The horizon slices away at the sun, which bleeds red streaks across the sky. Tomorrow, when the rosy dawn greets the sun’s rebirth, I will take a rope and hang Socrates.
But tonight, I will sit in his cell and wait with him.
I walk quickly as the evening chill descends. Thus it is in the dry regions of West Texas; the heat is replaced by cold. The distant mountains grow purple in the fading light and a strong wind blows down the street between the low buildings. I shiver.
A group of youths appears from an alley and blocks my way. There are six of them, all students of Socrates.
I put my hand on the .44 revolver on my hip. They know I will use it.
“Get out of my way,” I demand.
“Free Socrates!” one of them cries. The rest take it up as a chant.
I raise my hand and they become silent.
“Socrates was convicted by a jury of elders for corrupting the youth,” I say, and, pointing at them, add, “From the looks of you, it was a just decision.”
“Socrates could have proposed a sentence of 10 years exile,” I continue. “The jury would have accepted that. Instead, he proposed that we build him a school and give him a stipend. The prosecutor had no choice but to demand the death penalty. Now get out of my way before I arrest the lot of you.” I slowly draw the revolver from my holster. The unruly mob scatters. Socrates may say he taught them to think and question but he did not teach them courage.
Socrates’ arrest and trial may seem strange. But the Federal Government and its Courts are only a distant memory here in our isolated desert town. Even the state government does not interfere with us across the Pecos River. We are a hundred miles south of the interstate, but no sign marks the road or our town; we removed it long ago.
We are mostly self-sufficient. Wine and cattle are sold, bringing in money to buy what we need from the outside.
We are self-sufficient in spirit, too. Yes, some of our youth go away to college. Of these, a few are seduced by the ways of the outside world and never return. But most come back and settle down, sometimes bringing mates with them. They know what we have here is the closest thing to paradise in this vale of tears we call life.
Socrates is sitting calmly in his cell. He has a crown of curly hair on his head and a curly beard frames his face. Both are prematurely white. He has an impish grin and his eyes twinkle. He does not act like a man about to die.
“It didn’t have to be this way,” I say. “You could have recanted and shut up. You could have asked for exile.”
“Are my ideas so frightening?” he asks.
“We don’t want you corrupting our youth,” I reply. “We don’t want them disrupting our schools demanding changes inspired by your questions. We don’t want them staying home demanding their fathers support them while they attend your lectures and seek what you call the truth. And most of all, we don’t want them having sex without getting married, inspired by your lectures on free love.”
“And because you’re afraid of my ideas you need to kill me?”
“You don’t leave us any choice, Socrates. We don’t have a real jail here. We have no way to keep you. And we can’t send you to state prison for something that is not a crime under Texas law.”
“Why don’t you change your law?” Socrates asks.
“We like the way things are here just fine,” I answer. “We like the way we live our life.”
“Martha delivered a baby last spring,” I go on to say. “She was sixteen years old. That was the last straw for us, Socrates.”
“What is so terrible about a sixteen-year-old girl having a baby?” Socrates asks. “And if it is so terrible, why didn’t she have an abortion?”
“We don’t do that here, Socrates. Our unmarried girls don’t get pregnant. We don’t get abortions. Go to the outside world. Preach your ideas there. You’ll have many, many more students. Or are you afraid you won’t stand out among all the others who teach the same things, and you’ll wind up a nobody?”
For an instant the twinkle leaves Socrates’ eyes. Then he says solemnly, “Do you think killing me will kill my ideas? Isn’t it more likely that when my body hangs from that tree, those ideas will grow even stronger?”
“Your ideas won’t take root in this town,” I insist. “But no one here wants you to die. We just want you to go away.”
I unlock the door to his cell and swing it open.
“I have to take care of some business,” I say before stepping outside. “I’ll be back in two hours. Go to your students; they’ll lead you to safety.”
I walk around the town, imagining the shapes of its buildings in the dark. I try to think, but my thoughts remain a jumble. All I know is that I, we, do not want to kill Socrates. I pray he takes my offer and leaves.
Socrates greets me with his impish grin and twinkling eyes when I return. I enter his cell and sit down to wait for the dreaded morning.
The first light of day filters in through the jailhouse window. I get up and reluctantly take the hanging rope that sits coiled on a peg on the wall. I escort Socrates outside to the waiting elders and witnesses. He steps forward proudly, his head held high. He is looking forward to death, martyrdom, and triumph.
My head is bowed. I will forever be known as the man who executed Socrates.
Harry Steven Lazerus was born in Brooklyn in the last century. He has lived in New York, Israel, Texas, and a work cubicle in California. He currently works as a software engineer in the space program but has also taught physics and astronomy at CCNY and picked apples in Kibbutz Tsuba. His stories have appeared in AlienSkin Magazine and Anotherealm. Another story is scheduled to appear in The Mythic Circle in 2010.