The Right Noose
You have to find the right noose. That’s key.
Pete wished he’d put that on his sign. He’d made the sign thirty years ago, after Old Gregor entered the forest and Pete took over as caretaker. It was weathered now, but it still greeted visitors whenever the forest was open.
NEW ENGLAND SUICIDE FOREST
FOUNDED 1888 BY ALFRED ROCHESTER
PARKING FEE $25
NO OUTSIDE FOOD OR DRINK
SHIRTS AND SHOES MUST BE WORN
NO COMPLIANCE, NO SERVICE
Some visitors read it and turned their cars around. It made the enormity of their choice clear. Most proceeded to Pete’s booth. And just before they entered the forest, he’d tell them to look for the right noose.
The more curious customers were Pete’s favorites. He’d asked questions of Old Gregor too when he came to go into the forest. “Who’s Alfred Rochester?” he’d asked. And Pete told the visitors who asked him the story he’d heard from Old Gregor.
The suicide forest bordered on the Rochester State Forest, a bequest from Alfred Rochester. There were strings attached. A small part of the forest, already cut off by a good-sized stream, was to be set aside as a place for suicides to end their lives in peace by hanging.
Alfred Rochester had tried to hang himself four times. The first time, the maid interrupted him in his study, bringing in a new neighbor’s calling card. The second time, it was his wife, reminding him of dinner with the Stapletons that night. The third time, it was his children, chasing their new puppy. And the fourth time, Rochester was so on edge expecting to be interrupted that he tied a poor knot and crashed hard to the study floor, breaking his ankle.
“A man should have the peace in which to kill himself!” he thundered to his lawyer as the bequest was drawn up while he was still bedridden. He himself died ten years later of pneumonia.
“Why hanging?” a few went on to ask. “Can’t I just shoot myself?”
Pete would shrug and say that’s not what Alfred Rochester wanted.
No one had ever asked why the noose had to be right. Pete had an answer ready, though. He’d tell them about his experience.
That day, Pete had been late. The forest was closing. Old Gregor had said, “Come back tomorrow, son. You’ll have all day. You won’t be stumbling around in the dark.”
Pete insisted. “I got good night vision.”
In he went. It was a typical New England forest, impressing by its size and its age. It was April, and the detritus of autumn and winter lay underfoot, cushioning Pete’s steps and scenting the forest with decay.
Old Gregor had said there was only one empty noose left in the forest. Pete found it on an elm by the stream that divided the suicide forest from the state forest.
Most of the trees in the forest were oaks. Sturdy, domineering, reliable. There were birches, aspens, maples, but as far as Pete had seen, only this one elm. Pete used to live with his wife and a child that turned out not to be his on a street lined with elms. He’d watched them die from their disease.
Pete checked the elm’s leaves. No yellowing, no wilting, no disease. Not quite as tall as the oaks surrounding it, but among them his tree stood out, shaped like a fountain instead of a mushroom.
Quick and strong, he climbed up to the noose. It was the wrong noose. The rope was too long. His toes could just touch the ground and it supported him. He couldn’t pull himself back up.
He’d hung there for hours until teenagers trespassing to use the hanging bodies for target practice found him. Pete cried out when one of their bullets missed him and hit the elm instead.
They’d cut him down and dragged him to the doorstep of the keeper’s cabin, where Old Gregor found him the next morning, still trailing the noose. Pete’s noose hung now over the fireplace in the cabin. He’d fix it and use it again when someone younger replaced him. He’d use the same tree, and he never let another noose hang there.
The memory made Pete itch at his ligature scar. This day in late April was the first day of the year the suicide forest was open.
Winter wasn’t a good time to open the forest. Not only was it in New England and knee-deep in snow, but it wasn’t true most suicides happen in the winter at holiday time. Old Gregor had allowed holiday suicides by appointment, but Pete put a stop to that.
Business this first day of the season had been a record, six customers. Pete envied them. The forest’s call to return to his elm and try again was becoming more insistent as his rheumatism worsened.
It wasn’t like he could advertise for a successor, though. “Wanted: Gatekeeper for suicide forest. Must be self-motivated, dedicated, good administrator.” While Rochester’s bequest and recent assisted-suicide legislation kept the law away, plus the governor was his great-great-great grandson, the job paid only a small stipend plus the cabin. Winters off, but Pete had to spend most of them making the nooses for next year’s season. Three hundred to be on the safe side. Not an attractive job these days.
Old Gregor had nursed Pete back to health and taught him to make the nooses while he was still bedridden. Neither man spoke of Pete’s experience in the forest. Pete knew he’d go back in again when he could.
One morning Pete woke up feeling good at last. His neck hadn’t throbbed all night long. He’d slept.
Old Gregor wasn’t in the kitchen. He must be on his morning rounds in the forest. But usually he made breakfast first, and left a plate for Pete in the warming oven. No plate this morning.
Pete found Old Gregor later that day, hanging in an oak tree almost dead center in the forest. He’d made a good noose for himself, the proper length and weight.
Since one, no new visitors had come this first day of the season. It was four now and Pete had been sitting there like Livingston waiting for Stanley. He slouched back in his chair and read his Louis L’Amour paperback. Old Gregor had owned them all. At five Pete would pack it in. In the summer the forest stayed open later to catch the after-work crowd.
A car engine in terrible need of a muffler became audible. A very old black BMW had rounded the curve from the rest of the forest and stopped at Pete’s sign. After a moment, it eased on to the booth.
Pete leaned out. The man driving the car had dark hair and a twin set of dusky shadows beneath his eyes. He wore a three-piece suit but no tie.
“Hi.” His voice creaked. “I’m John. I’m here for the…” He jerked his head back towards the sign.
“Have any trouble finding the place?” Pete started ringing up the parking fee.
“I just followed the signs to the business lot like everyone says to do.” Pete relied on word of mouth for business. The one time he’d had a brochure printed up to try to build business, the Rochester Foundation told him firmly that was not permitted in the founder’s will.
“That’ll be $25.”
“Yeah, about that…why do I need to pay a parking fee? It’s not like I’m coming back.”
“It’s for the car, not you. Towing and storage fees.”
“The car?” John’s eyes scanned the parking lot behind Pete. The six so far from that day were there. Customers didn’t usually carpool.
There was another car with two flats, Pete’s. Later, he’d change the tires with a couple of those on today’s cars. The last car rested on cement blocks. That had been Old Gregor’s. Pete had just never had it towed to salvage, and mice lived in it now.
“Yeah. Sometimes the families don’t come get the car after and we get stuck with it.”
“I don’t think it’ll be a problem with my family,” John said.
Pete didn’t respond. Guys would try to tell him why they were there. They wanted validation for being here and for what had brought them here. As far as Pete was concerned, they could turn their car around and find a therapist for that.
In the silence John offered Pete a credit card.
“If you want it to be a while before anyone finds you, you might want to pay cash.”
John stared at him, then withdrew the credit card. “Smart. You’ve been doing this a while.”
Pete counted the cash. John asked about Alfred Rochester, and why hanging.
Pete gave him his receipt as he finished talking. “Put that on your dashboard. You can park in spot 14. I’ll meet you over there.”
When he got to the car, John had the trunk open and was removing a backpack. “Where’s the trail?”
“Hang on.” Pete held out his hand for the pack. “You can’t take anything into the forest.”
“It’s on the sign.” Pete replaced the backpack in the trunk.
“What about my noose? I made my own.”
“Let me see it. It has to be approved.” Pete never actually approved them. The one exception over the decades had been an old Navy admiral who had taken the time before going into the forest to teach Pete the knots he had used.
Pete didn’t want anyone coming out of the forest to complain.
He took a few extra minutes to look the noose over, moving around as though to find better light and turning it in his hands over and over.
It was a good noose, a textbook noose, a noose just like the ones Pete made during the winter, but it was not the right noose.
Pete handed it back. “Sorry. You’ll have to use one of ours. They’re already set up in the forest.”
“You mean I have to use a predesignated tree?”
“Safety regulations. And make sure you find a noose that’s right for you.”
“Why—? Oh, never mind. This show needs to hit the road.”
“You’d better get going before it gets too dark, then. Sure you want to do this now?”
“Yeah. It’s high time.” John turned and headed for the trail.
Pete slept in the next morning. The forest wasn’t open today, which meant he had to do the body count from yesterday and make a record of the dead. It wasn’t a task he enjoyed. It required traipsing through a hundred acres of wood on arthritic knees. He’d have to drain the gas from the cars in the lot later to power up his golf cart.
Pete liked the forest. It went on and on, like pain itself. The men who’d died there had left their suffering for the forest to hold. Pete tracked the trees where they died, and never put a new noose on a used tree. In over thirty years he hadn’t yet had to repeat a tree. He saved his own tree for the day when he could enter the forest again.
Most of the men went in as short a distance as possible. Once they were there, they purged all the hesitation and indecisiveness that they had lived with for so long, and they got on with it. He’d find the first customers of yesterday at the nooses nearest the entrance. He spread them evenly through the forest. The customers had to find their own. They wanted to die? Death was a quest.
Pete always made his body count counterclockwise. That way he could stop by the forest graveyard first and pay his respects. Most of the bodies were claimed by kin, but those that weren’t were buried there. Pete had started that practice. The forest keepers were also buried there, and Pete always gave Old Gregor’s stone a friendly pat as he went by. The space next to him was reserved for Pete.
The first noose was a short ways past the graveyard and was occupied by a local city councilman caught embezzling. Pete had seen it on the local news, so when the man appeared yesterday Pete had counted his cash payment twice, just to be sure. He’d worried the man was too heavy for any of his nooses, or would have trouble climbing the tree, but the guy had found a way. On one side of the trunk the bark had been clawed at and peeled away.
Pete reached up with his stick and closed the man’s eyes, murmuring requiescat in pace, et dominus peccata sua dimittat. May he rest in peace, and may the Lord forgive his sins. Old Gregor had never prayed over the customers, but Pete did not think there was any harm in it.
Pete took a delicate step around the mess the councilman had left on the ground beneath his corpse and moved on. Two…three…the day wore on. Six.
John had been the seventh customer. Pete made the rounds of the other trees, pleased at the thought of an early night. He passed ten trees with nooses in them. John must have really taken to heart the command to find the right noose. But he’d only put up sixteen nooses for the forest yesterday, so there was only one place John could be.
Pete stopped at the eleventh tree, a nice old holm oak within earshot of the stream that bounded the forest. No John. No noose.
Pete swore. Either he hadn’t recorded the last tree with a noose right for the first time ever, or John had left the forest after it closed. Pete couldn’t remember if John’s car had still been in the lot that morning.
He sighed. He wanted home, dinner, a hot bath, TV. But he had to find John for his records. It was the job.
He left the trail for the stream. It would be most efficient to hug it on the first circuit and then make increasingly narrow circles inward. Then he’d check the parking lot. There was still light, maybe an hour. He didn’t want to come out again tomorrow. He’d have to find John in the gloaming.
Pete stumbled along the banks of the stream. No trail meant uneven ground and he couldn’t always see well enough in the dimness to plant his hiking stick securely.
His tree was nearby. Any time he had occasion to pass it, he stopped to greet it. He’d place his hand on its trunk and promise it he’d be back when it was time for him to enter the forest again. Pete turned a bend in the stream and saw his tree. The elm’s gray branches reached up to the white birches that flanked it and bent over it as though to protect it.
John hung in the elm. It was used.
Pete forgot the uneven ground and stalked to the tree, delivering a swing worthy of Ted Williams to John’s midriff. Bastard. Taking a noose already set up and using Pete’s tree.
The corpse flinched and Pete checked the ground. No mess. John’s toes dragged on the ground. He’d used the wrong tree and the noose had betrayed him.
He couldn’t hang in Pete’s tree like that. If he died from the noose Pete couldn’t use the tree. He had to save John.
Pete slipped his stick through the loop in his pack, and set his foot on a knob on the elm’s trunk. He’d used the same knob thirty years ago. It still held his weight. The next knob should be…Pete flailed with his left foot. There.
Another knob. Then he’d have to plant his foot on the bark and not slip. He pulled himself up onto the branch from which the noose hung, his breathing shallow and fast. His hands wanted to reshape themselves into talons. His feet were numb.
He found his knife and sawed at John’s noose. The rope he used was good rope. The fibers separated slowly even with a sharp blade. His claw hands were clumsy and kept slipping.
The last few fibers couldn’t hold John’s weight and he went crashing down. Pete, surprised, overbalanced and fell along with John, landing on top of him. His hip barked. He could hear John’s breathing, shallow, irregular, slow.
Pete grabbed John by the belt and towed him to the stream, throwing water onto his face again and again. John couldn’t die like this. He couldn’t die from the noose. He’d used Pete’s tree. It would ruin the tree.
Pete slapped John. Back and forth his head went. He was still breathing, Pete was sure he was still breathing, he had to still be breathing for Pete to keep his tree.
But no response.
Pete yelled in John’s ear. He banged John’s head on the ground. “Wake up!” he screamed, heard only by the trees empty of all life but their hanged ghosts.
John, fussy and precise and curious, John who’d made his own noose, was nearly a hanged ghost too now, the ghost of Pete’s tree if Pete let him die like this.
Pete heaved John back to the stream, pushed his head under the water, and did not let it up.
© Sarah Bolmarcich
Sarah Bolmarcich was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After attending college in Massachusetts, graduate school in Virginia, teaching in Maryland, Michigan, Texas, and Minnesota, as well as living in Greece for a couple of years, she now lives near Phoenix, Arizona, and teaches Latin and ancient Greek at Arizona State University. She began seriously writing fiction in the summer of 2017.