Stretching upward, Mousy stuck his head through the
slit of the pocket.
Becoming aware of the mouse again, smiling…
Looking down, the boy rubbed the rodent’s head with
the tip of his finger. “Yeah, Mousy, if ’n I ‘ad a safe pocket to
‘ide into I would, too.” Giving the pocket a gentle pat,
Zachariah began on his way home.
Climbing Boy 18: Clean People
December 24, 1843
Sober, Johnson was far from an easy man to live with, but
when drunk was irrational and wholly unreasonable.
Zachariah knew that he would not be able to think of an
excuse that might placate his master, and did know that he
was in for a beating—how bad a beating, however, depended
on just how drunk Johnson was.
His hands shoved deeply into the pockets of the longcoat,
the top hat wobbling on his head, trying to think of
some excuse for the loss of the money, the equipment, and
this long standing customer, desperately wanting to think
of any excuse that would take the blame for the behavior of
Hobbins from himself, no longer confused about the
direction, Zachariah began the long walk home.
Is it possible, do you think, to be so cold that one may no
longer feel the cold?
Zachariah’s teeth had stopped chattering and he no
longer felt the damp coldness that had penetrated his
clothing and chilled his flesh just a few short minutes ago.
Is it possible, do you think, to be so frightened that one
may no longer care?
Zachariah was terrified of Johnson and what awaited
him when he arrived home, but for some unknown reason
he no longer seemed to care.
For the first time ever the boy had a sense of…? Safety?
No longer cold?
No longer frightened?
How could this be possible?
Warm and safe and…?
The boy took a deep breath and suddenly an entirely new
sensation loosened the tie that bound his heart.
Warm. Safe. At peace!
Yet there was something else.
It was something the boy had never felt.
Had never in his closer to nine than eight years felt…
Warmth! Safety! Peace! And now a sense of freedom!
Zachariah felt as though an enormous weight had been
lifted off his shoulders, and from his heart.
Confused with these new sensations, breathing deeply,
the boy easily saw the smoky vapor that came from his mouth
where but moments ago there had only been darkness.
The wind had stopped blowing.
Stopping, standing perfectly still and looking skyward,
he saw a widening chink in the dark gray clouds where,
rather than this winter night’s black nothingness, there was
now a brightly lit moon and thousands upon thousands of
brightly shining stars. Even as he looked skyward a lofty
breeze spread the ragged edges of the rift outward, widening
the fissure further, fully revealing the skies’ heavenly
Tilting his head back, turning in a circle, holding the rim
of the top hat with both hands to keep it from falling off,
“Lordy!” the boy whispered and wanting to share this night’s
sudden, unusual beauty, “Mousy,” he said to his pocket.
“Look at the sky; it’s beautiful!”
But the mouse, being content and warm, remained
cuddled in the bottom of the boy’s pocket.
Drawing air deeply into his lungs, Zachariah sensed the
wonders that were totally new to him: inner warmth, safety,
peace, freedom… and now, beauty!
“Mousy, I ain’t never been out by me-self a’fore.”
And a sixth marvel flooded his senses…
“An’ I got me money, too.” Jiggling his right pocket, the
two coins jingled merrily against each other. “I won’t be
spendin’ the money what the pretty lady in the ‘ouse gave
me, only the copper from the crazy lady from the carriage.”
Licking his lips, “Mmm!” envisioning all the unobtainable
things he’d always seen in bakery or confectioners’
windows… Especially in the confectioner’s window.
“Gotta get cleaned off! Gotta get some’a this filth off!”
Looking, watching for something, he began to walk again.
“Aye!” Peering across a yard the boy saw what he’d been
watching for: a rain barrel in the shadow of a house that
appeared to be dark. “Maybe ain’t no one ‘ome ‘ere,”
Zachariah said aloud to the mouse in his breast pocket, and
to whatever God there was that looked over as
insignificant—but no longer wretched—a creature as a
Cutting across the lawn, standing on tiptoes he looked
through a window.
The house was in total darkness.
“Good!” Going to the rain barrel, Zachariah removed
the coat and took his shirt off. Bare-chested, testing the
temperature by dipping an elbow into the near freezing
water, “Oh, Lordy, it’s so cold!” Wanting to wash just his
arms and face, quickly, before changing his mind, closing
his eyes the boy plunged his arms up to the armpits into the
frigid water then rubbed his hands and arms vigorously,
but, deciding to go further, looking about he saw a planters
box. Carrying the wooden box to the rain barrel, standing
upon it on tiptoes, taking a deep breath, the boy thrust his
entire upper body into the barrel and, while beneath the
water, scrubbed his face, neck, ears and scalp with his hands.
Pulling out of the water, the boy looked into the barrel a
moment while trying to make up his mind then, “Can’t get
much colder.” Glancing about to be sure that no one could
see him, quickly, Zachariah quickly removed his shoes and
trousers then, grasping the edge of the barrel, flipped himself
over the top.
Standing chest high in the frigid water, the boy rubbed
his groin, buttocks, and legs.
Too cold to stay in the water much more than forty or
fifty seconds, but those few seconds seemed a frozen eternity.
His lips blue, his body stippled with goose pimples, the
boy’s chattering teeth were clacking together so hard that
he was afraid they’d break.
Finished—as finished as one extremely dirty little boy
could be using his hands only, washing himself without
benefit of soap, to say nothing of warm water—Zachariah
pulled himself out of the barrel and, standing naked, palmed
as much of the water off as possible. First flapping his shirt
back and forth to shake out whatever dust that could be
shaken, he then used it as a towel.
Washing this way, without soap, without warm water,
did little more than remove the loose soot and dust and
equalize the varying shades and streaks of blackness,
so—although still dirty—the dirt was fairly evenly
dispersed. What was most important, though, was that
Zachariah felt clean.
Off his body, the damp clothing had become cold.
His teeth still clacking, still shivering, the boy put the
wet shirt on.
Shaking the dust from his trousers, stepping into them,
he tied the rope belt.
Sitting on the box, he put his shoes on, retied the twine
around the one without the buckle and, slipping his arms
into the coat, he pulled it about his chest.
Fully dressed, the boy was still cold. “Be feelin’ much
better now, Mousy,” he said to his pocket as a shudder rippled
through his body, “but it’s so cold!”
Cutting across the lawn, starting towards the road,
“Opps!” remembering, the boy turned back.
Returning to the rain barrel, picking up the top hat he
put it onto his head; by merely covering his cold,
still damp scalp Zachariah felt warmer, and now…
The undertaker forgotten, Johnson forgotten, the
coldness forgotten, once again the sensation of
euphoria overcame the boy and he began to run.
Zachariah had never felt this happy.
He ran. Holding the brim of the bouncing hat with both
hands, he ran till…
There, up ahead, there were the lights of shops, and there
“Mousy, it’s near Christmas an’ I don’t know if that bloke,
that…” thinking, “…that, uh…” thinking, trying to remember
what the pretty lady in the house had said, “…that St.
Nicholas is gonna be able to find me, an’ I’ve been good so
I’m gonna get me-self me own present. I’m gonna get
somethin’ for me, somethin’ for me-self!” Slowing, holding
the hat with one hand and opening his pocket with the other,
he looked inside. “An’ you can ‘ave some, too.”
Now, within the crowd, savoring the sensations of
warmth, of safety, of peace, of adventure—savoring his
freedom—the boy walked slowly, looking about, interested
in everything he saw—and everything he saw looked so…?
He’d been here before, dozens of times, but somehow it
all seemed… New.
People were milling, rushing, strolling, looking for a last
minute gift or for food, for pastries, for candy.
The people went into and came out of shops singularly,
in pairs or groups, young and old. And the people—most of
the people—upon seeing the little climbing boy in the
tattered long-coat and dented top hat, would smile and,
“Merry Christmas to you, lad!” many said, and most would
reach out to touch him.
And each time he was touched, Zachariah was touched.
He had never felt that he belonged among the “clean people.”
Forgetting who he was and what he was for the first time
in his life since becoming aware of his lowly station,
Zachariah felt that…? That he belonged. His eyes becoming
shiny and wet, he became one of them, one of the happy people…
One of the clean people.