[39] Rough Justice, Hugh Cartwright

She ponders for a moment in the stifling tropical heat, then begins.

First, she threads heavy black cotton through the needle, then drives it through the face below her hands. In and out.

In and out.

The body beneath her is scarcely human, always the same.

She ties the eyes, latching them to cheek with neat stitches.

Now, the lips. They must be closed, for the confession that never came. She draws them together and seals them with a row of knots.

In and out. Single-minded focus and skill; a surgeon perhaps, or a dressmaker?

Finally the clothes, ragged, filthy, as if chosen for the occasion: they too must be bound so tightly that no person could escape. With sudden venom she drives the needle in harder, digging through fabric into what lies below; body and clothes become one.

With a sigh, she lays down her needles and settles back, her work finished. The wrapped body, bound like a cocoon, is rolled onto canvas and dragged into the open.  The village, gathered in the thickening dusk, presses in for a closer look. They are excited yet hushed, waiting until the canvas is thrown high onto wood, heaped like a funeral pyre. Then noise erupts; shouting, booing, cries of abuse.

Someone has lit a firebrand, held high above the crowd; the flaming torch is thrust into the wood pile.

The crowd falls silent as smoke curls lazily through the wood. Suddenly flames burst out, licking at the canvas and the body: clothes, skin, face.

As it is engulfed by flame, there is a muted cheer, then a barely perceptible moan, as of a great release. Reassurance once again that justice was done.

Long ago, my four neighbors were killed in twenty minutes. Within the hour, I was seized, and, just nineteen years old, I was condemned without trial.

My eyes and mouth were stitched. I was bound and burned alive.

Now, unseen, and from some other time, I look on as the villagers drift away into the trees. Eventually, just a grey-haired man remains, gazing deep into the dying flames, stoking the ashes as they shimmer and glow. 

A wry smile crosses his face. There is no trace of regret or shame about the neighborhood slaughter that will be replayed indefinitely, but never resolved.

Only he knows that forty years ago they stitched and burned the wrong man.

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