An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge or “A dead man’s dream” is a short story by American author, Ambrose Bierce. The story is about a man, who is about to be executed by being hung from the bridge he was attempting to sabotage and his disorderly escape.
The story begins with him standing on a plank opposing two guard officials and the executioner. As the noose of the rope is tightened around his neck, he distinctly begins to hear his clock tick. Flash memories of his wife keep whizzing past his brain. Looking around for options to flee, he realises it is too late. As the opposite end of the plank is ungrounded, he miraculously falls into the water, unties his bonds and begins to swim away. Once he surfaces, he begins to distinctly hear and more importantly, takes notice of the sounds of nature, like the water gushing around him, the birds chirping in the woods and the stiff breeze blowing against his wet clothes. This moment of his was interrupted by the fire of a rifle aimed straight at him. As the bullets kept shooting by, he swam as fast as he could to avoid getting hit by them. Once he reached land, he again was delighted to have survived and began his journey back home past the woods. During this time he was constantly thinking of his wife and child and how lucky he is to have survived. Between this and the time he reaches home, he has multiple near death experiences with the guards, but, eventually makes it home alive. As he walks towards his home, he sees his wife who too is delighted to see him alive. The two run towards each other, their faces blooming with joy and as he reaches her and hugs her he feels a rope tighten around his neck, crushing it in an instant as he collapses.
It is revealed that the entire escape right from the moment of the fall to the time he collapses was all a figment of his imagination. His escape was a dream that lasted in real time, only a fraction of a second, however, in his mind, hours had passed. This phenomenon where your brain expands time to create an unreal scenario is called the “twilight zone”. The scientific reason for this is that during a near death experience, our pineal gland located in the centre of our brain secretes a substance called dimethyl tryptamine or DMT which causes visual and auditory hallucinations.
The concept of the warping time by a person when placed in a particular situation sounds impossible to us. However, we do it every single day without even realising it. When we watch something on television that we are not interested in, time, for us, slows down as opposed to when it breezes by when we watch something comparatively interesting. Although, achieving the capability to warp the passage of time consciously is a lot harder.
The story takes the reader over several platforms of expectations and although the pace of the story may be slow, the reader remains engaged. The climax of the story leaves the reader baffled. It however, makes one wonder about things that may have been, chances to do things that have moved into the past and may not be retrievable. He ‘could have’ fallen straight into the river because the rope was too long, he ‘could have’ miraculously made it home alive and he did, but, only inside his mind. To me it was crucial for him to have created this scenario in his head. It helped him see and touch his wife one last time before he died and passed on, even if it were only his imagination. For his imagination was so precise that he could not tell the difference. Is not that what actually matters? That he believed he lived. A millisecond before his body shut down, he was a happy man, in the arms of a loving wife, who had just regained the gift of life. The reality does not matter. Life is about the reality you create for yourself. The picture you paint in your head.