How the Dead Come Back, by Joanna Catherine Scott

Joanna Catherine Scott

In the course of justice none of us should see salvation.
—Portia, The Merchant of Venice

The trick is you can execute them, but they do not die.
Will not. They refuse. Or cannot. Oh yes, they lie there
on the gurney, still as death, as stone men, still as flesh
that has not yet begun to rot, still as evil, still as sorrow
and resentment, still as innocence sometimes, stiller

than betrayal, which is all agitation and the counting out
of thirty silver coins. Stiller yet than justice, who has
done them in, or so assumes, which is all she can do
since she’s blind, or blinded, blinkered, and so cannot see,
or foresee, the consequences of her delicately balanced

golden scale, a balance, everyone allows, which can be tricky—
card up the sleeve, two-headed coin, a pair of weighted dice,
a plea that turns, by sleight of hand, into a devil’s bargain.
All are tricky. As is execution. Soft warm flesh
shot full of triple death, like the vengeance of a triple God,

the one who said, Thou shalt not kill, the one whose son
said, Love thy neighbor as thyself, the one who said
Mercy blesses him that gives and him that takes—No,
that wasn’t God, just an ordinary woman with an ordinary
woman’s view on how the world should be: twice blessed.

So then . . . the inmate launched with the grim ferryman,
now comes the unstrapping from the gurney, the hauling out
and incineration of the corpse, or, if the family can afford it,
the handing over for burial deep down, a place to mourn above,
his final resting place, although he’s had no rest for years—

those constant shrilling lights—and might appreciate the chance
to lie there quiet in the dark and Rest In Peace . . . But forget all that,
because he’s still back on Death Row, where he has been for all,
or almost all, his adult life, has grown accustomed to it,
learned how to survive it, even learned to think of it as home.

Which is why execution is so tricky, this shooting up with death
of men brimful with it, the poison overflowing, leaking out,
poisoning the executioner and lawyers, the warden, whose duty
is to come along and watch. (Does he love his duty? Does he
dream of it at night? Count the kills like a canned hunt

huntsman on a drive-by shoot of captive black buck antelope?)
Poisoning the witnesses, the doctor as he’s box-checking
Cause of Death as homicide. Poisoning the executee’s family,
who have been dying now for years, the victim’s too,
if after this long time they feel obliged, compelled, to come.

Poison leaking through the ventilation system to the air outside,
to fall like gentle rain from heaven upon protesters
on the hill above the prison, with their prayers and hymns
and tears and tender hearts and lighted candles
and their signs: No more lynching! Stop state killing now!

Poison dropping down onto supporters with their placards:
Murderers deserve to die! their T-shirts saying Die!
Poison spreading like a virus, a contagion,
out across the city, and the county, and the state,
the entire God-bless-us country, out into the world.

That awful gentle dropping, that terrible insinuation,
that corrosive rain, gentler than mercy but remorseless,
down on We the People, seeping into hearts,
turning them to stone. Gently dropping down, too,
on the brand new teenage mother walking her new baby boy

with halo of black curls, walking him into the prison
of his future, into hers. And the newly undead watching
from a Death Row window, he and those who came before him,
killers, with the innocent amongst them,
gazing in confoundment at this grand homicidal spree.

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