Dead Man Talking
The old bell in the church’s belfry tolled the sixth hour into service. Day was just breaking in the quaint village of San Miguel, but of the coming sunrise there was no trace, not on this cold and dreary late November morning. The bell’s tolls were routine, a signal that a new day had dawned and it was time for the few remaining slumbering villagers to rise from their beds and begin their day. What was not routine was the terrifying scream that followed the sixth toll, the one uttered by the village’s oldest nun, Sr. Rosita.
The scream had come from the main square, where Sr. Rosita was known to collect any alms left during the night by the villagers under the oak tree every day at six in the morning. She did grow silent eventually, but not before a crowd of concerned villagers had gathered around her in the main square, wondering what had made the octogenarian scream so. They didn’t have to wonder for long; a few even joined in the screaming themselves and continued doing so long after the nun’s had come to a stop. What had made Sr. Rosita scream was this: she had knelt in prayer as usual before collecting the alms and came face-to-face with a hanged man when she rose back to her feet. The hanged man had not been there when Sr. Rosita had first taken to her knees. This she would have later sworn to, had she been of the disposition to swear to something.
The dead man was suspended by a noose-ended rope hanging from one of the oak tree’s thick branches, his neck broken and his eyes bulging, his skin rotten and his smell foul. Then, when all the villagers had gathered around the main square and the screams had come to a stop, the unthinkable happened: the dead man started talking.
“You may be wondering what I am doing here,” he began, his voice grating, “a dead man talking to the living. Hear me I say, and hear me well, for I have much to say and little time to say it in.
“Like you, I counted myself among the living once, nigh onto three-hundred years ago, a life I spent plundering and pillaging. I had but one goal in life: to live in the greatest of pleasures while amassing riches and piling glory.
“I remember how it felt to take from others; to bribe corrupt officials so I could enjoy my plunder and freedom; how I lived better than a king, with all his riches and none of his responsibilities. And I remember how it felt when I was finally introduced to the gallows; when the noose tightened around my neck and the stool was kicked from under my legs; when my neck broke and my breathing stopped.
“And I remember the regret I felt as life flowed out of me when I realized I had done nothing with the life I was gifted other than take, take, take. Never had I given anything to anyone other than pain and sorrow. That was when I understood I had thrown my life away for the pleasures of materiality. As the world darkened around me, it was not joy at the life I had lived that I felt, but sorrow at the life I had wasted.
“And when darkness finally took me, I welcomed death, thinking it would put an end to my misery.
“I was wrong.
“It is only when you die that you realize how temporary and insignificant life is. Death, on the other hand, is permanent. It stretches endlessly. Your soul’s time in the land of the living is limited, imprisoned as it is in flesh and bone, but at the moment of death your soul is released and you pass into the land of the dead.
“There are wonders and terrors in the land beyond, hope and despair. Most say heaven and hell are real places, others will tell you that they are not. But I tell you this: they are real, yes, but they are not places. They are an eternal state of being.
“Heaven is the tranquility you feel should you pass into the afterlife satisfied with the life you led. It is being at peace with yourself forever. But hell is the torment you feel should you, like me, die full of regret. So I say to you now, ask yourselves this: are you leading a life that truly fulfils you? I am not asking if you are leading a peaceful life, one that sees you sacrificing for others and loving your neighbor and living by the words of whatever gods you believe in. I am asking if you are satisfied with how you are living your life. If you are, then keep living the way you are, but if you are not, then stop being fools. The time to change is now, for you never know when the great terror will come to collect his harvest, and you do not want to be caught unaware like me, stuck forever in your eternal hell, regretting the life you lived.”
The villagers, silent and awe-stricken until then, gasped when the hanged man started fading away. Sr. Rosita crossed herself.
“The terror is coming! He has sown and he shall reap. There is no escaping him. He comes for all, and he shows no mercy, and his name is Time.”
He faded some more, so that the villagers could now see through him with greater clarity.
“Yes, Time is coming, counting his way down to every one of you. So I ask you again: are you living a life that truly fulfils you? And I tell you again: if you are not, now is the time to change. Because he is coming. He is ticking. He is tocking.”
The hanged man was but a shimmer now, his raspy voice barely above a whisper.
And of the dead man talking there remained no trace, save for the noose-ended rope hanging from the oak tree’s thick branch, swinging in the still November air like the pendulum of a clock.