Eter­nal mo­ment ends in fear, dis­be­lief and vi­o­lent death

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES -

WHEN the clock in the Dutch Re­formed Church in front of Max­i­mum Se­cu­rity Prison be­gan to strike the hour of seven, the con­demned men were on their marks on the trap­doors, the ropes around their necks and their es­corts by their side.

For a sec­ond, time stood still. The mo­ment so long awaited had ar­rived. The pris­on­ers stood still on the trap­doors for that eter­nal mo­ment. They were about to pay the price for their greed, for their ra­pac­ity, for their cal­lous, mur­der­ous hearts, for the op­por­tu­ni­ties they had missed to do good things, for the op­por­tu­ni­ties they had de­nied their vic­tims, for the pain they had caused to so many oth­ers. Their hearts were beat­ing in their charges and took a step away from the rail. The hang­man looked back­wards and down over his right shoul­der as the metal cam- rod de­vice sup­port­ing the cross- sup­ports un­der the trap­doors slid for­ward and al­lowed grav­ity to take over. The of­fi­cials and standby warders on the far side of the room stiff­ened.

The trap­doors opened with a me­chan­i­cal thud. Kel­lunck! The pris­on­ers’ bare feet des­per­ately sought pur­chase on the re­ced­ing trap­doors and a rush of air es­caped up­wards be­tween the doors. Shooosh! The pris­on­ers fell straight into the dimly lit room be­low, some in

Their bod­ies con­tin­ued to fall for a short dis­tance, stretch­ing their necks to an ob­scene length

si­lence, some with a des­per­ate groan, one barely con­scious. They ex­pe­ri­enced the in­stant dread of all mam­mals: un­con­trolled free fall. Their bow­els and blad­ders voided com­pul­sively, the mus­cles con­trol­ling their in­ter­nal or­gans re­spond­ing to some pri­mor­dial com­mand to pre­pare for flight or bat­tle. Their ab­dom­i­nal mus­cles in­vol­un­tar­ily con­tracted and they gasped vainly for breath… A mo­ment later the trap­doors slammed against their stop­per bags with a dou­ble blow that re­ver­ber­ated through­out the build­ing and could be felt by ev­ery­one in it as a faint tremor. Whabam! The singing in all sec­tions of the prison be­low im­me­di­ately rose an oc­tave. Some­one’s dy­ing, Lord, kum­baya.

The ropes snapped tight as the pris­on­ers reached the end of their pre­scribed drops. The steel rings on the nooses smashed into the mus­cles and blood ves­sels on the left side of the pris­on­ers’ necks and slammed their heads over to the right. Their bod­ies con­tin­ued to fall for a short dis­tance, stretch­ing their necks to an ob­scene length, un­til the down­ward mo­men­tum was stopped by the neck mus­cles and ten­dons.

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously a round of loud cracks echoed in the gal­lows room up­stairs as the pris­on­ers’ spinal cords broke. The bruised flesh and the tor­tured neck mus­cles held the bod­ies up and pulled them back a short dis­tance. Sig­nals from the tor­mented brains took their usual route down the spinal col­umns, but found their path largely ter­mi­nated in torn nerve end­ings. The pris­on­ers’ tongues were squeezed up­wards and out of their gap­ing mouths. Their eyes gorged on the blood and tis­sue be­ing forced into their eye sock­ets by the con­stric­tive force of the ropes around their necks. Blood and mu­cus spurted into the white hoods, mainly from their mouths and noses. In two or three cases necks were torn open on the side of the steel ring on the noose. In an­other an ear was partly torn off.

The bell in the spire of the Dutch Re­formed Church still res­onated in the back­ground, slowly sound­ing to the fi­nal strike of the gong.

This ex­tract is from Shep­herds and Butch­ers, a novel about the ef­fects of the death sen­tence, by Chris Marnewick ( Umuzi). It was pub­lished in 2008.

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