The tiny kingdom of Obam had come into existence some twenty years ago after the king (Obam’s self-declared high priest) had driven off or destroyed the many surrounding little kingdoms. John Dumar, aged eleven at the time, and thought to be a half-wit, since he never spoke a word and had probably been traumatized by the murder of his parents by the king’s hangman, was put to work for the blacksmith. Ten years later the blacksmith died and John took over the shop and became fiercely competent, though still saying never more than four words to anyone, which were, “I can do it.”
In the quiet hours of night John thought. He thought about the people, who scuttled around half fearful of their own shadows, who jumped in alarm at every unexpected sound. And sometimes in the night he heard wailings and sobbings. But he never heard a word spoken against the king, who taxed half or more of their meager earnings and took away half their crops to the castle, and after feeding his two hundred soldiers burnt up the leftovers as offerings to Obam, the holy god. John hated Obam, despised the people, despised the king, yes, and the surly, cynical hangman. He did not know what to do about anything until one day a wretched traveler stumbled into Obam, and before he was taken away to be hung he said, or rather yelled, about a land far to the west where there was no king and men were free. He was immediately shut up and hung, and his words were said to be those of a madman who was sent by the devil to stir up discontent.
A light flicked on in John Dumar’s mind and he decided to seek freedom in life or freedom in death. But before he could form a plan his temper made a sudden change.
John Dumar was to be hanged for not paying his taxes. He had known this for six months. Last October the taxman had knocked at his door and shouted, “Pay up, in the name of the king!” Having paid his quarterly taxes just the month before, in a sudden fit of rage John had opened the door and thrown a pail of animal waste on the stunned tax collector. An hour later he had been bound and taken away by a company of the king’s soldiers. He was tossed into a dungeon of the castle and told that he had six months to live. He would be hanged on April second, his thirty-first birthday.
John was a strong, stockily-built man with dark, blue-black hair and dark blue smoldering eyes over a square face and a rugged chin. He had a short, thick neck and powerful shoulders. In the small dark gloomy room of his dungeon there were quite a few loose bricks and a large wooden bucket with a long curving handle. An idea formed in his mind as he looked at them. John found that he could fill the bucket up with bricks and still have room to fit his head under the handle. He then formed a plan of action onm a faint possibility. He proceeded to carry it out.
Day after weary day, between the early hour when he was fed bread and water for breakfast and the late hour when he was given some kind of slop for dinner, he exercised his neck muscles. The first week, with just three bricks in the bucket, he bent down on his knees and lifted the bucket with his head (the handle was secured with some rags) over and over again, until it hurt, and did it again every half hour or so. The second week he added a brick, and again lifted, up and back, side to side, until his whole neck burned with the effort. He did other exercises as well, pushups, with the bucket of bricks on his back, heavier each week. He was able to loop a piece of old rope over a rafter and tie one end of it to a bar in the wall, the other to the bucket handle. He left it hanging low enough so he could lie underneath it and do his pushups with the bucket of bricks on his back. He also did a variety of arm-lifts, each week adding more bricks. The old, greasy wooden bucket was the sole focus of all his waking hours.
Weeks passed, and he was able to get fish added to his meals. The hangman, his keeper, laughed with derision as he threw the half-eaten catfish on the stone floor. John’s neck muscles grew larger and stronger, but no one noticed, for the simple fact that no one ever looked. Besides, he took the precaution of always wearing his shirt collar high whenever his food was brought to him. Day after day he exercised, slept at odd hours, woke, exercised, fell exhausted to the floor, woke, worked himself hard as a slave-master, unrelenting.
Now, on February first, the bucket as full as he could get it and still fit in his head. The cords around his neck bulged with strength and power, but was it enough? He knew that most men were left hanging for two hours before they were cut down. How long could he last? There was but one way to find out. He would have to hang himself.
He had no bed to stand on (he slept on straw), but he had an old beat up stool. Not that he really neede it—for he could simply bend his knees—but that seemed to easy, with no real threat for failure. So he loosened the rope from the bucket, fixed a noose, put it around his neck, stood on the stool, and bent his knees. He swayed slightly. The rafter creaked. “Hold!” he yelled in his mind. It was hard to breathe and he began to get dizzy. His legs ached from keeping his knees bent for so long. How long? Maybe only ten minutes, at most. He reached his toes down—and felt nothing! He almost panicked, but then, yes! there it was! He let himself down, gasping for air.
When his body became calm again one thought twisted its tortured, but logical, way into his consciousness: I’ll have to hanf myself over and over again until I can hang for at least two hours, three for good measure.
Then began the most dire and excrutiating, the most terrible series of experiments and self-torture imaginable. Night after night in that dark and foul-smelling dungeon John Dumar hung himself, starting at the seven o’clock bell (which he could faintly hear ringing at a nearby church) and ending, after a few weeks, at the eight o’clock bell, and finally, in mid-March, at the nine o’clock bell. Through all those self-torturing experiments and exercises he never once thought that he would fail. He only said to himself, “If I can hang myself fifty times, surely the king can hang me once.”
During the day, besides continuing his neck exercises, he practised breathing exercises: he held his breath for as long as he could, again and again and again. Held it while exercising with the bucket, held it during stand-in-place running, counting, as evenly as he could, the passing seconds, then minutes. “Yes,” he thought, “I am only a bit past two hours hanging, but there’s still two weeks, and it will be easier not having to bend my knees when I’m really hung.” He even gave thought to the manner of his hanging—how it would look to the watchers.
The days seemed to be passing faster. He slept well. Even the straw over the stone floor seemed softer. Before falling asleep he did not think of friends or family. He had none. He was a blacksmith, whose only friends were the horses he shod and the flames he fanned. He thought of freedom in a strange new land, of what it would mean to live without a king and to be his own master. Where it was, or even if it really existed outside of a madman’s brain, he didn’t know, but he would search for it. First, he had to hang to death.
The morning of April second was alive with the sound of birds chirping and twittering and singing their joyous love of life. A few gold-edged clouds drifted leisurely across the horizon with a promise of glorious existence. The air was sweet and a gentle breeze fluttered the baby leaves in the tall trees around.
The scaffold had been set up the night before, right in front of the king’s castle, and now the defeated people came, all dressed from head to toe in black, as was the custom. Black pants and shirts, black boots and hats, for the men, long black dresses and black cowls for the women. Bright yellow sun streaking the blue sky, slow-moving black clouds on the land. From several roads the black clouds poured in like smoke to amass and halt at the foot of the scaffold.
John Dumar, the prisoner, the evil one who had not paid his taxes, the monster of a human being who had dared to keep all his earnings and defy the wishes of the king, was led forth, with the golden hood of sacrifice over his head. His step was so proud, his every motion so sure and vital, the black cloud rolled back a bit as he advanced. Even the hangman himself seemed uncertain–or perhaps afraid–(though he laughed to cover it) and kept as far in front of his victim as he could. John reached the steps, stopped, and looked up through the holes in his hood at the rope by which he was to hang. Good, it was slightly thicker than he had hoped for. The hardest test would come when the floor beneath him opened and all his weight, his very living body, would become his deadliest enemy.
He mounted the steps with lightness. When he reached the top a horn sounded and from the gray wood and stone castle came the old gray king, draped all in glaring red. He was tall and slighly bent; he walked in a shuffling kind of way, and his long, thin gray beard swayed back and forth as he twisted his harrow head nervously to left and to right, peering around with little gray eyes. Some soldiers, wearing long robes of purest white, rolled up a small stand some three feet high and the king was lifted up on it.
He stood there awhile in his blood-red garb, then, in an amazingly powerful voice, declared, “O my people, followers of the one true god Obam, you are gathered here today to witness His great and absolute justice! This vile defiler of Obam’s holy law of taxation refused, yes! refused to pay his taxes! He refused to surrender what he had earned by lucky ability to your needs and mine! He wanted to keep it all for his miserable little self! He did not think of you and your hunger; he did not think of the needs of Obam’s holy castle! He thought only of himself! There is no greater sin than to put yourself first! And for that he deserves the ultimate punishment—in order to make him a good man! All of you who are in agreement bow yourselves down!” The worthless, humble, fearful black cloud shrunk down into the dusty ground. “Never, oh never, never, never, try to sin against Obam, for He is mighty, He is all-powerful, He is master of the world!
Now, hang him!”
During this harangue John had not stirred. His whole mind was focused on making all the muscles of his body as loose as possible and keeping extremely alert. He would have to hear the hangman when he began to move the lever which would release the floor, and at that second tighten his neck muscles with every ounce of strength within him. Looking down at the dull cloud helped. It was easier than squinting into the sun. His hands did not sweat as he stood there, ready.
Then came the unexpected.
In order to ensure a swifter death, in his great mercy the king ordered two twenty pound sandbags to be placed on the anti-Obam’s shoulders. They were so placed, and tied together that they might not slide off.
John Dumar, man of iron will, did not flinch as he felt the weight of death on his shoulders. If those there could have seen his face they would have trembled at the sight of the slight smile upon his lips. The rope was roughly thrust around his neck and hood and under his chin. The feet of the hangman shuffled over the rough platform as he maliciously chuckled. John heard the chuckles and the small laughing rasp of wood against wood as the lever was moved. He took a deep breath and fiercely tightened his neck muscle, pressing his hard chin on the rope.
He sank! He swayed! His feet kicked wildly about! The black cloud of half humans, having risen, cheered and shouted, “Obam is great! Obam is master! Obam is all!” After a while the feet stopped kicking. The legs hung down straight and limp. The body swayed. The church bells rang. It was eight o’clock on John Dumar’s birthday.
The king and his sodiers departed; the black cloud of people remained, as was the custom, until the dead man should be taken down. Because of the weights that had been placed on his shoulders, and because he certainly was dead, after an hour the hangman hoisted him up and closed the trapdoor, then cut the rope. The body fell to the floor, where the hangman removed the rope from its neck and untied its hands. Next, he removed the hood.
Then the corpse sprang to life! With one mighty hand he grabbed the hangman’s throat and squeezed and squeezed, and squeezed the life out of him! Then he turned, and stepping forward spread out his arms and waved them up and down at the terrified people! Someone yelled that he was turning into a giant vulture! They screamed and screamed! They ran in a panic, tripping over each other, stomping each other to death! Then he roared at them and laughed at them and they scattered away as before a strong spring wind! Some of the king’s men ran out of the castle to see what was the matter, saw the dead man waving and shouting and ran back into the castle and shut and bolted the doors! The king looked over the ramparts, saw him, and ran back into the prayer room and knelt and prayed to two little sticks criss-crossed on the wall!
John Dumar, now done with scaring off the mindless crowd, walked down the middle of the street to his hut, where he gathered some provisions, mounted a horse and rode away under a brilliant sun, while singing, “Freedom, freedom, freedom here I come!”
The king, in his flight to the prayer room, had unwittingly knocked over a burning candlestick. The flame had leaped to tapistries, from tapistries to curtains, to rushes, to furniture, and soon the whole castle was ablaze. The doors of the castle never opened; not one of the two hundred soldiers ran out. They were safe.
Over the waiting hills of spring a blue-black head of hair glistened and bounced along into a challenging future.