By Harrison Abbott
I knew they were all going to be hanged. They all knew it too.
There was no question of rebellion. I was one of twenty guards and the prison was heavily secured. There were only four prisoners. They had been on trial for weeks, knowing they were going to be found guilty and sentenced to death. I thought it was horrific that they didn’t just hang them immediately following the verdict. Why make them wait for their execution? There was sadism and I wasn’t proud to be a soldier of the state.
I watched them in the yard whilst they talked and smoked cigarettes. They smoked and laughed with an airy freedom. I knew some of their language. I could pick up plots in their conversations. They talked about girls, football and funny stories from their boyhood. They were still boys in essence. All in their teens or early twenties. They hadn’t been allowed manhood because of the war.
There was one morning where – in the yard – they all had cigarettes in their mouths. But none of them could find a lighter. So I went up to them and gave them my lighter. They passed it around the circle with their fingers twitching in the cold.
I’d heard them talking about their football team before. I’d actually seen this football team play in my city when I was a boy – because it was a European Cup game. My father took me when I was young. Their team won. But I still loved the occasion. And so I thought I’d try and speak to them in their language.
“So you like Wolfsburg?” I said. And they all looked at me with surprise. They smiled and nodded.
“I remember when they came to my hometown. When I was a boy. You beat us 3 – 0. You bastards”
They laughed. One of them could understand a little of my language as well. He said he thought he knew which game I meant, because he saw it too in the newspaper when he was little. And then we all talked about football for a while. The translations were clumsy and it took many hand gestures to imply what we were saying. Their eyes had amazingly clear blue irises.
Then the bell rang and I remembered I was an armed guard. I’d been holding my rifle all the while I’d been speaking to them. I nodded to them and I was about to say something, like it had been nice to speak to them. Or make fun of their team again. And there was even a mad whim of shaking each of their hands. But I had to remember that they were terminal prisoners, and I couldn’t realistically do any of those things.
So I led them back into the prison.
I drank vodka with my squadron that night. We played cards. Just underneath the floor were the prison cells, and I thought about the four prisoners. I thought that, if I could, I would go and release all of them. I could do it tonight when all my other colleagues were drunk and asleep. I had the keys to the cells. I only had to open their doors, lead them out the back and tell them to run.
But I couldn’t do that. I would be shot myself. I was too much of a coward.
Besides, they said these men had killed scores of people all over my country. They had gone into villages and gone berserk with their guns. They were maniacs who saw other people as toys. If they were to steal my gun in the yard tomorrow, they’d murder me in an instant. Wouldn’t they? They saw my people as toys, did they not? Not as individual beings, but objects of clay or plastic of which they could dismember and spoil to their pleasure.
That’s what the commander had taught me. That was the message my nation had fed me – that these men were guilty of mass murder.
And I didn’t actually know. Whether they were guilty. Maybe they had annihilated village populations. But I saw nothing of that in the clear eyes of the men I’d talked to about football earlier. It felt like I was the one now participating in mass murder, by not letting them go. By being too cowardly to sacrifice myself in order to allow them life.
I drank with the comrades until the infant hours and fell asleep. I drank far too much and woke up with a mighty hangover and bad mood. The lieutenant put me on yard duty again for the morning.
I went outside with the prisoners and it was a sunny spring day. Birds sang in the trees beyond the barbed fences. I lit a cigarette and my mood lifted with the surge of tobacco.
I watched the four prisoners. They were standing the other side of the yard. They were looking at me from the corners of their eyes. As if I might come over. Or, as if they should acknowledge me with a wave. Or, most likely, and just as I thought, they wanted to share a smoke with me and talk about football. And I really wanted to do that. And I kept thinking up ways to approach them without it seeming embarrassing or awkward. Because they’d all already lit their cigarettes, so I had no physical cue to start a conversation.
And I hesitated for too long and then the bell rang and I had to take them all back inside.
I never saw those four men again. Because they were all hanged later that afternoon. The lieutenant put me on duty elsewhere in the prison after the yard shift. I only found out that the prisoners had been killed when I returned to the cells. My men had taken them out to the woods at noon.
I still remember watching Wolfsburg beat my boyhood team with my dad. I didn’t hate the other team for beating mine. I didn’t hate the Wolfsburg players. They were just men. I didn’t hate the men who had just been hanged. I wished they were still alive.
Harrison is from Edinburgh, Scotland, and writes prose and poetry. He has been published in a range of journals and magazines, including Here Comes Everyone, Literary Yard and Collage Collective. Links on where to find and purchase his work may be found on his old blog: https://harrison-abbott.tumblr.com/.