j. l. navarro

The Colonel's Execution

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Everyone in the tribunal was still alive; none of us had been infected yet.  No one knew when or if it would happen. If they didn’t find an antidote soon we would all be walking among the dead.  I had been here for five months now and I had not gotten used to them.  Their minds were remarkably clear for the condition they were in. Perhaps the most obvious thing that distinguished them from the living was their wretched appearance, their pallor and murky blotches where the blood had congealed into hardened patches.  The lighter ones had veins showing like roadmaps under their pasty skin.  Their movements were slower, not as vigorous as the uninfected.  But even though they walked among the living they were as dead as a corpse lain on a slab.  They did not sleep, eat, or breathe, and there was a strange scent about them, a sickly sweet aroma.  Their bodies had stopped feeding and even then they did not lose weight.  How could this be happening? we asked ourselves.  It defied every physiological notion we held up to science.  By rights, they should have been rotting in their graves.


We had come to obtain justice for them and found ourselves trapped in their very dilemma.  I would wake in the morning and stare at myself in the mirror, take my pulse to make sure that I was still alive, that the blood was still flowing in my veins.  The only necessity the walking dead required was their desire to drink plenty of water.  They were given as much as could be spared.  Their humanity died entirely when they requested to be lodged in the ground, buried up to their knees like plants.  A strange metamorphosis took place after this.  They began to grow limbs.  Their arms swung up at forty-five degree angles and their fingers began to stretch in length.  Whatever clothes they wore were soon stretched and ripped through as their legs and torsos grew in circumference.  A bizarre form of tree was produced, unknown to exist in any part of the world.  At night they emitted an eerie glow the color of a silver moon.  The term Homo Dryad was hastily coined to refer to them in research papers.   Hundreds on a weekly basis were planted; whole orchards were being grown in lieu of graveyards.   Some were taken to laboratories for specific experimentation where they were hooked to machines and their flora components analyzed in elaborate equipment.


Our intelligence had not detected any biological or chemical element that might have triggered this phenomenon.  We were not even sure if it was man made.  Interrogation of enemy forces and their scientists did not turn up any evidence that they were responsible for whatever form of plague was upon us.  I found it ironic that we had come to judge war criminals and to dispense punishment in the name of an otherwise indifferent world, only to find ourselves in the midst of uncovering our own demise.


There were scores of reporters that were in the city with us, sending dispatches to their papers and televising events to their viewers.  The world read and watched us with apprehension, unknowing if the scourge would leap around the globe and turn us all into meek and mute vegetation.  Our mission nevertheless had to continue regardless of the disease that surrounded us.  I would meet with my colleagues for breakfast and we would silently size each other up, noting if we had sprouted any leaves or twigs during the night, wondering if sap instead of blood had run out of our shaving wounds.


"I don't know how much longer I can stand being here," Murdock said as I pulled up a chair to sit across from him.  There was a look of forlorn desperation in his moist gray eyes.  He had arrived two months before I did and I had witnessed him slowly degenerate into a man who carried himself and his frail bones in an envelope of sagging skin.  I knew and he knew that he had no business being here any longer.  If the infection did not get him, insanity would surely do it.


"We have one more to turn out," I told him.


"Does it make any difference anymore?"


"I like to believe that it does."


"The sonofabitch is going to die along with the rest or us, so what's the point?"


"Who says we're going to die?"


"Open your eyes, man, can't you see what's going on?  They are not letting anyone in or out of this godforsaken place.  We have been encased in an open tomb."


"We will leave when they find out what's happening."


His mouth stretched into a sardonic grin.  "What's happening is that we're going to die."


"You don't know that, Murdock.  No one does."


"I wouldn't mind so much if I could only be with my family," he said.  He looked at his coffee cup and brought his hand to his brow like a visor, then the tears came and he tried to hold back the weeping as if trying to suppress a strong sneeze. His sobs made him shake violently and I watched his face grow red as large teardrops fell to the tabletop.


Outside the desert temperature was baking the inhabitants, and heat waves were rising from the streets like ghostly worms.  It wasn't even nine o'clock in the morning yet.  Nothing bothered me more than the heat.  But I didn't have any family to go back to.  Maybe that would have made a difference.


In the distance, I could see cargo planes dropping their loads and I watched the many parachutes glide down in the desert air like floating mushrooms.  Though we were quarantined, we were given a steady supply of hometown amenities as could be boxed and dropped on a daily basis to alleviate our lagging morale.  The city was a shambles, ruined in the wake of war.  Other forms of pestilence had been brought quickly under control.  The military logistics had accounted for anything that might be encountered.  Everything but the unexplained malady that had us trapped in the city with no foreseeable means of escape.


Murdock looked as if he were in a trance when I rose to leave.   Neither one of us had a parting word.  I could not explain the feeling that came over me as I walked out of the officers' mess hall.  Had I had a gun with me I would have put a bullet into Murdock's head without compunction.  I felt that this would have honored him in some peculiar way, would have set him free.  It was my job to judge peoples' actions, to gather all available information and evaluate their worthiness to continue existing.


We had judged and condemned to death hundreds of military men.  In descending order of importance, they had swiftly faced firing squads or gone to the gallows.  My conscience was clear.  I had no scruples about passing judgment on any of them.  The lesser of them would go to prison and most likely remain there until they were ready for the grave.


The last remaining of the hierarchy was a soft-spoken colonel by the name of Emil Al-Farad.  He was charged, like the rest of them, with crimes against humanity.  Specifically with the torture, rape and gassing of civilians.  The dead spoke against them as much as the living.  They had made the merciless mistake of video taping their atrocities; not shy either about including themselves in the footage, pointing, smiling and gloating at the victims, dead or alive.  The statements presented by the defense were listened to more out of protocol than interest.  It was all a song and dance, an elaborate display showcased for the benefit of the world at large and for future historians than for actual justice.  The irony of course was that we, who sat on the tribunal, as well as every other living soul in the city, were under the death sentence of the plague that had no recognizable origin to speak of.   The world viewers who watched the proceedings safely from their easy chairs were just as intrigued by our ultimate fate as that of the defendants.


On any given day of the trials, men, women and children who had survived the former regime, packed the gallery.   Many of them were already dead and had begun to sprout twigs and showed green leaves growing from their neck or hands.  Colonel Al-Farad's father always sat in one of the front rows.  Verdant foliage was already coming out of his ears and I wondered if he could clearly hear what was being said.  Of course it made no difference to him anymore.  He had already made it plain to me that he wanted to see his son put to death for being "a silent coward like the rest of them."


The overwhelming hatred the civilian population felt toward their oppressors was uncontainable.  Early on I was informed that desperate measures were taken to keep them from physically harming the defendants.  Prior to this, some of them had been stoned to death on the street; others had been butchered with knives and machetes.  The barbarity of war had let loose the floodgates of revenge.  All of their suppressed temerity had been replaced with a juggernaut of hostile loathing and blood lust.   Nothing, not even the death of the accused, could erase or lessen the horrors they had endured prior to their liberation.


Murdock came in with red eyes, purposely keeping his gaze away from mine.  It dawned on me then that Al-Farad, Murdock, and myself were all colonels in our respective military branches.  This similarity had not occurred to me until now.  I did not know the man Al-Farad; I only knew his actions and lack thereof.  I knew Murdock better on a personal level and yet I felt that I also knew the enemy colonel just as well.   Like myself, he did not dimple his tie, the sign of a direct, down-to-earth individual.  Murdock on the other hand was as vain as a woman and it showed in the way he preened himself, the cologne he wore, the accessories he embellished himself with.  Murdock dimpled his ties, he was a follower, had always been a follower, and he always made sure that he was following in the correct way. 


A few days ago, we had listened to Al-Farad extensively as he testified on his own behalf.  It made no difference to any of us what he said.  It was only an echo of what we had already heard from the others. The man was as good as dead.  The clichés of military duty were brought out again and paraded about like a smelly goat.  We were required to consider arguments that the accused was innocent.  None of it was going to wash.  We had heard too much already.  The man was going to hang.


As had been required with all the other defendants who stepped into the courtroom, a medical doctor took the man's vitals as soon as he sat down.  We wanted to know if Al-Farad was still alive in the conventional sense.  The doctor took his pulse and appeared not to find it.  He brought out his stethoscope and listened for a heart beat.  I knew that something was wrong when I saw the doctor knit his brows.


"This man is dead," the doctor declared to us.  "He has no heart beat."


This certainly presented a dilemma.   Our prior convictions had been bestowed on living beings.


The chairman spoke up clearly after considering the situation.  "Colonel Al-Farad is still capable of hearing," he said.  "His ears will serve us well.  We will proceed as usual."


I did not fail to see the humor in this.  We were now requested to pass judgment on a dead man.  I had no problem with this.  And neither did anyone else.  When the verdict was given it was unanimous.  The only alteration was the means of death.  We could not shoot him, or hang him, so it was decided that he would be burnt at the stake promptly the following morning.  Under any other circumstance, a shoddier punishment would be hard to find.


After the proceedings, while walking through the crowd waiting outside, I spied Colonel Al-Farad's father smiling at anyone who looked at him.  He was calmly pleased with everything that had occurred.  He had died some time ago and twigs were already coming up on him.  I did not want to talk to the man, but I could not ignore him either.


"I will be there to see him burn," he said to me, smiling.


I tipped the brim of my hat to him and continued, knowing that I would have to be there as well if only as a witness and not for vengeance.  Murdock and some of the others would not have to attend; they had already done their share of seeing men executed.  I had not yet made my quota.


Colonel Al-Farad was the last big fish.  All the others to follow were lesser convicts.  They would round out the coming days that would be fraught with tediousness.  Once the judgments were over it would leave little for us to do.  I dreaded that more than having to stay here.


It was late in the afternoon and it was hot.  All I wanted to do was walk.  The hours passed as my feet continued through the ruined city, watching the streets fill with people coming out like scavengers as soon as the sun moved on, searching for explanations that no one could give them.  I watched them, the living and the dead, not feeling tired or hungry, just wishing not to stop moving, wishing to continue over the desert sands, to disappear into a mirage and not be seen again, not have to come back to this broken metropolis that was soon becoming a mausoleum.


Had I been an alcoholic I would have gone on a drunk.  Instead, I walked, unwilling to stop, unconcerned about the resistance.  Had I known that a bullet was aimed at my head, I would have welcomed it.  I walked through the night, silent, keeping to myself, until I saw the dawn break in the east.  I had no idea what I might have looked like.  I knew I needed a shave.  My clothes needed pressing.  It made no difference.  I was only going to watch a dead man burn.  I did not need to get groomed for that.


The execution ground was in the courtyard of one of the local prisons.  The gates had been thrown open and barricades put up to hold back the curious crowds.  I arrived shortly before Colonel Al-Farad was strapped to the stake and had a blindfold placed over his eyes.  I saw his father in the front row of spectators, as usual.  The smile he wore the day before was still on his face.


The gallery of eyes was all on the man lighting the kindle wood around Colonel Al-Farad, who was placed in the middle of the courtyard, a short distance from the gallows.  The flames were having a macabre dance as they grew higher and more abundant.  While the fire increased, I became aware that I could not feel my heart beat.  Hastily I took my pulse and felt nothing.  My lungs were not moving.  As the flames spiraled around Al-Farad, I began to smell the stench of burning flesh.  The sight did not horrify me nearly as much as knowing I had been dying during the night and hadn't realized it until now.  All I could think of while I watched Al-Farad's body being ravaged by the raging blaze was that I was possessed by the strongest thirst I had ever experienced.  In a short while, I felt absolutely no fear whatsoever, no apprehension, just a deep, all-consuming thirst.



This story is included in The Blood Cake Vendor and Other Stories.