by Conor Johnston, he/him
In the place that was once Manhattan, there hangs a man from a lamppost. No one, least of all the man, knows how he got there, but he has swung around from that post since time immemorial. It’d be easy to imagine the Hanged Man as someone who swung around aimlessly, but that was far from the truth. If anything, he swung around with purpose. They say the Hanged Man had spent many centuries pondering the very meaning of his existence, before he realised this higher calling. A normal, lesser man would have died indefinitely, but not him. He figured that there must be some divine purpose behind his eternal suffering. Perhaps he had committed some grave sin like Cain or Marcus Brutus, and as a result was sentenced by God to an eternity of torture. He liked this theory. It made him feel special. After all, not many men can say they’ve captured the attention of God. If he had really been transformed into a monument to man’s gravest sins, then he vowed that he would be the best damn monument to man’s gravest sins the world had ever seen.
The Hanged Man does not get many visitors, but when he does, he makes an effort to put on a show. It is not uncommon for him to engage in long and meandering speeches in which he warns his visitors of the dangers of sin and hubris. His booming voice echoes throughout city blocks, delivering his sermons of fire and brimstone. He enjoys beginning his rants with a bit of self-deprecation, perhaps to ease in his startled listeners.
“GAZE INTO MY SCARRED VISAGE IF YE DARE! LEND YOUR EARS TO MY CACOPHONOUS VOICE IF YE MUST! FOR I BRING YE ALL A TALE OF MISERY AND WOE THE LIKES OF WHICH YE HAVE NEVER EXPERIENCED BEFORE!”
I should mention at this point that the few visitors the Hanged Man gets cannot exactly be referred to as “humans.” Some time ago, a great calamity sent the denizens of the city scurrying like rats to the shelter of the underground. The subways they once used for travel soon became their homes, and humanity learned quickly to adapt to their new surroundings. Over a few generations, the eyes in these humans gradually weakened at the lack of exposure to sunlight. While unfortunate, it would appear that laws of evolution took pity on them, as to make up for their newfound lack of sight, humanity would go on to develop an intensely heightened hearing ability. A supersonic sense of sound if you will.
Suffice to say, the Hanged Man’s words do not fall on deaf ears.
On one particularly miserable day, as harsh winds sent the Hanged Man flying around like a helicopter blade, a duo of once-humans left the underground to venture into the outside world. The two once-humans were rather unpleasant looking, with deathly pale skin and blank grey eyes. Of course, that was to be expected, given the blankness of their living conditions. One of them walked with a limp and carried with him a backpack and a makeshift braille map. The other fashioned a spear and fuzzy earmuffs. The two spoke to each other in a language unintelligible to any 21st century listener. However, should this listener be versed in the obscure dialect of the once-humans, the speech would render something like this:
Lemuel! You idiot! I told you a map only works if you can physically see it!
Carter, where was this thoughtful analysis when I was busy slaving away at my newest invention? Maybe if you had offered your input then, we wouldn’t have gotten lost!
Lemuel if you were not my wife’s brother I’d beat you senselessly here where you stand!
The two’s bickering was interrupted by a slow groaning noise, saying something along the lines of:
“Oooohhh what a terrible burden I must shoulder! “
As the once-humans got closer to investigate, the sound would become more pronounced.
“But I must soldier onwards! For my misery will serve as a warning to those who stray off the path of righteousness!
The explorers soon reached the source of this strange commotion. With their sight missing, they had no way of knowing that the sound reminiscent of a dying animal’s screech was actually coming from a mere, hanging man. Perhaps, this was for the best. They wouldn’t have to wonder how this man got here with no signs of bodily-suffering, or why someone would go through the effort of hanging up this rather mediocre-looking individual.
It stopped, Lemuel. What should we do?
It was at this moment when the Hanged Man realised he had company, and quickly prepared for his introductions
“Forgive me! Ahem; HARK, YOU POOR SOULS! FOR I BRING YE A TALE OF MISERY AND WOE THE LI-”
Had he known how sensitive his new visitors were to sound, the Hanged Man would have likely taken a softer approach in his speech.
AHHH CARTER KILL IT!
The once-human apparently named Carter proceeded to jab at the Hanged Man with his trusty spear. This weapon held a lot of sentimental value to Carter, but alas, this is the Hanged Man’s story rather than his own, so I will refrain from going into the unnecessary details of its history. What I will divulge, is that it was very sharp, though it seemed to inflict very little pain on the Hanged Man.
“YES, I HAVE NOT SUFFERED ENOUGH. I ONLY HOPE THAT MY AGONY WILL ACT AS SOME FORM OF AMUSEMENT FOR THOSE TASKED WITH WATCHING ME FROM THE BEYOND.”
How in the hell is this thing still going?
You’re not thrusting hard enough. Put your whole body into it.
“HOW FOOLISH I WAS TO THINK I DESERVED A MOMENT’S RESPITE!”
The Hanged Man would eventually stop talking. Not because of any excruciating suffering, but because he had simply run out of things to say. He was not used to such extended visitations.
I don’t think we killed it. I can still here hear it breathing. Lemuel? Lemuel, are you listening?
Lemuel was not listening, for he was busy inspecting the area surrounding the Hanged Man. The land was filthy, the buildings were falling apart, and a seemingly dying creature kept making distracting noises, but Lemuel paid no attention to any of that. What had captured his attention was a strange smell that emitted from roughly a block away. It was a smell he knew that he had never experienced before, but one that he felt like he should know. The smell was neither intoxicating nor repugnant, but mysteriously pleasant. In this world of extremes, Lemuel found it nice to finally feel something that was calming. After following the intriguing waft for some time, he finally reached the source of the smell, his hands told him that whatever was emitting this fragrance was fragile. Burrowed deep into the ground, Lemuel felt tempted to pluck it, but he worried that even the slightest force would kill it. Even if he could ensure its safety, he knew that hoarding something so pleasant, so beautiful, so natural, would be a sin worthy of hanging.
Damnit Lemuel, I’m speaking to you!
I…I think this might just be the spot.
You can’t be serious. You really think we can move our whole village right next to this screeching beast?
Be reasonable Carter, We’ve spent all this time on the surface and we haven’t been attacked by a single marauder or beast. We have so much open space here that we could build three villages if we wanted to. Besides, this poor creature can alarm us in the event any raiders try to attack us.
Be reasonable? We haven’t been here for a whole day! What makes you think this place will be any better than the underground?
Lemuel did not have an answer for this, but Carter would not need one. Something about his companion’s silence struck deep within him. For the first time in a long time, he did not want to argue.
Alright, Lemuel. Let’s return home and talk to this village about this.
The Hanged Man began to speak again, unaware of what his two visitors were talking about:
“I HOPE MY WORDS AND SUFFERING HAVE SERVED TO YOU A WARNING OF WHAT FATE BEFALLS ALL MEN WHOSE HUBRIS EXCEEDS THEIR MORTALITY!”
Gah! Let’s just remind everyone to bring earmuffs.
The next day, the pair of once-humans returned with a whole caravan of other once-humans, and together they wasted no time in building a brand new settlement. Men, women, and children all assisted in the effort to create a place anyone would be proud to call home. Lemuel and a few of the other resident scientists were fast at work hooking the Hanged Man up to an electrical amplification device. The Hanged Man did not mind this, as he now had a large audience of spectators to tell his stories to. The once-humans did not mind this either, as their noise cancelling earmuffs spared them from hearing anything he said.
That night, the villages braced themselves for a potential raider attack. It did not take long for one to show up, as they had a habit of stalking their prey alone before going for the kill with the rest of the pack. If you can believe it, the raiders were somehow less human than the once-humans. All they had left was their basic animal instincts. They were also so ugly, you could physically HEAR how grotesque they looked. Fortunately, this meant that the villagers could instantly tell a friend from a foe. The raiders searched the new village for innocents to terrorize, but found themselves struck by the complete and utter silence of the area. Eventually, the silence was broken by the flick of an electrical amplifier switch:
“YE WHO WOULD KILL AN INNOCENT BABE IN HER SLEEP, HAVE YOU NO SHAME? ARE THOU TRULY HEARTLESS ENOUGH TO STAB A MAN WITHOUT LOOKING HIM IN THE EYE? BEGONE! REPENT FOR THOU SINFUL WAYS! THOU ARE NOT WORTHY OF GOD’S FORGIVENESS, BUT PERHAPS HE WILL SPARE YE YET!”
The raiders did as the Hanged Man commanded. Not out of a fear of God, but because their eardrums were on the verge of eruption at the attack of such a bellow. Lemuel’s plan had worked, and the whole village celebrated their victory. Everyone was delighted that they could finally live in peace, without fear of violence. All except the Hanged Man, of course, who was infuriated at this treatment. After all, he was not a saviour but a pariah of the darkest depths.
“YOU FOOLS! HAVE YOU NOT LISTENED TO A SINGLE THING I HAVE SAID?”
The truth is, they didn’t, and they didn’t care much either. The village of the once-humans would grow rapidly over the following years, and the Hanged Man would go on to become a guardian to the villagers, one they spoke of with only the highest reverence. They never understood what the Hanged Man was trying to say to them, they figured it was just another one of life’s many mysteries.
In the place that was once Manhattan, there hangs a man from a lamppost. He has swung from that lamppost since time immemorial, but it was only then, at the relentless adoration of his inhabitants, that he realised what true torture was .