[Note: With a few (rather obvious) exceptions, the illustrations for this post come from an 1865 edition of The Death and Burial of Poor Cock Robin, with illustrations by H. L. Stephens, an illustrator for Vanity Fair (1859-1863).]
As I acclimated to my surroundings, I watched, fascinated, as the great sailing ships of old left port and made for the sea, scarcely noticing what was going on around me on the docks.
Suddenly, my reverie was broken by a pair of military drums counting the rhythm of a slow march, as a small company marched by flanking a young girl — or was she – her hands bound behind her back, her hair concealed by a mob cap, and her face — her face wasn’t human in the least, but that of a sparrow. They were standing beside the steps to a scaffold. I was at a loss to know how I’d missed something so nearby that was so huge and so unsettling — it was almost as if it hadn’t been there until now. The corporal or sergeant who was leading this group pulled a rather grandiose, official-looking document, and proceeded to read in a voice clearly more accustomed to barking orders than to making speeches. As such, it took me a moment to grasp what he was saying.
” [unintelligible] . . . Sparrow, for the cold and callous murder of Cock Robin, as found by [unintelligible] . . . . Now, pursuant to sentence issued by said court, she is to be led to the gallows and hung by the neck until dead.”
He turned to the Sparrow girl. “Do you have any last words?”
Sparrow Girl lowered her gaze, and sadly shook her head
But inside my head, an old nursery rhyme was becoming quite eloquent — with an unforeseen variation or two.
Who killed Cock Robin?
“I,” said Miss Sparrow,
“With my bow and arrow,
I killed Cock Robin —
She didn’t exactly speak with an accent, but her phrasing rose and fell with artificial precision, as if she’d been coached meticulously, then carefully committed the phrasing to memory — rather like a well-educated foreigner — an alien who, if the creatures around were sufficiently bucolic, uninformed, and generally suspicious of others different than themselves, might have been seen as a presumptuous creature who gave herself airs.
“You must believe me, I never intended to kill, or even wound your dear friend, M. Cock-Robin,” she said nervously, apparently forgetting for the moment that “Cock Robin” was his full name, not a hyphenated family name. “But, you mustn’t forget that he is a very spontaneous fellow — quite off-the-cuff. It is part of what makes him s much fun, but he can, on occasion, act with a wholesale disregard for his own safety or that of others.”
Her English sounded a bit stilted, as if she’d learned it from a book. I wondered if any of the creatures were still paying attention to her, or if they considered her affected and had lost interest.
“The point,” I whispered to her, unaware if she could hear me or not. “Get to the point quickly, while some of them are still listening.”
She must have sensed what I was saying on some level, for her narrative changed.
“The arrow had already left not only my hand, but the bowstring itself. There was no way for me to stay or recall it. It was Cock Robin himself who had the last clear chance to avoid the arrow, by altering the pattern of his flight, but, he was either inattentive, or willfully failed to avoid it.”
“Stuff and nonsense,” said an unseen stentorian voice. “No sane person could ignore such a dangerous object, nor yet willfully refuse to take it into account. The defense is refuted by its mere statement.”
Since I couldn’t see who was articulating this idiocy, I took a look at Miss Sparrow. She looked 13 or 14 at the oldest, possibly as young as my own ten years. Who would leave someone so young defenseless against a system that held her ery life and death in her hands? Her tresses weren’t concealed by the mob cap, and flowed down in ringlets of dark blonde or light golden brown — it was impossible to tell in the light. Her skirt was rather short, even for a child, but I was too fascinated by the boots she wore to pay it much mind, given the intricate designs on their surface that seemed to move about, though again, the light was insufficient to tell with certainty.
“Who saw him die?”
“I,” said the Fly,
“With my little eye,
I saw him die.”
“But not shot,” I rejoined. “Did you see whether or not Cock Robin flew in the path of the arrow?”
The fly brandished a pince-nez.
“With this device, I can see as you, or as I — form and motion with my naked eye, objects in detail through the lenses. I can give copious details of his death throes.”
“Say on,” said the same stentorian voice.
And, the Fly did, wallowing in every agonizing detail, until even the “disembodied voice” had had enough.
“Who caught the blood?”
“Wait,,” I said, “this fails to establish the cause of those death throes,” I said.
“That was the arrow, obviously,” the voice replied. “Miss Sparrow had a bow and confesses to shooting the arrow. Since neither is an accidental act, it follows that the shooting was deliberate, and that the shooting by Miss Sparrow was premeditated murder. Fly’s testimony is essential to determining the heinousness of the crime. Say on.”
So the fly continued, describing the agony, in copious detail. It was no use. Cock Robin was dead and someone needed to be held to account. They couldn’t blame God, and “death by misadventure” clearly failed to satisfy. The community was too tight knit to blame any of its own, it fell to the outsider, the foreigner, to be the scapegoat, even if the accused was an adolescent girl with a case against her that was no more substantial than rice paper. The community needed a sacrificial victim to appease their gods of hate and rage, and dammit, they would have one.
“Who caught the blood?”
“I,” said the Fish,
“With my little dish,
I caught his blood.”
Of course. If a laborious account of death throes might prove insufficient, why not bring on the blood and gore? This was no trial, but a Gothic sort of pantomime, with the end already determined.
“Who’ll make the shroud?”
“I,” said the Beetle,
“With my thread and needle,
I’ll make the shroud.”
This pantomime of a trial not yet over, and they were already on particulars of the funeral! There wasn’t going to be even a pretense of a fair trial.
And so, on it went:
“Who’ll dig his grave?”
“I,” said the Owl,
“With my pick and shovel,
I’ll dig his grave.”
“Who’ll be the parson?”
“I,” said the Rook,
“With my little book,
I’ll be the parson.”
“Who’ll be the clerk?”
“I,” said the Lark,
“If it’s not in the dark,
I’ll be the clerk.”
“ho’ll carry the link?”
“I,” said the Linnet,
“I’ll fetch it in a minute,
I’ll carry the link.”
“Who’ll be chief mourner?”
“I,” said the Dove,
“I mourn for my love.”
She paused to flash an angry, almost hateful glance at Sparrow.
“I’ll be chief mourner.”
“Who’ll carry the coffin?”
“I,” said the Kite,
“If it’s not through the night,
I’ll carry the coffin.”
“Who’ll bear the pall?
“We,” said the Wren,
“Both the cock and the hen,
we’ll bear the pall.”
“Who’ll sing a psalm?”
“I,” said the Thrush,
“As he stood by a bush,
I’ll sing a psalm.”
“Who’ll toll the bell?”
“I,” said the bull,
“Because I can pull,
I’ll toll the bell.”
All the birds and the beasts fell a-sighin” and a-sobbin”,
When they heard the bell toll for poor Cock Robin.
While the hapless Miss Sparrow
Now blamed for their grief
Was led to the “the drop”
To be hanged like a thief.
But not actually hanged, not yet. Even now, it wasn”t too late, if I acted quickly.
But what could I do?
I was startled to see that I was now standing under the scaffold, not in front of it. The mists and ghostly forms that had brought me here were once again milling around.
“Relax,” their leader’s voice softly spoke in my head. “We will guide you, have no fear.”
With that, the gallows door sprung and Ms Sparrow, now hooded, fell with a drum-roll, through the trap.
Her wings flapped, in perhaps an involuntary attempt to prevent, or at least forestall, her fall. The attempt was too weak to be successful, but it worked long enough for someone to lift me in the air, tossing me toward the noose.
As I grabbed the rope six inches or so above the hood, I felt a stout knife in my right hand. Someone strong took possession of that hand, cutting the rope instantly. Sparrow Girl and I both plummeted to the ground.
A bolt of lightening went up my ankle for a moment, but subsided, and I was otherwise unhurt. I’d cushioned the fall of Miss Sparrow, and she seemed shaken , but otherwise none the worse.
“Muskets quickly,” I heard the sergeant or corporal order the guard. “That lout who tried to speak in her defense has contrived at her escape.”
But even as he said it, his voice seemed to fade. The musket shots sounded as though they were miles away, then faded away entirely. The fish and tar smell of the docks gave way to that of earth, grass, and the distant smell off newly mown hay. Sparrow Girl removed her hood as the mist and spirits faded away, leaving us somewhere in a field.
© 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015 G. H. McCallum and Duvanian Press, all rights reserved.
The Bluebottle Boys (Volume One) and Walking Backward for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall are each now available from Amazon Books. The Bluebottle Boys (Volume Two) is expected to be available shortly. The next novel of the series, By Good Angels Tenanted, will be available in 2019.