The Strangling Root

“Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner.” -Jeff VanderMeer

The Executioner died mid-July. He was found a few days later in the saddle of his horse, dead on its feet and tethered to the hanging tree five miles outside Iron Blood Canyon. His fleshy chin rolled on his chest, where his heart had burst and boiled like an egg. He was sunburned everywhere but his face, shaded by his black cowboy hat.

Thus approached the Coroner. It was a sight almost familiar. She had built many coffins for bodies that had scuffed the dust with their final jerking kicks. The most memorable had been the Indigenous man who stole three horses ten years ago. He had been kicking for an hour before he died. The Executioner stood by his side and did nothing while the man’s mother screamed.

To the disappointment of the town, the Mother had demanded her son be placed in the white cemetery. Ancestral home. View of the river bend. The Coroner built his coffin with the most care, with green wood and heavy varnish.

The Executioner’s did not take long. She polished it to a gleam and displayed it in the viewing room of the funeral home. Having no family, the proceedings weren’t personal. Most of the town showed up. Those who didn’t were relatives of the condemned who had flailed on his rope. Though it was the judge who had sentenced their loved ones, they did not hate him like they hated the Executioner. What they hated was his carelessness about the whole thing, his cruelty, how many of his ropes happened to be too thin or too long so the hanging didn’t go quite right.

And the old ladies were there, of course, in their tilted hats and nicotine-stained white gloves. No one could tell if they were crying or if they just had rheumy eyes. Old women have seen it all before. They can stare down into a coffin while taking a long drag on their cigarettes, blowing smoke in the slack face without blinking.

Sitting in the corner, the old funeral home dog with patches on his coat and gray cataracts watched the ghost hovering in the doorway. A black shape vaguely human, trying to remember who they were. Death remembers life, if only in glimpses, following the bobbing pink horses of the merry-go-round from the bench and unable to tell the riders apart.

The ghost in the doorway watched the colors turn. It wanted to find the lap of its mother and pretend to be a baby again. But she hadn’t attended a viewing since the one in honor of its body. The dog didn’t bark at it like he used to. People can’t see ghosts like he could. Seeing ghosts is a gift of being an animal that hasn’t mastered the written word and growing old.

The old ladies knew part of it. They didn’t see the black shapes but saw ghosts in the way old store fronts were renovated, in humming railway lines wheels had passed over again and again. They saw ghosts in themselves, in the veins under the thin skin on the backs of their hands that looked like bunched worms ready to emerge. Ready to burrow into the gardens of their bodies once it was their turn to lay under the sun in coffins.

The relatives of the condemned saw ghosts too, but only in things that swayed. They called them names in whispers: Retribution, Revenge.

The viewing was short. The people all left, knowing they’d be back again and regretting it. The Coroner and a man with a bum shoulder brought the coffin to the cemetery. The bum shoulder twitched as they laid the box on the bare red rock. Some of the polish scraped off. The dog, who had trailed behind, limping on arthritic knees, laid down and put his head on his paws.

The other coffins in the graveyard were lined up in rows on top of the great spread of bare rock. No shovel or pic could chip at the stone, so they were placed side by side in sight of sun and stars. They became boxes of dirt and seeds. The children’s coffins grew flowers, the women’s fruit, the men’s vegetables. A community garden for the dead and the living. The bodies, wrapped up in dirt and roots, drained of their nutrients, remembered. They wept for their chance of rebirth.

The coffin of the condemned Indigenous man sat alone at the edge of the cemetery. Best view of the river’s bend. Ancestral home. It grew a gnarled juniper tree. The ghost wandered among the coffins, trying to find its own.

An Indigenous woman turned off the street, patting the dog on the head. The ghost glided over to her, the whirling confusion of the merry-go-round decreasing. Its mother. Mother. She had watched its body’s end, kicking at the dust.

“The Executioner should not know life. Let him be forgotten. He killed people.” The Mother glanced at the juniper tree in reverie. “An hour he made him kick. Never any mercy.”

“Your boy stole horses.” The Coroner dropped to her knees and began filling the Executioner’s coffin with dirt.

“That’s hardly the same thing. He was treated like a criminal, but you’re all trespassers here. What does it all amount to?”

“If everything is holy, nothing is holy. If everything’s a sin, nothing’s a sin. Not everyone’s figured that out yet, but I have.” The Coroner patted the dirt with bare hands. “We all get what’s coming.”

The Mother tore her eyes away from the juniper tree and saw the Coroner in a different light, like the pink of a morning or the purple of twilight. The dog watched the ghost, hovering around her, vibrating with sorrow and excitement. “Put his coffin beside my son. Let him rot with the shame.”

And so, the Coroner slid his coffin beside the juniper tree without planting any seeds. The ghost brushed against his mother and melted at her touch in ecstasy, delivered home. The dog never saw it again. With time, he saw others. Big ones and small ones and ones that screamed and ones that cried. The Executioner didn’t have a ghost. Men without guilt never did.

The hanging tree lost memory of human weight on its limbs. Children played with the bleached rib bones of the horse at its roots. The dog outlived the old ladies. The worms in their veins broke out and wiggled in their coffins. The young ones grew old and started seeing their own ghosts before they died too. And all the while, the dog lived, maintaining his watch, so much a ghost himself.

He watched the Executioner’s empty coffin from the porch, and the strong tree of the condemned beside it. He watched as the roots of the tree broke out of the coffin and filled up the empty one. How they consumed and colonized it.

The Coroner, graying and stooped, stood at the edge of the cemetery and stared down into the coffin while taking a long drag on her cigarette. The Executioner’s white skull looked back at her. A root had wrapped itself around the corpse’s neck like a rope come alive. A few vertebrae crushed in its grip.

“From the hand of the sinner.” She blew smoke in the skeleton face without blinking. “Or the hand of the saint.”

ARANDUS LARSON is a student studying English education in northeast Nebraska. She is published in SIAMB! magazine and The Judas Goat