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© 2011 Jess Mowry
Death would be by drowning.
It was either a new way of doing things, or maybe the revival of something old that had lately come back into style. Jamal had heard talk of a "mandate," but, as far as he could tell, no one seemed to understand what the execution was really about. The court had convened, the jury had deliberated, and the sentence had been pronounced.
The prisoner was twelve-years-old.
Jamal had been there to hear the judge, but he couldn't recall the reaction in court. Had the all-white jury gasped in shock when hearing the result of their verdict? Jamal couldn't remember.
The jury hadn't been out very long, maybe a half an hour at most, though lunch had been brought from McDonalds. Maybe there had been silence in the courtroom... a sterile place of light blond wood and unconvincing veneer. Tyler had only stood there, small in his jail coveralls and chains... both of which were too big for him. He hadn't cried or said anything. Jamal remembered that much.
The new way of doing things -- or maybe the old -- required an executioner who had to volunteer. The jury couldn't do it, of course, because they had found the prisoner guilty and that would have been a conflict of interest. The prosecutor only accused, the public defender only defended, the judge only judged, the guards only guarded, and the audience had already left because there was nothing else to see.
Jamal had volunteered. It had seemed like the right thing to do, or maybe the only thing to do. He’d expected the judge to reject him. Maybe he’d hoped to be rejected, but he'd been accepted immediately and the judge had even smiled.
The whole thing was very strange to Jamal; to be out here on this beautiful beach, under a blue and cloudless sky with gentle waves whispering in on the sand and the sea gleaming turquoise beyond. There was a raft, small, newly built... the mandate required a new raft each time. Jamal supposed it was like a gallows, the way they used to do executions, as if death infected whatever it touched and might spread to those who had done the killing. The raft lay upon the silver-white sand, its new yellow wood half in the water and bobbing a bit when a wave curled in.
Jamal's task was simple; to push the raft out and into deep water, where death would be by drowning.
Jamal wore only his old cutoff jeans, the pair he'd made a year ago to play at the fire plug on hot summer days. So did Tyler... plus chains, of course. It was a pretty place, this beach, like something in a movie. Jamal sat now on the edge of the raft, facing the sea with his feet in the water. Tyler was walking along the shore not far away and alone. He seemed fascinated by how the waves came foaming in to lap at his toes. Jamal supposed that was logical because neither Tyler nor himself had ever been to a beach.
Tyler was black as a panther, with shaggy dreadlocks and large midnight eyes. His twelve-year-old body was still like a child's, with soft definition and a little-boy tummy. Jamal, at thirteen, was of average build with chocolate skin and bushy hair. He wanted to go and be with his friend, but he wasn't sure Tyler wanted that. It seemed strange that Tyler was walking alone because he was going to die very soon. But, Jamal wasn't sure what to do, so he sat on the raft and watched his friend.
There was a guard with a gun nearby, yet Tyler seemed free to go where he wanted. But, he didn't go far because he'd never been to a beach and didn't know how to explore it.
The execution was set for noon... something about the "mandate" again. The jury was gathered under the shade of what might have been a circus tent about fifty feet from the water. Jamal could hear them if he listened, above the gentle whisper of waves. They had followed the mandate -- or whatever it was -- sentenced the prisoner, found an executioner, had the raft built, and been bussed to this beach. A few of the people had brought their kids, who sat in the shade playing video games. Several had tried to play with Tyler -- the youngest, of course -- but the guard had said that wasn't allowed because it might give the prisoner ideas.
The prisoner was here, “free to play" -- as a woman had said -- until he was needed to die. The guard was guarding the prisoner, and the executioner was sitting on the raft presumably waiting to execute, but nobody seemed to know what to do. That's what they were talking about under the shade of the circus tent.
The prisoner, twelve-year-old Tyler, was here to be executed by drowning; that seemed clear enough to all. But someone asked how that was going to happen... which seemed to upset everyone. There were looks of relief when a man appeared, striding purposefully down the beach. He was white, of course, in a well-tailored suit, and carrying many papers in hand. The papers looked important with lots of official stamps and seals, so the man must have been important, too, and the people waited for him to speak.
"I see everyone is here," he said, joining the jury under the shade. "Fine, so let us proceed.”
"Proceed?" asked a woman. "I thought we were just here to..." Her voice trailed off and she flushed a bit.
"To what?" asked the man with the papers.
"...Well... to watch, I suppose," said the woman, flushing even more.
“Observe,” said a man who looked like a teacher.
"Of course you are," said the man with the papers. "You have already done your civic duty by finding the prisoner guilty. There only remains the execution, and I see the raft is waiting, along with the executioner." He looked along the shoreline. "Ah, and there is the prisoner, so everything is as it should be.”
"I... er, told him he was free to play," said another woman. "But he didn't.”
"I'm surprised you thought he would," said the man. He glanced at his watch. "In a little while you may all go home and forget this ever happened.”
“Do we have to forget?” asked one of the jury.
“Why would you want to remember?” asked the man with the papers.
The jury all looked at their watches, then at the man again, who was shuffling through his papers. A young woman frowned. “These proceedings are not very green, “ she said. "Trees had to die for all those papers, and to build the raft.”
The man with the papers shrugged. “That is the price we pay for our system.”
"Er...?" asked a man who looked like a priest. "How will the prisoner be put on the raft? To be... executed?”
"He can sit," said the man with the papers. "Or, he can stand if he wants to.”
"Er," said a woman. "But, if the boy stands...”
"The prisoner," corrected the man with the papers.
"...Oh. Yes. But, if he stands, he might lose his balance and fall.”
"True," said the man with the papers. "And thank you for pointing that out, it shows your concern for the safety of children. You may encourage the prisoner to sit while the executioner launches the raft.”
"Me?" asked the woman.
"Didn't you tell him he could play?”
"I guess I shouldn't have spoken to him.”
"It doesn't matter," said the man with the papers. "Prisoners seldom listen to us. I'll have the guard advise the prisoner that he should sit for his safety. ...But we can't order him to sit. We have no control over what he will do after the raft leaves the shore. It is pointless to order him to sit, because he could choose to defy that order, and that would mock these proceedings.”
Another man asked, "How far will the raft go out in the water?”
The man with the papers leafed though them. "The mandate specifies, 'a depth sufficient to ensure the prisoner's death by drowning'.”
"But how will we know?" a woman asked. "From here on the beach?”
"Maybe the executioner will know?" suggested another woman.
But the man with the papers frowned. "Judging the depth of the water is not the executioner's job. And, after all, he is only a boy and can't be expected to know such things.”
"But," asked someone else. "How will the executioner know when to stop pushing the raft?”
"He won't," replied the man with the papers. "But no doubt the depth will be sufficient by the time the execution takes place." He looked around at the jury and smiled. "I'm sure we have all been to beaches before, while they, of course, have not.”
Everyone nodded wisely at this.
"But how?" asked a woman, a bit timidly.
"How, what?" asked the man with the papers.
"That doesn't sound like proper English," said the man who looked like a teacher.
The woman looked nervous but cleared her throat. "How will the execution take place?”
"The prisoner will drown," said the man with the papers, and held one up for all to see. "That's perfectly clear in the mandate, and it has an official seal.”
The woman looked very uncomfortable now. She glanced at Tyler, still walking along the sandy shore with his feet in the sparkling water. "Yes," she said. "But, how will he drown?”
The man with the papers looked annoyed. "In the water, of course.”
Another man came to the woman's rescue. "I believe she's asking how will the boy... the prisoner, I mean... get into the water to drown?”
"Isn't that the executioner's job?" asked another man. Then he also looked uncomfortable. "I... er... suppose he'll push the other boy in?”
"That's not in the mandate!" snapped the man with the papers. "The mandate only specifies that 'the executioner will propel the raft into water of a depth sufficient to ensure the prisoner's death by drowning.' There is absolutely no mention of 'pushing' the prisoner off the raft. That would be cruel and unusual punishment. And suppose the prisoner resisted? There might be an unpleasant scene." He glanced at the kids playing video games. "There are children present. As adults we must set an example. ...At the very least it would mock these proceedings.”
"Er?" asked another man. "So the... uh... prisoner is expected to jump into the water and drown?”
"The mandate does not specify how the prisoner will enter the water. Of course he can jump if he wishes. Or use another method. We live in a civilized country.”
Jamal had been listening to all of this while watching his friend walk along the shore. He had almost decided to go to Tyler when Tyler came to the raft. It was strange to see him smiling as if he wasn't going to die. He sat down on the raft beside Jamal. "S'up?”
"I'm sorry, man," said Jamal, not knowing what else to say.
Tyler only smiled again. "This a cool beach, huh? Just like in movies an' on TV.”
"Yeah," said Jamal, looking around at the clean white sand, the clear blue sky, and the sparkling turquoise water. "I just wish we coulda come here... well... for some other reason."
"Yeah, me too," said Tyler. "Got a cigarette?”
"I didn't bring 'em," said Jamal. "'Cause... 'cause I'm... gonna be in the water, y'know?”
"Oh yeah," said Tyler. "Guess I forgot.”
Jamal stood up and faced the people. "Yo!" he called. "My friend wants a cigarette.”
"I don't think anyone here smokes," said the man with the papers. "And he's not your friend he's the prisoner.”
"...Oh," said Jamal. Then he pointed across the beach. "I see a store.”
The man with the papers looked at his watch. "There seems to be time. I'll send the guard.”
"Kools, please," said Tyler.
"Naturally," said the man, with maybe the hint of a smirk.
A woman asked, "Could he get me some bottled water?”
"No," said the man with the papers. "This is an execution, not a picnic on a beach." Then he smiled and added. "I'm sure we all could have such a picnic any time we wished.”
The people nodded, looking pleased.
Jamal watched the guard walk away, then turned to Tyler. "I'm sorry, man," he said again.
"Don't be," said Tyler. "Yo, man, don't cry.”
"I can't help it," sobbed Jamal. "What did you do anyhow?”
Tyler shrugged. "They never told me.”
"What did he do?" Jamal called to the people.
"What do you mean?" asked a woman.
"Why does he have to die?”
"Because he's guilty," said the man with the papers. "It's all right here in black and white. Now, do your job and don't bother us.”
The people went on with their discussion.
"Er..." said the woman. "I hate to keep bringing this up, but I'm still unclear as to just how the boy...”
"The prisoner!" snapped the man with the papers.
"...Yes... How the prisoner will drown.”
"There aren't many different ways to drown," said the man with the papers sarcastically.
"That was very insensitive," said the woman who was concerned about trees. "Don't forget you're a public servant and our taxes pay your salary.”
"Well," said a man. "What if the... er, prisoner can swim? I don't believe that was mentioned.”
"Where would he have learned to swim?" said the man with the papers.
"You must admit it's possible," the other man retorted.
"I see some rocks over there..." suggested yet another man. "We could tie one around the prisoner's neck.”
"Now that's insensitive!" snapped the man with the papers. "And need I remind you again that there are children present?”
"Well, I hate to sound insensitive," said someone else. "But all the mandate does seem to say is that the executioner will push the raft out into deep water...”
"'Water of a depth sufficient'...”
"Yes, yes! But no mention is made of how the boy... the prisoner... gets into the water, or what he does afterward.”
"He drowns!" snapped the man with the papers. "It's perfectly clear in the mandate! 'The executioner will propel the raft into water of a depth sufficient...’”
"We know that part already!" retorted the other man. "But then what happens? Insensitive or not, is it reasonable to expect that a normal, healthy twelve-year-old boy will voluntarily jump... or use any other method... into deep water and drown himself?”
"Of course it's reasonable!" the man with the papers almost howled. "He was tried, convicted and sentenced! He has no other choice! And of course he won't be drowning himself... that would be suicide, and suicide is against the law!" He waved the papers. "The mandate is perfectly clear on that point... 'The executioner will not return the raft to shore until the prisoner has drowned'.”
The people exchanged various glances as the guard returned with a pack of Kools. A man asked, "Isn't furnishing tobacco to a minor against the law?”
"Pretend we didn't see it," said the man with the papers. "Justice is blind you know.”
"What about our children?" asked a woman.
"They’re playing video games.”
The guard took the cigarettes down to the raft. "You still have about fifteen minutes.”
"Thanks," said Tyler, taking the smokes. The guard fired a lighter for him. Then Tyler smiled at Jamal "You gonna cry again, man?”
"I can't help it," sobbed Jamal. "Maybe I shouldn't have volunteered.”
"'Course you should've," said Tyler. "It’ll go on your permanent record. An' besides, you got to come to this beach.”
"Ain't you scared?" asked Jamal, still trying to stop his tears.
Tyler shrugged and blew out smoke. "Maybe it's better this way. It's like I been drowning for twelve years already." He glanced at the people. "If they didn't kill me for nothin' now, they'd kill me for nothin' else later.”
Up in the shade of the circus tent, the people were still discussing the execution.
"Let me get this straight once and for all," said the man who looked like a priest. "The executioner... who is apparently that boy's...”
"The prisoner!" barked the man with the papers.
"The prisoner's best friend...”
"They call themselves 'homies' sometimes," said the man who looked like a teacher.
"That's cute when they're little," said a woman, smiling.
"Let's not split hairs," said the man who looked like a priest, then continued, "...Is going to push that raft out into deep water, where the prisoner will voluntarily drown himself while his best friend watches?”
"Wrong!" retorted the man with the papers. "I told you already that drowning himself would be suicide, which is illegal. The law is crystal clear on that point! The prisoner will enter the water in a manner of his own choosing, then he will drown sooner or later... and whether he can swim or not... because he has no other choice. His friend... or 'homie'... cannot help him because he has volunteered to be the executioner; and to help the prisoner go on living would be a crime in itself.”
“Which would go on his permanent record,” said the man who looked like a teacher.
“Yes,” said the man with the papers. “He cannot return the raft to shore until the prisoner has drowned. What is not to understand about these proceedings? They are politically correct. And no doubt much kinder punishment than the prisoner deserves for his crime.”
"What was his crime?" asked a woman. "No one ever explained that to me.”
"The judge said to disregard the evidence.”
"What was the evidence?" asked a man.
"You were told to disregard it!" snapped the man with the papers. "The prisoner was tried, convicted, and sentenced. That's all any of us need to know. We are here to perform an execution, not to question the law.”
"May I ask one more question?" asked the man who looked like a teacher.
"That's a question already," laughed the man with the papers.
"Let's have some dignity here," said the man who looked like a priest. "After all, there are children present and we must set an example.”
"What's your question?" sighed the man with the papers.
"Well," said the man who looked like a teacher. "Although, as you said, it seems unlikely, what if the prisoner can swim?”
The man with the papers rolled his eyes. "That's the ocean out there. It’s very large and it frightens them. ...And, where would he swim to?”
"Well," said the man. "Those boys have a raft...”
"What are you suggesting?" demanded the man with the papers.
"I'm not really sure. But I seem to recall an old story involving boys and rafts.”
"But they don't read," said the man with the papers. "I've attended thousands of these executions, and the prisoner always drowns." He glanced at his watch. "Guard, you may unchain the prisoner."