It Was Too Soon To Thank God

It was like that old saying I had once heard: “Those who are about to die become Gods.”

It Was Too Soon To Thank God
Photo by Andrik Langfield / Unsplash

by Yitzchak Friedman

The face of the little boy I had killed was in the morning papers. He was a fisherman’s son who was on his way to school when he was blown to a thousand little pieces. The newspaper said he was hoping to become a sailor and see the ocean. He was a good boy, his father said. He would cry every time he caught a fish.

I’m in my flat now picking bits of twisted metal off my coat. One by one, all the little pieces are falling to the floor. A million fragments of the death I had thrown at a moving car all turning slowly as they spin through time.

The Minister of Interior lay bleeding in the middle of the street sobbing with shrapnel spinning in the air. Beside him, a dead prince rested his head on the shattered windshield. And then the boy, the fisherman’s son, ran to the moving car with a flower. A dead flower for a dead prince, falling softly next to a dead boy. Then all the glass was sprinkling the shouting crowd, splintering crimson beneath their trampling feet.

The Colonel said to remember the face of every person I killed. That they would be waiting for me at the gates of hell. All the ministers and princes. The Dukes and the Generals. Courtiers and footmen. The headless and the mangled. All waiting across the oceans of eternity.

In my head, I see a ghostly colorless boy running with a flower, over and over. Like a record spinning out of control. I’m flapping my coat, waving away clouds of thick dust. The ghost is running back and forth. Back and forth endlessly with a fluttering yellow flower. I close my eyes and the ghost fades away, everything fades away.

Before I met the Colonel, I was a man slowly fading at the edges. In the rain, I would stand on street corners hoping a car would jump the curb and flatten me. I would sit on the steps of the opera house in the snow hoping to hear the evening’s coda. At the university, I walked through empty hallways listening to distant laughter echoing across the stone.

I remember hearing on the evening news that the war was lost. I thought of all the men marching away as the bugles played, never to return. I didn’t cry like the others but I would see the phantoms of all those men still floating along the boulevards, spectral bugles humming distantly.

It was the first day of winter when the Colonel first appeared. Students were milling in the main courtyard waiting for a cursory speech on the surrender to be given by some unknown officer. I was lurking in the corner drifting aimlessly when I saw him walk up to the lectern. His uniform was grimy and plain with no medals or stars.

He stood silently until the murmuring faded away until the crowd grew and snaked around pillars and hung from the windows and roofs.

“The moon is rising.” He didn’t shout but his words carried. “And the tide is coming in. A tide that will sweep away this edifice of corruption and deceit. This tower of jackals and vultures.”

The crowd began to whisper and hiss.

“Waves of blood are lapping at our shores, cascading down onto the hands of the guilty.”

His voice rose as the crowd grew louder.

“Staining our shackles and cage. Drenching us with the cries of innocents sacrificed on the altar of war.”


“How much longer will the lions in suits eat the lambs? How much longer will the madman with a crown laugh in his gilded halls while we bleed in the cold?”

A rock flew over his head. He didn’t move.

“They say sacrifice! They blaspheme the very men they sent to die!”

Rocks and pebbles were flying across the sky. A bottle hit him and blood streamed down his face. The crowd was roaring.

“Sacrifice! This was mine!”

He thrust his arm forward amidst the storm of flying stone. His hand was gone.

“And I am among the fortunate!”

The entire crowd burst forth in an explosion of cheers and cries. More stones hit him but he stood stock-still, his handless arm upraised like a torch to the darkening sky. I couldn’t hear anything anymore but I was rushing forward. Everything slowed, students grabbing each other, punching, rocks flying overhead. My mouth was frozen in a never-ending cry as I was swept along with a teeming mass of humanity into the annals of history.

A single snowflake is falling outside my window. Soon the city will be wrapped in a white blanket that stretches out forever. The lakes will freeze and children will skate along the ice as the birds fly south for the winter. It will be the last snowflake I will ever see. Tomorrow, on the steps of the opera house, I’m going to shoot the Prime Minister.

“Sebastian,” the Colonel said. “You’re not coming home after this.”

“I know.” My collar was turned up to the cold. We were in a cellar of a ruined cathedral talking under the shadows of ancient beams.

“I remember when I was 18,” he said. “And I won a great victory on the Savaza front. The King gave me a medal on the steps of the Senate, the crowds were cheering my name and I thought the sun would never set for me. Now it has gone and it will never rise again in my lifetime. All that ever was has been swept away by the winds of time.” The Colonel held out a pistol in a gloved hand. “All that will come shall be carried on the wings of death.”

My throat was dry. “The boy who I killed. Provide for his family after I’m gone.”

The day’s last light was filtering through the cracks in the ceiling, twisting shadows on his darkening face. “It will be done.”

We both stood and he clasped my trembling hands. His eyes looked deeply into mine and he spoke quietly, “Beyond the water, in the halls of the damned. Call my name, I will not be far for long.”

I thought I heard a bird sing as I walked away. Perhaps it was the wind, or the last leaves in the city rustling goodbye on their final descent. It never occurred to me that I would miss the trees more than any person. How deeply it pained me knowing I would never walk down the Royal Boulevard in the spring when the trees blossomed golden leaves and the air was rife with the smell of fresh pollen.

Upstairs in the former prayer hall, the others drifted around me wordlessly. Cold air seeped in from old crevices and swirled in futile anger at the tools of death desecrating the once worshiped stone. I was once one of them and now they treated me with silent reverence. It was like that old saying I had once heard: “Those who are about to die become Gods.”

Mechanically, I’m loading bullets into the gun. Two bullets in my trembling hands. Two bullets sliding into a dark chamber. Two bullets for the prime minister.

The tram had broken down, so I walk along the avenue with my hands stuffed in my coat. The lamps are lighting up as I pass them, their soft orange glow streaking outward like watercolors. Men play chess and boys run and shout their words dissipating to vapor. I don’t give a coin to a beggar, even though it will never be used. My younger selves are walking beside me. Coming home from school, going to the library, struggling under the weight of overdue books. I catch a glimpse of myself on the passing tram, my younger eyes fixed on faraway windows, imagining late-night trysts. They all turn at the same corner, their soundless steps carrying them away. I wait there until they’re black specks, until they’re all gone.

I can hear the sound of violins. I can hear the sound of a hundred voices singing. I can see the white giants, sculpted into stone bowing before a marble king. Past the statues are endless steps climbing towards the music and onto the gates of the opera house.

My cigarette butts stain the white stairs, their sparks fluttering with the fleeing pigeons. Within, two old hands are waving and rising, beckoning the music to ascend, ushering in the coda. In a foreign tongue, the choir swells and becomes one. A single voice singing sorrowfully, singing the sound of things lost and forgotten forever.

A rumbling of feet fills the emptiness of the fading song. I clutch the loaded death in my pocket, grasping it as if it were a newly found wallet. Descending before me is a cloud of dark-suited men. My feet move upwards like lead, hurried breaths stabbing at my throat. An aging man stumbles and nearly falls, his desperate arms windmilling in a dark blue circle.

Someone cries, “Are you alright?”

The Prime Minister’s tremoring hands grasp a mangled lapel, adjust a pair of crooked spectacles. “Thank God I’m alive.” He smiles weakly, his beard creases at the corners. “Thank God!”

“Mr. Prime Minister!” I’m flying two steps at a time, my hand shaking uncontrollably behind my coat. “Mr. Prime Minister!”

They all look at me, puzzled, their faces frozen in a confused array. The Prime Minister’s mouth opens in silence, his body facing mine.

“Mr. Prime Minister!” I cry for the last time. “It is too soon to thank God!”

Two bullets to kill a man. Two bullets on the steps of the opera house. Two bullets rupturing his chest. Two fountains of blood. Staining the white stairs, flowing before the fleeing pigeons.

A dozen hands grab at me, ripping my coat, smashing my fingers. Ribs split beneath the granite floor and the leather boots. Shouted words collide and roll off each other, collapsing into discordant nothingness. I can see the clear evening sky. I can see an empty gun chasing rivers of blood. I can still hear the sound of the violins.

There would be no trial, the warden told me apologetically. His feet had twitched anxiously, his mustache quivering in silent sorrow. There would be no lawyer, no pardon. Canals of sweat ran across his face.

“Why do you smile?” he begged me. “Why don’t you cry?” Through the bars, a shaft of light had rested between us. “You will suffer,” he promised feverishly. “Multitudes will cheer for your death, they’ll damn you and revel in your pain.”

“Let them.”

He jumped back as if stung. “No… no… you must… you can’t.” His eyes implored me desperately. “Please, you have to understand. All the condemned, they weep and I console them, guide them to the eternal ocean. I’m the last human they will ever know. I absorb their pain. Free them of it.” He leaned in and whispered tremblingly in my ear. “I love pain. I treasure suffering. I can take it from you. Please.”

“No.” And I smiled. The warden jerked away from me, a wreck of despair. Haltingly, he placed a hat on and departed numbly.

Lights from the city pour into my cell. Swathing me in a warm glow of memory. Every year of my life is somewhere out there. Among the drinking students, the lonely parks, the sounds of boats flowing through the river, under bridges, and over sleepless fish. At night the city dreams, the tendrils of its sighs floating over a web of stolen moments and lost time. My hands burn and tingle as I press against the window, clinging to the freezing steel. Soon the city will awaken. The fluttering wind of its yawn will brush the night away and all that will remain are forgotten whispers and droplets of dew.

“Political Police, questions.” His face is vague and of indeterminate age. I have a sense that I’d seen his face before, maybe in a crowd or the corner of a grainy photograph. He moves slowly with an aura of quiet precision. He holds out a cigarette and drops it into my shaking hands.

“Why?” he asks.

“Why? Because I came from a good family. Because I never went to bed hungry. Because I was too young to die in the war and too old to have a future.”

A pencil and pad hang in his hands motionless. He nods silently and doesn’t write.

His stool grates on the hard floor. “The Colonel,” he says. “I served under him in Savaza. We had orders to execute every male in all the villages north of the armistice line. Sixteen to sixty, no women, no children. He would line everyone up and ask each one their age, a day older or a day younger he would pull them aside. Then we would shoot the rest.” Delicately, he moves a smoldering cigarette away from his mouth. “When we left, the men would try to outride the stench, it took us hours. With the clothing it often took days.”

“No… I can’t,” I mutter tonelessly. “I won’t give him up.”

He stands up. “You can be shot like a soldier. Buried like a man”

Jerkingly, my head shakes back and forth.

He looks at me. There’s no anger, no pity. “You hang tomorrow.” Three more cigarettes fall onto my bed. He’s gone and everything is quiet. Then someone is whistling, another prisoner maybe. It doesn’t stop for a long while.

The next morning the warden wakes me. He doesn’t say a word but I know. I fold my trembling hands behind my back and follow him slowly.

His eyes pass over me carefully. “Any last requests?”

“Yes.” I gaze directly at him. “Tell the hangman to let the noose dangle loosely from my neck. Let my body sway and twist about as the crowd cries for my death. Let my windpipe stiffen and shatter, my eyes turn black, my spine go flaccid.”

The warden is in shock, his eyes widening.

“Make certain that the rope will chafe and burn me. That I will scream for death but live still. A shaking and crying soulless piece of ruined flesh.”

He can no longer hold my gaze.

“I want my piss to run down the scaffold, for children to shudder when my bowels open and shit drops from my limp swinging body.”

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m so sorry.”

“And then I want you to cut me loose and bayonet me until I die.”

The warden looks at me, a broken man. “The pain, it’s too much.” A wave of shame crashes over his face. “Too much.”

I don’t reply and let him lead me down the rows of the condemned. Faces watch us leave from the shadows of their cells. A gentle tapping begins, a requiem of rattling metal and soft humming. My heart rises and I feel an overwhelming sense of loss with these men who share this same fate. A group of uniformed men are standing still at the end of my walk. Hard faces. Faces that had seen a thousand hangings, hands that had shackled a thousand dead men. Wordlessly we approach the dim buzzing of the roaring spectators outside. Louder and louder it grows, until the doors and windows quiver in anticipation. Until my teeth grind blood and my ears go numb.

The thundering clamor of the crowd greets me as an ocean greets the shore. Crashing with ceaseless fury, again and again. The officers surround me, their calloused hands grasping my shaking arms. I blink from the sun and stagger towards the waiting scaffold. Hordes of gesticulating faces swirl around me dizzyingly their cries shattering against the eye-piercing sky. So many people, all to see me hang. To see me die.

I find myself smiling, almost laughing with joy. Old vegetables splatter at my feet. Parting before the blows of the guards is an impatient mob. Curses and spit froth at a thousand mouths. Half a thousand steps to the patient gallows. No single word is discernible amid the tidal wave of sound. Only a thousand fragments of hatred breaking against my upraised chains.

My feet are heavy on the wooden steps, each one groaning softly as I step upwards. The executioner silently watches with a rope in his smooth hands. Almost gently he removes the chains and places the noose around my neck. He moves carefully with the practiced air of memory. His face is kind, like a man who feeds the pigeons on a street corner. Like a man who gives a coin to the beggars on the pavement.

I stare down at the faceless below me. Who is in the crowd? Old friends… family… perhaps a stranger I once passed in a noonday crowd… They are all fading into a kaleidoscope of shapeless colors, drifting away. Above, the sky is a clear blue expanse and the wind is gently ruffling my hair.

I remember once awakening from a long sleep to find it still dark outside my window. It was one of those mornings where you know there is not another soul awake in the entire city. Where you can hear the pattering of a cat’s feet on overturned trash, scattered across an empty street blowing softly under the flickering streetlamps. A warm sensation came over me, nestling under the sweaty tangled covers as I looked up at the waking sky. A feeling of complete peace.

The trapdoor rattles faintly under me. Fingers close around a lever. In front of the seething mass, one face is visible. Two dark eyes under a hood. My hands have become perfectly still. A single tear crawls out of a watching eye. One follows out of mine. The sound is back, an echoing whirlwind embracing me. The floor opens beneath me as my hand is frozen in a final salute. The man raises a severed hand in return, his stump a white blur in the blackening world.

Yitzchak Friedman is a person who (allegedly) lives in the world.