The branch hung in a line perfectly perpendicular to the dirt some eight feet below. The perfect height for a hanging branch.
No grass grew in the scuffed dirt below. Some said it was the iron in the blood that dripped from beneath the fingernails of the men who hung, clawing at the length of rope round their necks.
It confirmed, they said, that the courtyard was a damned place. That the act of killing had far-reaching consequences beyond the snuffing out of lives.
The keeper of the prison shrugged. “It’s not as if we’re going to plant a vegetable garden there.”
But then came a summer in which the rain never came. And the soil of the courtyard was no longer a part of the earth, but a fine powder that sat upon it.
Philip Simms was scheduled to be executed at noon. Noon when the sun was hottest and the sun would send beads of sweat racing down his brow, competing to see which eye would be irritated first. Philip Simms would have to choose how to employ his hands: wipe the stinging substance from his eyes, or claw at the rope constricting his airway.
The keeper of the prison wanted Philip Simms to suffer. He was a dangerous man, one who would not submit to the laws set down by his elders. And he was to be made an example of.
But as noon came, clouds began to roll across the blue plane of the sky. They turned the brilliant azure into a strange shade of yellow-orange.
And then the wind began to kick up, pushing hot air around.
The magistrate stood in the courtyard with the executioner. They looked up at the sky and frowned. And then they looked at the crowd gathered there, at the people with their secret inner boredoms and dissatisfactions, eager to assuage the whisperings of doubt by watching the torturous death of the man who’d dared to be different.
“The execution will go ahead.” the warden declared in a loud voice.
It echoed in the courtyard and carried up to the cell where Philip Simms sat. The warden smiled. He could not see the condemned man, but he had observed often enough the particular shiver hat sentence sent through a body.
And then, of a sudden, came a great gust of wind. Only, it was not a gust. It was sustained: forty miles an hour at least. The hanging tree creaked and thrashed its limbs about. And then the wind formed a vortex and began doing racing laps about the perimeter of the courtyard.
The prison warden could feel the grit on his tongue. First a grain or two. And then more. And soon he was coughing, choking, gasping for air, clawing at his throat in a futile attempt to breathe.
And he fell on the ground, lifeless, like so many bodies before. The wind died down and those few that remained saw a carpet of dead men on the ground.
Rain began to fall. Up in his prison cell, Philip Simms smiled.