August 17, 2023

#08-336: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

A railroad bridge in Alabama (Wikimedia)

Note: A Buddhist sutra tells us life is "a bubble in a stream, A flash of lightening in a summer cloud, A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream." No story I know illustrates the point better than this one.

Get Ready: What do you think happens in a person's mind at the moment of death?

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," by Ambrose Bierce, is one of the most famous stories in American literature.

As this tale of the Civil War begins, a 35-year-old civilian Southerner is standing on one end of a plank stretched over two ties on a railroad bridge, with a noose around his neck and his hands tied behind his back. A Union (Northern) sergeant stands on the other end. 

The man thinks of his wife and children, and hears a slow, beating metallic sound--actually the ticking of his watch striking his overwrought senses--and thinks of how he could escape if only he could free his hands. But the sergeant steps off his end, and the plank tips the man toward the lazy stream below.

In a flashback we see how the man, a well-to-do planter named Peyton Farquhar, came to be in such a predicament. Sitting near the gate of his plantation with his wife one evening, he spoke with a passing soldier in gray--the uniform of the South--who told him about the strategic importance of Owl Creek Bridge, located about 30 miles (about 50 kilometers) away. This planted the idea in Farquhar's mind of destroying the bridge. Unfortunately, the "Confederate soldier" was a Union spy, sent out to lure potential saboteurs to the bridge.

Returning to the story's present: the rope breaks! Farquhar falls into the creek, frees his hands, removes the noose, and rises to the surface amid gunfire. He floats downstream, beyond the fusillade, and rushes up a distant bank. He begins walking through a dense forest, surprised that there is one so close to his home.

"Fatigued, footsore, [and] famished," he is driven on by thoughts of his family. Finding a road, he looks up to see unfamiliar golden constellations in the sky and hears whispers from the wood "in an unknown tongue." He feels as though he has fallen asleep while walking. 

Suddenly standing at the gate of his home, he sees his wife awaiting him. Springing forward to embrace her, he feels a blow to the back of his neck, and sees a blinding light all around him--and then "all is darkness and silence!"

The last sentence reads, "Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge."


Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. famished
  2. footsore
  3. fusillade
  4. noose
  5. overwrought
  6. plank
  7. plantation
  8. predicament
  9. saboteurs
  10. well-to-do
  1. anxious
  2. very hungry
  3. rich
  4. a large farm
  5. a bad situation
  6. a loop of rope
  7. enemy agents who destroy something
  8. having sore feet
  9. a wooden board
  10. a blast of bullets

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for August 17, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. b; 2. h; 3. j; 4. f; 5. a; 6. i; 7. d; 8. e; 9. g; 10. c