Authors: Jesper Wung-Sung
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Everyone wanted to attend that execution; that day was a day of celebration.
âHans Christian Andersen, in his diary
t is the night before the boy is to be executed on Gallows Hill. He is sentenced to death on charges of arson and the murder of the sheriff's little son with a stone.
It is cold, damp, and black as the bottom of a well in the prison cell, but the boy is not alone. The boy can feel it. There, against the opposite wall. It squats down low and keeps a close eye on the boy. Lifts a hand, and points a finger at him. Laughs at him.
Still in a squatting posture, its tail sticking out like a wooden stake, Satan lurches forward. The boy has not slept a wink, but now he pretends to do so. He remains lying still, even though he can hear the straw being shoved across the floor, then suddenly stop. The boy is so scared he cannot breathe, yet he waits, till a warm stench of rotten flesh hangs just before his nose.
Then the boy strikes. He cannot see a thing, but he swings his arm with all his might. And he hits something. Hard. He hears what must be the sound of a nose being crushed. Feels the blow reverberate up his arm, over his shoulder, and into his chest, before his opponent disappears; it retreats with what can no longer be called a nose.
It is gone.
But nothing has changed. It is the night before the boy is to be executed on Gallows Hill.
t is before dawn on the day the boy is to be executed on Gallows Hill. The first rays of light slowly draw away the dark of night. The dog, which is lying on the ground below the cell window in the February chill, emits a short bark; not so loud that you'd be inclined to chase it down the road on its three legs, but loud enough for the boy to hear it.
The boy must have slept after all, for he has dreamt. He has dreamt of a wide river bathed in light. The boy was driven down the river on a raft. Lying with one hand tucked under his head, he made no attempt to steer, just drifted along with the current, while his eyes followed the movements of plants and animals, colorful birds, trees with their roots hanging in the water, a rock lizard's unbelievably long tongue. This he watched with half-closed eyesâhow a turtle climbed up onto the raft to sun itself at the tips of his bare toes. His brown knees pointed straight up into the sky. Now and then he dozed off.
Now the boy is awake. He knows very well which river it was. The one with all the
's: Mississippi. In America. His father's America.
Exactly how it should be. Long and meandering. And for every
on the river, a new adventure. A new opportunity.
It could be his.
Or everythingâincluding all the restâcould be just a dream.
The boy thinks about his father's large blue-red hands. His gaze under the shade of his cap. His voice, in the evenings, in the hills beyond the town, as he lay in a shed or under a bush, talking about America.
“Oh come on, tell me, Dad.”
“Ooh, yes. You've done it so many times.”
“No, Niels. Not now.”
His father tugged gently on his elbow to prevent him from sitting up.
“Come on! Tell me about the bison! How big they are!”
“Did I talk about bison?”
“You know very well that you did! When that big gray bull chased after me. You said it would be no match for the bison. That it would've fled like a chicken!”
“Did I promise that?”
His father drew the blanket over him.
“Okay. But this is a bedtime story.”
His father's cough disappeared as he told the story. About their plan. About how they would sail over there, together. The bison, the birds, and the prairies they would see. How they would find a piece of land that was theirs. How the sun would shine, and the rain would fall. How it would all work out. How they would be farmers.
And then the boy couldn't help adding to the dream, till he fell asleep. Later, after he meets the girl, he adds more still, that she is with them in America: When he comes home in the evenings after working the fields, she stands in the doorway of the hut with her long, blond hair. She waves. He waves back. In the hut his father sits in a rocking chair by the fire.
But now the boy catches sight of something strange in the near dark. It is resting on his right thigh. Some time passes before he realizes that it's his hand. The hand is swollen in hues of yellowish blue and red, as though it were a large turnip. He can neither open nor close the hand. It is not a dream. It is as real as the fly that crawls over the hand.
“It's your hand, Niels,” the boy says.
He was just a small boy when they walked past a workhouse, but he will never forget it. His father dragged him along, as if he were a dumb household pet; they couldn't pass by fast enough. This just made the boy more curious. He craned his neck to stare. A few shapes sat in the yard weaving straw mats, or arranging some lines of rope. They didn't look up. But when they were almost out of sight, a big man raised his head, and the boy looked into those dark eye-pits, like two black coins. He will never forget that horrid, sucked-in feeling of being able to see right
Even when they were long past the yard and he could barely make out the workhouse over his shoulder, his father continued to hurry him along. He pulled so hard on his arm that the boy nearly stumbled.
The chimney of the workhouse had long since disappeared when his father finally slowed down and came to a halt.
“It's like being buried alive,” he said.
Now he can feel them. His father's fingers gripping his shoulder. When he talked about the workhouse. How his whole arm shook, as if he had a fever.