When you have lost everything, even your name, there is little point in going on. I was not churlish enough to leave my body hanging where I would be found by those who would be hurt by it. I brought my rope with me to the park. There was an old maple tree in the park, the stairs down passed close enough he could tie off, and once I lept out, the fall would offer no chances to back out. It would be done, and one thing at least would go right.
I had tied the knot myself, I had to break down and watch a YouTube video to figure out how. I looked at the tree in the darkness, lit only by the light of the moon, and the pale light from the parking lot at the top of the stairs on the hill above. The tree was a great dark brooding presence in the middle of the grove. Squat ravens eyed me with scant interest as they tucked their heads into their feathers as the spring winds sought the warmth of the night black sea as they sighed off the slumbering white capped mountains.
“You a good dancer boy?” the voice shocked me to my core.
A street person in battered old combats sat in the shadows at the base of the stairs and looked at me in curiosity, one cold blue eye and shining white teeth grinning back in the moonlight like deaths shadow.
“You tied that too tight, you are going to strangle slow. I don’t mind. I seen some dance and kick like they were dancing for their light-o-love, and if you a dancer boy, then have at her. If you aren’t a dancer, you’re just going to look lame and pathetic. Not that I care, but if you want to go out with a little style and can’t dance, you’d best let me fix that for you”
He chuckled, the old bastard was LAUGHING at me.
I won’t be mocked. On top of everything taken from me, everything lost, I will not be mocked. I shook the rope in my fist and screamed at the old man. “You have no idea what you are talking about, no bloody idea who you are talking to, and you have no idea how dangerous mocking me is today old man. No bloody idea at all”
He threw back his head, and the wreckage of his face caught the light. One side showed the ravages of gods only knows what. He threw back his head and laughed in great hacking gasps that caused the ravens to echo his laughter until they sounded a corvid chorus of mockery.
He rose to his feet, and threw his hands wide, his eye blazing bright in the light, and a dangerous potency hung on his limbs like a banner flapping on a field of corpses. His voice rasped with a dark contempt as he spun and gestured like an actor upon the stage, fingers taking in my figure where I stood above him in the light, weaving in word and gestures his webs about me.
“Who am I talking to? I know your name-to-be boy. I know them all. Shall I name them? Behold boy the names you will bear when the tree bears your burden. Shit-breeks I name you, for full will be your trousers when you are found. Late-hung I name you, for had you been hung while living, much delights maidens would have from you, but now you will be late-hung. Two-cherry I name thee, for the raven’s will have twice the fruit of thee they would of me” He pulled down the cheek below his intact eye to leer at me, and the ravens cackled in a way that made the vision of them plucking my eyes from my hanging corpse seem real enough my own gorge rose, and the urge to throw up caught me. I spilled my guts noisily as the old man laughed.
He took a pull from a bottle in his combat coat pocket, and extended it to me.
I swished the cheap rum around my mouth and swallowed its burning down to wash the bile from my mouth. He extended a hank of some kind of jerky, fish I think, and I began to chew the leather hard meat to settle my stomach and banish the feeling of ravens plucking my eyes from my mind.
“Half a loaf and half filled cup, full friend found. Tell you now boy, you throw up my booze, I am going to kick your ass before you hang yourself, on that I oath.” He seemed unperturbed by my presence and purpose, even if crazy, he at least understood.
I whispered “Who are you?” He slapped me on the back and grinned. Taking a deep swig of the rum he ruffled my hair like I was a small boy.
“Last name I give you, they once gave me. Farmr galga, burden of gallows. You can call me Heimþinguðr hanga, visitor of the hanged. My wife called me asshole, mostly because her friends called me often.”
I stared off into the darkness, seeing the choices that brought me here. Pride brought me to the edge, anger wouldn’t let me turn, and the people that got hurt I couldn’t fix. I let my anger fall away. It hadn’t helped then, when I broke things, and it certainly couldn’t help me now they were past fixing. “Listen old man, you don’t understand, this is about justice, if its about anything.”
Passing me the rum, he took the rope and began to work it. I opened my mouth to object, but he drove four inches of a blade twice that length into the post with a casual flick, driving it deeper than I could manage with a sledgehammer. I drank while he worked. His fingers working with a speed and skill at odds with the bedraggled appearance of a broken old homeless veteran, hinting at whatever he had been, before.
“Nobody wants justice. Wish justice upon your enemies, if you wish, but punishment is what you usually mean. For yourself you can have all the punishment you want, but scant justice will it bring. You broke trust, and you can’t splice that back like I do this rope. You broke your name, and everything it once meant. You hang yourself to end it shit-breeks that is all you will be.” His voice held neither interest nor judgement, he could have been discussing the weather. He continued in the same tones.
“Now I could hang you. Hang you right. Leave your fool ass here in the dark of the grove. Leave you to storm winds lash, to moonlights eye, and cold rain’s scourge. Leave you in the dark with naught but the Tree and the silence. Sun won’t be up for another nine hours, if nothing eats you, and no one crazier than me happens by, maybe you might figure out who you are. Hangi, hanged one who hung to learn, or Farmr galga, gallows bait who fed those fat lazy bastards. Don’t worry, the ravens will wait until morning to take your eyes, not much longer, they don’t trust the gulls to leave their food alone.”
The rum must have been hitting me pretty good. It actually made a sort of sense, and I let the old crazy bastard bind me in the darkness to the tree. I shivered in the cold, alone with my thoughts and the growing pain in my limbs. At one point I began to be afraid, I saw the shadows of big dogs moving between the trees, and the ache of the cold in my muscles began to make me fear for my life. I tried laughing then, half sobbing, as I realized the foolishness of being scared I might die on the tree I came to hang myself on.
Alone beneath the pitiless moon, cold rain scourging me, I had all the time in the world to look backwards at choices made, failures only now clear. Misery sat easily on my straining shoulders, but the night is long, the darkness patient, and the tree pitiless. I cannot stop my mind. I turn things around and around, justice he mocked me with. I see the futility of it. Had I ended as he mocked, shit-breeks, hung and dead, no wrong I had wrought would be fixed, no balance could I make for those I had wronged.
The bark dug into me, the moon danced slowly above me, and the shivering of my muscles burned like fire, my joints aching like I hung not alone, but with all my deeds with me. I struggled to take the weight off my joints.
My breath was hard, as my chest could scarce rise with my arms so bound, and my arms all but out of their sockets as I hung. I felt a growl in my chest, and an answering growl in the darkness. No, I had enough of hanging helpless, it solved nothing.
I straightened my legs and back, raising my head to face the deep dark, turning away from the distracting light to face the dark before me. Taking the rope past where it bound my wrists, I took it in my hands and let my muscles take some of my weight. Hard on my hands and wrists it was, my muscles screaming and shivering, but my breath came easier. There was no hiding from it, no running from it, there was only facing it. I had nothing but my own strength for as long as it lasted, and no hope of any real change, but so long as I could stand, I would stand. So long as I could strive, I would strive.
Looking into the darkness, I saw golden eyes staring back at me. Dark forms moving in the darkness. There were always monsters in the darkness, especially the darkness you feared to look at. There was enough of that in the mirror every morning, but it was always hard to turn to the darkness and face it when the light of the moon offered gentler sights.
I snarled into the darkness. Whatever was out there I would face. Helpless and bound, I was yet a man I think, and would face what must be faced.
Justice is not about punishment alone. Punishment fixes nothing. You cannot unring a bell, unbreak a trust, or unscrew a life, but you can take ownership of the mistakes you made. You can acknowledge the debt to those you failed and do your best to use every bit of strength you had in you to be there to aid those who struggled under the burdens I gave them. The dead fix nothing, the living don’t have a great record either, but they don’t always fail unless they fail to try.
Dawn was a long way off, so was hope. I had only the rope, the tree, and the darkness. Sometime in the night I passed beyond my body, and into the tree, down into its roots, into the truths whispered not to the living. The sky bled a dark purple, not light, but not blackness any longer when he came to me again.
Thrice he struck, once to the hangman’s knot that bound my neck above, then left and right to the ropes that crucified me to the great tree’s bark. His great bony fist caught the hangman’s know below the turnings, and dragged me to the picnic table to lay me down to recover. A tattered sleeping bag he wrapped me in.
Dawn rose, and I looked at the tree from which I had hanged, upon which I was to have hung myself. Around its base were tracks of beast, greater than any dog. No tracks from the old man could I see, only my own, and those of two great hounds.
I shivered in the dawns cold light, and the laughter of the ravens called my thoughts back. Two great glossy beasts took wing, harsh cries giving mockery to the slow turnings of my bewildered mind. I turned to face the dawn. Life goes on, and there was much yet for me to do.
Turning my back to the tree, I turned my face square to the dawn. Neither the light nor dark would I shy from, I had too much yet to do. I came to the tree because my life had turned to shit. The old man did not offer me sunshine and roses, but he bound me to the tree until I could see the choices as he did. I could hang from the tree with shit in my breeks, or I could rise from the tree and stride forward towards my responsibilities, because I had shit to do.
One of them is worthy, even if sometimes both stink.
Bynames of Odin
- Hangi – “Hanged One”
- Valdr galga – “Ruler of Gallows”
- Farmr galga – “Gallows’ Burden”
- Heimþinguðr hanga – “Visitor of the Hanged”
John T Mainer