Skip to main content

Five Beheadings

ISSUE:  Fall 2004

After careful study and due deliberation it is my opinion the head remains conscious for one minute and a half after decapitation.
—Dr. Dassy d’Estaing, 1883

In a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per minute.
—Dr. Emily Reasoner,
A Sourcebook of Speech, 1975

1. The Lady of the Lake
enchantress, beheaded by Balin, the Knight of the Two Swords, circa 470

I swim in his beard diving deep my breath giving out quickly in spite of all I know to do, all that he has taught me, my Merlin, he has schooled me in the things of the pot—the dragon’s blood and the mistletoe and the black willow—he has yoked my dreams to my will, he has fed me four poisons—mandrake and henbane and nightshade and his blunt-headed sword, his manthing—he has fed me these till I was safe from each till my skin no longer crawled and my muscles no longer seized and my bones no longer quaked and instead I became strong and cunning and master of the elements and he has shown me how to bare my breasts and my loins and dance silently and I dance while he sleeps and I spin and cry out and he falls deeper into sleep and his staff rolls off his fingertips and I lift his cloak and he must be dreaming of me for his sword is raised and I put my hand to it and pluck it off—he will enter no other lady now he will live out his life with the memory of me—and it grows in my hand and hardens into steel and its torn root heals into hilt and pommel and I dive deep into my black water where I will wait his summons and I call his sword Excalibur

2. Walter Raleigh
courtier and explorer, beheaded by King James I, 1618

my queen my Elizabeth my old Bess her lips brittle her body smelling sharply beneath the clove and cinnamon from her pomander she lies next to me in the dark still besmocked though the night is warm and she has asked me here at last and I am masted for her and her bedchamber is black as pitch so she is but a shadow no torch she cried as I entered upon pain of death and now we are arranged thus my own nakedness perhaps too quick she says call your new-found land the place of the virgin, Virginia, to honor my lifelong state and I flinch but her smock does rise and I find the mouth of her Amazon her long fingers scrawling upon my back a history of the world oh sir oh sir you have found the city of gold at last she says, knowing me well this fills my sails the jungles of ancient lands are mine my Queen oh swisser swatter she cries and falls away and I lie beside her staring into the dark, and I am sated certainly, but the moment calls for some new thing, and I say wait, my queen and I am out her door to the nearest torch and I have already prepared the treasure from my new world, this sweet sotweed this tobacco, and I sail back and slip in beside her and we sit and we smoke

3. Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
scientist, guillotined by order of the French Revolutionary Tribunal, 1794

to breathe to burn I stand upon a shore in Brittany and the sun is falling into the sea before my eyes but I am full of thoughts, the ideas of things beyond my sight—the essence of fire is matter fusing with oxygen—a flame from a candle by my bed this vast orb of sun the torch lighting the way past iron doors my wrists shackled my time come my breath guttering like a flame, these are all one, the welter of the sun the welter in my chest, I have proved this also—to burn, to breathe are the same process—the oxygen of the air rushes inside the furnace of my lungs and it flares I give off heat I dress Monsieur Seguin in a suit of taffeta and elastic gum and I seal his mouth with putty and his breath comes and goes through my instruments through my mind he lives he burns we carry our own small sun inside us and not a particle of mass is lost nothing is lost we fuse we are carried off to another state my father-in-law moves ahead of me along the corridor and now he lays down his head on the instrument and the blade falls the head falls one fire goes out and another begins and nothing is lost on a shore in Brittany the sun vanishes but the seams of cloud flare up before me

4. Agnes Gwenlan
factory girl, decapitated by elevator, 1899

all day the thumping from the quarry the dishes rattle and Mama flinches each time with Papa out there breaking up the mountain and then he and my uncles are by the fire and they sing and I am huddling into sleep ar hyd y nos they sing all through the night and I am curled on a straw mattress stacked with a hundred others belowdecks the ocean out in the dark all around us and Mama lies above me I can hear her crying for my father crushed by falling slate, a quarryman’s death, Miss Liberty watches us sail by, her torch lifted in the twilight, and it suddenly flares into electric light and we gasp and cheer and we sit in the harbor, the city on one hand and Ellis Island on the other, a basket goes over the side and up comes a strange new thing bananas I would eat one skin and all but for a man with quarry hands bending near and peeling it for me and I eat and it is good and he is gone and we are in an open trolley, Mama and I, and we are carried up Broadway beneath buildings higher than mountains and harder than slate and the tenement is dark and surrounds us like the sea and he sings softly in my ear sleep my love and peace attend thee and I whisper all right Papa all right

5. Henri Landru
secondhand furniture dealer, also known as the “Bluebeard of Gambais,” guillotined for the murder of ten women, 1922

across the room a mirror shows me my own eyes and my beard is the color of a bruise I clap my hand over the bristled hair and turn to this woman but her deer’s eyes are blind to my beard, seeing only my sympathetic gaze, and her face is traced with age and her upper lip is furred and her husband is long dead and her hands are brittle from scrubbing and she is worse than dead as a widow, her money useless to her—the newspapers were right I am spinning from Mother Goose’s mouth the young wife choking back her disgust at my blue beard, which, however, I do not shave, and I go off giving her all the chateau’s keys and warning her on pain of death not to enter the cellar room, the room where I have secretly placed the disassembled bodies of seven wives, the room that yields only to this small key, which, however, I do not simply withhold from her—my hands quicken I kiss Madame’s furred lip and she cries out in pleasure and the deal is struck, a moment of passion she would never have had for the dead man’s settee and his four-poster bed and his commode and his wife’s head lying upon its pillow and this cleaver in my hand and I cut through and hold it up, her eyes still blinking, and I kiss her trembling lips


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading