There are twelve steps between me and redemption.
When I take the first one and see my death looming before me, yawning open like the mouth of a great beast ready to swallow me whole; when the end is in sight, as inevitable as the sun sinking below the horizon—I realise I am filled with one of two emotions:
Relief, or regret.
Eleven. I thought I’d made my peace with what was going to happen last night in my cell, alone and curled up on my rickety bed, all spindly metal frames and one leg shorter than the others making it lilt and sway like a ship caught in a tempest. There had been tears and regrets and that vain, pointless thought: I don’t want to die. And somehow, that had brought me peace. But now every last ounce of it has been wicked away by sheer, animalistic panic. Even God would baulk ten steps away from the noose.
Ten. I wonder if anyone will mourn me, a lowly criminal put to death by the courts like a dog. Will I be given that smallest yet greatest of dignities, remembrance? Or will I be snuffed out like a candle-flame, inconsequential and forgotten the moment I’m gone? Maybe people will point to a dot and a jagged line on a graph, and that will be me. A number on a chart; just another crime statistic. I will be the embodiment of who not to be, the ultimate example of a life wasted. I could be but a smudge of ash on the boot heel of the law, or my passing may actually mean something for even one person, a world of difference in itself.
Nine. I look around for the first time at the room I’m in, manhandled here in between two guards from my cell. Stripped bare, cement walls that are five feet thick. Windowless and devoid of any discernible character. I wonder how many people have died in this room. There are guards watching me stolidly from their posts, and by now I’ve stopped being able to tell them apart. Ants in uniforms, puppets on strings.
Eight. I wonder if death will hurt. If I’ll feel my soul leave my body, or whether it’ll be like falling asleep. Quick, easy, over before I even realise, or drawn-out and excruciating? I don’t know which I would prefer, but it doesn’t matter. The act of death itself is inconsequential. It is what comes after that we truly fear. We all have our own notions of death, afterlives, the weighing of our deeds in the most delicate of balances between good and evil. Heaven or hell, reward or punishment. I know no courtroom awaits me, no judge and no jury. My consciousness will scatter into atoms, dissipating into the universe like bone grinding down into dust. What awaits me is the bliss of oblivion, the privilege of nonexistence. It is my own personal absolution, my freedom—and I await it in turn.
Seven. One of the most fervent desires that shapes us and drives us as people, is the desire to leave a legacy. To last beyond life, cling to the earth beneath our feet so tightly that we wish to leave a permanent mark upon it. To cry out into the great fathomless void of time, I was here, do not forget me. But life is cruel where death is kind, and I do not want to be remembered for enduring it. Time is pitiless, and ultimately, everything fades until it is forgotten. Let my legacy be in these final moments, in these last twelve steps I take to the noose.
Six. I begin to climb the steps that lead to the scaffold. I spent the last fifteen years in prison, my name replaced by a serial number, mopping floors and throwing punches in the yard and the mess hall, getting hit a fair few times myself. Watching the bruises blossom on my skin afterward, wearing them like medals. I grew to relish pain here, anticipate it and feel an overwhelming wave of relief whenever I experienced it; at least I haven’t forgotten how to feel pain. At least I have that left.
Five. I think of how similar the gavel coming down onto the sound block that determined my fate sounded to the gunshot that placed me in that courtroom. My trial had been a closely-watched one, shrouded in scandal and gossip, speculation and uncertainty. Delay after delay had steeped it all in the sort of mystery that the public thrives on, with tabloids and hearsay passed around in hushed whispers behind hands churning the already-restless sea, into which I had been thrown. My counsel’s efforts ultimately proved ineffectual, leaving me to drown.
Four. People are wrong when they say that life is priceless. If I learned anything from this ugly antithesis of the city, crawling in the mud with the scum of the earth, it’s that everything has a price—especially life. My life is the price I’m paying now, and taking another is what charged me. We trade in breaths and heartbeats like coins, one for the other.
Three. The man at the lever by the noose looks almost bored as I walk towards him. The last time I had seen him his knuckles had been as bloody as the red slash of a grin on his face, fists and feet raised to beat and kick a man who was already, in every sense of the word, down. I notice a cross inked into the skin just below his ear, disappearing down the collar of his uniform, and resist the urge to turn my head and spit into his face as I pass. They say they are soldiers of God, and that it is by His will that we are punished, His postulates of morality that they enforce. But that isn’t true, not really. Cruelty is a gift humanity has given itself, and so is retribution. Righteousness, justice, morality—they are not God’s will. They are ours.
Two. I had prayed for the first few years. Prayed for the prosecutors and the jury and the judge to let me go, prayed for my freedom, for my old life to be given back. Shivering alone in a cement rathole, tears cutting paths of clear skin through all the grime and dust and filth. I had prayed for God to save me, but God never answered. I learned to survive on my own, learned which words would spare a fight and which would start them. Which reactions would make the guards turn away and which would get me beaten within an inch of my life. I’d stopped praying; not because I stopped believing in God, but because I stopped believing God cared. I was on my own, and I could rely on no one but myself.
One. Firm, experienced hands loop the noose around my neck, tightening it with a jerk. This very noose has killed hundreds, maybe thousands, of people before. It’s as unforgiving as the echoing sound of the gunshot that had taken the life that put me here. It was so long ago, but I remember it so clearly. The rope tautens, constricting my throat and my windpipe so tightly I already begin to lose breath. The thick, coarse fibre chafes against my skin.
“Last words?” the officer behind me asks. His voice is flat and monotone, the inflection of someone who is obligated to ask a question and couldn’t care less about the answer.
And to my own infinite surprise I reply without a shred of hesitation, as if I had unknowingly chanced upon the answer somewhere behind me among those last twelve steps.
“Relief,” I say, my voice cracked and hoarse but steady. “Relief that the façade has crumbled at last.”
And when the world gives way beneath my feet, I don’t fall.
Pritha Deshpande is a Literature and Cultural Studies student at FLAME University and an aspiring writer and policy journalist. Her idea of a good time is getting cozy at her desk writing with socks on and a scented candle lit. Pritha is an editorial intern at ALMA Magazine.