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Dancing at the Gibbet, a short story by Pavlo Zahrebelny
Though twenty five hundred years have passed, the time has not dulled the gloomy brightness of colors of this event…
The newly-built scaffold was surrounded by a wide circle of local peasants and burghers wearing grey tunics and jackets made of rough cloth which did not provide any catching points for the eye; by contrast, the tighter circle of Ukrainian guards and myrmidons of wealthy landowners and nobles displayed a wide variety of gaudy colors — this garish display seemed to be designed to proclaim to the world and their masters their obedience and readiness to fulfill any orders: “We are here! At your beck and call!”
There stood at one end of the scaffold a small group of lords and officials whose dresses were a riot of colors although one color predominated — it was red in all of its hues and shades, from the subdued darkest through blood red and to the fiery brightest. As a matter of fact, the coat his Lordship Prytyka was clad in was of a green color, with white silk lining, but his sash of Turkish origin was red, and his sheepskin hat, black on the inside, was of the pomegranate color with a blood-red hue. His saber was hanging from his belt on straps of expensive material of a dark-red color, of a bull’s blood shade; his nose and his cheeks had a lot of red in them too. The Honorable Judge’s coat was scarlet; the scribe sported a jacket of a pink color with white lining; the local vozny official wore a jacket, made of cloth, of a pomegranate color, and the viyt official next to him had a jacket on of a green color but on top of it he had a loose cloak of a pig’s blood color.
There were two other persons standing on the scaffold — one of them wore a well-worn dress of a very melancholy dark red hue; the other man had his hands tied behind his back which indicated that he was the one condemned to death. The gibbet rose in its merciless configuration right above them, its horizontal beam stretching out right over their heads. From its end hang a stout new rope provided with a heavy noose.
The man with his hands tied was a Cossack, and not just an ordinary Cossack — he was the very epitome of Cossackness, in everything, including his dress. His Cossack hat was as tall as a bishop’s miter; his Cossack pants took many cubits of red cloth to make; his crimson belt would hide even the largest hand if it were thrust under it; his coat, made of good cloth of a hot-red color, was long, down to his ankles, complete with large golden buttons; his high red morocco boots were graced with silver-colored heels.
The Cossack moved his luxurious mustaches up and down; his eyes were raised to the sky; he could not see the grey crowd because of the lackeys in gaudy colors who obstructed the view; he did not care to look at the lords, and he would rather spit on the man who stood at his side. It was a hangman. His shirt was not long enough to hide the poor state his threadbare pants were in; the hangman was bare-headed and barefoot. In fact, a hangman was not supposed to wear boots. The feet of the hangman were dirty. The Cossack had noticed that right away and wished the executioner had washed his feet for the occasion. So there was nothing to look at for the Cossack but the sky.
The Honorable Judge meantime began to read the sentence. The Cossack found the sentence too long, boring and preposterous. It made him even smile, and the smile moved his moustache in a belligerent manner. Instead of preparing himself for death — impending, unavoidable death, the Cossack found the situation funny enough to laugh. Even the Cossack’s name had something laughable in it — Perekhrest, or Cross-Yourself-With-the-Sign-of-the-Cross.
The judge droned on, reading from a paper which was held in front of him by the scribe, “Here, in front of us stands one Ivan Perekhrest, leader of a Cossack band, who was caught in an unlawful act and taken to court and incarcerated by the order of His Lordship Prytyka. The said Perehkrest with his band of evil-doers fell upon the unsuspecting good man Prytyka, bound him head and foot, and as they wanted to lead him away, pulling a rope tied around his neck, his good wife, Zuzana Prytyka, stood up in his defense, but she was also beaten up; her arm was broken and wounded to shed blood. The trunks in their house were all broken open, all the things in them and money were robbed and taken away, the servants were chased away, and the Lordship Prytyka was dragged outside the yard of his house and beaten severely with hands, feet and spears. The evildoers proceeded to threaten to pierce his breast with knives if he did not reveal where the rest of his fortune was hidden, and the Lordship Prytyka was forced, under the threat of imminent death, to reveal the hiding place of his treasures which were consequently removed by the attackers and taken away, including documents and money to the amount of five hundred gold pieces, after which evil deeds the Lordship Prytyka was put into a tub at his own wine distillery, and his house was put to the torch.
“About all this violence and savagery the Lordship Prytyka reported quam solenissime manifestantur et protestantur (solemnly accusing and protesting).
“Hereafter, the said Perekhrest was caught alive when the guards descended upon him and his henchmen, shooting to death three of the henchmen — one of them with a bullet fired into the forehead, the other into the neck and the third into the back of his head. The rest scattered and ran away, and the said Perekhrest was brought to court and accused and charged and consequently found guilty, and the said Perekhrest admitted his guilt and made the statement in these words: ‘I, Ivan Perekhrest, hail from the town of Kyshenka, I got hired to be a driver of a wagon drawn by oxen to go to the Crimea to trade in salt. Upon my return from the Crimea, I stopped at the Cossack Sich and stayed there for three years, and then left to look for an occupation to earn my bread. I worked for one Huba Kyslyakivsky, fixing traps and snares against wolves; then I did the fishing on the Boh River, then I stayed the winter with one Diodor Syomak, and then I had a fight with the scribe Hrytsko, and fled to the monastery and stayed with Father Demyan, then I met other Cossacks who told they wanted to make a raid on a wealthy lord…’
“So the said Perekhrest joined the conspiracy to rob people and their ungodly intention was blessed by Father Demyan who provided them with pistols and powder and bullets buying these implements of violence with his own money. Hereafter, the gang crossed the River Irpen into the Polish territory and robbed a priest, and then they robbed the local headman, taking clothes, pistols and other things; then they proceeded farther and crossing the River Zvyahel entered illegally the estate of the Lordship Prytyka and committed their atrocities there as has been described above.
“In view of these crimes perpetrated by the said Perekhrest, he is sentenced to death by hanging by his neck until he dies uti infamen, per publicum justitiae ministrum suspendendum censet, et pro executione ad judicium quodvis civitatense remittit…”
Finishing reading these incomprehensible words, the judge gave a sigh of relief, pulled out a big handkerchief from his bosom, wiped his wide sweaty and meaty face, and after making the puf-puf sounds with his lips, said, addressing no one in particular,
“In other words, as they say, the court rules capitis sententiavit, that is, to punish him with death.”
“Good,” said the lordship Prytyka in a deep voice, his cheeks and many chins shaking like jelly, “now let’s go ahead with it.”
The official said timidly,
“He’s a Christian, you know, and his soul needs a confession and…”
The other official said curtly, “He’s refused to seek absolution and last rites.”
“Then, he is entitled to his last wish, and we must ask him about it,” said the judge.
“Then go ahead and ask him!” cried out the lordship Prytyka.
“Sir,” the judge turned to the vozny official, “go and ask the condemned man what his last wish might be.”
“Why should I go over to him? We can ask this question from where we are.”
“No, you should come up to him and ask. We represent the rule of law here, we are not vulgar murderers.”
The official reluctantly crossed the scaffold over to the Cossack, waved broadly the wide hanging sleeves of his dress, stomped his foot and said,
“Do you have a last wish?”
“If you stomp like this again, you’ll break the scaffold,” said Perekhrest, his white teeth shining in a grin.”
“I’m asking you whether you have a last wish! Do you have any?”
“Why would I not have a last wish? I do. I want to dance hopak one last time before I die.”
The official returned to the group across the scaffold. But he did not have to tell the people there what the Cossack had said — his loud voice carried his message across top them nice and clear.
“He should have asked for a smoke. He could take his time with his pipe and that would postpone death for a little while,” said the viyt official.
“He should have asked for a good drink of vodka!” said Prytyka derisively through his teeth. “Look at him — this fool wants to dance instead!”
“The law allows that,” explained the judge.
“What if he escapes?” said the scribe anxiously.
“How can he escape?” said the viyt official in an attempt to set his and the other’s mind at rest. “The place is surrounded by guards and soldiers! Even a mouse would not escape!”
“All right, let this fool dance,” said Prytyka, his lips showing his great contempt.
“Hey, you, over there! You can dance,” shouted the vozny official, addressing himself to the Cossack.
“I can?” said the Cossack sardonically. “How can I dance with my hands tied? And this earless creep that stands here should move away from me too! Or he can fall into that trapdoor instead of me!”
The judge gestured to indicate that the Cossack’s hands should be untied and the hangman back away from the condemned man to the other side of the platform.
Perekhrest put his right foot forward, lifted the toe of the boot, the heel firmly pressed to the board beneath it; a moment later his both feet went into motion, his heels clicking on the boards; then he jumped up, and as he landed, he began to spin, faster and faster, moving in a circle, then he went into a tap dance, then he jumped several times high into the air, landing and performing all kinds of unimaginable hopak steps and flights; his body seemed to have lost weight altogether.
“He’ll kill himself and will deny us the chance of hanging him!” cried out Prytyka.
“No, this one won’t get killed by a dance. He used to catch wolves in traps and then throttle them with his bare hands,” said the viyt official. “Such kind doesn’t get killed by a dance.”
“They are savage, these villains,” the scribe put in his opinion. “Look at him — we let him dance and he is happy!”
“Well, everyone wants to be happy,” said the judge thoughtfully. “No one will stir a finger without thinking about happiness.”
“Thinking about happiness even before hanging?” Prytyka burst into laughter.
“Yes, Sir, that’s what all people want to have.”
“Even facing sure death?”
“Yes, even facing sure…”
The judge never finished this sentence – he was cut short when the Cossack who had jumped higher than before, landed on the scaffold and disappeared from sight!
His disappearance was so sudden one could think he was blown away by a powerful gust of wind, or washed away by a mighty wave, or incinerated by a thunderbolt — but there was no wind, the golden autumnal day was serene and quiet, no flooding, no lightning.
Prytyka stared at the place where a moment earlier the Cossack could be seen, his mouth gaping. He could not squeeze a single intelligible sound from his mouth. The scribe rubbed his hands contentedly — didn’t he warn them that this Cossack could run away? The judge wrinkled his wide forehead as though he was trying to remember whether anything of the kind had ever happened before. The stupefied viyt official could not take his eyes of the black hole, which the Cossack had apparently fallen into. Only the vozny official who, pragmatic peasant at heart that he was, had the presence of mind to quietly walkover to the hole gaping in the scaffold and check things out. He walked around the hole looking into it. Then he bent to take a closer look, ran his fingers round the edges of the hole in the scaffold boards, then straightened up, wiped his hands, and said calmly, “The planks have been sawed halfway through — and when he jumped on this spot, they gave way.”
“Sawed? By who? Who could have done it?” shouted Prytyka, coming out of his stupor.
“Those who did it, did not inform us about it. And they are gone. And our Cossack is gone too.”
“What d’you mean ‘gone’? He must be there, under the platform! Get him out of there!”
“Well, he’s gone into the earth — there is a hole in the ground, so there must be a tunnel there that had been dug to provide an escape route. The tunnel probably leads all the way to the river where, on the bank overgrown with reeds, he must now be getting on a horse that has been brought there by his accomplices.”
And the vozny official was correct in his clever guess — the Cossack was on the bank of the river mounting his horse. It was his good friend Mykyta Shcherbyna who had organized everything so cleverly — the scaffold built at the right place; the boards sawed right over the mouth of an underground tunnel. He managed to pass word to Perekhrest, “Dance well, my friend, dance wild, jump high, land heavy, use your heels, beat as hard as you can with them into the boards!” If you have such friends, you can always hope for help — and freedom!
And the thud of the hooves of the galloping horse spreads far and wide over the soft earth of the steppe, and the Cossack is on his way to freedom and life...
Wouldn’t it be great if all those Cossacks condemned to death by being hanged, by being impaled, by being quartered, by being decapitated, or by being burned at the stake, could escape the way Perekhrest did? But the story of Perekhrest is just an electronic game, which was shown to me by Mr Rutkivsky, the welcoming proprietor of the Kobza store of Ukrainian goods somewhere in the State of Pennsylvania, USA.
“We have a lot of Ukrainian souvenirs,” he said proudly.
“Do you consider this game to be a Ukrainian souvenir?”
“Yes, we do. You learn something about the Ukrainian history, don’t you? Though it’s a rather expensive gadget too, I think it’s worth it.”
I did not engage the proprietor in a discussion of whether this game had really anything to do with the Ukrainian history. He offered to sell me the play station that played the Hopak at the Gibbet game at “a good discount.” Handling the rather cumbersome contraption I discovered that it was “Made in Japan.”
“An electronic game about Ukrainian history made in Japan?”
“I don’t see anything wrong with it. It’s commerce, you know. We’re in America, I want to remind you. My parents came from Ukraine but I was born in the USA. I can tell you a little story I’ve read somewhere. At a briefing, given by a US State Secretary, the journalists inadvertently discovered that a small bust of President Lincoln that stood on the Secretary’s desk was also ‘Made in Japan’! It’s perfectly ok, I think. The Japanese make Lincolns, sell them to the Americans — that’s what you call trade!”
“There seems to be something wrong in this sort of trade, as far as I am concerned,” I said.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Well, I don’t know about Lincoln, but that story from the Ukrainian history, as you’ve put it, touches upon things which should not be dealt with so lightly. Blood spilled three hundred years ago is still blood, and to turn death into entertainment does not appear to me to be a good idea.”
(Translator’s note: this story by P. Zahrebelny abounds in words which refer to historical garments, things and habits of everyday life of the times long past, and which are no longer in use; translation of such words and references would involve too many footnotes and explanations; also, the author has introduced into the text many words of Polish origin which have been Ukrainianized; since it is a magazine publication rather than an academic one, the translator rendered such words and other historical and other references with no attempt to indicate their archaic, specific or foreign origin; the story has been abridged to fit the magazine format).
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