Sometimes a game, even a sacred game, can have far-reaching consequences. In bear country young Skye learns just how far she is willing to go to play the game properly in order carry on the traditions that came before her and will most likely continue long after she is gone.
This short story was acquired for Tor.com by consulting editor Ann VanderMeer.
There was a game we used to play when we were kids—the hanging game, we called it. I don’t know where it started, but I talked to a girl down in Lawford once, and she remembered playing it with jump ropes when she was about eleven, so I guess we weren’t the only ones. Maybe Travers learned it from Dad, and from father to father, forever on up. I don’t know. We couldn’t use jump ropes, though, not those of us whose fathers worked the logging camps, climbing hundred-foot cedar spars and hooking in with the highrigging rope just so to see that bright flash of urine as they pissed on the men below.
For us the hanging game was a sacred thing, the most sacred thing we knew save for one other, which I’ll have to tell you about too, and that was the bears.
What you need to know was that north of Lawford where we lived—Travers and I, Momma, Dad sometimes, when he wasn’t at the camps—that was a country of blue mountains and spruce and cedar so tall they seemed to hold up the sky, what the old men called Hangjaw’s country. They said the bears were his, and the hanging game was his. We all had to play, cheating death, cheating Hangjaw but paying him off at the same time in whatever way we could. Living that close to death made you kind of crazy. Take Dad, for instance. Dad’s kind of crazy was the bears.
I remember one summer he killed nine of them, which was still two short of old Sullivan, the skidder man, but enough of a show of guts, of tweaking Hangjaw’s beard, to keep him drinking through the winter following. He’d caught the first one the traditional way, see, but he didn’t clean it how he was supposed to. He just left it out on the hill and when the next one came he shot it clean through the eye with his Remington Model Seven. He took another seven throughout the week, just sitting there on the porch with a case of beer, just waiting for when the next one came sniffing along, then down it went until the whole place smelled thick with blood and bear piss, and Dad decided it was enough.
But we were kids and we couldn’t shoot bears, so for us it was the hanging game. That was the kind of crazy we got into. Bears and hanging.
The first time I played it I was just a skinny kid of twelve with her summer freckles coming in. I remember I was worried about having my first period. Momma had started dropping hints, started trying to lay out some of the biology of how it all worked, but the words were so mysterious I couldn’t tell what she was saying was going to happen to me. It scared the bejesus out of me, truth to tell.
That was when Travers took me to play the hanging game.
He was fifteen, copper headed like me, just getting his proper grown-up legs under him. He brought a spool of highrigging rope he’d scavenged from the shed, and we went down to the hollow, my hand in his, a stretch of rope with thirteen coils hanging like a live thing in his other hand. It had to be highrigging rope, he told me, not jump rope like I guess they used in Lawford. Highrigging rope for the logger kids for whom the strength of rope was the difference between life and death.
Travers stood me up on the three-legged stool that was kept for that very purpose. I remember the wind tugging around at the edges of my skirt, me worried he might see something I didn’t want him to see, so I kept my fist tight around the hemline, tugging it down. But Travers, he was my brother and he wasn’t looking. He tossed the end of the rope over the lowest hanging branch, easy, and then he fitted the cord around my neck.
“Close your eyes, Skye,” he said. “That’s a good girl.”
There were rules for the hanging game. This is what they were. It had to be highrigging rope, like I said, and you had to steal it. Also it had to be an ash tree. Also you had to do it willingly. No one could force you to play the hanging game. It couldn’t be a dare or a bluff or a tease, or else it wouldn’t work.
I remember the rope rubbing rough against my neck. It was a sort of chafing feeling, odd, like wearing a badly knit scarf, but it didn’t hurt, not at first. I let go of my dress, but by then the breeze had stilled anyway. My eyes were closed tight, because that was how you played the hanging game, we all knew that. We all knew the rules. No one had to teach them to us.
“Take my hand now, okay, Skye?”
Then Travers’s hand was in mine, and it was as rough and calloused as the rope was. It felt good to hold his hand, but different than on the way over. Then he had been my brother. Now he was Priest.
“I’ve got you, Skye, I’ve got you. Now you know what to do, right?”
I nodded, tried to, but the rope pulled taut against my throat. Suddenly I was frightened, I didn’t want to be there. I tried to speak, but the words got stuck. I remember trying to cough, not being able to, the desperation of trying to do something as basic as coughing and failing.
“Shh,” murmured Travers. “It’s okay, it’s okay. Don’t be afraid. You can’t be afraid now, understand? Be a brave girl with me, Skye, a brave girl.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. Calmed myself. Let a breath go whistling out through my lips.
“Good girl,” he said. “Now lean to me.”
This was the tricky part.
The stool tilted and moved under my feet. It was an old thing, and I could tell the joints were loose just by the feel of it. That movement was sickening to me, but I did like Travers said, I leaned toward him, his fingers warm against palms going cold with fear. I leaned until the rope was tight against my throat, drawing a straight line, no slack, to where it hung around the tree branch, my body taut at an angle, my toes pointed to the ground. The edge of the stool pressed into the soft space on my foot between the ball and the heel.
“Good girl,” Travers told me. “Good.”
God, it hurt. The rope cut into my throat, and I knew there would be bruises there tomorrow I’d have to cover up. But this was how we played.
I knew the words that were coming next but even so, they sounded like someone else was saying them, not Travers. “Skye Thornton,” he said, “I give you to Hangjaw, the Spearman, the Gallows’ Burden. I give you to the Father of Bears.” And he touched my left side with the hazelwand he had brought for that purpose. “Now tell me what you see.”
And so I did.
I don’t remember what I told Travers.
None of us ever knew what it was we saw, and no one was ever allowed to talk about it after the fact. Those were the rules. I remember some of the stories though.
When Signy played the hanging game she told us about how her husband in ten years’ time would die highclimbing a tall spruce spar while he was throwing the rope and getting the steel spurs in. Ninety feet from the earth it’d get hit by lightning, crazy, just like that, and he’d be fried, still strapped to the top of the thing. But the problem was she never said who that husband was gonna be, and so no one would ever go with her, no one ever took her out to the Lawford Drive-In Theatre where the rest of us went when the time came, in case she wound up pregnant by accident and the poor boy sonuva had to hitch himself to that bit of unluckiness.
That first time I wasn’t afraid so much of playing the hanging game, I was afraid of what I was going to see in Travers’s eyes after. I was afraid of what he might know about me that I didn’t know about myself.
When he took the noose off after and he had massaged the skin on my neck, made sure I was breathing right, I remember opening my eyes, thinking I was going to see it then. But Travers looked the same as ever, same Travers, same smile, same brother of mine. And I thought, well, I guess it’s not so bad, then, whatever piece of luck it is that’s coming my way.
It was stupid, of course, but we were all taken by surprise that day things went wrong. There were four of us who had gone to play the hanging game, Travers and me, Ingrid Sullivan, the daughter of the skidder man who had killed two more bears than Dad that summer, and Barth Gibbons. Ingrid was there for Travers. She’d told me so before we set out, a secret whispered behind a cupped hand when Travers was getting the rope from the shed. But it was Barth I was there for. Barth was a year or two older, a pretty impossible age gap at that time to cross, but that didn’t matter much to me. All I knew was Barth had the nicest straight-as-straw black hair I’d ever seen and wouldn’t it be a fine thing if he slipped that coil around his neck and whispered something about his future wife, some red-haired, slim-hipped woman, when I was the only red-haired girl north of Lawford. That’s what I remember thinking, anyway.
It was Travers who played Priest. Ingrid and I were there, really, just as Witnesses, because sometimes it was better if you had one or two along, just in case you were too busy handling the rope and you missed something. Old Hangjaw didn’t like that.
But as it was when Barth went up and played the hanging game he didn’t say anything about a red-haired, slim-hipped woman after all. He said something about a she-bear he was going to cut into one day at the start of a late spring, holed up asleep in one of those hollowed-out, rotten redwood trunks. And when he tried to open the wood up with a chainsaw, how the woodchips and blood were just going to come spewing forth, take him by surprise. There was kind of a sick sense of disappointment in me at that, but we marked down the blood price of the she-bear anyway so that we’d be sure to let Barth know how much it was and how he could pay it when the time came.
Then up went Ingrid, and Travers, who was still Priest, which was what Ingrid wanted, held out his hand for her. She giggled and took it. She didn’t seem the least bit afraid, her corn-yellow hair tied behind her, smiling at my brother, leaning toward him when he told her to.
Like I said, I don’t know why we had never thought of it. I mean, of course, I’d thought of it that first time I was up there, that the stool was a rickety old thing. I’d felt it moving beneath me but then that was how it was supposed to feel, I thought, that was part of it.
But then while Ingrid was leaning in, we heard this noise, all of us, this low growling noise so deep you could feel it in the pit of your stomach. Then there was the rank smell of bear piss, which is a smell we all knew, living out in bear country.
Ingrid screamed, although that was the stupidest thing to do, and she twisted on the stool. Snap. Just as quick as that it had rolled beneath her and her feet were free, tap-dancing in the air.
It was quick as all get out.
Barth had turned and was staring into the woods, looking for that damned mother of a she-bear we had all heard, and so he hadn’t seen Ingrid fall.
But I had.
She was choking bad, and her tongue had snuck out of her mouth like a thick, purple worm. Her eyes were screwed up into white gibbous moons, that yellow hair of hers twisting in the wind.
Travers had long arms even then, the biggest arms you’d ever seen, like a bear himself, and he tried to grab her, but Ingrid was still choking anyhow. I was scared of the bear, but I was more scared for Ingrid so I took the Sharpfinger knife that Travers kept on his belt for skinning, and I made to right the stool and cut her down.
Travers, I think, was shaking his head, but I couldn’t see him from behind Ingrid, whose limbs were now flailing, not like she was hanging, but like she was being electrocuted. It was Barth who stopped me. He was thinking clearer than I was.
“The wand,” he said, “do it first, Skye. You have to.”
And so I took the hazelwand, which Travers had dropped when he grabbed hold of Ingrid, and I smacked her in the side so hard that she almost swung out of Travers’ arms. I tried to remember what Travers had said for me, but all I could come up with was Hangjaw’s name. Then Travers had her good, and I was able to get on the stool and saw the blade through the highrigging rope just above the knot. She tumbled like a scarecrow and hit the ground badly, her and Travers going down together in a heap.
I looked over at Barth, absurdly still wanting him to see how good I’d been, to get her with the wand and then cut her down, but Barth, because he was still thinking of the she-bear, wasn’t paying a whit’s worth of attention to me.
So I looked at Ingrid instead. Her face kind of bright red with the eyes still rolled back into her skull, body shaking and dancing even though she was on the ground. Travers had gotten out from under her, and now he was putting his ear next to her. At first I thought he was trying to tell if she was still breathing, but of course, he wasn’t, he was listening. He was listening to make sure he caught every word she said.
It could have only been a few seconds, that whispery grating voice I couldn’t quite catch. But still it scared me even worse than seeing that stool run out underneath her feet, the sound of Ingrid’s truth saying. I don’t know what she said, but Travers’s face went white, and when she was done her body stopped its shakes.
“Travers,” I said. Even though I was scared, I wanted to be Witness still, it was my job, and so I wanted him to tell me. “Just whisper it,” I told him then. “Go on.”
“No use,” Travers answered, and I couldn’t tell quite what he was talking about but then it became clear to me. Travers let go of her head. I realized how he’d been holding it steady so he could hear, but then the neck lolled at a strange, unnatural angle, and I knew it had snapped like a wet branch during the fall.
“Old Hangjaw wanted her to pay her daddy’s blood price,” he said.
That frightened me something fierce. Not just that Ingrid had died, well, I’d seen death before, but the way I had seen her mouth moving even though her neck had been snapped clean through. We never played the hanging game after that. Some of the men from the camp brought down that ash tree and burned all the wood away from town where no one would breathe the smoke of it.
And so we all grew up. Those of us that could, that is.
A couple of years down the line Travers won a scholarship and followed it south past Lawford and out of bear country. I was lonely, but I never could blame him. Dad did, though, and they never spoke much after that. And me, well, I married Barth Gibbons, even though he never whispered about a red-haired, slim-hipped woman. I guess we can all make our own luck. That’s what I did that day when I was seventeen, and I went with Barth out to the Lawford Drive-In Theatre. I didn’t know at the time how easy it was for something to take root in you, but several months later after I’d been retching for a week, convinced I had a helluva stomach flu, Momma told me she reckoned I must be pregnant.
She was right, of course. Dad was pissed for a while but after Barth proposed and we got properly married then he was okay. The baby, though, didn’t come the way we expected it to. She came two months too early, in a slick of blood that sure as hell smelled to me like bear piss though no one else will say so. I lost the next one that way too, and the next, just so many until I wouldn’t let Barth touch me because I didn’t want to see all those tiny, broken bodies laid out in the blood pooling at my legs.
Then one day, after the spring Barth bit into that she-bear and I had to knock him in the side with the hazelwand until he bled just to keep old Hangjaw happy, Travers called me up. I’d just lost another, a little boy who I had already starting trying out names for even though the doctor told me that was a godawful bad idea to do so. And Travers said to me, “Okay, Skye, I know we can’t talk about it, I know we’re not supposed to, but I’m going to say anyway. You just keep going, okay, Skye? You’re almost paid up.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I couldn’t do it anymore, I’d seen all of the little bodies that I could and all I could smell was bear piss. But I loved Travers, I always had, and I remembered what it was like to hold his hand out there by the tree. I remembered the hanging game.
And so that night, though he was tired of it too and his eyes were bright and shiny and he said he couldn’t face another stillbirth either, still, I kissed Barth on the mouth. Nine months later out came little Astrid, as clean and sweet smelling as any a little baby was.
So now I’m cradling that body of hers close to mine, her little thatch of black hair fluffed up like a goose and the rest of her so tightly swaddled there’s nothing but a squalling face. I’m looking at her and I love this child of mine so much, more than I can rightly say. “Shh,” I’m saying to her. “It’s okay, it’s okay. Don’t be afraid now, girl.”
But I can’t stop thinking about that hill Dad left covered in bear bones that one summer way back when. Can’t stop thinking about the nine little bodies I had to bury in the dirt before this little child of mine came along. As I’m holding her in my arms, feeling the warmth of her tucked tight against me, that thing which feels like the best thing in the world, I’m also wondering if she’ll ever go out one fine afternoon to play the hanging game, and I’m wondering about the things our parents leave us, the good and the bad, and whether a thing is ever truly over.
“The Hanging Game” copyright© 2013 Helen Marshall
Art copyright © 2013 Chriz Buzelli