Caroline pleaded and seethed, I will go to the gallows this week. Just to see it. Just to make sure I’m prepared.
• • • •
1899 Mar 21st.
David Archibald Michael CHAPEL, 18 (Sadistic Pleasure)
Chapel, a lonely, half-lamed youth from Back Bay, styled himself as a radical poet and concocted a fantasy of “the perfect murder.” At a music hall he approached Mary Tatosky, or Totoski, and Chapel, having offered a false name, flattered her rather pathetically until she agreed to meet him the next day. He took her to a secluded orchard, raped her, and smothered her with her coat, but fled when little red new mouths opened down the lengths of both her arms, sputtering and gasping for breath.
Mary never reported the crime, and Chapel grew impatient for it to be publicized. He telephoned the Globe to describe a vile murder he’d witnessed, but the press desk grew suspicious when he claimed the victim had been a woman. They traced the call, then reported Chapel to the police. In fact, Chapel’s perfect crime had miscarried from the start: he’d left fibers from his clothes at the orchard. The jury convicted him in under half an hour. He made a tearful statement while the noose was being fitted around his neck, but due to a hitch in the gallows occupying the hangman’s attention, whatever he’d wanted to say must go unrecorded.
• • • •
Edith saw them, from time to time. In the market crowds, a woman with a neck turned partly to bluish stone, hinging at her waist to inspect the butcher’s cuts or lifting an onion to her eyes. In the park, a girl with a bullet-sized pucker at the back of her head, where no hair now grew. Sometimes they noticed Edith staring and turned away shyly, or haughtily; mostly they were oblivious, absorbed in living indistinguishably, and Edith tried as well to ignore the steely prickling beneath her skin.
Twenty years ago, a boy had stabbed Edith in an alley near Scollay Square. Vengeance, he’d said. She forgot the details: something her cop husband had done. Edith had laughed—he’d been so young. She’d felt her body change even as the knife went in: a deep, interior wrenching, like a pair of burly hands turning soil. No one had heard of the Protection yet, and Edith remembered thinking, That’s what death feels like. She remembered, in that split second, feeling brave and practical about it, like a Roman drinking poison. Then her stomach ate the blade off the hilt.
The boy screamed and ran.
For weeks after, she sensed the blade inside her, being broken down into shards, then shavings, then steel dust. She sat carefully. She pricked herself on herself when she crouched to get a bowl from the bottom cupboards. She inspected her stool in the pot with a candle, looking for reflective slivers. The knife never left her, but flowed in scratching particles through her veins. She’d never told Gerry. She was frightened of her new knife-blooded body, and what it signified. She studied her temper, and thought she saw herself quicker to spite and impatience—a little proud, a little waspish. A little cruel, maybe. That power, that kind of freedom frightened her. What exactly did it license? What did it obligate?
When she was pregnant with Caroline, she’d dreaded the knife filtering into her daughter, making her willful and cruel-blooded from the start; but in the years after, when it was clear no such thing had happened, she’d felt foully disappointed.
Even later, when the existence of an unkillable sex became generally known, Edith still didn’t tell Gerry. He’d just risen to Bureau superintendent and she examined the registry of executions he received from the Suffolk County prisons, as if they might teach her something about the Protection. How far, exactly, did it extend? She knew the men wondered: What about very young girls? What about quickened fetuses? Men and women alike disbelieved it. There had to be exceptions. Did women still die in childbirth? What about “unwomanly” women? No one discussed the Protection publicly or in print—it was a barbarous subject, head to toe—but in her living room the men asked Gerry, who sat baffled, hands upturned as though lifting his own ignorance back at them.
The wives in Edith’s circle never spoke of the New Woman. They still used language like “the weaker sex,” as if reminding themselves of an errand they had to perform the next day. Edith purred along with them, agreeably enough, sharing their fear of a new century that would outpace them. She only felt the shame of it the mornings after, as she scraped crumbs from the tablecloth.
In Scollay Square, they’d taken down the old oil lamps and installed electric lights. Edith had read a thorough scientific editorial on electric current and the light-bulb; still, she kept her distance, as the new lanterns buzzed to life, as if by their own unthinking volition. A suffragette preached on a soapbox under one of them: Sisters, she said, waving her sheaf of handbills, don’t let them turn us against each other. She was young, bony, and awkward like a fledgling, her chest and elbows held uncertainly in her dove frock. In the dusk, the tungsten light painted her in uncanny new yellows—neither the molten, soupy gold of oil lamps, nor quite different enough to forget that old color; the suffragette’s square little face shone like a moon, or like something altogether unfamiliar, something there wasn’t a word for yet.
• • • •
1899, Apr 15th.
Henry Abolition TOAL, 49 (Vengeance)
Harry Toal was a well-liked ferryman in the lonely salt marshes along Massachusetts Bay, and had doggedly wooed Lidia Mazzola, a widow and housekeeper for the local Catholic priest. He grew embittered after a brawl with Lidia’s son left Toal with a broken jaw; he claimed Lidia had put the boy up to it, and his jaw being slow to heal, and him having to take his beer through a straw, to the great and rowdy mirth of his marsh neighbors, Toal let his bitterness climb into a rage.
Toal swore Lidia had left town, but the priest was suspicious because Lidia’s clothes were still in her room. About a year went by, however, and she was largely forgotten, until the new housekeeper, whom Toal had likewise courted, found Lidia’s bicycle in his overgrown back garden. Police dredged the marshes and found Mrs. Mazzola at the bottom of the Belle Isle inlet, tied and weighted with several large stones. She’d developed gills and had fed for the past eleven months on the tiny marsh fish she caught in her kelp-like hair.
Toal was hanged behind Charlestown Prison. Lidia’s gills never went away, and she died of pneumonia some time after.
• • • •
Boston Common was busy even late in the afternoon, with the sun low over the spire of Park Street Church. Edith held a scented handkerchief to her nose as the stink of horses and sewers followed her into the park, where workmen were hammering together a public gallows on the lawn, between two massive, screw-limbed oaks. Most executions now happened in yards behind prisons; but a notorious case like the Barrow childkiller demanded a notorious answer. The noose wasn’t yet slung, but the wooden framework was raised: recognizably, a gallows.
Of course, I will be wearing a hood, Edith reminded herself.
In front of the scaffold, a white-haired preacher with white horned brows denounced the Obscenity behind him, with his forefinger raised to Heaven: For the State of Massachusetts to apply its authority of violence to a woman was shamely, ungodful, a high crime not less immoral than the attacks for which men were hanged. Adam, charged with Eve’s protection, even in her sin. Holy matrimony. The weaker sex. He went on for some time, his raised finger crooking from fatigue. A small crowd of men murmured in agreement: if God wanted no woman killed, who was the hangman to thwart Him? A larger crowd of men jeered and shouted back arguments of varying sophistication, from the scriptural (Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live) to the scatological (sounds unrecordable in any notation). The women hung back in the shade and said nothing.
Edith tilted her head aside with queenly severity and a farmgirl’s sneer. The men jeering for the gallows looked frantic with need: Finally, their faces said, finally. No one knew exactly when the Protection had emerged—there were stories as far back as the end of the Civil War, of liberated slaves generaled by unkillable black women, rampaging behind Sherman’s March to the Sea. But once the bald new facts of womanhood did become publicly known, five years ago, the horrors visited in retaliation upon the indomitable sex had shocked the world. In Georgia, a man roped his wife behind his horse and dragged her galloping for miles. In California, a mob blasted a woman with dynamite. Across the country, there were men emboldened, or affronted, or both, who seemed to go savage as cornered dogs attempting to regain a sense of mastery. That was why attempted gynocide was always a capital crime: otherwise, women’s unkillable nature authorized a kind of insane license. Some additional deterrence was crucial. But now that the shoe was on the other, daintier foot, so to speak, small wonder that a few brutes were salivating at the prospect of a woman’s execution. It made Edith pause, and a little voice asked if she’d committed herself too quickly.
Sisters, the suffragette had said, don’t let them turn us against each other.
Should Edith go to the prison, for instance, and face the woman she was to execute: Liza Childkiller, Liza Tie-Me-Down, the North End Devil.
And yet, this preacher irritated her too. Edith touched the brooch at her collar: a cameo of Apollo pursuing the nymph Daphne, and Daphne’s father, the river, turning her into a laurel tree. For her protection, of course. Edith’s father had given her the brooch for her sixteenth birthday: Edith’s father, like Daphne’s, had awkward notions of paternal love. Edith felt willful, perverse. She felt suffocated in the heat. The heavy sky’s colors seemed to droop over the rooftops, the blue sour and sinking into chimneys.
Oh, why do we hang anyone at all! Edith thought. Gerry’s uncle, another lawyer, had once sat her down and answered this very question—he loved to expound—To prevent, he said, holding up one finger; to punish (raising another); to deter others from the same crime (a third); to express the polity’s condemnation. This was the most elusive of the justifications, and the gold band on his fourth finger slipped and shimmered under the lamplight. Some crimes cannot go unanswered or else a part of us, he’d said, goes sideways. Edith thought she understood this better now, looking at the childkiller’s scaffold. Possibilities lift disturbingly into view: If nothing stopped Liza, what stops me from doing that. An execution puts things back in their places, and the phantasm world, the world with other, looser rules, fades like a dream.
Edith’s heart broke for the wretched Barrow boy, terrified and wild with thirst and straining at the ropes, flea-bitten, stewed in his own urine; and she loved all her children, fiercely; but she knew she had resented each one, too, at least once, however briefly. She knew she’d thought of who she might have been, unconstrained by them, and now that they’d all left home those thoughts were sharper.
She set off for home with a decisive pivot. If she were to change her mind, she reminded herself, Caroline would think she’d convinced Edith to follow Peter’s wishes, and then what wouldn’t be asked of her! She mopped the perspiration guttering in her brow lines—when, Edith wondered, had she become afraid of her own daughters?
But if she were to go to the women’s prison in Framingham, and meet Miss Barrow—oh, she’d have so many questions she couldn’t ask her! It was odious enough to presume that kind of intimacy between them, but Edith’s questions would be odious themselves: “Why?” It always, of course, came down to “Why?” But then, what if Liza should ask her, “Why?” What was in it for Edith? In the register of hangings, they always listed motive: “Vengeance.” “Jealousy.” “Sadistic Pleasure.” Miss Barrow’s—“Unnatural Cruelty.” Mrs. Smylie’s—“Unknown,” which likewise meant Cruelty.
• • • •
1899 Apr 30th.
Edward PARNE, 44 (Drink)
Parne, a bootmaker, was known for his vicious temper and long-suffering wife, Dorcas Parne. Dorcas had a temper as well when she drank, and gave almost as good as she got. One night, the Parnes had a row that started when Edward teased his wife by dimming the lamps as she read. He ended in throttling her, then he stabbed her in her shoulder, which crumbled into sand so that the knife stuck in the wall behind. He forced poison on her, at which point she turned into a thornbush that gave him rashes and hives on contact. He took an axe, chopped his wifebush into pieces, and threw the pieces into a nearby textile factory’s furnace, where spinners found Dorcas the next day, reformed and very cramped but, all reported, in fair spirits.
The jury retired for eight minutes only in their deliberations. The hanging was notable for the attendance of several prominent Bostonians who, it seemed, had liked Parne’s boots.
• • • •
Edith waited behind the gallows, her head bowed, already hooded. She paced, her hands on her hips, and the hood’s close fabric sent her breath sourly back into her nose. Up on the scaffold, the magistrate read aloud a standard admonition to Liza Barrow’s eternal soul, and the crowd stirred with impatience. When, when do we get to the hanging. It was late for deathpomp: the moon was rising over the peaked rooftops, the street lamps spitting with gas, and they had to wonder how long the execution would go—midnight, the small hours, even dawn? What kind of ceremony was this, to kill the unkillable?
Edith wished she knew where her daughters were; though she didn’t know where she wanted them to be. Next to her, the regular hangman smoked nervously and reminded her at intervals how to tie a noose. As if Edith hadn’t practiced a hundred times on every cord and string in the house: curtain rope, bell rope, packaging twine. Her hands shook and she covered them in the folds of her executioner’s cassock.
Gerry was in the audience, instead of supporting her here—to avoid any suspicion, he’d said, ridiculously. Was she so ready a suspect, in their social circle, for the part of secret executioner?
There had been a lot of mundane bother about what Edith would wear, whether it could ever be proper to dress a Boston matron in the hangman’s black trousers and gunner’s boots, and how far they dared adapt the costume before alerting an attentive public. They’d settled on the cassock for her and she’d snuck on her husband’s trousers underneath. Trousers felt unspeakably strange, like straddling a wool horse.
There was a drop in the ambient sound. The Governor’s lawyer, prowling behind Edith, gave a frosty little cough. It was time.
Edith picked up her hem to climb the stairs, and immediately let it drop again: that was a lady’s gesture, neither appropriate nor necessary. The steps were difficult to make out in the moonlight, but she mounted them slowly, ponderously, and then her eye line lifted above the scaffold planks and the brilliance of torches and lanterns dazzled her.
It was a mob; there was no other word for a crowd of men with torches, hungry for a death.
This is wrong, she thought, terrified; all of this is horribly backwards.
Miss Barrow stood in the subtle square of platform marking the trapdoor. Her head bowed, under a gray falcon’s hood. She wore a dull-blue prison frock and held her tied hands in fists, her back braced against the footsteps she heard coming and going on the boards. Edith wanted desperately to be home. Now on the platform, she was sick with terror—of the blurred and brilliant mob, of her own power over Liza Barrow’s life, of her own muscular hands. This is nothing like, she thought stupidly, this is nothing like a chicken.
Edith turned to the policemen who’d escorted Miss Barrow to the scaffold. But they hung back; they wouldn’t help her. Everything had to be done by a woman, or the execution might fall apart—might publicly, dramatically, horrifically not take.
She hadn’t realized she was tying the noose until she found it lying tidy in her gloves.
The mob was still luridly silent, and over her own breath Edith heard the frogs croaking in chorus in the pond, and in her deranged imagination this became the bleating of the Barrow boy, roped down to his bed floating like a raft in the moonlit pond, calling hoarsely for his mother.
She steeled herself: knife’s steel trickled from her joints and into her shoulders, her fingers. She straightened and slipped the noose over Liza’s hood. The woman flinched at the scratch of frayed fiber. Edith could hear both their breathing, heavy and rough, like a scrub brush over stone. It still might fail, Edith told herself. It still might fail because it wasn’t Edith who truly wanted the woman dead, so it was not Edith who was truly killing her. She hadn’t built the trapdoor, or woven the rope. Maybe the whole premise was weak and rotten.
Edith crossed the platform to the lever that would swing the trapdoor.
Pull it, she told herself.
But she couldn’t. The part of her that had driven her to this platform and this moment was satisfied; it went no further. She’d persuaded her husband and outmaneuvered Peter and Caroline and even the damned Governor. She held nothing but an abstract idea of punishing the Barrow woman for her crime, outrageous as it was, and that wasn’t enough to pull the lever.
“Mrs. Smylie?” From beneath the gallows, the Governor’s lawyer spat up her name. “Is there something wrong?”
Pull it, she told herself, her fingers hard with old steel, and she pictured again the Barrow boy tied to his bed and crying. But he was gone, his teary, unfamiliar face already sinking into the mattress.
“Come on with it!” a man in the back of the Common yelled, and the mob echoed it, “Ka-mon, kaaaa-mon!” As if she were dithering over the right change at a shop counter with a long queue behind her.
The Governor’s lawyer whispered up directions, and in a swift instant one of the police escorts had his hands over Edith’s on the lever and thrust it back so hard she nearly toppled over.
The trapdoor bottomed out with a loud, wooden clap. The rope made a squeezing noise as it went taut, and didn’t break. The body on the line thrashed, and stilled.
Edith and the policeman looked questioningly at each other. The crowd had hushed again, entranced; she could hear even the sputter of whale oil in their lanterns. The night carried in sea air from Boston harbor, and everything felt clammy, salty, and hot—the whole seaboard thick with the heat wave summer would bring.
Edith approached the hanged woman doubtfully, setting her feet down wide like a man’s. In the uncertain light, she thought she saw the gray hood moving. It could have been the flickers of torch fire; or it could be, the cloth pulsed and spasmed, like a grain sack infested with rats, or it fluttered, like a bag of blackbirds fighting to get out. But the body didn’t move—wasn’t that a kind of reassurance?
Someone handed Edith a pair of thick tailor’s shears. Edith’s chest heaved with shallow breaths. The hood flickered, or fluttered, and she cut a long slit across where Liza’s eyes might or might not still be, and slipped her fingers inside to part the cloth and see what new thing in the world was inside.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Theodore McCombs is a writer in Denver and a 2017 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. His fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Guernica, and Shenandoah and his essays in Lit Hub and Electric Literature, among others. He is a co-editor and regular contributor at the speculative literary blog Fiction Unbound and he tweets as @mrbruff.
Nightmare Magazine is edited by bestselling anthology editor John Joseph Adams (Wastelands, The Living Dead, Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy). This month’s issue also contains fiction from Laura Anne Gilman, Emily B. Cataneo, and Joe McKinney. We also have the latest installment of our column on horror, “The H Word,” and of course we’ll have author spotlights with our authors, plus a feature interview. You can wait for (most of) the rest of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient eBook format for just $2.99. You can also subscribe and get each issue delivered to you automatically every month, for the discounted price of just $1.99 per issue. This month’s issue is a great one, so be sure to check it out. And while you’re at it, tell a friend about Nightmare!