The Hanged Man Speaks
by Miriam Harline
In the early evening, orange-gold light still pouring through half the sky, purple hazing the east, you walk along a country lane, two tracks of dust fine as corn meal and cool on your bare feet. The air smells sweet, of cut hay, and as you crest a hill you see before you a half-mown hayfield. Its dark stubble lies close-shorn on the earth; among the stubble conical haystacks rise regularly. Through a dent in the hills, the last rays of sun gild the remaining hay; its blond heads nod, rustling, in the breeze.
Something about the hayfield attracts you, and you cut off the road, clamber over the grey-tan split-log fence into the field, carefully pick your way through the blunt stubble. It’s only after a few moments you see, against the bright ridge of hay still standing, a dark form. A scarecrow, you think, but why, in hay? You go forward, curious. The sun lies on the horizon, molten; as you look, the last gold bit winks out. A cold breeze brushes your arm.
Walking forward, you see the scarecrow hangs from a gibbet, the form silhouetted black against the sky. A cold finger runs down your spine; someone here has a strange sense of humor. Still you go forward; you think maybe this is art.
You close on the scarecrow. At the base of its square pole, a sickle leans; the edge of the steel blade gleams violet. You look up, and you see this is no scarecrow, but a man, hanging upside-down by his left ankle, right leg bent behind left in the pose of the Hanged Man of the Tarot. You take a sharp breath in.
“Hello,” the man says. He smiles at you: it looks strange upside-down. You can’t seem to reply. “I’ve a favor to ask you.”
“What’s that?” you stammer.
“Untie me, will you?” Catching hold of the gallows pole, the man climbs up hand over hand till he can grab the rope from which he hangs, curls himself in a ball. “I’m ready.”
His rope is rough hemp three fingers thick, tied low on the pole, knot big as a fist. You think, I’ll never get anywhere with this; still, feeling his gaze on you, you begin picking at the knot with your nails. Just when you begin to despair, the first loop loosens; bit by bit, you manage to untie the knot.
The last loop falls. Landing with a thump, the man quickly frees his ankle, rubbed raw by the rope. He jumps up brushing his hands, extends one to you. “Many thanks.”
So athletic was his pole-climbing and leap up you can’t help wondering why he didn’t untie himself. “It’s a geas, a rule, that somebody has to untie me. I can’t do it myself. Now I owe you a favor.” As he stands before you, you notice his strange clothing, a kind of jumpsuit quilted all of diamonds of blue, yellow and red. “Where were you going just now?” he asks.
“I was taking a walk.”
“Mind if I walk with you?” You shake your head, and presently you walk together down the lane’s two dust tracks.
The lane cups the hayfield in a long curve, then veers to the left, where girdled by a split-log fence a wood rises. On either side of the fence-break where the path enters, sentinel tree-trunks stand; beyond, shadows fall black and green.
The wood gives you pause, but the hanged man walks right in, and you follow him. The air in the wood is noticeably cooler; it smells of leaf-mold. Great trunks of trees loom to either side; in the undergrowth creepers tangle saplings.
“Hot day today, wasn’t it?” the hanged man asks conversationally.
“But autumn’s coming, nonetheless.” He smiles a little. “Autumn’s always coming.”
“I guess that’s true.”
“At autumn comes harvest.” You nod, looking over at him; is he going somewhere with this peculiar conversation?
Just then the track you’re following comes to a crossroads. The crossing path runs perpendicular to yours and is just as wide, its dirt the same dark grey. “Which way do you want to go?” the hanged man asks.
You frown at him. “I don’t know. I was just taking a walk.”
He stares back, a smile quirking the corner of his mouth. “Turn left, why don’t you? You seem like you need some luck.”
You stare at him. Can you trust him to steer you? What does he mean by luck? What are you doing with him in this dark wood? His smile broadens a little; you feel that he can hear what you’re thinking, and that he’s laughing at you.
Turning on your foot, you do as he says. His and your footfalls pad quietly in the leaf-mold together; branches whisper as you brush by. The wood grows darker, shadow collecting in the underbrush and at the bases of the trees. A crow caws behind you.
Fear rises in you. You don’t want to be lost in this forest at night. But just as the fear tightens, you see on the path paler light ahead.
You emerge from the wood into countryside, hazy blue with dusk. Your new track borders a hayfield; you see it’s the same field, the uncut side. “Come,” the hanged man says, and you both climb the fence into the field.
You brush through hay taller than your head. Dry stalks crush below your feet, releasing perfume; seeds fall into your hair and clothes; your movement makes a sound like water. The hanged man walks ahead of you, the colors of his suit almost lost in dusk.
Then you break through the last unmown hay into stubble, dark and damp now with dew. The sickle still leans against the gallows-post, a shadow against a shadow; you touch the gnarled wooden handle worn smooth with use.
“I’ve a favor to ask you,” the hanged man says. “Tie me up again.”
You stare at him in blue near-darkness. You sense he is smiling.
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