Penalty of Stone
The line between justice and revenge is very thin.
This is not a new story. I have just updated it with the audio version & a reader question!
Reader Question: Have you ever had to go to court for something?
The First King laid the first stones. The First King buried hate with mercy. The First King built the law from nothing.
The camels grumble as we pull up the reigns. I don’t blame them. The sun is searing, the wind hot on my eyes like olives drying in the sun. The guide thumps down onto the cracked ground and takes in the desolation. He whistles like it’s his first time here. His endless cheer on our four-day journey has worn on me, and I have at least eight more days in his company.
White-hot salt flats go on forever. Whatever life that enjoyed this seabed has long been drained into the ground, like Golek the Eater lapped it up with his eternal, barbed tongue. Dotting the flat landscape are little huts as high as my knee, better known as coffins.
He whistles again. “Fine place to be with a woman like yourself. Shall I set out tea and cakes?”
I scoff, irritated, and slide off my camel. “Let’s unload. I want to be back before the solstice festival is over.”
“Ah, but this is not about speed. This is about justice, no? To enjoy the look in their eyes as you seal them away, brick by brick?” He speaks the last three words with deliberate slowness.
I glare at him. Always chatting. Always grinning. He’s the sole guide for the Penalty of Stone, and he’s far more cracked in the head than the judge let on. I heard he’d once been abandoned by the plaintiff, his camel stolen, and he walked all the way back across the flats. A feat of endurance. Or insanity. His smile is like the cracks in the ground, crooked and long. I am always watching my back, my knife in reach.
The First King buried hate with mercy. But the Penalty of Stone isn’t a mercy. I, the plaintiff, must fashion from earth and water an aboveground tomb in at least seven days’ time. This coffin must be built over the defendant by myself alone, and I can relinquish the sentence at any time. If I leave, the defendant goes free. I will not let that happen.
When the First King conquered the lands, from the western salt flats to the savannas, from the humid jungles to the temperate mountain hills, he did away with hangings and impalements. After a life of killing, he wanted it to end. Before his coronation, however, he made room for one more killing: his traitorous sister. He was the first to build one of the tombs. That way, after looking into her eyes for seven days, laying stone after stone, he would know if justice really meant that much to him. To take a life away and live with it. He finished in three days.
Unlike the King, I don’t have the funds to carry hundreds of pounds of stone across the Kahari Wastes, and so I must make my own. Water, straw, and soil are my materials, so technically I am making bricks. The result will be the same: a small tomb for the man who wronged me.
The driver shares his crooked smile with me again, with the camels, and with the sun. “I’ll feed the prisoner. You better get started.”
“What about the tents?”
“You set them up if you want. I don’t need shade anymore.”
My brows go up. It takes me a while to set up the low tents, and by then I’d removed my outer robes. I try not to imagine the driver’s eyes poring over me — no — I focus on my forthcoming justice, the bitter taste of it so close. I lick my lips and imagine the bricks going up around his body, watching him face the inimitability of his death. In a world where men get every chance at mercy, I would rob him of it.
When I announced my lawsuit, my clan denounced it as a lust of violence, as an outpouring of my well-known temper. The man hadn’t done anything worthy of the death penalty, they said. He did not commit murder or impregnate my sister and abandon her. He only left her with bruises and a tattered reputation. Apparently, those items do not merit punishment. Besides, she knowingly agreed to the nature of the relationship, an argument the defense used profusely. The day my sister came to me with dark circles on her skin, her left eye bloodshot from taking hits to the face, clothes torn from her chest so she had to walk through town in shame, I became possessed of the idea that this man would pay with his life.
My sister thought herself as good as dead. Everyone knew what happened and who did it, and blamed her for his sins. The worst the man would get was a shunning and at best a light beating. He could go to another province, start a new life, and resume his habits. But he didn’t move on. He stayed and found another woman to prey on, a friend of my sister’s. My lawsuit brought that woman and all the others before to prove this man deserved no mercy. I pursued justice for what he did to my sister and the many women he destroyed. Their testimonies swelled into a great wave that crashed against him. Now, I will bury him alive.
The guide asks, “I will make some food. You want some?”
“If you don’t need shade, do you need food?”
He wags a finger at my wisecrack and leaves me to my work. I wet the dirt, add some straw, then press the mixture into a mold and set it out in the sun. They require a full day of drying. At my pace, I will need two days of brick-making, and while they dry I will build the tomb. Filling the rest of the molds only takes until evening before the sun sets across the flats.
“You have made short work of those molds,” says the driver, “you might break the First King’s record.”
I splash some water on my hands to rinse them. They’re raw from the salt and rough soil. “I am driven to finish the job.”
He scratches his shaved head. “Five days is the next record. But that time, the prisoner was brought home.”
“Mercy. She was given mercy at the very end.”
“Do I look the type to give up?”
He grins. “Mercy finds its way into you out here. It’s the heat. It melts resolve like snow.”
“The heat will find that I am much more resilient than snow.”
“You are the first woman to deliver the Penalty of Stone.”
I hiss. “I think more women would deliver the Penalty if they could.”
“Women are not as cold-hearted as men. You will see.”
I sneer at him. He only smiles.
As night sets in, I am restless and sweating down to my under wraps. The most comfort I find is in digging away topsoil beneath the tent and lying there. The camels are under their own sun shade, their legs folded beneath them in repose. My prisoner lies beneath a blanket, near the camels. The driver wanders to the other brick tombs, peeking inside those with broken roofs. I am tempted to do the same, though not alongside him. I don’t trust him farther than the camel could throw him.
The moons are so bright out here, their light refracting off salt crystals and into my eyes. I toss and turn all night, dreaming that the buried dead crawl out of their stone boxes, and I cry out to Iris to save me. She does so in the form of the rising sun.
I begin construction. I lay the first bricks according to dimensions the law prescribes — four lengths by two. My perfect bricks will make for a precise and straight execution box, one that would endure the elements and bake my victim inside. My mood sours. Execution makes my justice sound ugly, sin-hearted, and there could not be sin in this, could there? I feel as though Golek’s spidery fingers intertwine with Iris’ roots in my heart; this execution is both my justice and my condemnation.
“Silence,” I tell my thoughts. The prisoner, lying in the foundation of his doom, flicks his eyes to mine. I put him there to double-check its proportions. He is bound tightly, his skin red and bruised from struggling. Always his eyes plead with me, implore me to release him. I do not explain my outburst, for he deserves no words out of my mouth. The driver saunters over, his gaze lingering. I do not consider myself a great beauty, but out here, alone, I would not put anything past him.
Another two hundred bricks dry, and I realize it will take another day. If only I had more molds to bring it all together. It seems hotter this day, too, as neither shade nor turned soil provide relief. I lay in a swirling daze, everything distorted by simmering heat. The water pouches prove too tempting. I drink and drink and drink, then pour some water over my head. When a light breeze trickles over me, I sigh like it’s the first breeze I’ve ever felt brush my skin. After drying off, the driver joins me under the shade, the stinking camels groaning beside us.
“It is hot.” He mops sweat off his black brow.
“Too hot. You should dowse your head in water as I have.”
“I will be fine. Men are resilient.”
My mouth twitches in irritation. Always men versus women in his addled mind. Always comparing. Always lusting. Why would he lust after something inferior, hm?
“Because it is how Iris the Lover and Golek the Eater made us.”
I had spoken my thought aloud. I watch him for a moment before letting my head fall back onto a water pouch, my wits frying like festival cake.
“You won’t even consider mercy?” the driver asks, jarring me from my daze. “You will have his life on your hands forever.”
“And if you don’t stop talking, your life will be on them too.” He looks like I told him the funniest joke. His laughter makes me want to put my knife to his skin to show how serious I am. To show him that I have not come this far just to have some sun-dried idiot make me feel small.
I lay another brick in place. The structure comes to my knees now, its roof stretching together.
“P — please. Mercy.” My prisoner has been completely silent the whole trip. And now, at the last hour, he chooses to beg. I cherish his weakness.
“I gave you water,” I say, as if that’s the same thing.
“If…if you let me go, I’ll never come back. You’ll never see me again.”
I spit on him and slot another brick in. The man has shade, but when I finish laying the bricks, he’ll be in an oven. He’ll cook like he’s in Golek’s stomach itself. He’ll simmer and slowly die, his heart pounding, sweat pouring off him till he’s nothing but a husk. The driver sways in the sun, standing nearby, then comes over and squats across from me.
The prisoner turns to look at the driver, pleading even to him. My heart catches in fear, wondering if the driver’s sense of male solidarity will pit him against me. I hesitate to slot the next brick in as I watch him. The driver notices.
“Thinking about mercy, are you?”
I curse him and rush to set the brick in place, but drop it. It misses and falls onto the prisoner’s knee. He screams. I remove it and find a bleeding gash. The driver chuckles, mumbles something about blood on my hands. I grit my teeth and set the brick down properly, then scrub my fingers in the camel’s bucket. Only thirty bricks left to go. All I have to do is ignore the groaning, the crying, the wailing. It gets worse and worse. I want to drop a brick on his head again.
“Why are you doing this?” The driver asks, pacing around me. I don’t answer, feeling no urge to explain myself. “Don’t you feel anything?”
I smile as the last brick waits for me. I grasp it with both hands, long and dark. They don’t tell you how heavy the bricks are, how big they need to be to make a coffin for a grown man. The grueling work adds to the madness of the sun, the madness of this execution. Ah, now I have peace with that definition.
I put the lip of this final brick on its sisters and pause. My prisoner stops groaning and frantically rolls to face me, mouth agape to beg or scream or both. A storm of emotions passes over him: pain, fear, fury, violence, and settles on regret. The small rectangle of light on his face highlights this storm.
I answer the driver’s question, “I feel like I have done what I am meant to do.”
“Take a man’s life?”
“No, to reveal that we don’t have to make room for another’s sin.”
“Forgiveness is a choice,” the driver says.
“It was his choice to abuse my sister. Then it was my choice to pay his sin back.”
“Do you see the true cost of the Penalty of Stone? You bury the one that wronged you, and you bury yourself.” He adds in a whisper, “Won’t his eyes follow you everywhere?”
“If I see those eyes, I will know they look out from Golek’s depths, that he is there forever dying.”
His smile disappears. “We will leave after sundown, when it is cooler. You will have time to change your mind.”
I laugh, then slide the brick home. It turns the light on the man’s face into a small square, then a sliver. He whimpers before the light disappears, and with a satisfying tap, the brick is secure. I leave my hands on the tomb and exhale, finding no great sense of relief or triumph. It’s just another moment in time.
The driver prepares the camels and no longer speaks, which is a greater relief than a cool river. Hours later, as the camels lumber to their toes, the prisoner screams for us to save him. That man will never share the world of the living again, and this world will never suffer him. That’s certainly a mercy.
It occurs to me that the Penalty of Stone does not refer to the bricks required to bury the accused. The stone is immaterial, the stone is my heart. I buried someone alive, took away the last of his light willingly for the sake of others. As our camels lope over the moon-swept salt flats, I see that man’s pupils, wide and flickering in the shadows. I grin back at them, stone heart unwavering.
Reader Question: Have you ever had to go to court for something?
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