A Firing Squad

When I was a boy, my uncle used to stay with us sometimes over the holidays. He seemed to me at that age the most fascinating, wonderful person, and I was delighted that he took a particular interest in me over all his nieces and nephews. Save for his brief military service, he had worked his entire life in the courts of his home town, climbing his way up the ranks until he had made for himself a position of some regard. Now a pensioner, he was all too happy to sit me on his lap and tell me story after story of his decades in public service, and I delighted to learn, in incidental pieces, what the world was like before I was there to see it. Our country has been through many difficult times, he once told me, and he took it as a sacred duty to guide his people, as best he could, by Justice’s light. I spent many garrulous hours in my uncle’s lap and, truth be told, most of his stories I have long forgotten. There is one, however, which I can recall quite clearly.

After the war, there was a rash of robberies all across the countryside. People’s homes were broken into, their money and valuables stolen, and nobody had any idea who was behind it. The people were restless, desperate for justice and restitution, and my uncle—just an assistant to the deputy magistrate at the time—was tasked with overseeing the investigation and its proceedings. Through physical evidence and what little eyewitness accounts there were, he was able to determine eventually that all of these robberies were the work of a single perpetrator. In the dead of night, the thief would slide himself into an open window and then, utterly silent, meticulously and systematically pick over each room of the house as the owners slept. By the time the victims awoke to the bare horror of their dresser drawers, it was already too late; the thief was long gone, leaving behind only an open window and muddy boot-tracks on their floor.

My uncle was utterly clueless, having no leads at all, until one night, Herr Ungar—an old dairy and chicken farmer living close to the town square—spotted a man climbing over his fence and inching towards his home. So, Ungar and his six sons—all wiry, hard young men; hardened by their poverty—grabbed their rifles and ran out the door hollering and shooting, each running off in a different direction so that the thief had no hope of escape. Like wolves, they chased him into their henhouse and backed him against the wall, seven rifles focused square at his head. By this time, the calamity had aroused the interest of the neighbors, and so Herr Ungar turned back to shout, “I’ve caught him! I’ve caught him!”, when suddenly, in his excitement, his finger slipped and the rifle cracked and Herr Ungar shot the man dead, speckling the walls with his blood.

Well, this was no good—the people had a proper sense of justice, after all. By this time the whole town seemed to have gathered around Herr Ungar’s henhouse, and there was a clamor among the crowd as they debated over what might be done. After some argument, they resolved to let higher authority take its appointed reins and so dragged the criminal’s body into town and plopped it square on my uncle’s doorstep, just as the sun was beginning to rise. There, in spite of the new gaps in his appearance, they could identify the thief as Wim Polatschek, a beggar and ditch digger whose wife had died some years earlier under unknown circumstances. On his feet were a pair of ragged old cavalry boots, which my uncle recognized as being the exact same type as had tracked mud into the victims’ homes. There was no doubt now that Polatschek was the thief; now all that was left to attend to was the restitution of the townsfolk.

So, the congregation marched their way to Polatschek’s ramshackle house on the far edge of town—my Uncle, hoping to avoid more vultures on his doorstep, allowed the corpse to rest in his washbasin. It was clear that Polatschek did not fear being gone very long since he did not lock the door and, once inside, the townspeople very quickly found their belongings strewn about the parlor floor. A great deal was missing—the money, it seemed, had already been spent, and many of the valuables could not be accounted for—so the congregation took to dismantling the thief’s former residence in search of their pilfered treasures, all the while yelling and hollering and arguing as they tore into the house bit by bit. Try as he might, my uncle could not take control of this situation—as he would say, he had not yet learned to swing the weight of his authority—and so he could only watch as the swirling mob around him grew ever-louder and more desperate. He was sitting on the stairway, feigning supervision, when all of a sudden he noticed a few of the townsfolk—more and more of them in turn—staring in apparent shock at something just behind him on the steps.

A boy, no more than five years old, had been awoken by the commotion and descended the steps to watch the destruction of his home alongside my uncle. His fine blonde hair and greyish eyes shone brilliantly in the light of sunrise, and by the time he had reached the foot of the stair a stunned silence had overtaken the entire crowd. It was as if they saw a ghost. The boy did not say a word, he only stared down to look at all his worldly possessions—appropriated and otherwise—strewn about the floor. The people took what they could find of their belongings and shuffled out the broken door, leaving the child and my uncle alone in the empty house.

Needless to say, the fact that Polatschek even had a son came as an incredible shock to the whole town. It was surmised that Polatschek’s wife must have died in childbirth, and perhaps this is what ultimately sent the man down the path of iniquity. Still, the boy seemed perfectly healthy: he had been well-fed, bathed, and there were no signs that he had endured any harsh discipline at the hands of his father. My uncle, naturally, was made to tell the boy of his orphanage and further tasked with seeing to his care. He gave the child a small cot in the spare room of his family home, gathering all of the possessions he could find in Polatschek’s ruined house, and treated him just as if he were his own flesh and blood. Having accounted for all of the apparent loose ends, my uncle felt at this point that the case was over and done with.

The townspeople, however, were not so easily contented. For weeks, all my uncle could hear about was their restlessness and dissatisfaction with his judgment. Each day it was the same complaint: Herr Ungar got his justice, sure, but what of the rest of the thief’s victims? What satisfaction could they get from a man already dead when they found him? What reparations could they expect to garnish from the orphaned son of a widowed beggar? For weeks and weeks my uncle was hounded until his superiors demanded he do something to quell their unrest, lest their entire institution crumble under their tumult.

So, one night, my uncle called for a meeting in the courthouse and, having recently discovered democracy, decided to put to a vote what should be done to finally close the Polatschek case. Many ideas were put forward: Herr Bobek, the butcher, suggested that Polatschek’s property should be divided up equally between his victims, before shortly realizing that the town’s search of the property had destroyed whatever little value it had left. Herr Leppen, the brewer, put forward the idea that Polatschek’s corpse should be exhumed and made to undergo a second, more public execution, but many of the more delicate citizens found the thought of the manipulation of cadavers unsavory. All through the night the point was argued, everyone howling and screaming for justice, my uncle utterly helpless to intervene, until finally a suggestion was made and a consensus was reached which satisfied all parties involved.

They decided that, since the boy was just as much a product of Polatschek’s will as his crimes were, he should be made to stand trial in his father’s place. A court date was quickly arranged and, for the boy’s health, the decision was made to make the proceedings as humane and comfortable as possible. The prosecution allowed the child to take the stand is his pajamas and to play with his toys during questioning, and the meanwhile defense ensured that he would always be well-fed, rested, and given candy whenever he pleased. They asked if his father had ever knowingly stolen property, and he said yes. They asked if he had ever witnessed his father trespassing on the property of another, and—after some clarification—he said yes. They asked if his father had intended to continue stealing from the innocent and the pure, and he said yes. Sure enough, this was all the jury needed to hear. No sooner had the gavel struck, the boy was wrapped in his blankets and whisked away to his prison cell—in another act of goodwill, he was afforded the nicest, most comfortable cell; usually reserved for government officials—to await his sentence.

The next morning, before dawn, my uncle took seven rifles from the prison armory and gathered an equal regiment of soldiers from the barracks. The boy was woken, blindfolded, and led to the back wall of the prison yard, the same spot where the traitors and usurists had met their fate only a short time before. The rifles were loaded—as is customary, one was given a blank round so as to alleviate the weight on the executioner’s conscience—and my uncle lifted the boy onto an old apple crate to bring him level with the soldiers’ aim. Soon enough, everything was set, and the rifles rose to meet the boy’s body just as the morning sun had begun to peek over the horizon.

Just as my uncle was about to give the signal, he hesitated; he found himself unable to draw the strength needed to let his arm fall. He ran through the procedure a few more times in his head, certain that he could find vigor in its organization. Everything had been followed perfectly, except—in his haste, he realized, he had forgotten to record the condemned’s last words. And so, voice shaking, he asked:

“Is there anything you want to say?”

The boy did not tremble, nor falter in his words—he stood perfectly still with his arms behind him, as though awaiting some secret gift. He tilted his head back and forth, nose wrinkling from under his blindfold, until finally, after great deliberation, he asked:

“Are you sure it’s safe?”

My uncle buried the boy beside his father in an unmarked grave in the prison cemetery, not far from where, only a few years later, I was born.