It was once the case that hanging was among the worst fates a person could suffer; you murdered someone, or you raped someone, or maybe you stole someone’s chicken and happened to be very unlucky, and if you got caught they would hang you. The execution method of choice for some of the most heinous acts imaginable: “For your crime,” the judge would pronounce, “you are sentenced to be hanged by the neck until you are dead.” Even in many places where capital punishment is still practiced, hanging has been outlawed as excessively cruel and unusual.
Today, to be hanged by the neck until dead is what teenage boys do after school one day when they’re horny and bored.
Right now, Emma is also hanging. Not by her neck, and she will still be alive when they lower her again. It’s true that her feet aren’t touching the ground, but hers is as much a suspension of disbelief as anything else.
“You are absolutely free,” proclaims a tiny girl with an astonishing, authoritative voice. “You are responsible for nothing, beholden to no one,” she screams at Emma, who is the centre of attention on this particular night. The room is dark, stark, and crowded, sweaty, yet scrupulously sanitized. A single light bulb hangs from a chain in the middle of the ceiling, and closer to the wall hangs Emma, hovering like an angel, trying to scream and also not to scream. Trying to hold her blood in. “You are radically free, a free radical!” shouts the small girl with the big voice, the organizer, over the din of the crowd -- dozens of people have assembled this evening to witness tonight’s event. “You created yourself! You can do anything! So why shouldn’t you do everything?”
Inside Emma, something unconscious squirms.
It was once the case, before, let’s say, the middle of the Twentieth Century, that permanent body modifications were the exclusive country of outlaws. Who had tattoos in Western society? Ex-convicts and pirates, or occasionally those persons deemed unacceptable by the state for reasons these individuals could not control or change, even if they had wanted to.
Today: look around the room, examine Emma’s admirers and gawkers, that screaming, sweating mass, and try to find someone without a rose on their chest, barbed wire or flames around their arms, butterflies on their ankles, skulls on their shoulders and/or hieroglyphs at the base of their spine. Go ahead and try. Seriously. Take your time.
And while this is all taking place, remember, Emma still has no idea. How could she?
It was once the case that flagellation was the preferred form of punishment for those criminals whose crimes were not deemed sufficiently serious to merit the death penalty.
In ancient times the Jewish court would administer a maximum of thirty-nine lashes to a person found guilty of various offenses; a doctor would be present to supervise the punishment, and if the pain became too much for the person to bear, it would be ended early. In addition, if the person wet himself during his flagellation, the remainder of the lashes would be omitted, his humiliation deemed sufficient chastisement in itself. The ancient Romans, on the other hand, would often flagellate a prisoner with a metal-tipped whip before crucifying him, though someone afflicted thus sometimes bled to death before he could even be taken to the cross. In colonial Australia, British criminals were sometimes condemned to more than three-thousands lashes, though if the offender passed out from blood loss before all of his lashes were administered, the remainder of his punishment could be put off until he had sufficiently healed; sometimes this could stretch out over a period of months or even years.
Two of the primary tools for dispensing this penalty were the bullwhip (consisting of a wooden handle attached to a single thong made of leather) and the cat-o-nine-tails (similar, but with nine thongs made from braided rope, sometimes with metal balls or barbs attached to the tips of the thongs).
Today, both of these implements, along with many other varieties of torture device, are available at the sex shop around the corner.
What’s happening to Emma is technically called “Suicide Suspension,” though that’s kind of a misnomer; she’s not actually attempting to kill herself. It’s just that the position of her body under these conditions appears similar to someone hanging from a noose. She’s not doing it for herself, really. It’s actually for the spectators. This is recreation. Entertainment. Like watching a baseball game or a movie. She’s a performer. An artist.
Six stainless steel fish hooks are currently embedded in Emma’s skin -- one in each shoulder, one on each side of the back, and one in each hip -- attached with parachute line tied in figure-eight knots to the suspension frame that is holding her aloft. First she was punctured with regular piercing needles, and only then were the hooks inserted before she was hoisted up to bear her own weight before her captivated audience.
This isn’t the first time she’s done it. Usually, once she’s perforated, at first she’ll feel a strong tugging where the hooks dig into her skin, which dissolves into a feeling of surrender as her body leaves the ground. In time, she’ll have a sensation of euphoric floating, sometimes entering an almost trance-like state. There’s no noise, there’s no pain, she’s alone in the universe and completely at peace.
Not this time. This time, something seems to have gone kind of wrong, though she doesn’t want anyone else to know it. It’s not smart, she’s aware of that, but at the moment Emma is hoping that she’ll be able to recover and leave her audience satisfied. She doesn’t want to come down.
But it hurts. A metaphor would be superfluous here: there are razor-sharp metal hooks puncturing her skin, and she’s hanging from them. They’re not spinning her around, but they might as well be. The last time she felt this ill was when she had the chicken pox at age ten and her mother stuck her in an ice-cold bath to reduce her fever. If she were to vomit, it would be on herself, all over her trembling, naked body. She may lose consciousness. She’s just not sure.
Only later, when it’s already too late, will Emma find out. And the father, he will never know. She’ll never tell him.
Was this why it happened? Does it matter? Fortunately, tonight is all about a woman’s right never to have to choose.
It was once the case that a person convicted of treason in England would be subjected to a punishment called “drawing and quartering.” This usually followed extensive torture of other kinds, and consisted of being dragged on a hurdle to the execution site, hanged by a noose but taken down before death, then disemboweled, with the intestines and genitals set on fire in front of the victim while still alive, and finally beheaded and the corpse cut into four roughly equal pieces. Often the quartered body and the decapitated head would be displayed separately throughout the town to discourage other potential traitors.
Someday soon, you will be able to pay someone to do this to you. Just wait and see.
Emma is oblivious to everything but the pain, the pain making her forget, forget the whole world. The sphere of her sensation includes nothing but her own body. It hurts so much that she can’t remember that she has a soul at all. And, you know, maybe that’s even kind of the whole point.
Richard Rosenbaum is editor of the short story anthology Can'tLit: Fearless Fiction from Broken Pencil Magazine (ECW Press 2009); he's been Associate Fiction Editor & Online Fiction Editor for Broken Pencil Magazine since 2005, and runs the Indie Writers Deathmatch, BP's annual short story contest.