by A.A. Garrison

From Issue 14 (Oct 2011)

They left in the gray of morning, Penning and his only son, Willam. By carriage, the city was a half day’s journey. The treasons were at high noon.

The two mounted the carriage’s uncushioned bench and Penning started the horses, the chinked, tumbledown house drifting past. Willam followed it with his head, Henri on the porch and waving. Willam called out,  “Bye, Mama!” and waved back. The humble property was soon out of sight. It was Willam’s ninth birthday.

The rutted dirt road led them through hills and fields, the Pennings’ few neighbors suspending their toil to tip homemade hats. Penning returned their gestures without stopping. The few atrocious buildings they called a town were all but abandoned, the saloon and the store and the stables, dead windows reflecting the carriage and nothing more. The strip was empty but for two Laws, watching from their sentry hut, always. Penning tipped his boater to them, but different than he had to the others. The Laws did the same. Willam pretended not to see them.

An hour later, Penning and son were on the highroad.

Willam’s face lit up as the carriage hummed onto the macadam, his first time. He looked up to his huge father, questions in his eyes.

Penning peered from under his boater. “The highroad, son. It’ll take us there.”

“The rocks,” Willam said. “They’re flat, like.”

Penning agreed; the rocks were in fact flat.

“How?” Willam asked. “The rock, I mean. How’d they make it flat?”

Penning shook his head. “The old ways. Not of us. Not anymore.”

Willam stared at the curious surface as one would at the night sky. The horses clopped instead of thudded. The two rode on.

In time the road wasn’t so flat: bite-shaped sections gone to ground, tectonic collisions making bumps, calligraphies of cracks sprouting weeds. The sun appeared punctually, bringing with it the lonely tableland. The faintest of yellow lines jumped out then, bisecting the broken roadway, a mere rumor. The two encountered the first way-station at full light.

Willam answered this as he had the highroad, begging explanation. “What …?” he said, enrapt with the alien structure.

“A way-station,” Penning said, not looking from the road. “For fuel, supplies, they used to be.”

“Like the general?”

Penning said yes.

Closer, the station resolved into a foursquare disorder of block and metal, roofless and wind-torn, sitedon an island of the highroad’s same macadam. Four rusted boxes stood near the road, man-sized and upright, a little menhir. Ancient rubber tubes hung at crazy angles, cracked to a shredded consistency, some severed or missing.

Willam’s head turned by slow degrees, the station its fulcrum. “What’re those boxes there?” He pointed.

“For fuel,” Penning said. “They would dispense fuel.”

“Can we go dispense fuel?”

A fatherly chuckle. “I’m afraid not, son.”

Willam watched the station leave them as he had the house.

Mid-morning, the new day clear and summer-warm. There was another way-station, and more fantastic old architecture, some carriage-looking things that Father called “cars.” They met no one until the next town.

The highroad worsened, then gave out entirely, announcing civilization. More houses and fields, but from these no one waved. Willam pressed against his father.

The town proper was larger than that of their origin, but as unbeautiful. Men as strange and unfriendly as those on the outskirts bustled in ones and twos, wearing muslin and crude shoes, rope-belted trousers. Tired women stared from foggy windows, filthy children scrambling about. There were two sentry huts instead of one, Laws stationed in both. Penning’s carriage was the only.

He parked at a stable declaring the thoroughfare’s northeast corner, little more than some paddocks and troughs, a leaning shack. The shack produced a slovenly man who’d outgrown his tunic.

“Say hi,” the hostler said, and nodded warily. “Say hi.”

Penning repeated the greeting and stood down. For two pieces, he arranged water and feed. The hostler accepted the pay and made accommodations. The horses drank noisily.

Penning returned to the bench and watered himself from a demijohn. He offered it to Willam and the boy sipped, throat bobbing. “How far’s the city?” he asked after.

“We’re halfway,” Penning said. He doffed his boater and tunic, revealing a rabbit shirt of Henri’s handiwork. Farm-muscled arms, crisscrossed scars like everyone in this age. He reassumed his hat and clapped his son’s shoulder. “Not too long.”

“The city?” the hostler said, hugging a burlap sack brimming with oats. “The city, you say?”

“That’s right,” Penning said, from beneath his hat.

The hostler made a face like looking into the sun. “What business have you there?”

“We’re to see the treasons.”

The hostler became uglier. “The treasons, eh.” His eyes flickered to the youngling passenger. “You two both?”


The hostler’s eyes touched Willam, brows reaching – A tad young, isn’t he? “Very well,” was all he said. He shook the oats into a trough.

The horses ate and drank their fill, and Penning bridled them up. Willam was searching the town, looking every which way.

The hostler haunted his shack’s doorway, looking on. “I fancy the treasons myself,” he said to Penning. “Good to see those scum get what’s coming to them, I say. Could go every day.”

Penning didn’t look up. He said “I don’t fancy the treasons,” then climbed the bench and took the reins. Once they were moving, he added “Say thanks,” and tipped his boater.

The hostler didn’t answer, the face screwed up with askance. He watched until they disappeared down the packed dirt road.

They lunched on a sun-shot hill coiffed with timothy grass, from a scuttle packed by Henri. String-tied cloth packages: venison, goat’s cheese, hardtack, apples. The city’s skyline tined the horizon.

“Mama says the city’s bad,” Willam said. He chewed diligently. “Why’re we goin’ if it’s bad?”

Penning swallowed; dabbed his chin. “Because there’s something there you must see.”

“The treasons?”

“The treasons.”

Willam bit, chewed. “But Mama says that’s bad too.”

“Yes, it’s bad,” Penning said.

Willam studied him. “Why?”

Penning looked out over the world, his bronze skin absorbing the light. “It’s your ninth year, Willam. Your gramp took me to the treasons on my ninth, as did his father on his. It’s tradition. Do you know that word?”

A doubtful: “Yes.”

“It means it’s something you’ll do with your son, on his ninth birthday.”

Willam consulted his lap, processing this. “Okay. But why?” He did his best to look perplexed.

Penning crunched an apple. “Told you, son. Because there’s something you must see.”

Willam went back into his lap, then shook his head. “I don’t understand, Papa.”

That fatherly smile. “You will.”

The city was small, then less so, then large, until it was everything they saw. Scowling towers in tooth-like configurations, incomplete, like the preceding road. Vast, decaying mounds, “cars” and other antique refuse. Highroads weaving with highroads, over and under, their odd, flattened stone consuming the world. There were others on the roads now, single riders or pairs, some carriages like theirs. A minority nodded and offered greeting. Penning stopped at an outlying stable.

This hostler was even seedier than the last, the face lopsided with scars, a flock of roosters and naked children underfoot. He and Penning haggled a price, then the carriage was led to the strangest barn Willam had ever seen: not wood, but a reddish kind of stone, the blocks sandwiching thin strips of mortar. Willam had time to wonder just where the outfit would go, when the hostler opened a wall-sized panel dominating the barn’s left half, a thundering roar. White writing over the front: JACOB’S GARAGE FULL SERVICE DOMESTICS IMPORTS, faded to a just-there gray, like something seen through fog.

The hostler beckoned the carriage into the dark beyond, waving big. Willam said “Papa?” and Penning put a hand on his shoulder. It was cooler inside. The barn contained a continuum of bays harboring horses or mules. The carriage went to the right, beside another, and the hostler took the horses.

Penning dug under the bench and came up with his silver six-shot, tucking it in his waistband, half out, as if trying to make it seen. He put on his tunic though he wasn’t cold, and bade Willam to do the same. Aside from the demijohn and empty scuttle, the carriage was left empty. Penning told the hostler, “Say thanks,” and he and Willam went on foot.

When they were away, Willam asked, “Why’d we leave the carriage?”

“Because the city is no place for carriages,” Penning answered.

“How far do’ee have to walk?”

“Not far.”

Willam glanced the gleaming six-shot, but said nothing.

A mile, and the city thickened, rising up around them. Willam had never known a thing so great, nor imagined such.

Penning took the boy’s hand. “Keep hold, son,” he told him, not slowing. “Don’t let go for anything.”

Willam said he wouldn’t, and meant it.

More people now, many more, perhaps the world in congress. Willam smelled them before he saw them, felt them before he smelled them, sensed their danger before anything. The ruined buildings made valleys, all clogged with bodies, ageless rubble and twisted metal riptiding the flows. Gray-eyed men crowded doorways, several keeping mastiffs that growled, mystical conversation beneath shouts and commerce. Some women wore skirts like Mama; others wore little at all, these giving their eyes to anyone who passed. Vendors peddled vegetables and plucked chickens, used-looking tools, bizarre merchandise Willam had no name for. One sought Penning out, a dark man with untrustworthy eyes, keeping pace as he extended handfuls and quoted prices. Penning didn’t look. The man eventually went away.

Willam did not let go.

They walked down a hard, gray path like a little highroad, avoiding the people pushing by. A sentry hut dominated every other corner, four stony eyes in each. Laws walking free, too, more than Willam had ever seen or cared to, as if this was where they were bred. Mounted horses clopped down the obstacled road, the crowd zippering before them and healing back. Most men showed weapons like Penning, six-shots or blades or billies. Some of the many windows were open, to men or women or nothing. Not a smile to be found.

Penning steered them deep into this strange maze, seeming to know just where to go. They had turned yet another corner when a great commotion stirred from behind, forcing Willam around. He watched a carriage stroll down the way, driven by Laws, the crowd parting all the way to the walks. A quartet of horses drew the carriage, in caparisons the white of the Law, the cart caged and full of people. Those on the streets watched like Willam, except pointing and shouting: “Traitors!” “Dirty reds!” “Scoundrels!” Some laughed and threw things or kicked, eager salvos of spit. The prisoners made no response, indigently clothed or nude, the cheeks sharp with hunger. Their heads lolled with each bump.

Penning stopped, but not to look. He waited until the carriage had passed, and then said, “Come.”

Willam thought to ask who the men were, but the thought of them hurt his stomach. He followed Father instead, going the way the carriage had gone.

Father called it a “park”, like you do a carriage, but there were no carriages. Abruptly, the stoney city became green and dirt like home, and a plank stage erected at the center of a spotty field. People were everywhere, denser than even the mare’s-nest streets. Willam hid behind Penning’s right leg.

“Ale here!” a man was crying, trapped behind a filled barrow. “Ale! Peanuts! Kabobs! One piece!”

People were seating themselves on a trampled lawn, in a cone extending from the stage. Penning led Willam to the very rear, a thick buffer between them and the rest, just close enough to see the pillories on display. It was a while before Willam pointed and asked.

“You’ll see, son,” was all Penning said.

Willam didn’t look away, eyes beseeching.

Penning turned to him. “You’ll see.”

Willam said okay and focused on the crowd, staring at it as though it may strike. There were men and women, younger and older, but Willam appeared to be the only child. A few sported the weird dress seen in the city, but the majority wore the homespun rags of Father and the other farmers Willam knew. The women in attendance wore the sparse apparel of those on the corners, some less. The people were all inordinately red in the face, an amber glass for every nose. They walked funny, too, and were very loud, their words making spit. Sacks of shoddy-looking vegetables sat in reaching distance. Others had rocks, piled in kempt mounds.

Willam pointed out a particular couple at the crowd’s periphery, a woman in a man’s lap and bouncing about, hands grappling. “What’s wrong with them?” he asked Penning.

Penning told him to watch the stage.

They waited, the gap between them and the crowd shrinking then no more, conversations becoming drunker, the sun changing position. Then, at noontime, three men appeared from the park’s edge, biceps showing the distinctive white brassards of the Law. They fawned a six-long chain gang, the prisoners slight and hunched, terrorized faces betraying nothing. Willam couldn’t be sure, but he thought they were the same from earlier, on the cart. Another man trailed the group, this one large and in a black apron and matching hood, a massive axe slowing his pace.

A hush blew through the crowd, the bodies stilling with it, the silence perfect. The Laws’ boots stressed the stage-planks. As the entourage mounted the platform, one of the Laws departed to the stage’s edge, a rolled-up vellum in his waistband. With some ceremony, he broke the seal and held it between two hands.

“Ladies and gentleman,” he announced, in a bold oratory that carried to Penning and Willam, “we are gathered today to witness the treasons of those who would defect from the South Alliance, by order of The Commonwealth. All hail The Commonwealth. God save The Commonwealth. Are there any today in opposition to this just punishment?”

The Law looked perfunctorily from his document. There was no opposition.

“Then the treasons proceed,” the Law finished, and fell back to his compatriots.

Willam tugged Penning’s shirtsleeve. “What’s ‘defect’?”

Penning bent down and cupped Willam’s ear. “It means you want to be better than someone, but they won’t let you.”

Willam started to ask more, but his attention was directed to the stage, with everyone else’s. The three Laws unshackled as many inmates and secured them in the pillories, hands and feet reaching out. Wooden blocks were positioned under the extremities, keeping them straight; the wood looked furrowed, like chopping-blocks. One Law fed the people into position as another pointed a six-shot; the third placed a kind of metal tub before each pillory. Then it was quiet again, save for the inmates’ sobbing and gibbering. Once the pillories were loaded, the Laws withdrew to the stage’s rear, a weird backdrop. There were six total inmates, three left to watch with the crowd.

After a pause, the fourth, hooded man came forward, axe at his side. His eyes glimmered from the depths of the mask, like those in the sentry huts. He approached the rightmost pillory, and the man inside took to shivering, urine pooling out.

“Treason one!” cried one of the Laws, the same that had read the vellum. “Have you any last words?”

The man in the pillory seemed not to hear. His eyes stayed on the faceless figure at wing, disgraced more than afraid.

Five long seconds, then: “Proceed!”

The axe raised up and whistled down and then a hand gone, thudding into the tub. Blood sprayed then ran, also caught by the tub. The axe repeated this again and twice more, the treason amputated fourfold. His screams were second only to the cheers.

Penning had never looked from Willam. He waited until the boy was well shocked, then snapped a finger in his face. “Willam.”

The boy blinked, closed his mouth, and regarded his father, the eyes glassed. “Papa?” he said, lost in the din. “Papa?”

“Listen to me,” Penning said. “Are you listening?”

A dopey nod.

There was more clatter from the stage, another man screaming with the first, and the cheering refreshed. The Laws stood aside, avoiding the vegetables and rocks.

“See the crowd now, boy,” Penning said, pointing.

Willam saw the crowd. A number were standing, arms in a Y, jeering the bleeding men. “Say hi!” they called, or “Good riddance!” Others only laughed and danced and drank, pausing to fling projectiles. “Lend me a hand?” and the crowd guffawed. More couples were bouncing about one another, perhaps in combat.

“See them,” Penning poured into his son’s ear. “Do you like what you see, Willam?”

Willam shook his head, very slowly, as if scanning the horizon. “They like it, Papa. They like seeing the men hurt.”

“They do. And -” Penning paused as the third treason became lighter, now the victim of the crowd’s attention. This one, exceptionally thin, slipped from his restraints and went flipping about the stage, the crowd surprised into uproar.

When Penning could again be heard, he resumed: “They do like seeing the men hurt, Willam. Do you like seeing the men hurt?”

Willam’s face recorded offense. “Nuh-uh. No. Never.” Another headshake, faster.

Penning took his son’s head in his hands, gentle but firm. “See the people, Willam. They are with whom you will share this world. They are your neighbors and friends and family perhaps, the Laws who have authority over you. See them now. See them well.”

Penning let go and Willam saw the crowd, ignoring the carnival stage to the best of his ability.

The carriage crawled peacefully along the highroad, the horses amongst others, the sun lazing in the west. Riders passed from the right, grinning and red-faced, members of the crowd now disbanded. They slurred “Say hi,” and tipped hats, awash with the joy of inclusion. Willam couldn’t look.

“Willam,” Penning said. It was the first either had spoken since the treasons.

The boy startled as though from sleep, face ashen.

“Do you understand why you were brought here today?” Penning asked, keeping an eye for company.

Willam lowered his head. “I … I don’t know.” His hands dueled one another.

A chestnut stallion cantered up alongside, burdened with a hirsute man the size of a water closet. He and Penning acknowledged each other and tipped respective hats, and the man overtook them.

Once the man was gone, Penning indicated the scattered people. “You were shown the treasons so you would know who they are, and who you are.” Penning allowed a pause. “Now, do you understand?”

“I think so,” Willam said. His hands dropped. “It’s ’cause we aren’t like them, right?” Then, with a hopeful note: “We aren’t like them, are we, Papa?”

“That’s right, son.” Penning sent a hand to Willam’s shoulder, showing a rare and relieved grin. “We are not like them.”

They rode a ways, then Penning asked: “Willam, do you hate what you saw today? Those people in the crowd?”

The boy looked up, searching his father for a clue on how to answer. Finding none, his face opened and he said, “Yes, I think I do. A little.” It was how he would look as a man.

“Do not, Willam,” Penning said, gently firm, like his touch. “Do not hate them, nor fear them, nor give them what they want or deserve. Just know them and yourself, and remember. Remember what you’ve seen today, for there is no thing more important in the world.”

Willam made no reply, silent the rest of the way home. He did not forget.

Copyright © 2011 by A.A. Garrison

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A.A. Garrison

A. A. Garrison is a twenty-eight-year-old man living in the mountains of North Carolina, USA. His fiction has appeared in various magazines, anthologies, and web journals, most recently the anthologies Say Goodnight to the Bad Guy and Chivalry is Dead, and an inordinate number of Static Movement anthologies.

His website is

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