Melodies Within Shadows

Clay Dunmore was working the night shift on a quiet April evening when he heard it. An eerie haunting voice was ringing through the halls Lansing Penitentiary that made a chill run through his spine. Getting nervous, he looked for another one of the guards to cover his post. He found Old Man Daniel who simply gave him a knowing look of pity and told Clay he would cover for him.

“Men my brothers who after us live,
have your hearts against us not hardened.
For—if of poor us you take pity,
God of you sooner will show mercy.
You see us here, attached.
As for the flesh we too well have fed,
long since it’s been devoured or has rotted.
And we the bones are becoming ash and dust.”

Clay followed the siren’s call through the sullen grey hallways, down the stairs, and out of the door into the crisp spring night. He was close, close enough to hear the creeping voice cascade through the air from the warehouse where the strict gallows rested. As he approached the building, his apprehension increased tenfold.

“Ladybug, ladybug fly away home,
Your house is on fire,
Your children will burn.
Except for the little one whose name is Ann,
Who hid away in a frying pan”

With waning courage, Clay pushed open the doors to find a haggard figure giggling and dancing upon the imposing wooden structure. Their ragged hair hung past their shoulders and ended at the knees. Long yellow fingernails belonging to wrinkled and scarred hands dragged along the smooth wood. Clay felt a chill run through his spine at the gaunt figure whose back was no longer to him.

“Who killed Cock Robin?
I, said the Sparrow,
with my bow and arrow,
I killed Cock Robin.”

Who saw him die?
I, said the Fly,
with my little eye,
I saw him- Oh well hello there!”

Clay’s blood froze when the figure acknowledged him. Their tired eyes roved over his figure as he went over theirs. Their sunken and dirty face, dirty clothes, and hunched figure made him fidget with worry. They giggled and made an attempt at a reassuring smile.

“I was wondering when you’d show up. Curiosity killed the cat and satisfaction brought him back. Come on up here, little cat, and sit here a spell with me.”

“With all due respect, I don’t think you’re supposed to be here,” Clay said as his feet began to climb up the foreboding thirteen steps without his permission.

The figure let out a chilling laugh that echoed through the warehouse. As he finished climbing the last step to the landing, he saw the bleak person, if they could be called that, dancing around on the foreboding trap door. In their withered hands, was a braided noose that swing back and forth like a haunting pendulum. Beside them, lay a carpet bag from which the noose came from no doubt.

“Silly little thing, Death can go wherever it wants, don’t you know?”

Clay’s breath was forced out of his body from their response and could only sputter in shock. This made the figure, now called Death, let out another chilling laugh. This couldn’t be Death. Death was an elegant figure that exuded grace and mercy. This was a careworn figure that exuded hopelessness and insanity. He wondered if a homeless person had somehow wandered into the prison.

“I’m very sorry Sir or Ma’am, whatever you may be, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” Clay said with false conviction.

“And I’m very sorry, Clay Dunmore, but I can’t do that. I have too much to do. Too much, too much, I’ll fall over like Humpty Dumpty with the weight of the things I have to do, “the figure started to return to the noose but then turned back toward Clay, “unless, you would like to spare a few minutes to chat.”

Clay wanted to do his job and keep any and all intruders out but there was something that was nagging at him. He wanted to know who this person was. He wanted to know if they were telling the truth. He sat on the wooden platform, far away from the trapdoor, and patted the wood next to him. As an afterthought, he took his gun out of his holster and placed it out of reach.

“It’s adorable you think you can hurt me, but a rest would be nice,” they said with a wistful smile.

“So, what are you doing here, sir? Ma’am? What should I call you?” Clay apprehensively asked.

“Just call me Death, Clay Dunmore. That is what I am, and what I always will be.”

“With all due respect,” Clay fidgeted anxiously, “I don’t think you’re Death. Death is a graceful and merciful and sane. You are clumsy and deranged and a cutthroat.”

“Graceful, merciful, and sane. Oh, how I remember those days. I was a beautiful thing and wonderful to behold. It was so long ago. When can I remember the last time I was like that? It was so long ago, for I can’t seem to remember when it was,” Death stood and began to pace anxiously, “I remember it was chilly like the early morning of September.”

Clay watched in awe as Death began to dance around the edges of the gallows. He shivered as he watched their feet beat against the haunting trapdoor that had ended so many lives. His unease only increased when they began to sing in that haunting voice that drew him to this meeting like a moth to a flame.

“The captain said it will never, never do
Never, never do, never, never do
The captain said it will never, never do
On the last day of September.

The big ship sank to the bottom of the sea
The bottom of the sea, the bottom of the sea
The big ship sank to the bottom of the sea
On the last day of September.

The people that did this to me will suffer on the last day of September.”

Clay shifted to face Death and tentatively asked, “Who did this to you, and what did they do?”

That was seemingly the wrong thing to say as Death’s back straightened and whirled around to face him. They stalked forward with deadly intent and kneeled down to make sure they eyes were firmly in each other’s range.

“Don’t you remember, Clay Dunmore? You were the one who did this to me. You and your race took me and forced me to become this thing, this monster! I don’t travel around the world anymore, meeting extraordinary people and easing their pain. I am chained here doing your dirty work! I braid your nooses for the gallows, load your guns for the firing squad, inhale your deadly gas, and soak your sponges full of brine to bring a modicum of ease to those poor victims!” Death growled.

Clay felt himself edging backwards. He stuttered out, “B-but it’s for the greater good. Besides, it brings the victims of the crime closure, “Clay stood and felt his courage return, “but they are not the victims here! We got two almost ready to hang who killed four people in cold blood!”

Death just fixed them with their icy stare. They stepped back, and Clay felt an uneasy victory settle in his bones. They gently picked up the noose and twirled it around. They murmured, “Ah yes. Hickock and Smith. The dreaded Clutter murderers. Sentenced to hang on April 15, 1965. Is that correct, Mr. Dunmore?”

“Yes. That is correct. They deserve it. Both of them do.”

Suddenly Death was in front of him, and the noose was wrapped around his neck. Death leaned in close and said, “Have you ever hung before? Have you ever felt the noose’s tight squeeze around your neck as spectators watch in glee as you die from the lack of oxygen? Have you ever felt bullets smash into your organs, one by one? Have you ever felt your lungs spasm from lack of oxygen even though there is gas all around,” Clay felt the noose tighten around his neck, “Have you ever burned alive because of a guard that wanted to see what would happen when you rode the lightning without a brine-soaked sponge?”

Clay was suddenly pushed toward the edge, and he knew if he fell, he would die in the same fashion Hickock and Smith would only two weeks later. Death eased their grip on the rope. They fixed the noose on the wooden beam. They then picked up their carpet bag full of deadly materials. Just as they were leaving, they turned and said, “Look for me in the shadows, Clay Dunmore. Look for me on the night of April 15th in the shadows. Look and see what your ‘just’ execution will do to me. You will see an even more haggard and gaunt-looking figure than the one you see now. But do not follow where I go.”

Clay watched as Death hobbled away. Death was wrong. They hadn’t used them for vengeance. They had been a great helper for the greater good. He heard the haunting melodies spun from the shadows as they exited the warehouse.

Mary, Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.”

He’d probably wake up any second now and find out it was all a dream. He desperately wanted it to be a dream. Old Man Daniel would be shaking him awake any minute and telling him to rise and shine and actually work for his paycheck for a change.

“Three blind mice. Three blind mice.
See how they run. See how they run.
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a sight in your life,
As three blind mice.”

But as the scratchy voice grew thinner and thinner, he felt a pang of hopelessness run through him. He spurred himself to go down the stairs and go back to his post. The wind carried the last of the scratchy voice to his ears.

“A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard
Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?”

He finally made it back to his post, safe and sound. Old Man Daniel nodded and left. But something stopped him and he turned to Clay. He whispered, “Did you see them, lad? Did you find who you were looking for?”

Clay shook his head. He murmured, “No, just a homeless kook that got into the warehouse.”

Clay was gripped harshly and turned to meet Old Man Daniel’s eyes. Old Man Daniel looked him square in the eyes and said, “Listen here, son, you did see a haggard figure tonight. It was Death. You can pay them the proper respect they deserve. After all we’ve put them through, they’ve earned it.”

Clay felt his breath quicken. His eyes darted around and finally gathered the courage to ask, “What did they look like? To you, I mean?”

“They weren’t as bad off when I got my chance to see them. But I’ve been here for a long time, son, and I’ve seen their figure worsen and worsen with each execution.”

When Old Man Daniel finally released him, he straightened his uniform. He turned away to face Hickock and Smith. He didn’t turn around to look at Old Man Daniel as he asked, “How did they get that way?”

“We did that to ‘em son. With each life we took, they paid our price. You’ll get your chance to see our wrath in action come two weeks when those two climb the thirteen stairs. You’ll see.”

With that, Old Man Daniel walked away to get his rest. Clay watched the prisoners’ chests rise up and down while they still could. He could still hear the melodies within the shadows spun by a sorrowful and haggard figure that he’d soon see one rainy April evening when the trapdoor banged open twice. In the future, he would meet the figure again after a horrid car accident.

But Clay Dunmore didn’t know that.

All he knew was the blank grey walls, the soft breaths of the prisoners, and his hushed prayers begging God to have mercy on them all. Yet there would be no mercy spared for them. The guards, the prisoners, or Death who carried the weight of their sins that grew heavier with each prisoner that left all of The Corners in the world.