Parables, fables, myths, poems, and stories have, since Jesus of Nazareth, the Vikings, and Aesop, been major ways in which persons or societies pass on their heritage, culture, and wisdom. Minstrels, bards, and troubadours were professionals when it came to storytelling, and their roles were a very important part of society. In fact, memory was essentially the way in which a person was judged as intelligent in pre-literate societies. Much can be learned by studying mythology, parables, and stories. Humans just love to hear others tell stories; it seems to be in our DNA. Joseph Campbell believes that: “[i]n order to aid personal development, mythology does not have to be reasonable, it doesn’t have to be rational, it doesn’t have to be true; it has to be comfortable, like a pouch. Your emotions grow in there until you’re safe to get out.”
The written word is one of my favorite art forms and methods of expression and education. However, “[e]xample is always the best teacher — and what we do always overwhelms and overshadows and outteaches what we say. But, while example is the prime teacher, close behind (and closely interrelated) are the methods of storytelling, games, role-playing, and imagination,” claim Linda and Richard Eyre.
William Kilpatrick and Gregory and Suzanne Wolfe say this about storytelling and teaching via the fable: “Reading aloud may be one of the most important contributions that parents can make toward developing good character in their children. Why? For several reasons. First, because stories can create emotional attachment to goodness, a desire to do the right thing. Second, because stories provide a wealth of good examples — the kind of examples that are often missing from a child’s day to day environment. Third, because stories familiarize youngsters with the codes of conduct they need to know. Finally, because stories help to make sense out of life.” Perhaps this is why children like to hear the same story over and over. Storytelling is powerful.
The first function of mythology is to evoke in the individual a sense of grateful, affirmative awe before the monstrous mystery that is existence. ~ Joseph Campbell
On this page, Wayne Parker notes that fathers can play an instrumental role in raising children with values. He says: “It would be unwise to suggest that it is a father’s (or a mother’s) failure when a child goes wrong. I simply know too many great parents who have troubled children. But many dads observe that a basic education in the key societal values, and behavior by parents that reinforce them, certainly help minimize the chances that children will go astray. Teaching and exemplifying values like honesty, loyalty, respect, unselfishness, courage, self-reliance, self-discipline, and modesty is an important role for any father that hopes his children will grow up as responsible and contributing members of society.”
Storytelling can do just that. Children love stories, and adults can really get into poetry, too. I have often found, when listening to a comedian, when they say “Let me tell you a story,” I get a little bit more comfortable. We are virtually programmed to interact with others in the medium of the spoken word. “Man is eminently a storyteller. His search for a purpose, a cause, an ideal, a mission and the like is largely a search for a plot and a pattern in the development of his life story — a story that is basically without meaning or pattern,” indicates the legendaryYears ago, I was reading a story to my daughter and I was doing voices and everything, and she turned to me and said, ‘Just read the story. And stick to the main points’”
The earliest surviving account of the flood legend was written down in Mesopotamia a thousand years before it was retold as the story of Noah in the Old Testament. So you could say that Gilgamesh fulfilled his quest for immortality by still reading the epic of Gilgamesh, and with every reader he lives again.
Parker gives this good advice and good resource for values-relevant storytelling: “Over the years, many families have built a library of stories and picture books in their home that teach values. Some books that teach kids about values and their importance in daily life include:
- Call it Courage by Armstrong Sperry (Courage)
- The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (Determination)
- Black Beauty by Anna Searle (Forgiveness)
- Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (Friendship)
- The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (Generosity)
- Arthur and the Sword by Robert Sabuda (Integrity)
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (Truth)
- Freedom Train by Dorothy Sterling (Service)”
The stories we tell ourselves are often referred to as “narratives.” They are very powerful, both personally and societally. Bill Moyers puts it this way: “In one way or another, this is the oldest story in America: the struggle to determine whether “we, the people” is a spiritual idea embedded in a political reality – one nation, indivisible – or merely a charade masquerading as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others.”
I really like movies, and of course, Denzel Washington is one of America’s treasures. He was instrumental in the movie Antwone Fisher, which I recommend you watch ASAP if you don’t know it. He says of it: “[the movie] touches on issues that have been kept quiet and in the closet — or these days, within the homes. That’s one of the reasons Antwone wanted his story told — to speak out to all those others who may be in hiding or that are struggling with it, that they can also survive.” In this way, storytelling can be cathartic, therapeutic, and have great meaning — for the teller and the listener. “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them,”
This is the story of a mediocre basketball team that is remembered by few, a team that spent a year perfecting the art of falling to pieces. I thought I would be a senior on one of the greatest basketball teams in Citadel history. I could not have been more wrong.
Karen E. Faith adapts the idea of values and stories to the business world, and therefore, our communities and the planet: “Our society’s future is dependent on inspiring and sustaining values-based leaders in our work places as well as within the structures of power that govern our country and the rest of the world. We need to hear more of these stories of ethical leadership instead of the ones that repeatedly and regrettably make our news headlines.”
Sometimes the stories (and songs, and poetry) we hear/read allow us to project onto them what we are, more than what it is. “A novel, in the end, is a container, a shape which you are trying to pour your story into,”
I thought it would be interesting to tell the story of the American Revolution from the standpoint of an ordinary working man who hears the Declaration of Independence read to him from a balcony in Boston, promising freedom and equality and so on, and immediately is told that rich people can get out of service by paying several hundred dollars.
“Writers of the world, if you’ve got a story, I want to hear it. I promise it will follow me to my last breath. My soul will dance with pleasure, and it’ll change the quality of all my waking hours. You will hearten me and brace me up for the hard days as they enter my life on the prowl. I reach for a story to save my own life. Always” said the late, great
This is a really cool idea — encouraging storytelling and connecting it to values, on Values.com
Here are some of my favorite stories, poems, and fables.
There is unrest in the forest
There is trouble with the trees
For the maples want more sunlight
And the oaks ignore their pleas.
The trouble with the maples
(And they’re quite convinced they’re right)
They say the oaks are just too lofty
And they grab up all the light
But the oaks can’t help their feelings
If they like the way they’re made
And they wonder why the maples
Can’t be happy in their shade.
There is trouble in the forest
And the creatures all have fled
As the maples scream ‘Oppression!’
And the oaks just shake their heads.
So the maples formed a union
And demanded equal rights
‘The oaks are just too greedy
We will make them give us light’
Now there’s no more oak oppression
For they passed a noble law
And the trees are all kept equal
By hatchet, axe, and saw.
Lyrics by Neil Peart; music by Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson
“The Tortoise and the Hare”, by Aesop
The hare laughed at the tortoise’s feet but the tortoise declared, ‘I will beat you in a race!’ The hare replied, ‘Those are just words. Race with me, and you’ll see! Who will mark out the track and serve as our umpire?’ ‘The fox,’ replied the tortoise, ‘since she is honest and highly intelligent.’ When the time for the race had been decided upon, the tortoise did not delay, but immediately took off down the race course. The hare, however, lay down to take a nap, confident in the speed of his feet. Then, when the hare eventually made his way to the finish line, he found that the tortoise had already won.
The story shows that many people have good natural abilities which are ruined by idleness; on the other hand, sobriety, zeal and perseverance can prevail over indolence.
“The Shepherd, Looking Eastward, Softly Said,” by William Wordsworth
The Shepherd, looking eastward, softly said
“Bright is thy veil, O Moon, as thou art bright!”
Forthwith, that little cloud, in ether spread
And penetrated all with tender light,
She cast away, and showed her fulgent head
Uncovered; dazzling the Beholder’s sight
As if to vindicate her beauty’s right
Her beauty thoughtlessly disparaged.
Meanwhile that veil, removed or thrown aside,
Went floating from her, darkening as it went;
And a huge mass, to bury or to hide,
Approached this glory of the firmament;
Who meekly yields, and is obscured content
With one calm triumph of a modest pride.
“What It’s Like” by Erik Shrody – lyrical storytelling at its best (with profanity, by the way)
The hair on his face is dirty, dreadlocked and full of mange
He asked a man for what he could spare with shame in his eyes
Get a job, you fuckin’ slob‘s all he repliedGod forbid you ever had to walk a mile in his shoes
‘Cause then you really might know what it’s like to sing the blues
Then you really might know what it’s likeMary got pregnant from a kid named Tom who said he was in love
He said, “Don’t worry about a thing, baby doll, I’m the man you’ve been dreamin’ of.”
But three months later he said he won’t date her or return her call
And she sweared: “God damn if I find that man I’m cuttin’ off his balls.”
And then she heads for the clinic and she gets some static walkin’ through the door.
They call her a killer, and they call her a sinner, and they call her a whoreGod forbid you ever had to walk a mile in her shoes
‘Cause then you really might know what it’s like to have to choose
Then you really might know what it’s likeI’ve seen a rich man beg
I’ve seen a good man sin
I’ve seen a tough man cry
I’ve seen a loser win
And a sad man grin
I heard an honest man lie
I’ve seen the good side of bad
And the down side of up
And everything between
I licked the silver spoon
Drank from the golden cup
Smoked the finest green
I stroked the baddest dimes
At least a couple of times
Before I broke their heart
You know where it ends
Yo, it usually depends
On where you startI knew this kid named Max
He used to get fat stacks
Out on the corner with drugs
He liked to hang out late
He liked to get shit faced
And keep pace with thugs
Until late one night
There was a big gun fight
Max lost his head
He pulled out his Chrome .45
Talked some shit
And wound up dead
And now his wife and his kids
Are caught in the midst
Of all of his pain
You know it comes that way
At least that’s what they say
When you play the game
God forbid you ever had to wake up to hear the news
‘Cause then you really might know what it’s like to have to lose
Then you really might know what it’s like
To have to lose…
Ancient storytelling: a Greek Myth About Jason and Medea
Now stealing stealthily down to the sea
By the path I knew as a child,
I found the fobidden boat hidden
In a place that was dark and wild.
My sleepy pharmacy I’ll slip into the stream.
It is a powerful draught
The dragon drinks, to sleep he sinks
I’m a witch who knows her craft.
Now at last he took me in his arms,
And this is what he said,
“Sail with me, across the wine dark sea,
In my ship as swift as a thought.
By the Lady of Olympus, Hera the Lovely
I’ll marry you like I ought.”
I was so naive, I wanted to believe
I ached indeed with fever !
A man like this a woman would kiss,
And he would never leave her.
What a fool, I was, to loose my cool ,
And to be taken in by lies
A whirling, swirling, girly girl.
The sort I despise.
And now at last, with eyes downcast
The liar spoke the truth.
“Yes it’s true that I swore, but that was before
I had seen the awful proof.”
My life she saved, but her family she betrayed,
Her soul with sin is rife.”
And now at last, with eyes downcast
He was never to say again:
“Sail with me, across the wine dark sea,
In my ship as swift as a thought.
By the Lady of Olympus, Hera the Lovely
I’ll marry you like I ought.”
“I Hung My Head”, by Gordon Sumner (Sting)
Early one morning with time to kill
I borrowed Jeb’s rifle and sat on the hill
I saw a lone rider crossing the plain
I drew a bead on him to practice my aim
My brother’s rifle went off in my hand
A shot rang out across the land
The horse he kept running, the rider was dead
I hung my head, I hung my head
I set off running to wake from the dream
My brother’s rifle went into the stream
I kept on running into the salt lands
And that’s where they found me, my head in my hands
The sheriff he asked me “Why had I run”
Then it came to me just what I had done
And all for no reason, just one piece of lead
I hung my head, I hung my head
Here in the courthouse, the whole town is there
I see the judge high up in his chair
“Explain to the courtroom what went through your mind
And we’ll ask the jury what verdict they find”
I said “I felt the power of death over life
I orphaned his children I widowed his wife
I beg their forgiveness I wish I was dead”
I hung my head, I hung my head
Early one morning with time to kill
I see the gallows up on the hill
And out in the distance a trick of the brain
I see a lone rider crossing the plain
He’s come to fetch me to see what they done
We’ll ride together til Kingdom come
I pray for God’s mercy for soon I’ll be dead
I hung my head, I hung my head
Traditional Japanese Storytelling: “The Samurai and the Tea Maker”
A samurai warrior is as spiritual as a monk. He is the ruler of his mind as much as of his body. He trains his spirit through the form of meditation known as zen. He can sit still for hours on end, gradually reducing his thoughts until his sole focus is on his breath. No base passion, fear, discomfort or excitement shall control him even for a single second. He can endure the bitterest cold or the fiercest heat. When faced with death itself, his mind is perfectly still. The odds, the dangers, and the enemies may be massively against him and yet his concentration, as sharp as his sword, may cut through them all.
Yes, he is a spiritual being indeed – but his spirit is the distilled essence of violence.
Such self-control is not confined to the fighters of Japan, however. The Master of the Japanese tea ceremony performs his peaceful duties with just the same concentration and focus of attention, as this story from Ancient Japan shows.
Several centuries ago, a tea master worked in the service of Lord Yamanouchi. No one else performed the way of the tea to such perfection. The timing and the grace of his every move; from the unfurling of the mat, to the setting out of the cups, and the sifting of the green leaves, was beauty itself. His master was so pleased with his servant, that he bestowed upon him the rank and robes of a samurai warrior.
When Lord Yamanouchi travelled, he always took his tea master with him, so that others could appreciate the perfection of his art. On one occasion, he went on business to the great city of Edo, which we now know as Tokyo.
When evening fell, the tea master and his friends set out to explore the pleasure district, known as the floating world. As they turned the corner of a wooden pavement, they found themselves face to face with two samurai warriors.
The tea master bowed, and politely step into the gutter to let the fearsome ones pass. Although one warrior went by, the other remained rooted to the spot. He stroked a long black whisker that decorated his face, gnarled by the sun, and scarred by the sword. His eyes pierced through the tea maker’s heart like an arrow.
He did not quite know what to make of the fellow who dressed like a fellow samurai, yet who would willingly step aside into a gutter. What kind of warrior was this? He looked him up and down. Where were broad shoulders and the thick neck of a man of force and muscle? Instinct told him that this was no soldier. He was an impostor who by ignorance or impudence had donned the uniform of a samurai. He snarled, “Tell me, oh strange one, where are you from and what is your rank?”
The tea master bowed once more. “It is my honour to serve Lord Yamanouchi and I am his master of the way of the tea.”
“A tea-sprout who dares to wear the robes of samurai?” Exclaimed the rough warrior.
The tea master’s lip trembled. He pressed his hands together and said, “My lord has honoured me with the rank of a samurai and he requires me to wear these robes.”
The warrior stamped the ground like a raging a bull and exclaimed, “He who wears the robes of a samurai must fight like a samurai. I challenge you to a duel. If you die with dignity, you will bring honour to your ancestors. And if you die like a dog, at least you will be no longer insult the rank of the samurai!”
By now, the hairs on the tea master’s neck were standing on end like the feet of a helpless centipede that has been turned upside down. He imagined he could feel that edge of the samurai blade against his skin. He thought that his last second on earth had come.
The corner of the street was no place for a duel with honour, however. Death is a serious matter, and everything has to be arranged just so. The samurai’s friend spoke to the tea master’s friends, and gave them the time and the place for the mortal contest.
When the fierce warriors had departed, the tea master’s friends fanned his face and treated his faint nerves with smelling salts. They steadied him as they took him into a nearby place of rest and refreshment. There they assured him that there was no need to fear for his life. Each one of them would give freely of money from his own purse, and they would collect a handsome enough sum to buy the warrior off and make him forget his desire to fight a duel. If by chance the warrior was not satisfied with the bribe, then surely Lord Yamanouchi would give generously to save his much prized master of the way of the tea.
These generous words brought no cheer to the tea master. He thought of his family, and his ancestors, and of Lord Yamanouchi himself, and he knew that he must not bring them any reason to be ashamed of him.
“No,” he said with a firmness that surprised his friends. “I have one day and one night to learn how to die with honour, and I will do so.”
So speaking, he got up and returned alone to the court of Lord Yamanouchi. There he found his equal in rank, the master of fencing, he was skilled as no other in the art of fighting with a sword.
“Master,” he said, when he had explained his tale, “Teach me to die like a samurai.”
But the master of fencing was a wise man, and he had a great respect for the master of the tea ceremony, so he said, “I will teach you all you require, but first, I ask that you perform the way of the Tea for me one last time.”
The tea master could not refuse this request. As he performed the ceremony, all trace of fear seemed to leave his face. He was serenely concentrated on the simple but beautiful cups and pots, and the delicate aroma of the leaves. There was no room in his mind for anxiety. His thoughts were focused on the ritual.
When the ceremony was complete, the fencing master slapped his thigh and exclaimed with pleasure:
“There you have it. No need to learn anything of the way of death. Your state of mind when you perform the tea ceremony is all that is required. When you see your challenger tomorrow, imagine that you are about to serve tea for him. Salute him courteously, express regret that you could not meet him sooner, take off your coat and fold it as you did just now. Wrap your head in a silken scarf and and do it with the same serenity as you dress for the tea ritual. Draw your sword, and hold it high above your head. Then close your eyes and ready yourself for combat.”
That is exactly what the tea master did when, the following morning, at the crack of dawn he met his opponent. The samurai warrior had been expecting a quivering wreck and he was amazed by the tea master’s presence of mind as he prepared himself for combat. The samurai’s eyes were opened and he saw a different man altogether. He thought he must have fallen victim to some kind of trick or deception, and now it was he who feared for his life. The warrior bowed, asked to be excused for his rude behavior, and left the place of combat with as much speed and dignity as he could muster.
“Folsom Prison Blues”, by Johnny Cash, is great storytelling in song form. I can hear him picking’ that ol’ guit-fiddle!
I hear the train a comin’
It’s rolling round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when,
I’m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a rollin’ on down to San Antone..
When I was just a baby my mama told me. Son,
Always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns.
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry..
I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee and smoking big cigars.
Well I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free
But those people keep a movin’
And that’s what tortures me…
Well if they freed me from this prison,
If that railroad train was mine
I bet I’d move it on a little farther down the line
Far from Folsom prison, that’s where I want to stay
And I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away…..
When it comes to good storytelling, folks like Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce are American classics. Here is “An Occurrence at Owl Creek,” by Ambrose Bierce, which I read at age 17.
I. A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the sleepers supporting the metals of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners–two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff. At a short remove upon the same temporary platform was an officer in the uniform of his rank, armed. He was a captain. A sentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the position known as “support,” that is to say, vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight across the chest–a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect carriage of the body. It did not appear to be the duty of these two men to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge; they merely blockaded the two ends of the foot planking that traversed it. Beyond one of the sentinels nobody was in sight; the railroad ran straight away into a forest for a hundred yards, then, curving, was lost to view. Doubtless there was an outpost farther along. The other bank of the stream was open ground–a gentle acclivity topped with a stockade of vertical tree trunks, loopholed for rifles, with a single embrasure through which protruded the muzzle of a brass cannon commanding the bridge. Midway of the slope between the bridge and fort were the spectators–a single company of infantry in line, at “parade rest,” the butts of the rifles on the ground, the barrels inclining slightly backward against the right shoulder, the hands crossed upon the stock. A lieutenant stood at the right of the line, the point of his sword upon the ground, his left hand resting upon his right. Excepting the group of four at the center of the bridge, not a man moved. The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless. The sentinels, facing the banks of the stream, might have been statues to adorn the bridge. The captain stood with folded arms, silent, observing the work of his subordinates, but making no sign. Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.
The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about thirty-five years of age. He was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit, which was that of a planter. His features were good–a straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, dark hair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collar of his well-fitting frock coat. He wore a mustache and pointed beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp. Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.
The preparations being complete, the two private soldiers stepped aside and each drew away the plank upon which he had been standing. The sergeant turned to the captain, saluted and placed himself immediately behind that officer, who in turn moved apart one pace. These movements left the condemned man and the sergeant standing on the two ends of the same plank, which spanned three of the cross-ties of the bridge. The end upon which the civilian stood almost, but not quite, reached a fourth. This plank had been held in place by the weight of the captain; it was now held by that of the sergeant. At a signal from the former the latter would step aside, the plank would tilt and the condemned man go down between two ties. The arrangement commended itself to his judgment as simple and effective. His face had not been covered nor his eyes bandaged. He looked a moment at his “unsteadfast footing,” then let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet. A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current. How slowly it appeared to move, What a sluggish stream!
He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift–all had distracted him. And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear ones was a sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by–it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each stroke with impatience and–he knew not why–apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer, the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.
He unclosed his eyes and saw again the water below him. “If I could free my hands,” he thought, “I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. My home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader’s farthest advance.”
As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man’s brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside.
Peyton Farquhar was a well-to-do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with the gallant army that had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. That opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in war time. Meanwhile he did what he could. No service was too humble for him to perform in aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.
One evening while Farquhar and his wife were sitting on a rustic bench near the entrance to his grounds, a gray-clad soldier rode up to the gate and asked for a drink of water. Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy to serve him with her own white hands. While she was fetching the water her husband approached the dusty horseman and inquired eagerly for news from the front.
“The Yanks are repairing the railroads,” said the man, “and are getting ready for another advance. They have reached the Owl Creek bridge, put it in order and built a stockade on the north bank. The commandant has issued an order, which is posted everywhere, declaring that any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels or trains will be summarily hanged. I saw the order.”
“How far is it to the Owl Creek bridge?” Farquhar asked.
“About thirty miles.”
“Is there no force on this side the creek?”
“Only a picket post half a mile out, on the railroad, and a single sentinel at this end of the bridge.”
“Suppose a man–a civilian and student of hanging–should elude the picket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel,” said Farquhar, smiling, “what could he accomplish?”
The soldier reflected. “I was there a month ago,” he replied. “I observed that the flood of last winter had lodged a great quantity of driftwood against the wooden pier at this end of the bridge. It is now dry and would burn like tow.”
The lady had now brought the water, which the soldier drank. He thanked her ceremoniously, bowed to her husband and rode away. An hour later, after nightfall, he repassed the plantation, going northward in the direction from which he had come. He was a Federal scout.
As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was awakened–ages later, it seemed to him–by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs. These pains appeared to flash along well-defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity. They seemed like streams of pulsating fire heating him to an intolerable temperature. As to his head, he was conscious of nothing but a feeling of fulness–of congestion. These sensations were unaccompanied by thought. The intellectual part of his nature was already effaced; he had power only to feel, and feeling was torment. He was conscious of motion. Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum. Then all at once, with terrible suddenness, the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud splash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark. The power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream. There was no additional strangulation; the noose about his neck was already suffocating him and kept the water from his lungs. To die of hanging at the bottom of a river!–the idea seemed to him ludicrous. He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible! He was still sinking, for the light became fainter and fainter until it was a mere glimmer. Then it began to grow and brighten, and he knew that he was rising toward the surface–knew it with reluctance, for he was now very comfortable. “To be hanged and drowned,” he thought? “that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair.”
He was not conscious of an effort, but a sharp pain in his wrist apprised him that he was trying to free his hands. He gave the struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a juggler, without interest in the outcome. What splendid effort!–what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo! The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward, the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light. He watched them with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the noose at his neck. They tore it away and thrust it fiercely aside, its undulations resembling those of a water snake. “Put it back, put it back!” He thought he shouted these words to his hands, for the undoing of the noose had been succeeded by the direst pang that he had yet experienced. His neck ached horribly; his brain was on fire; his heart, which had been fluttering faintly, gave a great leap, trying to force itself out at his mouth. His whole body was racked and wrenched with an insupportable anguish! But his disobedient hands gave no heed to the command. They beat the water vigorously with quick, downward strokes, forcing him to the surface. He felt his head emerge; his eyes were blinded by the sunlight; his chest expanded convulsively, and with a supreme and crowning agony his lungs engulfed a great draught of air, which instantly he expelled in a shriek!
He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived. He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck. He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf–saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the grey spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon flies’ wings, the strokes of the water-spiders’ legs, like oars which had lifted their boat–all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.
He had come to the surface facing down the stream; in a moment the visible world seemed to wheel slowly round, himself the pivotal point, and he saw the bridge, the fort, the soldiers upon the bridge, the captain, the sergeant, the two privates, his executioners. They were in silhouette against the blue sky. They shouted and gesticulated, pointing at him. The captain had drawn his pistol, but did not fire; the others were unarmed. Their movements were grotesque and horrible, their forms gigantic.
Suddenly he heard a sharp report and something struck the water smartly within a few inches of his head, spattering his face with spray. He heard a second report, and saw one of the sentinels with his rifle at his shoulder, a light cloud of blue smoke rising from the muzzle. The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle. He observed that it was a grey eye and remembered having read that grey eyes were keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them. Nevertheless, this one had missed.
A counter-swirl had caught Farquhar and turned him half round; he was again looking into the forest on the bank opposite the fort. The sound of a clear, high voice in a monotonous singsong now rang out behind him and came across the water with a distinctness that pierced and subdued all other sounds, even the beating of the ripples in his ears. Although no soldier, he had frequented camps enough to know the dread significance of that deliberate, drawling, aspirated chant; the lieutenant on shore was taking a part in the morning’s work. How coldly and pitilessly–with what an even, calm intonation, presaging, and enforcing tranquillity in the men–with what accurately measured intervals fell those cruel words:
“Attention, company! . . Shoulder arms! . . . Ready! . . . Aim! . . . Fire!”
Farquhar dived–dived as deeply as he could. The water roared in his ears like the voice of Niagara, yet he heard the dulled thunder of the volley and, rising again toward the surface, met shining bits of metal, singularly flattened, oscillating slowly downward. Some of them touched him on the face and hands, then fell away, continuing their descent. One lodged between his collar and neck; it was uncomfortably warm and he snatched it out.
As he rose to the surface, gasping for breath, he saw that he had been a long time under water; he was perceptibly farther down stream nearer to safety. The soldiers had almost finished reloading; the metal ramrods flashed all at once in the sunshine as they were drawn from the barrels, turned in the air, and thrust into their sockets. The two sentinels fired again, independently and ineffectually.
The hunted man saw all this over his shoulder; he was now swimming vigorously with the current. His brain was as energetic as his arms and legs; he thought with the rapidity of lightning.
The officer,” he reasoned, “will not make that martinet’s error a second time. It is as easy to dodge a volley as a single shot. He has probably already given the command to fire at will. God help me, I cannot dodge them all!”
An appalling splash within two yards of him was followed by a loud, rushing sound, diminuendo, which seemed to travel back through the air to the fort and died in an explosion which stirred the very river to its deeps!
A rising sheet of water curved over him, fell down upon him, blinded him, strangled him! The cannon had taken a hand in the game. As he shook his head free from the commotion of the smitten water he heard the deflected shot humming through the air ahead, and in an instant it was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond.
“They will not do that again,” he thought; “the next time they will use a charge of grape. I must keep my eye upon the gun; the smoke will apprise me–the report arrives too late; it lags behind the missile. That is a good gun.”
Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round–spinning like a top. The water, the banks, the forests, the now distant bridge, fort and men–all were commingled and blurred. Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color–that was all he saw. He had been caught in a vortex and was being whirled on with a velocity of advance and gyration that made him giddy and sick. In a few moments he was flung upon the gravel at the foot of the left bank of the stream–the southern bank–and behind a projecting point which concealed him from his enemies. The sudden arrest of his motion, the abrasion of one of his hands on the gravel, restored him, and he wept with delight. He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it. It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble. The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms. A strange, roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of olian harps. He had no wish to perfect his escape–was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.
A whiz and rattle of grapeshot among the branches high above his head roused him from his dream. The baffled cannoneer had fired him a random farewell. He sprang to his feet, rushed up the sloping bank, and plunged into the forest.
All that day he traveled, laying his course by the rounding sun. The forest seemed interminable; nowhere did he discover a break in it, not even a woodman’s road. He had not known that he lived in so wild a region. There was something uncanny in the revelation.
By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famishing. The thought of his wife and children urged him on. At last he found a road which led him in what he knew to be the right direction. It was as wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled. No fields bordered it, no dwelling anywhere. Not so much as the barking of a dog suggested human habitation. The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective. Overhead, as he looked up through this rift in the wood, shone great garden stars looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations. He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance. The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which–once, twice, and again–he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.
His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it found it horribly swollen. He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it. His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cold air. How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue–he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet!
Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene–perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium. He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forward with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon–then all is darkness and silence!
Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.”
That’s some good storytelling right there! I invite you to search The Wisdom Archive for quotes, poetry, proverbs, lyrics, and sayings.