William watched Franny as the tar heated over the fire. They’d tied her up to the same wooden stake they always used. She was clothed in the traditional black dress, the hem covering all but her feet. She wasn’t crying as William thought she might, but turning her head inside the stiff collar, at the hundreds of townsfolk who’d gathered. It had been over a year since the last public humiliation, and people awoke early so that they could get a good view. The crowd carried pots and pans, sunglasses perched above their noses, diffusing the sun just now cresting the mountain range to the east. It was a cold morning, and William was grateful to be near the fire, though the pail of smoking tar sickened him. A few children clamored nearby, warming their hands and giggling.
â€˜How hot is it?’ a boy asked. â€˜A million degrees?’
â€˜Go away,’ William said, and flipped the hood over his head so that no one could see his face.
â€˜A million trillion,’ said a girl. â€˜Like the sun.’
â€˜Like the moon!’
Franny’s head was hanging now, hands tied behind the pole, stretching the coarse fabric of the dress against her breasts and belly. They were the same age, had been in the same year at school until Franny dropped out a year before finishing. Some said she’d gotten pregnant. Others said she quit to help her father, a man that scraped out a living tapping trees before joining his wife in the cemetery. William stood up on his toes and peered in at the bubbling tar. He slipped his fingers through the heatproof gloves and lifted the pail off the hook and set it on the dirt to cool.
â€˜Get,’ he said to the kids crowding around. They hovered just out of reach, a dozen of them, the boys in breeches and suspenders, the girls in sackcloth dresses over their long underwear. None of them wore hats, and their noses and ears burned bright red with the cold.
William breathed deeply, but the hood suffocated him. It would have been better had he been selected Sentry or Smoke Watcher or even Bell Ringer. People said Tar Painter was best because duties were so rare, especially when compared to the sentries, who were forced to stand by the gate one night a week, sleepless and stiff, the single shell of the pump action rifle chambered. Nearly three years William had been the town’s Tar Painter, and thus far, he’d only been forced to humiliate two people.
â€˜Been awhile, Billy,’ Mayor Groton said, nearing.
â€˜I just want to get it over with,’ William said, through his hood.
â€˜No chance,’ Mayor Groton said, and hooked his thumbs in the belt loops of his corduroy trousers. â€˜Town hasn’t had a humiliation like this one in a long time. I’d keep that tar on the fire.’
â€˜I grew up with Franny,’ William said. â€˜Doesn’t seem right.’
Mayor Groton cocked his ear toward the crowd, which was rhythmically banging rocks against pans, a cracking sound that reminded William of wind tearing through the tin roof of the cabin where he lived.
â€˜Listen to that,’ the mayor said. â€˜Doesn’t matter if it was your wife or your mother. They want blood.’
â€˜We should just kill her.’
â€˜That wouldn’t do,’ the mayor said. â€˜We send our scars out into the world and let the people decide.’
â€˜Justice. The world will know us for what we are.’
â€˜And condemn us.’
The mayor stepped back, sliding his boots through the dirt. He looked up at the pale sky, at the shadows of hawks swooping off the hilltops and circling, tilting their wings and soaring into the red sun.
â€˜You keep that tar on the fire, Billy,’ he said, staring William in the eye. â€˜We want it nice and hot.’
â€˜Just for you,’ William muttered, as the mayor walked away.
Franny had again raised her head, the wind pushing her dark hair across her face. Nobody thought her the most beautiful girl in town. That was reserved for other, better-kept girls. Franny swam the river growing up, and had the hard, angular body of a swimmer, the tense neck, bronzed arms and legs, and slate-blue eyes staring out from gold-tipped lashes. In winter, she walked miles in the snow, her fur boots stomping holes where only trappers ventured. William had followed her a few times, but always became lost, her bootprints suddenly disappearing as though she’d meant to lose him.
He stirred the stick in the pot. The tar had started to cool and thicken. He put his gloves back on and hooked the pail over the fire. Nobody seemed eager to start the ceremony. A group of young women were chanting just behind Franny, cupping their mouths and yelling at the back of her head. William listened, but couldn’t make out the words above the wind and banging.
He wandered away from the crowd, his hands in the sewn-in pockets of his robe. He wore trousers and a sweater beneath the robe, and so the cold didn’t affect him much. He lowered the hood once down a side street. Up ahead, the street emptied into the foot of a mountain. Staring at the trail twisting through the pines, he thought of Franny tied to the post, and what he would have to do to her soon. But he didn’t move. His prospects of survival in the mountains were slight. Mountain lions, bobcats and bears dwelled in great numbers. Even if he had a torch, or one of the rifles from the munitions shed, he wouldn’t know what to do. William was a craftsman. Ten hours a day he sat with others in a fire-heated room and produced wooden flutes. They whittled a thousand a month and loaded them on the train and sent them down into the city where they were sold in shops. William was in charge of the fingering, using a crank bit, drilling holes two inches apart.
On his way back to the square, William passed by an open door, one that led down into the basement of a two-story brick building. Hard soles banged up the wooden steps. Bright green eyes stared out of a plaster-white face.
â€˜Move!’ the woman rasped. William stepped aside just as she tossed a pail of soapy water onto the dirt. â€˜What’re you doing here?’ she said, gazing up at William’s black robe.
â€˜Just taking a walk,’ William said.
The woman peeked her head out and looked up and down the alleyway. â€˜Walking where?’
â€˜Just getting some air.’
â€˜Get it somewhere else,’ the woman said.
William stared at the woman’s face, at the skin pulled tight against her jaw by hunger, at the fine white stitching of her brows, and at the thin, blistered lips, as pasty as the rest of her.
â€˜You from around here?’ he said.
â€˜Get on with your torture,’ she said, motioning toward the square with her bucket. â€˜You got no business up here.’
â€˜It’s punishment,’ William said, straightening.
â€˜For what? You’re just a stupid boy, anyway. Who’s your father?’
The woman slapped her hip, laughing. â€˜What’s his name?’
â€˜Ha! That’s no man! That’s a donkey!’
â€˜There must be punishment.’
â€˜Boil the tar! Boil the tar!’
â€˜You don’t know what she did,’ William said.
â€˜Boil the tar! Boil the tar!’
William raised his hand to slap the woman.
â€˜Do it,’ she hissed. She ripped open her robe and showed William her naked, mangled flesh- the rib bones jabbing at scars, the burned-away nipples, even the twisted lump of her vagina. â€˜Get your tar, boy.’
William ran back down the dirt road, his boots clopping the dust as tears ran from his eyes and back into his hair. He was shouting too, a sound that only registered as he entered the town square, and two boys playing marbles in the dirt looked up at him with astonished eyes. He ducked behind a wagon and crouched and wept and tried not to shout any more, though he choked and whimpered, pounding his fists into the dirt.
He dragged himself toward the square. Children held hands and skipped around the fire, faces lit with it, singing sporadically, the songs vaguely familiar to William, who twelve or fifteen years before had participated in the very same ritual, dancing and crying out, the captive tied to the stake as the tar gasped in its pail. But even then something had been wrong about the ceremony, children and adults screaming for flesh, the captive looking about with wide, frightened eyes, or never lifting his or her head, just waiting. He thought about this as he moved through the crowd, hooded once again, angry for defending himself to the old woman. Hands clapped him on the shoulder as he passed by, mouths whispered in his ear. They talked of burning and tearing, the screams that would echo throughout the town for days afterwards, a river alive with terror. Boil, they whispered. Smoke. Words entered William like needles. Still shaken by the old woman, by the weeping, and by what he was about to do, William crossed his arms over his chest to quiet the shivering.
â€˜That’s enough,’ he said, pushing past the children.
Sunlight broke bright and cold over the mountains, wind pushing the flames south and up, roaring so high that William had to wait until he could thrust his gloved hands in the fire. When it at last relented, he pushed his sleeves up to his elbows and lifted the pail out and set it in the dirt. Soon the church bells would ring out and the ceremony would begin. He removed a glove and checked beneath his robe for the brushes fastened to his belt. The bristles were of steel, and he found the finest with his fingertips, nearly as soft as horsehair. The other brushes became gradually stiffer until they pricked like quills. The brushes, the temperature of the tar- the few things William could control.
The crowd was rhythmically banging now, a slow clap of stone on metal. The process of electing Tar Painter was a mystery, but the ones who wanted it never got it. William had wanted to do his five years as a Bell Ringer, every Sunday at nine climbing into the belfry and grasping the rope and jumping as high as he could and then coming down and pulling the rope with his whole body, the bell calling out to the town’s sinners to come and be healed. But there would be no healing for Franny. She stood now with her shoulders rolled forward and her arms behind her back, giving them the appearance that they were broken. Her chin touched her chest, hair hanging over her face. She let the rope keep her body erect, pushing her legs and chest against it. Even if William had a knife, and cut her loose, there would be no escape. A few nights ago, it would have been possible. He could have knocked on her window, and they could have snuck away on the train together, to begin again in a new town. William saw them struggling together in cramped rooms, cooking with a single pot as William went from shop to shop with his drill bit, searching out flute makers. And how far would they have had to journey? Tracks winding through unknown hills and towns. South, maybe, where flutes called up to God and the rains came or they didn’t. William couldn’t play a flute, but he could drill holes in hollowed out pine. Did they have pine trees in the desert? Or trees at all? Trains ran south. But they ran west too, toward the barren sea, and north into the snow fields. In all directions death awaited.
The bells rang out. Birds darted through raw blue sky, flapping and coasting over the river and across it, down to where the tracks disappeared into a deep ravine. William, hooded and gloved, picked up the pail of steaming tar. He would have liked to have delayed, let the tar cool, but faces were turned toward his own, the banging soft now, dull, metallic pings that dripped in William’s ears. He walked slowly toward the girl tied to the stake, holding the pail out in front of him, trying not to spill. People opened up a path before him, still watching through their dark lenses. William recognized the faces, faces he’d known as a child. He knew this town, knew its kindnesses, knew the money donated to restore the Jameson’s roof after it collapsed one winter, knew the taste of soups and cakes at annual gatherings, and knew how hard-working its citizenry, laboring from sunup to sundown- long summer days and brief, frigid winter ones. But he also knew the town’s justice of its wayward sons and daughters. The criminals and offenders, the liars and unfaithful. And for the worst of them, the ones who would be cast off, there was William himself dressed in his black robe and hood. Boil the tar! Boil the tar! He heard the old woman’s words as he neared Franny. She was looking at him, her eyes pinched and angry. He set the pail down, steam rising in the cold air, sunlight shining on its bright, black surface. As Mayor Groton came forth, and read out Franny’s crime to the hushed crowd, William studied Franny- the radiant cheeks, the rigid, red lips. Even now he could tip the pail over and let it run in the dirt. He couldn’t save her, but he could give her more time, maybe another hour or two with her untainted body before the next pail heated. But the mayor was through now. His condemnation hung in the air as the crowd resumed its banging, intensity increasing until it felt as though thousands were crowded around William’s shoulders, banging and screeching. William removed each glove and draped them over the side of the pail. Tears trickling down his face, he took hold of the seam in the front of Franny’s dress and pulled outward, tearing the dress straight down so that her breasts were exposed. She was weeping too, softly moaning, flicking her fists against her hips. William kept ripping the dress until her belly was bared, and then the cleft of her newly-shaven vagina, and then her legs. Lastly, William tore off the sleeves and threw the black dress into the crowd, where everyone near it stepped away, letting it fall in the dirt and trampling it. Bumps raised on Franny’s flesh, on the pale nipples. She tried to draw her legs together, close her arms, but no matter how she strained, the ropes held. She rattled her head, still weeping, but crying out too, all her bravery gone, begging not to be burned. William fitted the gloves back over his hands. The banging once again silent. Everything silent except the wind in the trees, and faintly, the old woman from the basement still screeching, â€˜Boil the tar! Boil the tar!’ Franny had fallen silent too, eyes closed, neck cricked. William’s fingers felt hot and sweaty inside the gloves. His eyes were cried out now; a strange numbness had entered him. He saw only flesh as he reached beneath the robe and unhooked the first brush his fingers found. He faced Franny. She looked at him, eyes red-rimmed and swollen. No plead in them, no fight. William dipped the brush in the tar and held it up, the tip steaming and the tar running down the steel spines. The crowd remained silent, eyes blazing, breath held in the cold, stinging light. William touched her breast with the bristles, a violent black that scraped down her flesh and covered her nipple as the crowd banged the pans so vigorously that only William could hear her screams. After the first stroke, William dipped the brush back in the pail and painted the rest of her- belly, shoulders, the strong, smooth thighs, over her knees and the long, fine shin bones, the bristles spreading out and hugging the leg, blackening everything except the hard pears of her calves. Each stroke she jerked against the ropes as though she were being electrocuted, hair flying, elbows and knees wicking tar onto the dirt, onto William’s robe, even onto the closest of the crowd. He didn’t paint her vagina, but strings of tar and blood ran from her belly into the cleft, which caused such frightful yelping that not even the banging couldn’t mask it. When he was through, she stood limp against the ropes, her voice worn out, the ends of her hair snagged against her sticky, black shoulders. Children danced around her, hands reaching in wooden buckets and grasping the yellow and white feathers and tossing them over the tarred body, the feathers quickly covering her legs and hips and belly, but only a few reaching the dripping breasts so that she looked like a creature out of myth, her lower body feathered but the upper black and glittering in the sunlight. The crowd had ceased banging and was only waiting for the mayor to step forward with his knife. When he severed the ropes, Franny fell to the dirt rather than running and the sweepers prodded her with brooms and she arose and staggered and begged to be left alone but the sweepers stabbed at her backside and slowly, stumbling on feathered legs, she made her way out of the square toward the train station, the shouts of the crowd following her. The crowd closed up around her and William couldn’t see her anymore but he could hear the old woman’s voice and covered his ears with his gloved hands and even then he heard it.