Hanged Man

by Pauline Holdstock

Pauline Holdstock is an internationally published novelist, short fiction writer, and essayist who has been shortlisted for a number of awards, among them the Best First Novel award, the Giller Prize, and the Commonwealth Prize. She has won the BC Book Prizes Ethel Wilson Award for fiction (for Beyond Measure), the Prairie Fire Award for Personal Journalism (“Ship of Fools”), and The Malahat Review Novella Contest (for The World of Light Where We Live).  Her most recent novel The Hunter and the Wild Girl appeared on both the CBC’s and the National Post’s Best Books of the year lists for 2015 and was shortlisted for the BC Book Prizes Ethel Wilson Award for Fiction.

It was in the trees up ahead. They saw it at the same time. Heavy and dark and making Tys think of that freaky song his Dad played. Only this fruit was far gone. There was a pile of stuff underneath it. He didn’t like to look.

Last thing you’d expect this crazy blue morning. Yellow leaves all wet. Him and Corey like a of couple fitness freaks in an ad for energy bars. Not like those Saturday nights, going up there to get wasted like they used to. Or the middle of the day, skipping classes to come up part way with the guys, smoke some weed, do some other stuff. Some of the girls too. Getting it on. Wonder anyone made it through school at all. Tys would never have believed he’d be coming up here just for the run, the climb. On a Sunday morning too.

It was still early and they’d already done the steep part after the fork in the trail. It was a ritual now. And not only for the fitness. It was the cool of it all. Starting early. Even in winter. Leaving the house while it was still dark, picking up Corey. The sky just getting light when they got out in the parking lot. Kind of palish. Air kind of cold but they knew they’d soon be sweating. Dark in the trees still but it didn’t matter. They knew the trail. The best thing, that start. Air coming into you like cold clear water. A few birds just starting up. More than once an owl floating away. They never talked. Would have ruined it totally. So. Getting lighter and lighter as they went up. Winter they’d hit the top in time to see the sun come up. Their hokey little town laid out all pink down there like something on a travel site. One morning the sky like a smoosh of babies’ blankets, pink, blue, pink, blue, pink, blue … an eagle pushing off from a treetop just below them. Sound of their breathing from the climb. Sound of its wings. Like towels flapping.

Kids come up here. Families. They don’t need to see that.

You could get to the top from the other side too if you wanted. Scramble up through the salal and the brambles. Underbrush so thick there you could swim on it, then bare rock where the cliff went up. It would be hard but you could do it. If you went up that side you wouldn’t know about the trail. That’s what bothered Tys most while he waited afterward. Why would you settle on a park trail for a thing like that? It was like needing to go someplace to be alone then choosing a shopping mall. It was like the poor dude needed to be found. Real bad. Like he cared what happened afterwards. Like it mattered.

Corey said Woah! when they saw it. He stopped dead and did that power back thing like he was in a movie, hands up for stop, eyes all wide. Tys couldn’t move at all. Felt like he’d been slammed in the chest.

You’d think: turn, get the hell out, tear all the way back down. But he was struck, frozen. Corey said Fuck and they looked at each other but kind of quick, like it hurt. And Tys felt all his blood pouring down inside him, out of his head, out of his chest, his guts, pouring down inside his legs so he was motionless there matching what they were looking at. Like here’s the dead version, here’s the live—but only just. Corey said Oh fuck. Man. Oh shit. And he put his fingers up in his hair like he was going to cover his eyes but he didn’t. Then he started rubbing the back of one hand across his mouth.

Tys said don’t bail on me, buddy. Come on. Got your phone?

Corey shook his head. You?

No.

Corey said Oh man.

Tys took a deep breath and it seemed like the first one he’d taken since they saw it.

Come on.

Don’t we have to cut him down?

They stared at each other.

They told each other they shouldn’t do it, the police would want to see. They both knew the real reason was the dark pile underneath.

Ok. Let’s go, then.

But Tys didn’t move. It wasn’t just that his legs were all shaky from the run. It wasn’t that.

He said one of them needed to stay. He said he’d do it. They couldn’t just leave the guy.

Corey said He’s not going anywhere in a hurry.

Tys shook his head.

Kids come up here. Families. They don’t need to see that.


He listened to Corey’s footsteps for a long time and then he sat down on a rock where he could warn people, whatever direction they came up from. He thought he could still hear Corey on the trail but it was hard to tell. His ears ached with listening.

After a while he knew he was alone. Sort of. His heart took a while to settle down. He’d never had that before. Like having a live animal in there behind the ribcage. Something with a mind of its own. He thought it would never stop. He wondered what the guy had felt when he climbed up there. What he’d heard. How he chose the tree. He must have planned it all just right. Measured the rope and everything. Known how long would be just exactly long enough. He must have climbed up with it all ready. Known which branch to tie it to. Crawled out along it. He must have known how far along would be far enough from the trunk. Because you wouldn’t be able to control your feet would you? The body doesn’t give up.

Tys told himself to think of something else. He wondered if Corey was down yet. He wondered if he’d come back up when he’d made the call. He kind of hoped he wouldn’t.

A bird struck up out of the brush behind him and Tys said Fuck on the outbreath. He listened to his heart again, said Shit and began a silent conversation with himself.

You’re the one wanted to stay.

It was the right thing.

Why?

You know why: you don’t leave someone all alone.

What does it matter if you’re dead?

Shut up. Shut the fuck up.

Corey? He surprised himself calling out Corey’s name like that when there was no one to hear. It was kind of embarrassing. Like being a wacko in the street. Maybe the guy was a wacko.

But then Tys saw him again, coiling the rope, tucking it under his coat maybe to walk out of his house, his shed, wherever he lived. When he lived. He wasn’t a wacko. Whacked out, maybe, but not a rando. The guy had intentions. The rope looked new. Not like something you’d find in your garage.

It made Tys uncomfortable all this thinking, all this prying. It was like talking about someone behind their back. The guy did what he had to do. You had to give him that. Maybe it was the best thing he could have done. Maybe he was going to hurt someone. Didn’t want to. Didn’t know how not to. How do you know what goes on in someone’s head? In someone’s heart? And this guy was careful to stay right away from everyone. It was the exact opposite of I LOVE YOU LAURA when he thought about it. Did that it make it more sad? He didn’t think so. He thought it somehow made it better. Made it nearly the same. Sort of caring a lot about someone. Everyone?

Tys was pretty sure the guy must have climbed up from the other side. Probably wasn’t from around here and thought he was in some kind of inaccessible place. Likely didn’t know about the road on this other side. He could have driven himself out here on the highway then taken the exit at Coulters, carried on up the old logging road. No Exit. Ha. Then he would have climbed up through the bush. He would have had to scale the cliff. Him and Corey used to climb. Tys knew the adrenaline rush, the breathing slow to calm it. And then that space you got into. Smooth, focused. No time. No worries, not even falling. When he came down from a climb that was exactly it. Coming down. Only it was a good thing. The whole ritual after with the group he went with. Unhooking all the clips. Cleaning, drying everything real good, coiling the ropes. Coiling the rope. No, stay with the climbing ropes, the soft sheen on them, the pattern of the red and blue chevrons lying against each other. No one really talked after. The space was that good. Then he’d told Laura about it and she started too. She was all over it once she’d got the hang. Ha. Bought her own stuff and everything. Couldn’t get enough once she’d started. Like sex, she said. Like leaving the world. Laura was right but explaining kind of spoiled it.

Was that what he wanted? Using his entire body his entire life for some terrible warning?

So how was the guy when he got here? What kind of a state was he in? Was he in that space? That climbing space? Or was he scrambling up in a panic? Like he was with Corey that time they skied down Black Diamond. He’d just stood at the top and thought Oh, fuck. And he’d screwed his eyes half closed and just pushed off, hard as he could. Getting it over with. Afraid of falling? Afraid of not falling?

Now he was doing it again. Prying. That wasn’t why he was staying with this guy. If they asked him when he went down why he stayed, he wouldn’t be able to say. It sounded dumb. To keep him company. For support. Such a fucking lonely thing to do. Made it worse that he was up high. Made it a hundred times worse that he could be seen when he thought he couldn’t. Hanging up there like a flag. Like an ad or something. Obscene. A thousand times worse that he likely didn’t know it. He couldn’t have noticed that the highway curved round on this side and there right on the bend …

Tys got up to check. He walked over to the edge of the cliff and looked down. Yeah. There it was. It curved round the bluff just before it turned and cut back on itself round the other side of Bear Hill to the north. It was right down below. Anyone driving by looking up … But the guy wouldn’t have seen it because of the overhang. He hoped. Because what if he saw the road just before the rope went taut? Poor bastard knowing he was going to hang out there when maybe what he wanted was just to be in the world a different way. Like experiencing the world after a climb. Just to be. With himself out of it. Maybe just to hang there until he was picked clean. Way of the native people who used to live here. End with white bones blue sky. Not hang there for all to see like a street corner prophet with billboard. Repent. Or was that what he wanted? Using his entire body his entire life for some terrible warning? Fucking apocalypse.

Tys noticed the wind now, just beginning to pick up. It was that kind of sudden whippy wind that had torn his banner off the overpass last week.

It had taken him long enough to make it. He’d bought a king size sheet at Value Village, found the blue paint in the garage. He ripped the sheet in half lengthwise, a good clean rip, and made holes in all the corners and some along what was going be the top and bottom when it was sideways. Then he cut enough bits of yellow nylon rope to go through each one. So everything was ready and he was on to the good part. He laid the sheet down on the concrete out back of the house when no one was home. It took some thinking out because, well—twelve letters, two sheets. So you had to do I LOVE Y on one sheet and OU LAURA on the other one and you better make it work in the middle or it would suck. He decided to start at Y and work backward on the first sheet. Big blue letters one metre high with a house painting brush. The second sheet went much faster, except, when he got to the end and looked back, he saw he’d left a trail of drips like a kind of raining rainbow over her name. But it got done and it got dry before anyone saw it.

Because what if? So maybe he’d watched too many bad movies. But, still. What if?

Then he had to phone Corey to come out at like two o’clock that night. Not too much of a challenge. Corey was always up for a mission. They parked the car a bit out of sight on Harwood and went up on the footbridge over the highway and did it real quick. Corey said, Fuck man, when he saw the message. You said it was a stunt. It is a stunt. I love you Laura? That’s not a stunt. That’s one hundred percent Kraft cheesy dinner. Someone sees me, I gotta leave town. It was up there for two days before the wind tore it off. Corey called him and said it had come apart in the middle and was kind of hanging down.

Laura wouldn’t answer her phone anymore. But she would, he knew she would in the end. She hadn’t gone away. At least he didn’t think she had. She would have told him.

He remembered being fifteen, staying with his cousins over in Richmond. They were walking along by the river. They’d gone out past the rail yard to drink some beers and then they’d smoked some and gone on past the empty warehouses with the rusted metal and the broken glass and the weeds half way up the walls. It was summer and it stayed light forever. They smoked some more and turned back. He’d felt more like lying down. His cousins were up ahead when he saw it on the other side of the river. This window high up on the wall of a big old grey building. Corrugated tin. This window all filthy, a big crack in it and a bit of glass missing in the corner. And someone had written in big letters in the dirt right across it: HELP Me. The letters weren’t on a straight line. They sort of trailed down at the end and whoever did it had run out of room because you could only just make out the “e.” And underneath, one word: PLEES. But here was the thing: the ‘P’ was back to front in both words. And he knew why. Because whoever was writing it was writing from the inside, that’s why. A message to the outside. Help me. Please. So what did he do? Fuck all, that’s what. It was like a message coming straight to him and he did fuck all. Didn’t tell anyone. Didn’t even tell his cousins. Didn’t yell, Wait up! Didn’t call, Hey! You seen this? He didn’t do fuck all.

They were two different things, the mad leap and the planned exit.

And then he’d felt like shit all night because he didn’t say anything. Because he was afraid of looking stupid. Because what if? So maybe he’d watched too many bad movies. But, still. What if? And maybe you only get one chance to unhang yourself. So you don’t go through your whole life feeling like a piece of shit.

But why couldn’t this be his chance now? Sitting here in the cold for this poor sucker. I’m here for you, buddy. Because what if you don’t go straight away? What if your spirit, your whatever, sort of hangs around. Seeing who’s noticed you’re even gone. What if it’s lonely? Afraid of what comes next? Maybe it was a good thing he was doing sitting right here. Maybe you do get more than one chance.

He wondered again if the guy was from here. Someone he could have seen in the 7–11. Or someone who’d come over on the ferry. They were close to the ferries. He could have come over on one just to jump. People were always jumping off the ferries. Same pull as bridges, or trains. Could have stood at the rail and looked down. Down and down. Then chickened out. Had to get off and go to the hardware store instead. No. That wasn’t it. They were two different things, the mad leap and the planned exit. This guy had it all planned. Kind of brave when you think about it. Plus he chose a good spot. Or thought he did. You had to give him that. You had to give him that he tried to spare people. He did it alone. And he didn’t ask for any help. That was something. Or was that just dumb? Isn’t there always someone? Even a stranger? He would have helped for sure. Of course he would, anyone would. Helped him not do it, that is. Jeezuss, where the fuck was Corey?

The wind was stronger now. Like someone pretending to moan. The trees were creaking. He tried not to think about buddy turning on the rope. He thought he should go and look. Bad idea. He stood up. He didn’t know what to do with his hands. Like when you stand up in a church but you don’t know what the hell’s going on. He rubbed his palms together, then he coughed. It was loud and sounded kind of stupid, as if he was faking it. As if he was going to make a speech.

 


Pauline Holdstock is an internationally published novelist, short fiction writer, and essayist who has been shortlisted for a number of awards, among them the Best First Novel award, the Giller Prize, and the Commonwealth Prize. She has won the BC Book Prizes Ethel Wilson Award for fiction (for Beyond Measure), the Prairie Fire Award for Personal Journalism (“Ship of Fools”), and The Malahat Review Novella Contest (for The World of Light Where We Live).  Her most recent novel The Hunter and the Wild Girl appeared on both the CBC’s and the National Post’s Best Books of the year lists for 2015 and was shortlisted for the BC Book Prizes Ethel Wilson Award for Fiction.

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