The Witness
By: Semper Sansrespite

“I know very well that I shall not soon forget that banquet in which I participated without being a participant; but just the same I cannot now decide to release it without
having provided myself with a scrupulous written memoir
of what for me was actually worthy of memory.”
-William Afham

The Hall of Courts, a great wide cavernous gallery with giant pillars the size of sequoias and a thick glass ceiling, largely opaque with grime of centuries and overlaid with layers of ivy which gave light in blurry swaths weakened by smoke and dust on its way to the floor far below, sits in the center of the city square. From place to place in the gallery, in which no end can be seen from the inside, clusters of the street people and onlookers formed rough rectangles of dense crowds wherein a single magistrate paces around one criminal or another. Guards and attendants hunker or lean on their pikes at the inner edge of these courts whose only partition one from another was the coughing, jostling huddle, leering like dogs their eyes red with smoke and the tedium of endless witnesses.
There is always motion to the scene, the men with their box legged straggles, the prostitutes swishing and pushing their perfumed clouds around, and the furtive young boys skipping school chasing in circuits. There also was the traffic of onlookers from case to case, as one would lose their interest. Petty theft, incest, embezzlement, all the charges that may bring on into the Hall had been heard of, and had lost their power to hold attention without the creativity of the magistrate.
The invariably aged and rakish men in their scarlet robes had become long ago aware of the problem and had resolved it with ever-increasing showmanship to keep their huddled courts robust. Though their reputations were known and their celebrity in the city center secure, their names were never revealed. Citizens in the Hall only speak of magistrate “Murder Two Hundred” for the number of cases successfully wrought, or “Madam Sheik’s” for where they adjourned for recess.
One afternoon, as even larger crowds than usual were being driving in by an unforgiving rain, and the magistrates were announcing their third session cases, winding up in their bombast, I found myself at the front of a favorite magistrate of mine who had overseen many tens of cases I had witnessed. The case being announced as one of murder, the guards had pushed a sallow and emaciated urchin boy into the clearing and there followed the usual applause for the beginning. A man beside me was jarring with elbows and with impropriety came to be before me and at the edge. His hair, while smelling of rich pomade was now awry and wild. His jacket was missing and his tailored shirt untucked. His white neck showed veins.
The session underway, the sleeves of the magistrate were now flags with ivory wrists sometimes flying and the charges summarized. The boy in the dock looked over those gathered, with not hope in his eyes, but alarm. Waiting not for a rescue, but someone to rush from the assemblage with a knife or tearing hands, which was not unheard of, and of which I had seen times past. “Murder! Most grievous, and mean. The State, most blessed and assured, will have no mercy on this act. Murder is your charge young man, and if it stains you, it marks you for death!” The magistrate boomed, his trained voice reaching above the roar, his speech curling his r’s as a thespian. The boy’s head hung from his spine as an afterthought.
“Magistrate! I beg you hear me out!” The man before me stepped into the square. Small but effective movements from the guards poised them for instantaneous action should they infer it from the magistrate who like a magician, only flared his sleeves and held his arms out as for embrace. He saw dramatic appeal to this interruption and saw to play it. My heart raced.
“You may speak before the court. Please identify yourself, sir.”
“I am Dr. Saul, veterinarian, your honor.”
“Sir Doctor, The Court is open to you.”
The new man’s shoulders came up and his toes out, like a bird. His face came hard from the stares of those around him. My mouth went dry for embarrassment for him; his shoes brown with mud, his face showing pits under his eyes. I saw the faces around me rapt in his appearance also. They gazed with attention at a man who they felt at once ashamed for and thankful towards, for he represented a novelty to the dreary afternoon. My heart rode his, and stirred with his as the magistrate stood almost toes to toes with him.
“Your Honor, this boy is innocent.” His adam’s apple lurched. “I am the guilty. I murdered her. It is me! You have heard me.” He motioned to us, “You all have heard now. I am guilty.”
There was no stirring now, nor speaking for we had got our tasting. Now we wanted more and the magistrate glowed. He scanned us, and saw in the back, the men of the outer row quietly stopping those passing with but a look. He gave us a moment then,
“Give us your story, Sir Doctor.” He turned his back to him to face the boy. “The Court will hear you.”
“Where do I start? I killed her. Is more needed? I am Dr. Saul, my office is in the Red Brick End,” that is of the old quarter, “where I attend to carriage horses, cattle. Mostly hoof rot I see. I can mend bones, or treat worms. The fishermen come to me to sew up their hands. I am a doctor and man and animal differ little in medicine. I was returning to my shop the day before yesterday when I was stopped at my own gate. I guess I could begin there.”
“Make no delay in it then Doctor. You have the Court.”
So he began.
“He requested I make a house call, and come at once. I told him that was only getting back from one call and the hour was late, but I would join him as soon as able. He insisted that I come immediately and his carriage drew up to ensure his seriousness. I went. He had promised three times the normal rate for a house call. I went.” I looked to the boy to see if he bore any sign of familiarity with the Doctor or his testimony. He instead only looked on as we all did, confused and curious at the Doctor’s narration.
“The carriage had no windows and in near darkness I rode with the messenger. We turned numerous times and for a distance that felt it may have carried us near the city limits.” All skin turned cold at this. “When the door opened we were in a lamp lit drive of a huge estate. There was an open door of a carriage house. He led me in.”
The rain had not let up, and would not cease all that afternoon. That season I remember was one of remarkable changes, raising the water about the piers and giving masons much work bracing walls that had got rotten and cracked. But the rain from inside the Hall, under ivy and heavy brass torches, seemed a faint and remote thing not touching our world. We gathered were closer to the carriage house that the Doctor spoke of, could smell the hay.
“In the stall the messenger showed me a pregnant bay-horse. She was very full, and ready to birth. The man excused himself. That was that. She had a fever, and I culled more lamps from the garage to give me work light.” He faltered. “Your Honor, you wish me continue?” The magistrate bid him on. “She gave sign of infection or trouble and I feared a breach birth because of the way that her belly sat. I gave a first probe and saw the calf was coming. With assistance, the calf came right, and I quickly helped in its cleaning. There was quite an amount of accompanying fluid, darkish. I feared internal infection, or a cancer. I knew that it could be nothing more than the sign of a failed twin pregnancy. The afterbirth came forth, but with more of the same, and the bay was in discomfort to where she could not attend to her calf.
“I gave a search, Your Honor. I…and I pulled, by the ankle, an ankle no thinker than my finger” and he lifted his finger to show “a tiny human male. Three pounds, no more. It had been covered by a scab, and by pus to where its face was almost indiscernible.” The Doctor’s lips curled in spite of his formal air.
“God,” said a man to my right, and whistled. His breath, our breath all stunk in the crowd.[1] It carried cheap cigarette smoke, greasy drinks, and passed our grey, leaning teeth. In that moment though, our breaths hung and our mouths agape stopped. I felt cold despite the nearness of the crowd. A long audible exhale from the boy broke the trance.
“I called out.” The Doctor continued. “I held the boy in my hands and cried out. I cleaned the tiny infant off as well as I could but its caul was thick. I also came to see that the body, the flesh of the boy had been…It had been circumcised. Its umbilical cord had been crudely cropped and tied. The body fit in my cupped hands. It was dead, it fit in my hands.” He gave a pause as if to remember what, if anything had happened next. “The messenger boy from the carriage came and took the body; he said not a word to me. I swear Your Honor, I swear he was not surprised that it was but annoyed that it was dead. I followed him out to the yard, trying to get words, to ask him what this meant, to call on him curses, to ask him explain. He spoke with a man well dressed near the house briefly, handing over the body. He told me my payment was in the carriage and thanked me. He thanked me courteously.
“I found the payment in the carriage, but Your Honor, I could not touch it. I don’t know why. I also don’t know what brought me to slip out the door of the carriage as it exited the drive. I managed to slip out unseen by the driver, who was minding his two black haired mares with his crop and night had come in full. I came back up the drive. I came to the house. Your Honor, I entered the back door I had seen the two men enter. I cannot explain my actions. Forgive me, this was the first of crime. I chose to enter like a thief.
“I found I was in a kitchen greatly arrayed with dishes and platters ready for the serving and the sounds of entertainment came from all around; music, gaiety, and such. I cleaned myself quickly in the basin, as the kitchen was empty. I entered the hall to find a ball of beautiful women and finely dressed men. It was a ball. They were like the kind that you see in the Theatre District, finely dressed. I passed among them, unseen or unnoticed. I traveled room from room looking for either man I had seen before. Like an interloper, a trespasser in their home. I found the dapper man I had seen earlier. In a parlor. He stood with a woman in tow. It was her. In a dazzling green dress and smelling of rose hips. It was her. O! what have I done?”
He came to tears, but not to crying. They seemed to begrudge him, a Doctor, a man of stature and respect, and a man of our city he may not have been familiar with tears, and known the sounds that usually accompany them. They slowly inched down his tired face, individually at first then in a row. They followed his cheeks, coming near his mouth’s corners then hung on his jaw. His lips drew back and I could see the strength that it demanded him to refrain from howling, from losing himself in a fit.
“The woman in green[2]. She stood with him and they were in the center of the room with a large, blonde haired man seated in from of them. It was a game they played. They put a paper crown on him, and were singing “Fine A Man for Smiling”. A parlor game, apparently. The blonde haired man was sleeping. It was his face, the face of truly an innocent, that made me want to flee that place finally and forget the horror of the child in the stable. His face was untouched by evil or care, and all the while they sang again and again, ‘fancy you, crafty, wily, card up your sleeve…so fine a man for smiling!’
“I fled down a side hall and entered the dining hall, which I imagined was adjacent to the kitchen I had entered. As I made my exit, loud voices and accompanying sounds of an altercation from there stopped me cold in my tracks, and I at once, without thinking slipped my self under the long buffet table whose light white cover had concealed its glass top. Not a second after I came to rest under the table, a boisterous group came from the hall and the owners of the quarrelling voices also. I watched their feet from under the table, and could have reached out and touched them if I had dared. I then saw a pair of bare feet and legs, and soon a man was laid on the table. He was naked, Your Honor. I watched him from not but a foot underneath him, and with the lights now turned on, I could make out the faces of those who stood around the table, their faces white like ghouls through the tablecloth.
“They poured wine into his mouth and I assumed it was another game like the one I had witnessed earlier, when they held a rag over his face that as a veterinarian, a medical doctor, I knew was drenched in ether. From the smell, you see.”
“On and on it goes! Where it stops nobody knows!” cried an onlooker from the safety of the crowd around the convened court. The Magistrate had fire come to his eyes and he scanned the faces looking for a smirk, a sign of disrespect that he could lambaste.
“Silence in my court!”
Anonymous voices heckled back, and a passing vendor joined in the cacophony with a good natured and excusable call for his goods, “Dates, almonds!” He mewed. Faceless others from around me complained
“Have him get on with it!”
“What of the murder?”
“Tell us of your crime, sawbones!”
“Her heart, doctor, her heart[3], were they saved for your studies?”
The Magistrate at last managed to calm the noise from the tawny air.
“Doctor, can you expedite your testimony? Your confession?”
“Your Honor, members of the court: I ask your patience. From the moment I stepped foot into that carriage house that night to the very moment I stepped into your presence, every event is linked to the next, like the lines of a poem. Lose yourself in the middle, and you must start from the first line to regain memory. It is all one unit, you see. Patience! Please, your agreement upon my guilt rests on my testimony!”

“Don’t tell us Doctor, that like your poem, you will have to begin from your stories’ first lines?” Quipped the Magistrate to the chuckled response he desired.
“No sir. But please, let me finish uninterrupted.” Eyes bounced to the Magistrate to catch his reaction to such a pointed remark in his court, but mine swiveled to a motion I detected from my periphery and I caught sight of a man in the crowd employing the services of a Dirne-frau, a courtesan of the Great Hall.
The Magistrate must have given the witness allowance for his free speech, for he continued, “Once the ether had taken hold, the guests at the table would begin to lean forward and bite from his skin. They did so at his extremities first, then started at his trunk. It took great force to remove their morsels.” The witness stopped at that, perhaps amazed at his own choice of words. “They then rolled him over so that his face was nearly to mine own and with his drugged eyes meeting mine. I immediately feared that he would give alarm and I would be found, but whether by his stupor or the disadvantageous light he could see me not. More and more they came down on him and came away with bites from him. Blood began to gel over the glass, and soon I could see the man’s face no more. Their feast ended after what seemed many days and they left me alone with him.
“The party retreated to farther reaches of the house and I assume people retired to bed because calm finally fell. I took my chance, and with only a brief glance at the man on the table, I dashed through the kitchen and out the milk door and leapt onto a readied carriage that had been harnessed near the house. I let into that poor nag like a devil with the whip and it tore from the cobbled drive as though its tail were afire. I dozed off at the reins after fruitlessly circling endless tracts of mansions, each grander and yet identical to the last. I awoke to find the nag chewing up the lawn near Meore’s monument near Ellenshill. From there, I was able to wind my way by luck and chance to the State Market Grounds.
“I left the carriage there, Your Honor. Its whereabouts now I cannot say. If you wish to add theft to my charges, I will have to concede. I had never taken anything that was not mine before that morning, but at the time I had somehow justified it. At the Market, I lost myself among the crowd, seeking safety in the numbers. It however was torturous. I saw in every face the same beatific glow that was held by the man at the party, the ‘fine man for smiling’. Yet, I felt not safe. I was at once certain that I was being watched by those from the night afore. In a sea of strangers, I was the only stranger.”
He paused and looked at the court, his audience.
“I then saw the woman, from the night before,” he started.
“Which?” pressed the Magistrate.
“The woman in the green dress.”
“From the house?”
“I think she was wearing a green dress.”
“Which? The woman at the house or the woman at City Market?”
“I think both. Now it’s hard to say. Please, let me think. I only remember that I was struck with paralyzing fear when I saw her, then anger, finally, unmeasured hate. She had been there, had done those things.”
“And you killed her? How?”
“What does it matter? I killed her!”
“How?”

“I don’t remember. I only recall that I began to follow her down a vacant alley. When I returned from my momentary lapse, my suspension of consciousness, I knew I killed her and I came here. To confess!” He began to weep, his mouth unhinged.
“Do you remember anything at all? Are you certain you killed the woman?”
“I left her there.”
“Where?” The Magistrate stepped forward, placing a heavy hand on the witnesses arm.
“The alley behind the Orphanage!”
I saw, which afterwards in my questionings I found no one else did, that the young boy whose hearing began this mouthed the words “No. Dance Hall.” towards the witness, who was not aligned to see as I.
The magistrate had left bombast from this question, his patrons forgotten.
“How son, could this be, when she was found in the dance hall? Not this morning, but last night?” The witness looked up, his eyes searching. “This young man here, he was seen last going into her dressing room.”
The boy whelped, “It wasn’t me,” half-heartedly.
The witness began again,
“Your Honor, check the alley, look over it good. She must be there!” A thought grabbed him, “Perhaps I took her to the dance hall,” The Magistrate shook his head. “Is there another murder case, another death? I was told this case was the only death case. Is this true?”
“This is the one and only murder case in all the Hall. Check the listings yourself.” He pointed towards the giant chalkboards at even intervals within the Hall where in bright white on black there read charges being heard.
The Magistrate gathered court guards to him and ordered a search of the area detailed by the witness. Together, as a single organism they moved in a clatter of armor.
In the recess many milled, most smoked, the witness sat on the floor with his tailored shirt hanging from him crookedly like his face, and others threw a ball back and forth. I moved a few pillars down to the ivy curtain and pushed through to the now dry fountain. I had sat there many times, my first being when I was but a child. It had been running then, and many magistrates would confer with each other there on court precedents and ask advice on judgments. I had once seen a death penalty or life sentence decided by a coin pulled from the fount. A half pence-death. A shilling-life. I forget what he pulled out, but I remember my father was with me.
The fount is dry now- only cracks where lucky coins once lay. I walked around it and looking at the statuette that crowned it, I found its name came back to me: “The Lady Justice”. Long ago, someone had taken the gold sword from her marbled hand and later the arm itself. Her legs and waist were withstanding and I forget now her exact pose when she had been whole, but I remember my father had told me the statue was modeled on my mother and my mother modeled after Lady Justice. It was quiet there behind the ivy. I pushed back through in time to see the guards in their leather jerkins returning to the court. “They have found nothing,” the Magistrate announced after reconvening. The witness visibly shrunk and the young defendant did also.
The Magistrate quickly heard witnesses from the dance hall, the night of the girl’s murder. The case against the young man, whose bones showed all over under his sallow skin, was firm and the Magistrate quickly came to his conclusion. One of the forty traditional scepters of judging was brought by one of the forty couriers who ran from court to court, delivering their time-honored tool when a court official raised the flag of judgment. The Magistrate touched the boy’s shoulders with the scepter, wording the customary lines of a death sentence, and the boy was quickly shuttled away amidst a throng of jeering voices. The commotion followed the boy and his escort towards the execution fairgrounds, up the long steps of the promenade, but I stayed back in the now emptied area where the court had just stood.
I saw the witness approach the magistrate, with pleas on lips that I couldn’t make out. The Magistrate shook his head and excused himself walking with a guard towards the lagoon, with a picnic on his mind no doubt. I followed the witness through the crowds, bypassing large courts, overhearing court documents, witnesses, and magistrates with audiences captivated. He made the long way to the Hall’s edge, looking out on the square and the bustle of the evening traffic. A train slowed in a mist, stopping to take on its load of workers heading home. Lengthening shadows from dark buildings and temples sliced the square into unequal fourths, and the train restarted slowly moving from light to dark alternately.
The witness turned about and entered the Hall of Courts, under the ceiling of dusty glass and with his shoulders low entered the mob of bodies watching the opening statements in a newly begun trial. I watched him for a time then lost him in the crowds as he moved to another court. In the years following, I have seen him many times watching the courts with conflict on his brow, an ambivalence of hope and dread, his eyes dead until the announcements of guilt where a flash of ecstasy would appear as if it were he receiving the judgment of guilt, he being condemned.

Editor’s Note: When I was first given The Witness by Mr. S, I was a not a little upset by there being yet another legal themed short story for our humble periodical The Orphan. It seemed that the court-drama had run its course of fashion and I had wanted a fresh feeling to the issue. I encouraged the author to meet with me over dinner and he being an author of course could not pass up free food. Over a bottle of Syrah, I managed to swallow my editor’s pride and do what comes most unnaturally to my profession: praise the writer. Anyone who has the high calling of editor, you understand, sees in themselves the real source of art and not the flea bitten and drunk artist. We see them as the formless granite blocks for our sculpting, and sometimes even let them feel that they have control over their creation. After buttering him up a bit and ordering us dessert, I asked him if he couldn’t do a light comedic piece like Mr. Touchstone. “Legal stories are just simply not en vogue this season.” I said. Mr. Sansrespite looked quite surprised and informed me that his story was indeed a piece of romantic literature. “If that is the case, I shall run it as the featured story!” I said. “I’m sure it will have all the City swooning! I do believe it. In fact, let me correct myself for belief is assailable by doubt-I’ve decided it!”
-Auguste St. Antonius


[1] This is, in the entire story, the most unbelievable notion: that one would now their own participation within a larger group’s unpleasantness. I asked the venerable author to strike this passage, but he insisted it stay in to raise the story’s fantastical nature. –The Editor

[2] It has been said that in the wild, turkey cocks ruffle their feathers at the sight of red. It has been my experience that the colour of green gives even greater effect.

[3] I translated the word “meore” in the original text as heart. Meore’s fuller meaning is that of ‘spirit, soul, being’ or at times colloquially as ‘love’. –The Editor

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