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Thursday, 09 August 2007

An Occurence at Owl Creek

By Mike Rubbo who blogs with 107-year-old Olive Riley at The Life of Riley

I think I will start with a story which is not something which happened to me, but which comes from a short black-and-white film, French made, which I saw 30 years ago and have never forgotten. It was called, An Occurrence at Owl Creek.

Since recording my memory of the film, I've found out that it, in turn, was based on story by Ambrose Bierce. I guess if I was to read the orginal, I might find that I've produced a Chinese whisper, something far from the original. But since I like my memory of the story the way it is, I'll leave it for you to look up Ambrose Bierce and see how it differs. Here's the story from my mind's eye.

We are looking down on a railway trestle bridge that's some way off. Our view cuts right along the bridge, the tracks going away from us in gleaming perspective of early light. It's either winter or very early spring for the trees, which crowd in on the bridge from high banks, are bleak and bare.

A platoon of solders is marching onto the bridge from the distant side. We notice they are escorting a man. Orders are shouted. The platoon stops mid-bridge. An officer has a rope. He throws it over a beam protruding from the bridge. Our view is now closer. We understand that the escorted man is condemned and that he will soon hang.

Carefully, the preparations are made as the victim stands, passively, bereft of hope. No words are spoken. Is a sentence finally read as should be done? Perhaps, I don't remember. I remember silence.

The view comes closer as the noose is adjusted around the prisoner's neck. He is handsome, his dark hair flowing, with an aristocratic look to him. One imagines he's an officer who has made some terrible mistake. Or is he a Confederate and his captors Union soldiers? He's wearing a white shirt open at the neck, ruffles on his wrists which are tied in front of him.

All ready, he's pushed out onto a plank weighed down at the bridge end by several soldiers. An order is shouted. The soldiers step aside and the man hurtles down. Then, something totally unexpected happens. We can only assume that the rope breaks, for the prisoner plunges into the icy river below.

Underwater, his hands are fighting to free themselves from the rope. They succeed and he's able to swim, which he does downstream, staying underwater. Overhead, shouts, confusion. At last he surfaces with a tremendous in-gasp of breath.

On the bridge, more shouting and confusion. He's spotted as muskets are pointed. Shots ring out. Bullets pock the rapid steam around him as he dives again, the current carrying him. He's further away now, almost around a bend. Again, a great gasp of breath as the man hauls himself out of the swift flow, into the shelter of drooping naked willows.

The solders on the bridge are streaming down, taking the pursuit along the banks through the impeding tangle of flood debris.

The man is out of the water, shirt sodden, running for firmer ground. He's into woods whose dark cathedral pines afford even more shelter. The pursuers’ shouts are more distant. He realizes he's got away. He stops to catch his breath, panting with exhaustion and relief.

Now the scene changes, the countryside is different, a shift which might provide a clue that all it not as it seems. The man comes out of a copse of larger silent trees onto a gravel carriage way, lined with poplars. It becomes a wide avenue leading a distant house, stately yet inviting.

The man now breaks into a run along this avenue towards the house. One wonders, does he know the place, is he coming home? As if in answer, he raises his two arms, outstretching them towards the house. Looking the other way, we see that a young woman in a full flowing white dress has come out of the house and is coming, almost floating, down the same path towards him. There is a look of surprise and delight on her face. Joy is on his face too as our view pans rapidly between the two, closer and closer to each other

He comes to her in a great rush. Their hands are about to touch, arms embrace, when - the rope snaps his neck and his lifeless body dangles below the bridge.

Indifferently, the officer calls an order. The platoon marches off the bridge the way they came.

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Ew, Mike. You are a good storyteller, but I like happier endings.

Very well written. Nonetheless, the ending jolted me as I sit here with my early morning coffee....

Good story with a twist. I could visualize the scenes from your well written descriptions.

The surprise ending leaves one with sad questions. Was it an illusion? Did he, in his last moments, fantasize the scene? Or did his death reunite him with his wife who had died before? I suppose it's one of those endings that you can choose to suit yourself. You described it well. I can see why you have ever forgotten it.

Ooooh, good. Gave me goose bumps.

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