By Chad V. Broughman
Damp winds lashed at the town square, tipping hats and rustling papery leaves against the scaffold. Ruth’s bonnet lifted and a lock of reddish-yellow hair spilled over her eye. The girl forgot her hands were bound and when she reached to tuck the curl away, rope bit her skin.
“Don’t let ‘em see you hurting,” her mother said.
Ada leveled her shoulders and blew at the loose whorl.
“That’s my girl.”
Ada knew Ruth was confused. Her only child stood blank-eyed, the shackles heavy as headstones on her wrists. My daughter will die the same way she lived, her simple mind unable to grasp the evil of the world. Perhaps her daftness was a blessing after all.
Ada surveyed the crowd of pinch-faced hypocrites. Brown smoke hung over their heads. The ghostly remnants of dynamite blasts from Beaumont’s copper mine layered the air like sediment. She looked from face to face, marking the wrath in the onlookers’ eyes. The same good people who sat next to them at church just a few months before, nodding while Ada’s husband preached from the pulpit with fire and flair. These same upright folks who said, “Hello, fine ladies” whenever she and Ruth crossed their paths at the postmaster’s or the mercantile.
Today, they were judge and jury.
Ada had managed to shield her daughter from the town’s fury for months. But ultimately, she had failed. And Ruth would pay with her life. Ada’s instinct was to cover her girl’s eyes, shield her from the angst and ruthlessness, her muscles aching that she couldn’t.
“Heathens!” someone shouted.
“Swindlers! Crooks!” Deacon John cried, raising his fists in the air.
Others cast their eyes to the dirt, unwilling to spur on the rage, yet not brave enough to stop it.
Ada looked just in time to see the deputy slip the noose over her daughter’s head, then pull it snug. The fat knot bulged at Ruth’s dainty neck like a tumor on a yellow rose.
But Ruth merely looked up at the deputy and smiled. “Ma says I’m going home to be with God.” Then she gestured with her head, and said, “Look. The sun’s coming out, turning things on. Sorta like a big lamp.”
When the coarse hemp rasped against Ruth’s jowl, Ada saw her twitch, bow out her chest and stand taller. “Never stole anything,” Ruth told the deputy, then looked to her mother for approval.
“No you didn’t, baby,” Ada called out, working past the swell in her throat.
The deputy yanked a hood over Ruth’s head.
“Mama, I can’t see!”
The reverend had abandoned his family a year earlier. He took all their money with him, including six month’s worth of St. Michael’s tithing. In his wake, he left the church with a leaky roof, a half-renovated belfry, and a penniless wife and daughter. The people of Beaumont could not face the certainty that their man of the cloth, a Lutheran cloth at that, could do such a thing. So they turned a blind eye to the hungry pair––a desperate mother and her defective daughter––and froze them out of the church, for their “selfish ways” and “pushing away the reverend like they did.”
Ada and Ruth Williams survived on the goods they had canned from the summer season and the few meat chickens they kept. Soon enough, they had finished the last of the tomatoes and squash and were down to a puny-breasted egg layer. Ada never learned to hunt or fish, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, as her husband took the rifle and the poles, too.
Ada convinced herself that they could survive on the food store until the grace of God came to pass: either the reverend’s return or the softening of their neighbors’ hearts. But she brought out the last of their provisions from the cellar and placed them on the table: two canisters of beets and a dozen or so potatoes. The sparseness glared at them as sure as the nights turned colder. When she looked at the dwindled reserve, the house closed in on her. The air drew out. She wanted to run for help, scream for mercy. Something to save her daughter and herself. But her feet felt nailed to the floor, her tongue tied. She knew that Ruth was watching her with deep-blue, vacant eyes, wondering what to do, how to act.
That’s when instinct took hold, and Ada calmed her breathing, sucking in through her nose and blowing it out through pursed lips. Then, she scooped up several potatoes into her apron, walked to the wash bucket and dropped them in. She nodded at Ruth to do the same. As they rubbed the dirt from each spud and cut the tubers with dull knives, Ada said evenly, “Come tomorrow, we’ll beg for money.”
For three days, the Williams women trekked to the houses of old friends, Ada leaving her dignity and her daughter outside as she pleaded. But the conversations were always the same as if the town had come together to rehearse a response. Ada started each exchange, getting right to the point by explaining that she could now see Ruth’s ribs when she readied for bed. Then she would add,
“It was the reverend who left. Why is Beaumont forsaking us?”
“You drove him away. Your faith is weak. And the dim-wits, too.”
Ada would bite down on her tongue, the tinny taste of blood flooding her mouth. She’d never get used to the disparaging words to describe her daughter, nor the ease with which they were hurled. “That’s not the truth,” she’d say. “I held my husband up. It was his faith that wavered, not ours. Not until now.”
“You’re a liar, Ada! The good reverend out and said in his last sermon, ‘If wives don’t lift up their husbands, faith can be shaken.’ And God knows. That’s why He gave you a fool for a child. May the devil damn you!”
Though she knew folks felt that way, hearing it out loud stunned Ada, stopped her mind from working. But she was finally able to blurt, “But, we’re starving. We’ll surely die soon if––”
“That’s your penance!”
On the third day, after every household had turned them out again, Ada and Ruth made their way home. The sun had gone down and the sky was blue-black, the soles of their shoes wearing through, their feet aching and swollen. Ada felt the hollow in her stomach and quick as the winds of an arctic northerly, her grief turned to anger. “Tomorrow, we’ll beg in the street,” she said. “We’ll make our brethren have to see us every day.”
So they did. Every afternoon, Ada and Ruth sat in the village’s tiny marketplace––legs folded under, hands out––reminding their brothers and sisters in Christ how they were deserting those in need. After days of the townspeople simply walking on by, wordlessly, Ada and Ruth traipsed to the front steps of Saint Michaels, where their husband and father should have been presiding. They sat on the church stairs in their best bonnets and tugged at their petticoats to make them smooth, greeting each arriving family with the kindness of a lover. Only to be slighted. The service began and the parishioners began to sing the opening hymns: the ones Ada knew by heart, the ones about grace and glory and blessed assurance.
“Burn in hell!” Ada roared, pounding on the shut doors. When she heard the muffled sound of Mr. Wilkinson trying to preach––the deacon who was chosen to serve as the interim minister––Ada pushed her mouth into the crevice where the doors came together and yelled, “Sinners! Praying in the house of the Lord, then turn your backs. That ain’t our God in there!”
Below her, Ruth mimicked her mother, putting her lips against the dark slit, shouting out, “I hate you!”
That night, as Ada crept into the Wilkinson’s barn, she prayed. Not for forgiveness, but courage. Don’t know what God this town’s turning to, but Lord, MY Lord, give me strength. Let me feed my baby girl. One of the cows started to grunt, and Ada quickly moved to it, stroked its back lengthwise until it quieted. Her heart beat fast, but she grounded herself, saying over and over again, you have to be here. She tiptoed to an empty stall where two barrels sat side by side then plunged her hands into the first one, a heaping mound of feed. She couldn’t help but let the corn kernels slip through her fingers a couple of times before shoveling some into the burlap bag around her waist. Then she side-stepped to the second barrel, plucking out apples till the bag was nearly full. She felt a rush of emotion: excitement, relief, fear.
But no guilt.
At the edge of her neighbor’s property, just past the split-rail fence in front of the house, Ada bent over a hearty rhubarb bush, grabbed several stalks at the base and twisted them with a snap. With each stride toward home, she could feel the heft of the full bag against her thigh. She bit into one of the stalks and her face puckered at the hard tang, a smile broke across her face.
As autumn drew near, the Williams women continued to hunker down in the town square during the day, an empty basket between them and a coal-gray blanket covering their legs and feet. As the passersby shuffled to their destinations, heads high, Ada searched their faces, clearing her throat or calling their names until they looked her way. Ruth smiled up at them like a child.
Though many had complained to Sheriff Thompson, often right in front of Ada and Ruth, telling him to “Rid the town of such rabble,” his response was always the same. “They haven’t broken any laws.”
Come nightfall, Ada sneaked through Beaumont, pilfering her neighbors’ barns. With each theft, she grew more confident and daring, swiping loaves of bread from a window set out to cool and from another, a pumpkin pie. Jars of honey from a porch and a salted down ham from an open smokehouse. The Williams women were not overfed, but the hunger pangs had abated some.
Talk began about the pillaged goods. The folks of Beaumont bolted their barn doors against Ada and out by the county line, farmer Richardson set a leg-hold trap in front of his icehouse. Had a cricket not let out a leathery squeak, Ada might not have looked down in time to see the metal snare. Its sharpened teeth would have gnashed her foot. The heyday was over, Ada knew that. And once again, the hopelessness thundered through her head, even louder than before.
One night, as Ada was scampering through a field and back into the village, she told herself to take what she could as time was running out. Don’t feel or think, just keep moving. She looked this way, that way, then fixed her eyes on Mr. Turner’s house, set back from the road a bit. In front, several big maple trees stood tall and out back, between the slanted outbuilding and the chicken coop, there were several more. Under all that cover, Ada had already robbed the old man’s icehouse before––a slab of jerky and some rock mouth bass. But this time, she prowled around the coop like a fox, looking for more traps before unlatching the wired gate. Most of the chickens were in the shelter; some were stirring, ambling across the straw-strewn earth. A couple of them clucked at her approach but quieted, bustling out of her path as she slid each foot forward slow and steady, never changing pace. By design, Ada moved more stealthily now.
She glided between the nesting boxes and up to the outside roost then lifted up a fat hen and held it upside down by the feet. Though it spread its wings in protest, Ada held them down and just as coolly backed out of the coop. It only clacked a few times before she was in the yard again, away from the rest, and could wring its neck without an uprising. She gripped its head and pulled down hard then twisted upward, fast and fierce. The body flapped wildly, but she held on tight and crept backward a few more steps. The blood was dark and gushed in one steady stream, like a pitcher pouring water. She took another step back, thumping against Mr. Turner’s round, stiff belly.
“Give it to me, Ada.” His voice was husky and low.
Ada’s mind whirred. In her fright, she clenched the hen’s hocks with all her might, as if she’d fall into a fiery pit should she let go. But Mr. Turner gripped it by its breast with the same ferocity. It was his lifeline, too. They yanked the draining bird back and forth, stretching its cape and thighs like bread dough. Hackle feathers pulled from its body and flitted down around them.
“You’re a thief!”
Ada had thought of her actions as survival more than stealing. Being called a crook, outright, was hard to take. But she managed to retort,
“And you’re a fraud.”
Both shanks pulled loose and Ada tumbled back, one of the spurs had pierced her palm and for a fleeting moment, she stood with the foot jutting out from her hand like an appendage. She shook it free and dashed away from Mr. Turner, but not before she felt the lifeless fowl strike the back of her head. The blow was not strong enough to make her lose her footing. She kept running.
“God sees you, Ada!” Mr. Turner called after her.
“And you’re a hoax!” she yelled back.
Ada hadn’t slept much in the three nights since Mr. Turner caught her looting his coop. She paced in front of the window for hours at a time, waiting for someone to come, deliver their doom. Then, late that Saturday night she saw the lanterns bouncing down their narrow lane, heard the jittery voices of the two young deputies and shackles jangling against each other. The motion and noise were strange in the prevailing stillness. No one ever visited. By the time they approached, Ada was standing on the porch, gathering her thick, dark tresses into a bun.
“Been expecting you.”
“Taking you to the town hall, Ada,” the first deputy said. With each word, his pitch rose and fell, his eyes on the chains as he fumbled them from his belt loop.
“Well, get on with it then.” Ada finished pushing another hairpin through the black thatch that rested on her nape and held out her hands, wrists up.
“Where’s Ruth?” The second deputy’s voice was higher, even more agitated.
“My girl’s whereabouts don’t matter none to you.” Ada was matter-of-fact, holding still as she was fettered.
“We’ve come for her, too.”
“But she’s done nothing.”
“Folks say she’s been stealing right along with you.”
Instantly, Ada felt weightless. Her face went slack.
“And blaspheming the Lord, I heard,” the second deputy added. Then he shook his head and said under his breath, “That girl don’t seem like the ransacking kind, though. Let alone, a heathen.” He clicked his tongue a couple of times. “Hell, never thought you to be that way neither, Ada.”
“Well remember, the reverend said Lucifer means ‘morning star.’ And he was God’s favorite before he turned into the Devil.”
“But Ruth ain’t even smart enough to––” The boy didn’t finish his sentence. He strode past Ada and pulled the door open but never entered. Instead, Ruth stepped from the archway, her eyes on Ada and her wrists turned skyward, too.
After both women were bound, the four of them began walking to town. Ada felt the anxiety burning her skin from the inside, but she had learned to swallow the nervousness, hold it low in her guts so her mind stayed fresh. She needed to be alert, ready for whatever came their way. She badgered the callow deputies, prodding them for particulars, anything that would help her warn Ruth of the coming onslaught. But the men had already said too much, so they whispered to one another, careful to lag a few steps behind.
With her head kept straight, Ada steered Ruth the best she could. “Ruth, honey, listen. No! Don’t look at me.” She paused, then started in again. “They’re gonna ask you a bunch of questions when we get there. Try to answer with just ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’”
Ruth turned again to see her mother. “They’re gonna be mean to us, ain’t they?”
“Yes,” Ada said. In the scant light of the lanterns behind them, she glanced to see the bewilderment on Ruth’s face, and her heart broke open. But Ada had learned to swallow her sadness, too. “Now look away.” No time for grieving Ruth’s guiltlessness. Or her dull mind. Instead, Ada talked faster, more angrily. She knew Ruth would listen harder if she heard the angst in her mother’s voice. “If you don’t start listening, they’ll fine us money we don’t have. Or even jail us. Now, when they ask if you been taking things, you say ‘No’. Every time, you say, ‘No’.
“You’re mad at me.”
“Damn it, Ruth, don’t talk. When they ask if you love God, you say, ‘Yes, I do.’
The deputies paused their conversation, and Ada quieted again, trying to time her dialogue with theirs. But soon enough, Beaumont’s town square came into view. The hunter’s moon was high, looming over the village like a giant blue eye. Ada slowed her pace, trying to buy more time, but the deputies didn’t follow suit.
They approached the town hall, and voices of all different timbres sifted out into the street. The deputies stood on either side of the big doors and pulled them open, both nodding for Ada and Ruth to enter. As they did, the clamor inside halted. The citizens were assembled in tall, rigid chairs, row upon row, and they filled the benches that pushed against the far walls, too. All of them were turned, watching with wild eyes, as though awaiting brides making their way to the altar.
Lanterns lining the center aisle lit every face like the moon outside, each in a different lunar phase. The smell of kerosene was acrid. The deputies veered them to the front of the building and seated them in the two straight-back chairs behind a long table. The first one stared them down like everyone else, insisting with a nod of his head that their arms stay in plain sight, bound or not. The second just stared at the ground.
The room was strangely quiet as Mr. Turner plodded to the podium. He carried the mangled remains of the hen with him, plopped the carcass on the end of the table then wagged his finger at Ada. The putrid stench of the rotting poultry wafted through the open room, overtaking the fuel oil. He turned to the villagers and spoke in the same gruff tone, but fiercer now, talking about the Williams women as if they weren’t there.
“These women tried stealing my biggest hen.” He pointed at the rumpled mound of feathers. Mr. Turner’s pronouncement let loose the crowd’s restraint. The townspeople shifted in their seats, grumbled to themselves and to one another. Then Mr. Turner’s voice boomed, “And those two been cursing God all over town!”
The room boiled over. Ada spoke to Ruth out of the side of her mouth, loud enough so she could hear over the grousing. “There’s gonna be more yelling, Ruth, but never you mind that. Just remember, you didn’t take nothing, and you love the Lord.”
As she finished the last word, a mealy apple glanced Ada’s ear. The sting made her yip, and she lifted her shoulders to guard against any more that may come. She felt herself wincing and twitching as if a gun were pointed at her forehead. Most in the crowd hailed her cowering, yet some looked away. Even in her duress, Ada noticed Ida Lee hastening out the door.
Knowing the bedlam would only grow, Ada stood up. Her face and neck were taut, waiting to be hit by another hurled apple. She clenched all over and shouted out, “I stole from all of you!”
The crowd jeered. But Ada yelled louder. “Had to! And you know why. This ain’t about taking chickens or pies, that’s all happened before.” The horde quieted, some. “We all know this is about the reverend. He’s a deserter. And you can’t condemn a man of God. That’s fine. Go ahead and blame me.” She dipped her head toward Ruth, and said, “But my daughter is innocent. You know that, too! So give us our fine or bring out the pillory if you got to. Lock me in it all day! But let Ruth be!”
Mr. Turner was still at the podium, standing near them both. “Oh, you’re sadly mistaken, Miss Ada. This meeting ain’t about fines or making amends. This here’s about hanging.”
Ada’s stomach dropped into her feet then fell right through the floor. A cold sweat broke out on her arms and legs. All the words and shouts blurred into a flat buzz, the hum of a solitary wasp. Though she heard Ruth ask, “They mean to hang us, Ma?” she couldn’t speak. Then Mr. Murray traipsed to the front of the room, his arm raised above his head, fingers spread, beckoning the Holy Spirit.
“In the name of the Lord,” he ministered, “We gotta hang ’em! Rid Beaumont of their sin. And let there be no doubt. These women have trespasses they’re carrying, more than just swiping some grub. They’ve desecrated the Lord! Turned on the good reverend!”
Mr. Turner gave the rolling snowball a definitive push when he proclaimed, “We do it now before Sheriff Thompson comes home from Marquette. Not much longer ‘fore the sun comes up! Now, I say, in the name of Christ!”
The village heralded the charge. In one fell swoop, Ada and Ruth were lifted up on their backs, bore like litters atop people’s shoulders and held up by random hands. Someone gripped Ada’s inner thigh, and a couple of thickset fingers lodged in her crotch. She flailed, twisting and turning in their clutches, trying not to fall, but they kept her steady, seizing harder. She arched her body until her head fell backward enough to see Ruth.
“Hold on, baby!” she yelled. Ruth was still, a rigid plane. In the open palms of the mob, the lanterns were bobbing up and down like a mass of frenzied fireflies.
When they reached the grove behind the town hall, they were set atop the scaffold. The deputies held them by their elbows and the backs of their necks as the crowd gathered at the base. The gallows were slanted, tottering with every movement. They hadn’t been used for a couple of years, not since the young Ojibwe woman was hanged after her baby girl died. She had brought it on herself, the church council said, hadn’t prayed hard enough when the babe was sick.
The deputies bumbled through the execution, desperate to get things right, but even more desperate to distance themselves from the grisly task of hanging a reverend’s wife and daughter.
“Imps!” A wrinkled woman crowed, sparking outbursts from different pockets of onlookers:
The deputies hulled down the gunny-sacks. The nooses that would crush the women’s windpipes swayed like clock bobs. Together, the men began to drag the burlap bags across the platform but sand issued forth, slow and thick, sifting through the wood planks.
“Damnation,” the first deputy murmured, “these bags have lost too much sand. Those ropes ain’t gonna be stretched enough.”
“You cussed fool,” the second deputy hissed. He dropped to his knees, madly scooping in the gushing sand. “Brush it up!”
Ada watched the graceless men, her mind still whirring. “Look at me,” she called to them. “Look at my face.” But she knew they wouldn’t. The men scurried at the sand like rodents, twisting their heads to glimpse the townspeople, adamant in avoiding Ada’s and Ruth’s eyes.
There were no options left. Ada knew she could only comfort her daughter now, make it less horrific. She watched Ruth straining against the shackles. As always, her countenance tender and child-like.
The sun broke over the horizon and burned through the fog, casting the deputies’ shadows across the scaffold. Ada took comfort when she saw Ruth close her eyes and sniff at the fragrant fall air like a puppy.
“The rope’s been stretched good and plenty,” the second deputy lied. “These bags have been weighing down the line for years. Can’t break, even when you’ re––” He fell silent. Then the young man twisted up his face like he’d swallowed brine.
“You’re sad.” Ruth tried to comfort him.
She’d spoken in an even, expressionless tone that sent Ada’s heart pounding even harder. She was awed by her daughter’s grace and kindness, even now. Her half-wit girl was closer to God than any of these pretenders could ever dream to be. Yet here they are, smearing her goodness like ink on twill.
Dear Lord, hurry. The injustice. It’s more than I can bear.
Mr. Turner threw the rotting hen onto the planks, and the young deputy snapped to, then jutted out his chin and spoke firmly. “Like I says, this won’t hurt none.”
“Hang the shrews!”
“Don’t listen to them, Ruth,” Ada called to her. “Just focus on my voice!” Ada could tell from Ruth’s bunched up cheeks that she was trying furiously to understand what was happening. As the crowd grew loud, Ada did, too. “Hear me, Ruth! Only me!”
The throng grew restless and when the first deputy sucked in a breath then pulled the black hood from his pocket, Ada held steadfastly. He turned to Ruth. “Anything you want to say?” he asked, making a downward patting motion for the crowd to hush.
“Never stole anything,” Ruth said, then looked to her mother.
“No you didn’t, baby.” Ada’s throat swelled. And the hood was pulled over Ruth’s head.
“Mama, it’s dark! Where’d the sun go?”
Holding the noose tight at her neck, the second deputy asked Ada if she had any words. And in a single blast, she felt an entire lifetime. The blood drained out of her, down into the timbers, down into the earth below. She was hovering overhead, watching herself and Ruth and the savage swarm. Snippets of cruel scenes played out in her mind’s eye. The reverend in his new life, full of splendor and frills. She could see him clearly, a crooked and villainous smirk, standing tall and thumbing through a wad of the church’s tithing, flicking bill after bill into the open hands of a faceless merchant. By his side, a comely woman stroking the billowy sleeves of a new silk gown, swaying back and forth so her skirt fanned out, the price tag swooshing with it.
The day Ruth was born flashed through Ada’s brain, too. When the neighbor acting as midwife guided her babe into the world and slipped in the afterbirth. Ruth’s head bouncing just once, yet giving her a lifetime of dull wits and heckling. Then Ada heard the thick, heavy words of her pious husband again when they found out their girl’s mind stopped growing––“That child is damned!” he spat, and his voice was breathy and clipped. “Damned, I say!”
Hate burned hot in Ada’s chest, crackling and sputtering. Amongst all the rancor, she saw a child in the horde. From where she stood, Ada couldn’t be sure, but he looked like the Miller boy. He and his Pa had always sat in the back of the church on Sundays, neither of them ever saying much. The flaming torch in his father’s hand cast a shadow across his young face and in the firelight, the whites of his eyes were shiny. He looked bewildered. As if the pitiful lad didn’t know what to do. Keep watching? Scorn her like the men and women? Look away? Ada found the strength she needed in the boy’s struggle. She thought He’s a talisman, sent by God to bolster me.
Though the hate still boiled, a calm swept over, as if the skillet was lifted off the fire. Ada waited for a lull, then she summoned the town like a prophet:
“Quiet, scalawags! I have a message for all you fine citizens of Beaumont!”
The crowd still roared. Then someone shouted, “Let’s hear the devil woman!” and they quieted to a low rumble.
Ada saw the furor in their dimly lit faces, but she was not afraid. Not anymore. She glanced at Ruth, the black cowl atop her pretty head like an ugly scar and her legs trembling, a puddle on the planks between them. Then, she turned back to the crowd, quickly searching for her talisman one last time.
Their eyes locked.
And a wide sneer formed on the boy’s round face as his father whispered in his ear. As if Satan himself was the puppeteer, the child drew a tiny hand across his throat, slow and easy.
Ada gasped, then stiffened. “My news is brief!” she shouted. “And it’s coming straight from the afterworld.” She spoke from outside herself, from some other place, some other time. She could feel her eyes filling up and heard the lack of intonation in her words. “Just as you’ve taken the light from my Ruth, God will take yours. You will hurt for this. Your children’s children will feel the ire. That’s a promise.” Then a hood was pulled over her head, too. The deputies tightened the loops around both women’s necks, and one of them yelled,
Chad V. Broughman, author of “Mother of a Hanged Girl,” was the recipient of the Rusty Scythe Prize Book award in 2016 and the Adobe Cottage Writers Retreat honor in New Mexico in 2017. Most recently, Chad received a Certificate of Distinction from New Millennium Writings and was awarded a chapbook contract for his collection of short stories, the forsaken, published by Etchings Press. His fiction can also be found in several reviews and journals nationwide, such as Carrier Pigeon, East Coast Literary Review, River Poets Journal and Burningword. He is currently featured in the online magazine, Faith, Hope & Fiction. Chad holds an MFA from Spalding University, co-edits the fiction/poetry blog, Café Aphra, based in the United Kingdom, and teaches English and Creative Writing at the secondary and post-secondary levels. He is a husband and proud father of two rambunctious young sons.