The chapter opens with lines of the old spiritual, “Hang me and I’ll be dead and gone.” Shadow hangs for the first day, noticing only boredom and discomfort rather than pain. After that, the prickling in his limbs becomes worse and his vision starts to blur. He starts chanting a motto: It’s easy, there’s a trick to it, you do it or you die. A squirrel climbs down the tree, chattering “ratatosk” in Shadow’s ear. Shadow hope the squirrel will not bite, and manages to fall asleep. He sleeps restlessly, the pain waking him often from disturbing dreams.
The spiritual, once sung by slaves in the American South, adds a uniquely American flavor to a ritual that would otherwise be entirely of the old Norse tradition. Shadow sees the ritual as a “trick,” yet another magical illusion that he must get through, though he doesn’t know that he really was tricked into doing this sacrifice by Wednesday, as will be revealed later. The squirrel probably references Ratatoskr, the messenger who carries news from the top branches of Yggdrasil to its roots.
Shadow dreams of an elephant headed-man who says he could have made Shadow’s journey easier. The elephant man further tells Shadow that he will lose many things while he hangs on the tree, but he should not lose “this,” showing Shadow an illusion with a mouse disappearing into the tree and then cryptically telling Shadow “it’s in the trunk.” It starts to rain, waking Shadow again, and Shadow tries to catch some water in his mouth. He can’t even feel the cold, his body numb as he watches lightning in the distance.
The elephant-headed man is the Hindu god Ganesh, who does in fact remove obstacles from journeys for those who worship him. Gaiman plays with the many meanings of “trunk,” referring to both the trunk of the tree and the trunk of the elephant (and, ultimately, the trunk of a car). The lightning in the distance shows that the storm that Sam Fetisher predicted in the very first chapter has finally come, as the gods begin to go to war.
As the storm beats on Shadow’s body, he feels an odd joy at being fully alive – and feels that the sacrifice is worth it for this one perfectly clear moment. He drinks more rainwater and then feels warm and comfortable, sleeping deeply and dreamlessly.
Shadow appreciates his life most at the moment he’s closest to death. Hanging on the tree was his choice, and his choice alone, showing that Shadow has finally learned to go after what he wants.
The next morning, Shadow’s entire body is in pain. He spends the day alternately burning and freezing as the squirrel continues to visit him periodically. As the storm clouds gather again, Shadow sees his whole life spread out before him, especially his wedding day with Laura. He hallucinates that Laura is there and laughs about her silliness as they got married, kisses the hallucination once, then sleeps again.
Both the squirrel and the hallucination of Laura help Shadow, showing that he cannot survive this ordeal alone. While Odin forbade anyone to help him while he was on the tree, Shadow depends on this community and welcomes their presence.
Shadow wakes again, feeling distant from his body and the tree. The squirrel comes again with a walnut shell of water and tips it into Shadow’s mouth. Refreshed, Shadow struggles against the ropes, but the knots hold. Delirious, Shadow feels that he is the tree and tries to distance himself from the pain of the man who is hanging on the tree. He feels connected to everything: the tree, the sky, the wind, the storm clouds, the squirrel. Shadow, as the tree, manipulates the stars as he would coins.
Shadow begins to gain the knowledge that the vigil for Odin promises, learning what it is to actually be the objects around him. He conspicuously becomes every natural thing in the area except the land itself, as the land in America is too sacred to be a part of this ritual. Shadow’s coin trick hobby again distracts him from pain and suffering, as it has throughout the novel.
In a rare moment of clarity, Shadow comes back to his body. He sees a naked man standing before the tree. The man explains that he saw Shadow in Cairo, and Shadow realizes that this dark-skinned man must be Horus, who Mr. Jacquel mentioned lived in Cairo as a hawk. Horus greets Shadow as a fellow sun god, then turns into his hawk form and catches a rabbit to eat. While perched on a branch of the tree, Horus turns back into a man, and asks Shadow’s name. When Shadow tells him, Horus nods that the shadow and the light go together. Horus comments that Shadow is dying, then turns into a hawk and flies away.
Horus, one of the most important gods of Ancient Egypt, is associated with the sun, the sky, and the falcon. As he continues to lose power in America, Horus has completely given in to his animal aspect, no longer remembering how to live as a human. Horus identifies Shadow as a sun god, the first hint that Shadow is truly Baldur, the Norse god of light and the sun. Horus also emphasizes the importance of balance, as Shadow’s status as a uniquely American god shows that he has both light and shadow, instead of entirely one or the other.
During the night, Laura arrives at the tree. Shadow asks hoarsely how Laura found him, and Laura explains that Shadow is the nearest thing that Laura has to life, and so Shadow shines like a beacon in an otherwise grey world. Laura offers to cut Shadow down, but Shadow explains that he has to stay here in order to be truly alive. Laura nods, then complains that she lost her job at a gas station for looking too dead, and says she is very thirsty. Shadow tells her to go to the farmhouse and tell the sisters there (the Norns) that Shadow said to give her water. Laura says that she should go, but Shadow asks her to stay the night.
Shadow shining like a beacon also echoes the mythic descriptions of Baldur, in which light is said to stream from Baldur’s head. Laura also reverses her earlier statement about Shadow being “a man shaped space in the world” – now that Shadow has become fully alive, he is the only thing in Laura’s world. Shadow now takes on an assertive role with Laura, giving her advice rather than loyally following her orders. He also asks her to stay out of gratitude for her protection, rather than the sense of neediness and desperation that Gaiman described in Shadow’s interactions with Laura earlier in the novel.
Shadow sleeps, then wakes again and sees that Laura is gone. He has a vicious headache and cannot fight the pain in his body to keep breathing. As his heart stops beating, Shadow falls into a darkness lit by a single star, the final darkness.
Shadow dies on the tree after hanging there for three days, following the prophetic words of the Swedish Odin. He now has three days to travel through the underworld and three days to return, in order to follow the traditional sun god path of death and rebirth found in many mythological sources, including Celtic and Egyptian legends.