The first time I watched a beheading, my father stood beside me. His hand perched on my shoulder. He squeezed. A heavy grip. I don’t remember how old I was. I was small. It’s been a long while. Centuries longer than most people can remember. But, I do know this recollection was before the days of old Charlemagne. Maybe I was seven, maybe eight. However old I was, I should not have been there. Probably no one should have.
I remember a horse coming around the bend of trees, the sound of the prison it pulled, wheezing and raising dust over the dirt road. It clattered to a stop. I remember the man’s face as he was pulled from within the wooden jail. He was not dignified, he was not calm. He was a man walking to his death in shambles. He made strange faces, distorting his eyes. His nose scrunched, his mouth whimpered and shook. He prayed for help, begged for mercy.
‘Eh, shut up,’ one of his captors said, slapping the back of his head.
The filthy man was paraded around the crowd. When he stumbled by us, he cried quietly to my father and I for help. Again, there came the squeeze of my father’s hand. I looked up to him, and his eyes were already on me. To describe his face would be to describe the empty gaze of a mutt. Surely, there was some kind of sadness there, in his eyes, but I would never fully understand how he felt. My father turned his face from mine.
The prisoner was moaning, with unacquainted despair. He knew what was coming. Only the hand of a god could spare him his fate. He was dropped to his knees in the middle of the road. He sobbed, and the tears cleaned the grime from his cheeks.
‘It is only afternoon,’ spoke my father. I started at his deep voice, not expecting him to speak. He rarely talked, and when he did, it was usually to compliment my mother or share a sparse bit of wisdom with me.
I was not certain if my father was speaking to me, so I looked to the other men around us. None replied to him. My father was staring at me, once more. His full eyes caused me to start, again.
‘Jumpy, today, aren’t you?’ he said to me. It was not a question, as my father could feel that I was quite jumpy. He was acknowledging me.
I shrugged my shoulders.
My father imitated me. ‘Shrug enough and you’ll take flight.’
‘Maybe I want to.’ Truly, maybe I wanted to fly from that place.
And the prisoner shrieked, and I jumped back, looking to the road. The man was being taunted by his executioner with a blade. Showing him death, teasing him with it, but not yet delivering, not yet.
I remember my father laughing, softly. ‘Keep jumping and you won’t need to shrug so much. You’ll be flying over the pines.’
‘I’m sorry.’ I did not know why I was apologizing.
My father watched the prisoner. He said, ‘A man who does not keep his feet on the ground will get carried away.’
I remember hearing the greatest scream I had ever heard in my life. I saw the prisoner. I saw the executioner. I saw the blade tearing through skin. The prisoner’s neck opened wider and wider still. The executioner crouched over him. Holding the man’s head back by the chin. He moved his arm left to right to left to right. The knife went with it. The man’s scream was drowning. He lay on his chest, flailing, contorting, his feet beating at the ground. And I watched. My father squeezed my shoulder.
The executioner stood. He wore the prisoner’s blood across his body. He held the severed head as he turned in all directions. Displaying it, presenting it to us – the audience. The executioner tossed it, and the head rolled, until a boy ran from the crowd and kicked it. Soon, other children joined in.
‘Do you understand?’ asked my father. He pulled me away from the people, and we started up the hill for home.
‘We must get washed and dressed for dinner, later,’ my father said, after walking in silence for some time. ‘Magnus and his wife will be joining us, and your mother is in a fit cleaning the house. You know how she is with guests.’
I remember my father squeezed my hand as he pulled me along behind him.
‘Damn it.’ My father stopped. ‘I forgot. Your mother wanted me to pick up dessert on the way home.’ He yanked me down the hill, heading back for town.
I did not wish to see Magnus that evening. Nor, I believed, did my father. The last we had seen of Magnus, he was beheading a man in the road, and expecting a rush of applause for it.