Literary as hell.

2020 Halloween Finalist: “The Law of Indifference” by Daniel Olivieri

Hardly anyone paid much attention to me until my execution. Or, that isn’t entirely true. I had an incredible amount of attention paid to me when I was a baby. But that attention wasn’t any fun at all. I don’t remember it, but I can be pretty sure. It can’t have been much fun to be the damning piece of evidence in my parent’s trial.

 

A little after I was born, people started wondering how I’d come to be. My parents couldn’t claim that they’d adopted me because they didn’t have any paperwork to prove it. They also couldn’t claim to have given birth to me—they were both men. And so how had they come into possession of such an adorable little baby girl? Had they summoned her out of thin air with a cauldron and some magic stones?

 

Yes. Yes they had. That’s exactly what they’d done.

 

For proof, the accusing lawyer showed the court my belly button, or rather my lack of one. I had no belly button, she argued, because I’d never needed an umbilical cord. Or so I’m told. I didn’t have much patience for legal proceedings when I was eight months old. From what I understand I spent most of the trial trying to fit my foot into my mouth. In any case, the jury found the belly button argument convincing enough that my parents were convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to death.

 

It’s not easy growing up knowing that you were the piece of evidence that got your parents executed. Especially when your foster parents remind you of this just about every morning. “Strayala,” they would say, “You should scrub the floor harder. You have much to atone for. Don’t you know that you were the reason your parents were executed?” Even before I was old enough to know what “executed” meant, I didn’t like to hear that. When I finally did find out what the word meant, I liked it even less.

 

That said, I hear that my parents held themselves a marvelous execution. They were known for throwing the most fun parties. Their execution was no exception. They began planning it on the very day they were convicted. They hired an up-and-coming executionist, had a jazz band play, a few minor celebrities even attended. It was a huge success. The ticket sales from the execution were enough to cover my college tuition.

 

When it came time to plan my own execution, I tried to make them proud. Nasha and Oliver helped me plan it. They’re less than half my age, Nasha and Oliver, but we still spend all our weekends together. Sometimes the weekdays too. We do witch things together: binding up spells and practicing cantrips and cackling very loud. Though, the cackling has very little to do with us being witches and very much to do with Oliver being hilarious. He can play the trumpet and the accordion at the same time. He bugs his eyes out when he does it and he gets this crazy expression—but I guess you’d have to see it to understand.

Anyway, we booked the biggest execution parlor in town. It’s one of those fancy ones where there’s a buffet and the executionist kills you while you lie in perfect comfort on a pile of pillows. You get to choose between cashmere and silk. For the pillows, I mean, not the buffet. I also scraped together some of my savings and hired Aramath Creel himself to be the executionist. The best part, though, was the unvitations. Little Snoring is a town where everyone gets invited to everything and people make eye contact with you as you walk down the street. Or at least, that’s how it is for people who aren’t known as the town witches. Nasha, Oliver and I, we don’t get much eye contact or many invitations. That’s okay though. We make eye contact with each other.

 

So I spent my whole life not getting invited to things and now I finally had something to not invite people to. There didn’t seem to be all that much fun to just not inviting people, so Nasha and I designed some cards to inform people about the event. They read, “You are cordially requested to not attend the execution of Strayala Nolkia, convicted witch. You have NOT been invited and will be forcibly barred from the building should you attempt to enter.” In the days before my execution, I walked through the streets, escorted by armed guards, giving these unvitations out. I handed them to people on the street, I pushed them under doors, I left them in mailboxes. There were just so many people to not invite!

 

When my execution did come around, there were only four people in the audience: Oliver, Nasha, the town clerk, and the Chancellor. Chancellor Carmopolis seemed quite annoyed with the lack of audience. He’d come to power on a platform that held that a) gaining money was good b) losing money was bad and c) we ought to do more of a and less of b. Naturally, he wasn’t too happy that I’d only invited two people and thus that the town’s share of the ticket sales would amount to just about £20.

 

As my instructions stated, we started off the ceremony with me pinching people on the cheek. I like to pinch people on the cheek because I see myself as a grandmother. Grandmothering is tricky for me, though, because Cara and I never had any children. It would have been too dangerous. I mean, look what happened to my parents. Without any children, it’s just about impossible to have grandchildren. This means I have to find ways to feel like a grandmother even without the grandkids part. And so the cheek pinching. The more I like someone, the harder I pinch them. Oliver I pinched very hard. Nasha I also pinched very hard. The executionist I pinched medium hard. The clerk and the Chancellor I didn’t pinch at all.

 

Aramath Creel had been classically trained at the Giomotti Conservatory in Florence. Recently, though, he’d moved away from the traditional style with its axes and nooses and became more of an impressionist. You could tell he was a pretty relaxed one because he didn’t even wear a hood, just a bandana over his face. Everyone who wasn’t invited, i.e. almost everyone in town, had to wonder what was going on in this execution. Who would hire an executionist as famous as Aramath and only invite two people? It seemed absurd.

 

It was absurd. My execution would go down as one of the most famous of the decade. The execution didn’t become famous because my speech was any good—it wasn’t. It wasn’t famous because there was a groundbreaking means of execution used—there wasn’t. No, the execution became famous because of how I died—I didn’t.

 

Oliver and Nasha sat in the front row, watching with tears in their eyes. Chancellor Carmopolis sat watching without tears in his eyes. The clerk sat, but wrote everything out on his legal pad rather than watching. Me, I lay down on the pillows and waited for the executionist to get to work. There is a rule in Little Snoring that you cannot draw more than two drops of blood in an execution. It’s to make sure that all executions are suitable for the whole family.

 

Aramath took out a vial of arsenic for me to drink. Not just any arsenic though. It was vintage arsenic which had been mixed with raspberry cider to improve the taste. He uncorked it and poured a healthy serving into a wine glass and handed it to me. I later found out it was three times the lethal dosage. After reciting a few platitudes about how he hoped my soul would find peace, he asked me to drink it. I drained it in one gulp. I love raspberry cider. He took out a pocket watch and said, “Madame Nolkia will be dead in five… four… three… two… one… now.”

 

Except I wasn’t dead.

 

I wasn’t dead because of something I discovered while I was away at college: the Law of Indifference. The Law of Indifference holds that the more indifferent you are to something, the more likely it is to happen. In college, Cara never left parties early unless it was with some beautiful man or woman. Which is to say that Cara always left parties early. Me, though, I hardly even went to parties. And when I did I always went home alone. Cara lived two doors down from me and I spent the first three months of sophomore year pining for her. I baked her chimney cakes, I acted in the short movies she directed, I made her a good luck amulet for her exams. And then when I asked her out she said that she liked me as a friend. The moment I got over her, though, and she was asking what I was doing Friday night. This is how I discovered the Law of Indifference.

 

There’s the old story of that Russian monk Rasputin. They poisoned him, they clubbed, him they shot him, they wrapped him with cloth, they threw him in the river. He didn’t die. People wonder about how he survived all that. I don’t. It wasn’t his massive size. It wasn’t his constitution. It wasn’t his faith in God. It was his indifference. Rasputin ended up dying as he tried to claw his way out of the cloth they’d wrapped him in. That was his mistake. When he tried to escape, he lost all his indifference.

 

As soon as Aramath realized that I was still blinking and moving my head, his face went all red. He looked so embarrassed and cute right then that I reached up and pinched his cheek. He then tried to choke me to death. He put one of his arms in front of my neck and one of them behind. Then he started adding pressure. But this didn’t work either. My indifference was stronger than the two of his arms put together. When the cells in my brain noticed that there wasn’t enough oxygen, they must have rationed it. When there was none left they must have just gone without.

 

Or something like that. I don’t know the exact science of it. I just know that indifference is a powerful thing. That’s what I told Nasha when she first confessed to me that she was in love with Oliver. I said to her, “This is a good, good thing. You would be happy together. Here is how you win him: do not try to win him. Ignore how much you like him and have fun around him instead. If you do this, he is sure to fall in love with you.” A year later and I was making a good luck charm for their wedding. Another year and they were expecting a baby. When they told me about the baby I said, “Well, then I guess it’s about time that I made witchcraft legal in this town. A town that hates magic is no place for your bambino to grow up.”

 

“No, Zia Strayala,” Nasha said, “You can’t do that. They’ll kill you if you say anything about it.”

 

“Well,” I said, “I’m sure they’ll try.”

 

 

After the chokehold failed, he tried it a few more times. It failed those times too. Now Aramath was really looking flustered. He said, “Don’t worry. I have another method.”

 

Indeed he did. He took out a long needle and he inserted it in through one of my ears until it came out the other. And still I lived. The Chancellor stood up from his seat in the first row and shouted, “I didn’t come here to watch a witch not be executed! Send me a messenger when you’ve done it right.” before he stormed out. 

 

He shouted it as if impossibility were a valid reason for something to not happen.

 

Soon after his exclamation, the Chancellor declared that this ceremony was over and that my execution would be postponed until they could find someone who could actually manage to kill me. At a press conference the next day, Chancellor Carmopolis announced the new plan to have me killed. There would be no raspberry cider or cashmere pillows this time. It would be a burning. Outdoors and at the stake.

 

When I got the news, I nearly broke out laughing. I wouldn’t even need the Law of Indifference to survive this one. There’s a reason people stopped burning witches alive. It doesn’t work. We witches have had so much practice trying to survive burnings that we’ve gotten rather good at it. When Nasha and Oliver visited me the day before the burning, they brought me two things: the potion I’d need to survive and a plate of cookies. The cookies had taken them longer to prepare.

 

The burning was attended by every citizen of the town and then some. Word had gotten out that a woman had survived her own execution. Some people figured that it was worth the drive to Little Snoring to see whether she could do it again. It was funny to see the whole town square filled up with people who’d paid £50 to watch me die. Little old me.

 

I can’t say much about my second execution. The smoke of the fire puts you to sleep better than an Ambien. Don’t try this at home, though. It’s not a fun kind of sleep. It feels like you’re drowning in air. When I woke up, much of my hair was gone and many people were cheering. I would have bowed, but it’s rather difficult to bow when your arms, legs, torso, and midsection are all tied to a stake. I did smile though and thanked them all for coming.

 

The next day, the town’s paper ran an editorial with the title, “How Do We Kill The Unkillable Woman?” Some people, I’m told, were in favor of lifting the two drops of blood rule so they could chop my head off and be done with me. Others thought it made more sense to send me to London to be executed. But the vast majority of people, Chancellor Carmopolis included, realized that killing me made very little fiscal sense. My inability to die had led to international attention. What town in its right mind kills its biggest celebrity? Or at least, what town in its right mind kills its biggest celebrity without making a handsome profit?

 

To avoid letting the attention pass, the town council decided on the plan just two days after the burning. They were going to have a competition. They would book as many famous executionists as they could and give them all a chance to kill this unkillable witch.

 

Even at £250 each, the tickets went overnight. Soon they were £400 online. Prices went even higher when it was announced that the line-up of executionists would include Hector “The Tooth” Egerton, The Mercy Sisters, and Vin Diesel. The whole town went into a frenzy getting ready for this event. With only three months before the show, everyone was suddenly an innkeeper. Every hotel, bed and breakfast, apartment, flat and bungalow was rented out for the big event.

 

I waited until just a month before the show to spring the trap. I hadn’t known just what type of trap it would be when I started all this. I just knew there would be one. My coffee grounds told me. Some witches, they use tea leaves. I use coffee grounds. And the coffee grounds instructed me that in order to make witchcraft legal in Little Snoring I would have to get myself sentenced to death.

 

I did this by standing in the middle of the sidewalk one night and brewing up a potion. I even wore a pointy hat. I prefer Panama hats myself, but when you want to be caught for witchcraft it doesn’t hurt to fulfill the clichés. Soon, a police officer arrived to ask me what I was doing.

 

“Just stirring a gumbo.”

 

“That certainly looks like a potion to me,” he replied.

 

“Oh well,” I told him, “I guess it sort of does.”

 

“Put your hands behind your back and step away from the cauldron,” he said in that sharp way policemen do.

 

“Oh dear,” I said as if this wasn’t part of the plan.

 

He promptly arrested me. With that the trap was set in motion.

 

And now it was time to spring that trap.

 

I invited Chancellor Carmopolis to my cell. The word cell probably gives you the wrong impression. Prison in Little Snoring is an incredibly comfortable place. My cell had thick carpets, room service and a guest bedroom. The only cell-like things about it were the bars on the windows and the guards posted in every room. Even so, it was certainly nicer than any place I’d lived before.

 

When I had the Chancellor visit, we had steaks in my living room. I’m a vegetarian, but I ordered a steak because I knew he’d want a second one.

 

“I’m an old woman,” I told him as he took his first bite of my steak, “and I’ve decided that seventy-six is the right age to stop committing crimes.”

 

“Well,” he said, “better late than never.”

 

“But it’s worth noting that witchcraft is a crime. And that’s very important because witchcraft happens to be the only thing keeping me alive.”

 

This wasn’t true, of course. I credit my good health to a vitamin rich diet and daily meditation. But a certain amount of lying is acceptable when it’s for a good cause.

 

“What do you mean?” he asked, suddenly interested.

 

“I mean that if you don’t legalize witchcraft in this town by the end of the week, I’ll have to give up witchery for good and let myself die of natural causes. And that means I’ll be, unfortunately, unable to attend that little event you’ve set up for my execution.”

 

I could see his political life flashing before his eyes. If I died, there would be no event. Tickets would have to be refunded, plans would have to be cancelled. They would be losing money. This went against the very core of his “gaining money good, losing money bad” platform. He called an emergency meeting of the town council that very night. The town records show that he started the meeting by saying, “The woman we’re going to have executed, she might die!”

 

The treasurer replied, “That, some would say, is the point of an execution.”

 

Once Carmopolis explained the quandary I’d put them in, the town council had me sent for. It was eleven-twenty when they called for me, rather past my bedtime. It was quite a bother going to City Hall in the middle of the night, but no one ever said that being a convicted felon was easy. The first thing they offered me was a special permit to perform magic. This I refused. My counter offer was this: magic is made entirely legal now and forever. That they refused. This is when the Law of Indifference came in handy again. “It doesn’t matter to me what you do,” I told them. “I will be satisfied with dying tomorrow or with magic being legalized. The choice is entirely up to you.”

 

They huddled together and whispered to each other, all twelve of them. After a few minutes they offered that magic be made temporarily legal from now until the end of the execution festival. This was a compromise I could live with.

 

And so they announced it. Magic would be legal in this town for an entire month. This was unheard of. Leaders of other towns denounced this as a show of moral bankruptcy. This only increased the anticipation of the festival. There’s nothing like a display of moral bankruptcy to increase your popularity. People were already referring to Little Snoring as the Amsterdam of witchcraft.

 

As soon as the month arrived, just about everyone seemed to have taken up an interest in magic. Just a few weeks ago, most people would have described it as morally repugnant. Now they were eager to find out what a romance charm could do for their lovelife or what a financial hex could do for their competitor’s stock prices. The Sunday morning flea market was choked with magical items. And no one’s magical items were half so good as those of Nasha and Oliver. While looking at an external battery that could recharge itself or a pair of goggles that allowed you to see through your spouse’s eyes, people would ask Nasha and Oliver how they got to be so good at witchcraft. “Just quick learners,” one of them would say and then they’d look at each other and smile. Of course, Oliver and Nasha are always looking at each other and smiling.

 

People were coming in from across the UK to buy the magic items that were illegal everywhere else. You could see people trying out their new magical devices along every street. Bursts of harmless green fire, extra limbs that could be attached or removed at will, scissors that let you switch hair with someone. The whole town had a spirit of festivity, and it was profitable festivity so it was even better.

 

Now that it was making them quite a bit of money people had decided that maybe witchcraft wasn’t so morally repugnant after all. By the time the festival arrived, people were already talking about extending the acceptance of witchcraft. There was already a petition being signed pushing for full witchcraft legalization. Looking at the tax revenues, it would be hard for the town council to disagree.

 

The night before the big execution, Oliver and Nasha visited me in my cell. But it wasn’t just Nasha and Oliver. It was Pedro too. He’d been born just a few days before. After handing him to me, Nasha said, “Oliver and I want you to be like his unofficial grandmother. You can teach him how to correctly balance a hex and the right knots for a levitation cantrip. He’ll get to grow up eating your panettone. If you survive tomorrow, I mean.”

 

It was then, with the cozy weight of Pedro in my arms, that I became certain I wouldn’t survive this execution. I knew how much I would enjoy watching this baby grow up, start to crawl, cast his first spells. That was the problem, of course. It was my indifference. It was all gone.

 

And so we arrive at right now. The stage is all set up for my execution. It’s filled with garrote wires to strangle me with and tubs of water to drown me with and even a boulder to crush me under. The host is up there in his tuxedo and his spotlight saying, “And now the unkillable woman who needs no introduction, Strayala Nolkia!”

 

My guards walk me from the back of the theater through the audience. Some people get up out of their seats to crowd around me. Some of them, they ask me to pinch their cheek because they’ve heard that’s something I do. I know these are exactly the people who would have hated me for my witchcraft a month ago. These are the people who only decided magic wasn’t repulsive the day it became legal. But I pinch their cheeks anyway. I pinch them hard.

 


Daniel Olivieri is a programmer living in Philadelphia. His life goals include having many late night conversations about solipsism and eating a lot more fried plantains.

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