The Hanged Man by Hazem Shekho

I was walking slowly and patiently to my appointment. I still had some time. I saw a gathering ahead of me. I paced toward them. A group of men and women were looking up at a building; I think it was the fourth floor where a man was hanging from a balcony’s railing. On the street, behind this group of people, stood two men playing on the trumpet – some sad piece of music. I joined and looked above too. It was strange to see the people transfixed watching the hanged man. I peeked back at the musicians and wondered to whom they were playing music, to the dead man or the onlookers. This scene aroused some sadness in my heart. I can’t say which was the saddest, the dead or the living. I approached one of the men standing there and asked him:

“Who is this man?”

“No clue. I was just passing.”

“Did anyone call the ambulance or the police?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.” He stopped for a short time, contemplating the situation, and then concluded, “maybe I should call someone or do something.”

But he didn’t. He kept looking at the hanged man. I glanced about; no one seemed interested in doing something. I thought to myself, perhaps I should act. Yes, I should. Well, I did nothing too. I kept looking at the dead for a while then continued walking, aware of the music that started to fade behind me.

I arrived at my appointment early. I didn’t mind; I thought I’d wait at the reception. The secretary was a nice middle-aged woman. When I arrived she was about to start manicuring her fingernails. She received me warmly and maybe a bit embarrassed because I caught her in her leisure time. No one was there but her and me. She noticed that I was early and bid me to wait with her. She drew a chair next to her at the office desk and started painting her fingernails. She chose the colour blue.

“I hope you don’t mind this,” she was saying. “I like to do it a lot. It keeps me busy on these dreary hours at the office. It’s not that I don’t like my job. Oh, not at all. It’s the best. I just feel bored from time to time. Not many people come here. I do the puzzles and read magazines, and watch TV a lot.” She had a small TV not far from her desk. It was off today. “But still I get bored. Boredom is not an easy thing, believe me. It deepens your guilt and shame. I don’t know why but it does. That’s why I try to keep myself busy as much as possible. Oh, life is difficult. I think that we all deserve medals for surviving all this time. Don’t you dream sometimes that you will wake up and find yourself a different person, that you have a different name and face, that you walk at the street and no one could recognise you?”

She looked at me, waiting for an answer I think. She took me by surprise and I didn’t know what to reply, except to raise my shoulders, sending whatever signal she received. I don’t think she expected much of me or needed to; she just continued her soliloquy.

“Oh, I dream all the time of that. Imagine you wake up and you have lost all memory of past events, of past shame and regrets. How wonderful! You just start with a new identity. Oh, my sister never leaves the house. She keeps inside the four walls as they say. I visit her sometimes with my husband. He feels sorry for her. He totally understands her situation. Do you know why she doesn’t leave the house? She believes if she kept herself alone and away from people she will never have to feel guilty or ashamed or to face regret, because, you know, if you go out and face life you will make mistakes and those mistakes will lead to regrets. I know she might seem a bit harsh on herself, especially that she is still young in her twenties, but believe me it’s the best option. She even started to refuse to have us at the house. She claims that we cause her pain. We don’t want to, and believe me, my husband has such a gentle soul; but that is the reason why she refuses to meet us. She’s afraid to cause us pain, unintentionally for sure, which in return will cause her a lot of pain. This is the dilemma of life. No way to escape it.” She finished her work and blew at her nails to dry the paint. “You understand what I mean. My sister thinks she found the solution to that. I guess she’s right. But not everyone is strong enough to renounce life. Maybe if I didn’t have a family and children, I would’ve followed her. Unfortunately, things are not easy for me. If I stop doing anything, I will feel guilty for abandoning my family. You see. My sister is doing the right thing. She’s refusing to marry, refusing to have family, refusing to see people, refusing to relate to anyone, because the less you feel the less you regret.” She stopped and looked at the watch on the wall, “I think it’s time. Let me check the boss first.”

She rose from her chair and vanished in her boss’s office for few moments, then appeared again inviting me to the den.

The boss was a huge sturdy man in his sixties, with a grizzly moustache that gave the impression that without it the man could never exist, for there is no way to imagine him without it. He was the type of man who grew a moustache and never lived without it thereafter. He received me genially and amiably, although his bulk gave out menace. We sat opposite each other; he was behind his desk. He flipped through a file in front of him, then finally said, “How’s your day so far?”

“I saw a man hanging from a building not far from here.” I don’t know why I relayed this incident to him.

“What do you mean hanging?”

“He was dead, hanging from his balcony’s railings. A group of people gathered there watching him and I joined them for a brief moment.”

“Weren’t the police there or anyone to take him down?”

“No. I asked someone if they called anyone but it seems that no one did anything yet.”

“And you? Did you do something?”

“I thought I should, but no I didn’t.”

“Maybe I should call the emergency.”

“Yes, Maybe.”

“Do you know the address if I call them now?”

“Yes. It’s just few blocks from here.”

“Yes, I should. But how did you feel about the situation?”

“I don’t know. I felt a bit sad. I guess it was sadness.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Maybe because of the music.”

“What music?”

“There were two men there playing some sad music. I think I know the music but still can’t remember its name. I know it, yet its name slips from my mind.”

“Did you recognise any kind of guilt in your sadness?”

“Guilt?”

He shook his head asserting.

“Why would I have guilt?”

“I don’t know… Seeing a dead man?”

“But I was just passing. I don’t know the dead.”

“I know. But usually we are filled with guilt every time we face death.”

“Well, no, I didn’t have any type of guilt. I just felt sad. It’s a normal feeling in the presence of death.”

“Indeed.” He nodded, although it was obvious that he wasn’t convinced, but more busy-minded. He checked the file in front of him and took a deep sigh, and then said, “I see here that you claimed on many occasions, three times at least, that you don’t have any kind of guilt or regret? Can you confirm this?”

“Confirm what? That I said it or that I believe it?”

He looked at me suspiciously, “let’s start with that you said it.”

“Well, I think I said this. I don’t remember the occasions. Or maybe I do, one or two of them, but in general I’m pretty sure that I said it.”

“Good. And you meant what you said? You don’t have any regrets or guilt or even shame?”

“No, I don’t. Why would I have such horrible stuff?”

“It’s in the human nature. It’s very normal.”

“I don’t believe in that. I’m just an ordinary individual. I didn’t do anything bad or at least large-scale bad. I have just few years in life. Like me like any fly. Why would I feel guilt or shame? I didn’t kill anyone. I didn’t cause misery. I’m barely efficient in the course of history. It’s funny to talk about guilt in my case.”

“You don’t need to be bad or terrible to feel regret or guilt. What you said doesn’t justify your behaviour? You are part of this civilization, like it or not. And this civilization is built on this principle, to feel the guilt which will hold you back from abusing your existence. We call it responsibility.”

“Not having those feelings doesn’t mean I’m not a responsible person. But again what does it matter? You don’t ask flies to hold the same principles?”

“Because they are flies. We are different and more superior and we have responsibilities. And if you don’t have these feelings, you will never be able to pay your dues to society, to this great civilisation. We do make mistakes, but we mustn’t. Perhaps people before were more lenient, but not anymore.” He banged his fist against the desk, “It’s unacceptable. And you are a woman; these feelings should be entrenched into your soul.”

I said nothing.

He managed to compose himself, “I see that any efforts to convince you today would be in vain. However, this was just an evaluation. I’ll submit my report and you may have to attend sessions to tackle this issue.”

I left the office and walked back. I found the same scene, maybe with different people gathered. I stopped too and watched the hanged man. It seemed that no-one called the police yet. I thought again that I should, but something was distracting me – the music. The two trumpeters were still there. I tried my best to remember what piece they were playing. Maybe I should approach them and ask about the music. Yes, I should.

I didn’t linger there for a long time. I started walking again, but this time the musicians followed me with their familiar sad piece of music. They were playing it over and over, the same piece. What was it? I should have asked them. I should have turned around and asked them. Were they playing the music for me?

The streets were stripped of people. I was walking alone, followed by two trumpeters in an empty city. Why was it empty? It was still morning. The whole situation was sad; the dead man, the music and the empty streets. I think this explained the urge I had to cry. I tried to compose myself but failed and finally I broke, first silently yet soon I sobbed louder and louder. I stopped walking and put my hand against a lamp post and gave myself to crying. Only then, the trumpeters quit playing and departed separately in different directions. So, I was left alone, crying alone in an empty and silent street.

About The Author

Hazem Shekho is a Syrian writer and translator. He’s written articles and short stories in Arabic, published in different platforms. He now lives in Germany.

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