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The Beheaded (or, A Sward for the Disembodied)

The French aristocrats persist in their delusions of grandeur, confirming they learned nothing from their cart rides to the guillotine. They revel in their precise necklines and pooh-pooh without decorum those like the Inca with ragged tears from a puma’s claw and the turbaned apostate with saw marks from a scimitar not properly sharpened. Some even grunt or humph on occasion as though still in touch with their upper-class gastronomic disorders. A few of the other heads may suffer now and then from phantom torso, but clearly these aristocrats are putting on airs of self-importance.


Roundabout a gross in all, these heads loiter in the grass like a gaggle of free-range bowling balls. The only criterion for membership is the complete separation of one’s neck from the body, intentional or no. The uneven ground ranges off in all directions into an unfathomable dark they have not the capacity to plumb. The grass itself is downy and kempt, not unpleasant to reside in, provided one is not vulnerable to oral, nasal, optical or aural intrusion. New arrivals drop from the murky haze that serves as sky and plop into available space. Thankfully, there is no pool-balling, but the way one lands is generally one’s position for the tenure of this after-existence. Thus, the fenstermaker, struck off during a freak installation accident, lies idly on his cheek, free to engage in idle conversation, while Nazi doctor Horst Fischer, facedown, can do little but mumble (to the relief of his adjacents). Rosalind Thorpe, the Co-Ed Butcher’s fifth victim, landed similarly but was industrious enough to tongue her way onto her ear. She beams with accomplishment when she hears the Nazi’s muttering, until memories of that which initiated her into this place sets her eyes quaking like jelly globs.


But before an arrival can have available space, a cranium needs to pop out of existence. They do so like bubbles, leaving behind neither trace nor debris. Neither arrivals nor departures go by any discernible logic. Jayne Mansfield arrived well after David Pearl, a seemingly beneficial swap at first, but her lack of bosom made Jayne quite the bore. She subsequently popped to make way for a Saudi extremist spouting pro-democratic slogans. Yet the ancient samurai remains, as well as the aforementioned Inca, who flares his septal bamboo when anyone makes eye contact for too long.


Their arrangement also seems indiscriminate. The aristocrats, for example, have but one trio in proximity, while the others reside singly among those they scoff. A cotton slave done in by overenthusiastic lynching glares at the aforementioned Herr Doktor. John the Baptist lies face-to-face with a Viking, the samurai alongside a poor kid who got truncated by the world’s tallest waterslide. Yet Medusa, her petrification skills as limp as her serpent tresses, is seemingly attended to by Henry VIII’s executed wives. The Greek is the only one who balances on the base of her neck, which in truth is the most level of them all, having been excised by deific steel, so she stands (metaphorically speaking) as though surveying the landscape, Anne B. and Catherine H. oriented well enough to watch over that which extends beyond their lady’s periphery. Some figure her snakes might not have been deceased when she first arrived and delivered her to her present position, but no one predates her arrival, so all hypotheses are the result of pure speculation.


The afterlife of decapitated heads is full of debate and skepticism. Belief is the number-one topic of conversation. What have they left but to question their surroundings?:


Who established this place? Does the choice of verb ‘establish’ load the question unfairly towards a God-based conclusion? The ordering of arrivals and departures, not following temporal logic, suggests some kind of selection is at play, but is that selection natural or super-thereof? Why doesn’t the grass grow, and why doesn’t it dry out since there’s never been a hint of rain or cloud ever from the caliginous expanse overhead? Could this place be the dream-invention of a single brain in the midst of its ninety seconds between separation and finality? Answers aren’t easy, even for those determined in their beliefs, pro- or anti-theist. If this were paradise, why subsist as heads alone? If punishment, what kind of Dantean contrapasso is at play? Discussions are curt and thankfully absent of palaver, for the wind of the bodiless is limited to their open-ended fragments of esophagus. Thus, they speak only in quick bursts, no more than two syllables at a time. A not atypical exchange:






“No doubt.”




“Just look.”


The only exercise the beheaded are capable of anymore is to vacillate between despair and relief—relief that their existences didn’t just cut to black, despair that their continuation still contains no definite answers, their brains still boggled at the nature of things.


Though their distribution will vary according to the whimsy of arrivals and departures, overall they remain a hodgepodge of creeds and philosophies, from the standard repertoire to paganism to Wotan to rigid irreverence. The Viking considers a hall of heads the height of honor, while John the Baptist cries, “Repent! Repent!” Even John’s adherents, however, consider him unremittingly goody-goody.


A philosopher caught up in the Khmer Rouge revolution wonders if their situation is case and point of brains in a Cartesian vat, though even that conclusion necessitates further speculation on the placement of the evil daemon (or genius, depending on your translation). Joseph Haydn insists this existence a gift to promote the ultimate life of the mind, though he is considered something of an infidel, his decapitation done postmortem for phrenological purposes. The aristocrats spit and curse the name of Robespierre, but in their own way, being short of saliva and limited of wind. They wish him in their midst, for justice’s sake.


In the pale haze of sky, an unphased moon glows with persistence, making these crania shine like irradiated shrapnel in their lawn, or deep-sea pufferfish, aglow and uffing their jaws for life-giving water. Medusa and the former Mrs. Henry VIIIs look on without comment.


Richard Weems

Richard Weems is the author of three short fiction collections: Anything He Wants (finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Prize), Stark Raving Blue, and From Now On, You're Back. Recent appearances include North American Review, 3Elements Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Ginosko Literary Journal. He lives and teaches in New Jersey.