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.


Empty Suitcases

Inside Oma’s farmhouse it was as if panicked thieves had found everyday objects instead of treasure: closets, cupboards, the antique sideboard emptied into piles and strewn across the floors. “Kinkerlitzchen just gets broken, or stolen to fill up suitcases,” my grandmother always said about knick-knacks. But when questioned about the suitcases, Oma had refused to elaborate. “Enkelin, be glad that we are here and together,” she’d say to me, using her native tongue for granddaughter.


“Oma, what’s going on?” I asked.


She shook her head and urged me to the attic ladder, which she had managed to pull down, probably by standing on the stepladder she had used to clear off the top pantry shelves.


“You will look for my mutter’s trunk?” Oma said.


I’d never been in Oma’s attic. The dark entrance conjured up images of spiders, bats, and rotten floorboards with rusty nails. “What do you need so badly? Did you ask my dad if he could get it?”


“Your father is a good boy, but tender. You are different, like me but much smarter. We can take in these things and they do not destroy us.”


“Destroy us?”


“Please, Mäuschen, Oma will not always be here, and it sits like a big stone on my chest.” She crossed her hands over her heart.


I took a deep breath, climbed the ladder, flipped the light switch. In the attic: boxes, insulation, cobwebs, and a black steamer trunk. A plank served as a bridge to the trunk. When I lifted a yellowed wedding dress out of the trunk, tiny moths erupted in a flutter. A tin box contained old photographs, letters, and documents, written in German. I recognized Oma’s face in the sepia photo of a curly-blonde girl with her parents and a small boy. Did Oma have a brother?


I carried the box to the entrance and yelled down to see if this was it. Oma was sitting on the stepladder, talking to herself. “Oma!”


“Christina! You frightened me!”


“I found the box. With photos and papers. I’m coming down.”


“No, not the box. I mean, you keep the box. What else?”


“An old wedding dress.”


“We must find it. Go look harder,” she said.


“It would help if you told me what to look for.”


“Ja. That’s right.” Oma scrunched her face in scorn, spit out the words. “A fancy porcelain mantel clock.”



Oma hustled the clock into the kitchen like she held a blanket infected with smallpox.


I washed off my face in the sink, while my grandmother stared at the clock. I picked it up, checked for a maker’s mark. “A Limoges. It’s exquisite.”


Oma started crying, her shoulders rolling like turbulent ocean waves. “You know how my parents, a simple tailor and his wife, came by this clock?”




“Sit, I will tell you.”


“The foolish Nazis thought things could be made right for the German people by compensating them for the losses they incurred during the war. One day, my papa and mutter went to an immense warehouse filled with furniture, dishes, candlesticks, rugs, Kinkerlitzchen. Papa wanted nothing— it would not bring little Frederick back—but Mutter wanted compensation. They’d lost everything—reduced to rubble. Why should they not take what the Jews left behind, Mutter said. The soldiers glared at Papa. He said, ‘Go then, Hedy, take what will make this better for you.’ The clock appeared on our mantel, without discussion, as if by elves. But, your Oma knew it was tainted. When my mutter passed, I packed it away.” Oma placed her hands upon mine. “The Jews did not willingly leave those things behind, Christina.”


“I know.” Oma had always claimed that her family left Germany before the war. Now I was afraid to hear that we were Nazis. Something else troubled me. “Did you go to the warehouse?”


She shook her head without conviction and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.


“But if your parents never talked about it, how do you know all those details?”


“Is this an interrogation?” Oma abruptly rose. “What is it you want from me?”


She rushed to the sink then slammed dirty dishes around, muttering in German. Finally, she inhaled, and her shoulders fell.


“You were there,” I said.


She nodded but stared out the window. “Mutter stayed in bed, always crying. We could not refuse them.”


“The Nazis?”


“The soldiers were laughing, carrying on, undressing me with their eyes. Papa stood there, useless. He had slinked through the war while our neighbors disappeared. ‘Go on,’ he said to me. Past the bedroom sets, the pots and pans, the necklaces, the toys. I thought of little Frederick playing with his train and I became so … angry.” She faced me. “Then I saw it.”


“The clock?”


“Ja. So beautiful. Pink roses. Gold trim. A couple on a picnic, in love. I took a suitcase, from a pile that reached the ceiling, and put the clock inside.” Oma sighed. “I am a bad person.”


Yes. No, I thought. We weren’t who I’d thought we were.


She shuffled over, stroked my hair. “This is my big stone.”


It felt like my stone now, too. “We should sell it.”


“The clock does not belong to us.”


The clock was probably worth one year’s tuition.


Oma said, “We will return it to the family. This is your job, Mäuschen.”


The clock sat there, glinting in the warm light cast by the setting sun outside Oma’s kitchen window. Oma’s breaths were labored in a way I had not noticed before. A squirrel chattered upon the feeder my grandfather had built beneath an ancient maple tree. I wanted thunder and lightning to tear through the sky, a torrential rainfall to pound upon the steel roof, a tornado to whirl in the near-distance. Instead, a gentle wind simply rustled through the leaves of that tree as if the suitcases had never been emptied.