I was wrapped in linens, the ones my father had traded jars of moss for in a desert town years before, and I was thankful to be covered so, such with the wind beating down harder on our ward than predicted by Gent Cloudy Sighs. Some were known to call him Old Cloudy Eyes, as could be taken as truth, what with his poor weather calculations. I passed Cloudy Sighs’s home on my way through the winds, and there he sat on the step outside of his front door, the moss on the roof of his home the mossiest and most glorious of all the ward.
He raised his hand in greeting. The three fingers upon the hand still caused me to recall the story of the absence of the other digits. It was said he had yelled from the top of Floodley Hill, a proclamation that he would eat his thumb and pinky if it did not hail in the morrow. Apparently, the hail never fell.
‘Ah, Miss Apple,’ came his withered voice. ‘On your way to vote, no doubt?’
I nodded, looking his way, but did not stop walking, the wind slicing through my linens. I was making good time. ‘Indeed, Gent Cloudy Sighs!’ I shouted through the gust. ‘Slow-going to the meetinghouse, today!’
Old Cloudy Eyes cackled, the laugh being thrown with the wind. ‘Just a little breezy! Sure to die down, soon!’
Rain dripped from the clouds, eventually falling in thin sheets, soaking through my boots. And the air was as ice, like a cold felt in dead January.
Lanterns glowed in the meetinghouse windows, they beckoned to me as I crested over a small hill, and my feet rushed down, slipping through dirt that was now a dreaded mud.
I crashed through the door, certainly with help from the wind pushing me forward. Rain poured onto the oak floor. Someone ran up behind me, a child, I believe, slamming the door closed.
Silas Blois, a boy of barely sixteen, stepped from behind a table. ‘You’ve just made it, Miss Apple.’ He held a sheet of parchment in one hand and a quill in the other. Ink collected on the bottom of the quill, engorging, then dripped onto the floor. Silas Blois did not notice, perhaps did not care. ‘Voting closes within the hour,’ he said, smiling.
The young man directed me to a booth, in which, he told me, I was to think carefully and vote with my heart and not my mind. I understood. This was not my first time deciding the fates of people.
I took the parchment and the quill into the booth, snapping closed the curtain.
Two names rested on the ballot. One woman, one man.
I did what Silas Blois told me, and I stood there, thinking carefully. Thinking I did not know what to do. Thinking I did not think much of either candidate. Thinking this, specifically: eh.
So, I shrugged and circled a name, not quite paying attention to which name, which was probably all the better for my conscience.
I returned the ballot to young Silas Blois with a brief nod, and went on my way, back into the November frost, its biting, horrible, northerly winds. I was, again, thankful to my father for these heavy linens, and the jarred mosses with which he traveled to exotic lands.
We of the ward gathered at the top of Floodley Hill on the following evening, as the sun set before the clocks rang five. Two people, a woman and a man, kneeled on the ground before a monolithic stake. Their hands bound, their necks entwined in a rope that was gripped within the thick, scaly hands of man. His face remained hidden under a black deathmask. He often tugged on the rope, pleasing his need to hear the man and woman groan.
Silas Blois approached and towered over our gathered group. He glanced down at the two on their knees. He seemed disappointed.
‘Very close, very, very close,’ he announced. ‘Only three votes separated these two wretched beasts.’ Silas Blois presented them with a grand and dramatic gesture of his hand.
We murmured amongst ourselves.
An older man, Gent Blois-Senior, came up, placing a hand on his son’s shoulder. ‘We Gents have decided…’ He paused, as if ruminating, I can only assume for effect. ‘Yes, we have decided that both – yes, both! – shall burn at this stake.’ Gent Blois-Senior fell back into the crowd, with his son in tow. And, before us all, the base of the colossal stake roared into life – the birth of a starving flame. Both would burn.
There was a collective shrug from us of the ward. I rather like to think that we are an apathetic bunch, not caring so much one way or a worse way. Just give us a way.
I laughed, and clapped my hands in the faces of the two upon the frozen ground. Others were doing it, so I thought I should.
As they burned, the stars showed themselves, in an inky blackness we would never travel to. Their bodies fell into nothingness, they lit the sky with their fuel. Blood cooked and vanished before it could pour. Ashes rose in a coming wind.
Old Cloudy Eyes found me in the crowd. ‘A snow in the morrow,’ he rasped, his eyes twinkled, ‘black as pitch, and heavy as the soul.’
He cackled, as was his way, wide-mouthed and toothless, and I watched while an ash fell upon his dried tongue. He swallowed and smirked, for if he knew, he did not care.