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Volume 14, Issue 1: Pictura

Red Barn

Douglas Wilson

When recounting strange events, a common device is to tell it all as a dream—but this was not really a dream. I was asleep, I think, but one of the images was more like a vision, and the other scattered images that night seemed as though they were a reception of broadcasts from another time. That other time was nothing like the past, and so that left the future. In seeing the broadcasts, I knew their stories, but had no idea how.

The vision was the first thing I saw, and whenever the other tangled images got too complicated, this vision would silently reappear. It must have done this three or four times through the night.
The barn was a common red for barns, on the bright side, and was tilted slightly forward. It was surrounded by water, up to the hay loft. The water was not the water you see in farm country in time of rivers flooding, but rather it was a cold, blue, silent ocean. The water had a very slight chop, and extended in every direction, as far as the horizon, and in the middle, facing me obliquely at an angle, was this barn. I could not tell if the barn was floating, or if the ocean was shallow. Further I could not tell if the water was receding or soon to overwhelm the barn. I had no notion of what it might mean, and honestly have to say that I still do not.
Susannah Watson was an attractive brunette preparing to turn to the first camera in a busy newsroom. The volume was down, but I could hear her urgently telling one of the cameramen that he needed to back away to the left. One of the studio hands indicated five seconds to air time, and Susannah quickly placed a long white linen cloth on top of her head, which fell gracefully down to each shoulder. She hadn't had to wear one at her previous job, but this network was more conservative—and more to the point, paid much more.
Earlier I had seen the complete studio, but suddenly I just saw her speaking, but there was no screen. The volume jumped to normal.
"This evening President Hawkins of New York called upon New Kirkland to release Dr. Morrison immediately into the custody of international observers sent from Geneva. These comments were made at a joint news conference with the president of Aztlan, Miguel Ortiz. Ortiz, visiting from Los Angeles for the signing of a controversial trade agreement, said that his government was sympathetic with the demand and that international pressure was mounting on New Kirkland."
Her voice was striking, reassuring, and confident, but not at all brassy. "The celebrated cause of Dr. Morrison received international attention when it was revealed that the jury which had convicted him on violent rape and sodomy charges apparently did so in part because of Dr. Morrison's role in editing the collected works of the Marquis de Sade. The editor's preface to those works, written by Morrison, and published by a major New York firm, was entered into evidence by the prosecution. A jury convicted Morrison three weeks ago, and two days later the district judge sentenced him to death by hanging. The execution is scheduled for a week from today.
"President Romanowski has the constitutional authority to grant a pardon and release him to the international observers, or send him directly back to his native Baltimore in southern New York. The administration has scheduled a press conference for nine in the morning, mountain time, which our web page will cover live. And now sports, after this."
I saw a clean cell with one bunk in it, a chair, a small table, and a toilet in the corner. A slight mousey-looking man sat on the edge of his cot, dressed in an orange jumpsuit. His hair was like oakum, and his professorial moustache highlighted the fact that he had no chin to speak of. He sat on the edge of his bed, near the end, a pathetic crumple. When his hands moved, which was rarely, they had a furtive, lubriceous fondness for one another.
Two cops from the sherriff's department were sitting together, in an anteroom outside the cell block, each on the front of his chair, leaning toward one another, heads together, and speaking intently. "Did you see the netcast from New York? The demonstrations in the street? The signs they were carrying? `A Freedom Writer is a Freedom Fighter!'?"
The other cop chuckled. "I wish they could see their grand hero, drooling and masturbating in his cell."
"Naw, they don't care to see him. But they sure want to talk about him."
The odd thing about the barn was that virtually nothing happened in the vision. Whenever I saw it, it seemed that I was seeing enormous stretches of time, during which the water just softly lapped against its sides.
The president turned to his three ministers summoned to his office for a late evening meeting. "What's your take?"
The minister of defense was a retired general named Jonadab Smith, one who had very few opinions outside his craft. "I know what I would do if this were a court martial. We wouldn't be talking about it because he would be two weeks dead already. But what you really need from me is not advice but rather a report. Our forces are strong in the south where the real threat from Aztlan is, and sufficient to the east. It is not always this way, but on this go round at least, you can afford to do what is right. And remember that Aztlan has Spanish Texas to the east, and their ambassador told me we should hang him high."
The minister of state, Clifford Case, shook his head nervously and quickly urged the president to sign a pardon, and be done with both the issue and the man. "He is a true creep, I agree, but it was probably not wise to let his academic work be entered into evidence. And the last thing we need is for this whole issue to become an obstacle to our border negotations. If Milwaukee goes to New York, we will have trouble there for years."
The minister of justice was named Mike Ralston, and spoke last, looking sideways at the minister of state, somewhat defensively. "No, Cliff, the trial was as fair as it gets. The preface he wrote was relevant because most of the things he did to Mrs. Johnston were written about beforehand in detail in this purported work of high scholarship. And beyond the fairness of the trial, how can we start letting the cities of the plain start telling us how to administer justice? This guy is the Nietszche of orgasm, and there is only one honorable way to be rid of him."
The president sat quietly at his desk, tapping his teeth with a pencil.
Susannah stood in the waiting room of the county jail where Dr. Morrison was being held. He had agreed to an interview just hours before, but then the sherriff's department said there was only one afternoon when it was even possible, and that was that same day. Two cameramen, both griping about the fact that they didn't had time to bring the good equipment, stood behind Susannah, fooling with their palm cameras.
A deputy soon escorted them to a large meeting room, where they found Dr. Morrison seated at a large brown conference table, and two large deputies standing behind him, one at each shoulder.
"Is there any way we can have you gentlemen off-camera?" Susannah asked.
"I'm afraid not, ma'am. This one doesn't look like much, but he is a danger. The sherriff said this is the only way we can do it."
"Thank you. I was just asking."
The cameramen, for all their complaints about the handhelds, were ready in short order. While they were readying themselves, Susannah introduced herself to Dr. Morrison, who simply nodded at her quietly.
"Time," the first cameraman said.
"Dr. Morrison, this is the first time you have agreed to speak out publicly on your conviction. Do you have any comments on the trial or sentence?"
His face was ashen with fear, but like a man possessed he simply licked his lips for a few seconds, then looked at Susannah and swore blasphemously at her. The deputy who had spoken earlier looked at the cameramen. "Turn those things off." When one had, and the other pretended to, the deputy looked down at Morrison and said, "You speak that way to a Christian lady again, and I'll break your little pencil neck."
"You agreed to the interview," Susannah said, "but do you still want it?"
Morrison shook his head slowly, and stood up, trying to look magisterial, but it seemed as though invisible fingers were plucking at his limbs. At the door, he turned back. "In the name of true philosophy, all is permitted."
"Including what will happen to you," Susannah said. Morrison fell backward as though he had been struck in the face, and he was caught by the deputies, who then turned him back and steered him through the door. The three sat alone in the conference room for a few moments, and then stood up to leave. On the way back to their vehicle, the second cameraman began to chortle. "I can't believe he didn't check!"
The hangman stood quietly at the rear of the platform. He had spent the morning testing the trap mechanism, and had checked and rechecked the noose. A minister sent by the Convocation stood on the right side of the platform. Coming up to the top of the stairs, Dr. Morrison spat at him and missed. But the minister, who was there to read Scripture aloud only if Morrison wanted it, simply stepped back. His Bible remained at his side.
The process was soft, swift, and methodical. Morrison's hands were handcuffed behind him, a hood was placed over his head, and the noose fastened. Behind a one-way glass, up behind the platform, Mrs Johnston sat with her family, hands folded on her lap. After a few moments, the taut rope creaked into silence. To the very end of his life, he could fear an argument, but not follow one.
Shortly before I woke, I saw the barn again, and for the last time. The only difference I could make out was that I could now see the top of the door.

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