On the first rotation the boy’s feet left the floor and, with
a loud crack, his ankle connected with one of the straight
back chairs, knocking it onto its side. On the conclusion of
the second rotation Johnson let go of the coat and, his arms
flailing as he went through the air, his head thudding against
the frame, smashing into the door, Zachariah slumped to
Climbing Boy 23: Tears, Blood
December 24, 1843
Losing all semblance, and whatever thought of self control
he’d had, lurching to Zachariah, standing above him,
bringing his hand back, snapping the boy’s head to the left,
Johnson slapped him hard across one side of his face, then
backhanded it to the right.
Cowering on the floor, a large lump forming on the back
of his head, blood flowing from his nostrils and mouth,
bringing both hands up, locking his fingers in a futile attempt
to protect his face, crying from behind his hands, “Master,”
the boy pleaded, “Please stop! Please stop!”
But the cries of the boy seemingly only added fuel to the
fire of Johnson’s rage and, his face flushed with drink, his
teeth clenched in anger, forcibly prying the boy’s fingers
backward, exposing his face, balling his hand into a fist,
Johnson brought his arm back in what certainly could be a
killing blow, but…
His arm stopping in mid-swing, he began to cough.
Expecting to die, waiting for the pain—or the end of his
pain—Zachariah had closed his eyes. Now, reprieved—at
least for the moment—his eyes opened.
Loud. Hard. Rasping, Johnson’s face became bright red,
and thick, blue veins bulged on either side of his neck.
Standing over Zachariah coughing, gagging, the last bit of
air leaving his lungs, gasping, bending at the waist, Johnson
desperately attempted to breathe.
Slumped on the floor, the lump on the back of his head
throbbing, both eyes puffed and ringing with purple, his
back against the wall, Zachariah inched his way around the
room, and as far from Johnson’s reach as possible…
As the boy moved, the back of his head left a dull, red
smear on the raw wallboards.
The boy forgotten, his vision turned red…
Zachariah hoped the man would die, and yet was fearful
that he might.
Drool ran from his mouth. His eyes turned up in their
sockets and his vision turned from red to black. About to
pass out, his head slumped to his chest and, staggering, he
fell into the wall then onto the floor. The force of his body
hitting the wall forced a small trickle of air into his lungs
and greedily, with deep, sucking gasps, Johnson breathed
in and out… in and out. In what seemed to him to be a long
time, but in reality was no more than a few seconds, trying
to lift himself to his knees, finding he hadn’t the strength, he
fell back. Waiting a few moments, then slithering on his
stomach, Johnson reached for the fallen chair, righted it
and, grunting with the effort, pulled himself up. Sitting
heavily with his head held between his hands, he waited for
his breathing to return to normal.
Reaching his pallet, Zachariah lay down, but lying on
his back made his head throb, so pushing the burlap and
rag pillow upward against the wall, leaning his back against
it, the boy sat in dark shadows.
Rubbing his hand across his wet forehead, Johnson wiped
the sweat onto his pants leg. Stretching to the side, reaching
to the table, pulling the bottle of gin forward he brought it
to his mouth, drank deeply, stopped for a breath of air then,
draining the bottle in a swirling vortex, stood it back on the
table and, as the alcohol warmed his cold stomach, he closed
Mindful of the throbbing pain that came from his neck
and deeply within his head, watching Johnson drink, fearing
yet another beating, acutely aware that his heart was
pounding wildly, in a spontaneous movement he put his hand
over his chest and at the same time felt the lump and
remembered… “Mousy!” Stretching his fingers into the
pocket of the coat, “Mousy!” Zachariah brought the limp
body of the mouse out, its neck broken when Johnson had
grasped the boy by the front of his coat and swung him. His
throat constricting, “Mousy!” Tears coming to the boy’s eyes,
“Oh, Mousy!” he cried.
Bleary eyed, lifting his head, Johnson looked across the
room. “Eh, whatzat? A mouse? Ya found a mouse? Well, kill
it, can’t’j’ya? It can’t ‘urt ya!”
“Mousy,” the boy sobbed. “Oh, Lordy!”
Lifting himself from the chair, standing, tottering, holding
on to the back of the chair for support… gaining his balance,
he crossed the room.
Feeling the weight of his sorrow at the loss of his friend,
needing solace, though expecting none from Johnson—
especially while drunk—holding Mousy in the palm of his
hand, all else was forgotten as he showed it to his master.
And his master did look at it… for a moment.
“For Christ’s sake, ya twit, ya!” Reaching down, grabbing
the mouse from Zachariah’s hand, lurching back across the
room to the fireplace, “I told ya a mouse ain’t gonna ‘urt
ya!” Johnson giggled. “‘specially if ’n it’s a dead mouse!”
Zacariah watched in horror as Johnson threw Mousy into
the fireplace, where it landed in the midst of the burning
logs, smoldered a moment, then ignited into flame.
“Stop ya blubbering,” shaking his fist at him, “or I’ll give
ya what for again!”
Grabbing the unopened bottle of gin off the mantel,
Johnson pulled the cork with his teeth, was about to sit on
the chair in front of the fireplace when he noticed the top
hat lying on the floor. Using both hands, carefully standing
the bottle on the table, he swayed to the center of the room
where, trying to retain his balance, Johnson bent down,
picked the hat up, thought about keeping it for himself, then,
as though befuddled, he stared at the hat for a few moments
until, forcing himself out of his daze, “I tell ya, me boyo,” he
said, turning the hat over in his hands. “I was gonna get ya
that kitten from ol’ Archie,” he lied, “but now…” Afraid of
forcing another choking spell, he’d been speaking softly, his
voice low, but remembering that he’d lost the payment for
the undertaker’s job, his anger quickly beginning to stoke
again. “But now,” his voice rising, his eyes lifting from the
hat he looked across the room, at Zachariah, “‘stead’a the
cat, ‘ere’s your bloody Christmas gift!” Bringing his arm
back, Johnson flung the hat at the boy.
The hat sailed end over end; the dull light of the fireplace
and the pinpoint flames of the candles reflecting off its
dented, shiny crown.
Seeing the hat coming, Zachariah instinctively moved
his head to the side, but the hard brim caught him on the
cheek, causing a moment of sharp pain, before it fell onto
“An’ a good Christmas to ya, ya bloody damn twit!”
Turning too quickly, his drunkenness causing him to
become dizzy, lurching, he lost his balance and with a thud
that shook the shack, fell to his knees. Lifting himself,
rubbing his knees, stumbling around the table to the chair,
he dropped onto the seat. Reaching to the bottle, scraping
it across the table, Johnson lifted it to his lips and drank.
His head and back resting on the burlap and rag pillow
that he’d propped against the wall, he heard the moaning,
blowing wind and felt a damp draft on the back of his head
and neck that came from between the loosely fitted
His head, throbbing with pain, hung dejectedly. He
wiggled a tooth loosened by Johnson’s blows and felt the
raw, cut corners of his mouth with his tongue while rubbing
away some of the blood from his cut lip.
The magician’s hat lay on his lap, in the valley made by
his legs. Absently rubbing the smooth, silky material of the
brim of the hat between his thumbs and forefingers, the
little boy closed his eyes.
So much has happened on this long—so very long—day.
Whatever good that had happened to him on this day
was greatly outweighed by the bad. Foremost in the boy’s
mind was the vision of the tormented, emaciated faces of
the two children outside of The Confection Shop, and the
sight of Johnson callously throwing the body of Mousy into
Zachariah considered these as present and future specters
of his own wretched life.
Wincing at a sharp, shooting pain in his head, Oh, Lordy,
he thought, why’s the reason for all this badness? He thought
of the pretty lady holding her son Albert in her arms. Why’d
me mum ‘ave to die an’ leave me alone so’s I’d ‘ave to be with
‘im? The pain nearly unbearable, moving his head as little
as possible, Zachariah looked at Johnson from the corners
of his eyes. An’ why can’t I ‘ave a friend? Am I so bad that I
can’t even ‘ave a mouse for a friend? A mouse!
Grief for the loss of Mousy along with the sadness of his
life overwhelming Zachariah, a building lump in his throat
became an actual pain. Pressure built behind his eyes and…
Leaving shiny trails as they ran down his soot-darkened
cheeks, the little boy’s tears fell with a barely heard “tap”
onto the hard crown of the top hat.
The striking tears…
… caused a slow, soft, hardly discernible tattoo onto the
dented crown of the magician’s hat.
Slouched low on the chair, the bottle of gin held between
both hands, Johnson sullenly stared at the smoky fire.
Thinking, so tired, Zachariah breathed a deep, weary sigh.
His shoulders slumped.
His eyes closed and…
His head dropped onto his chest.
Mingling, the boy’s tears…
…and the blood of the boy meld on the hard crown of
the top hat.
Once again, lifting the bottle to his mouth, the clear liquor
swirled down, through, and out the bottleneck.
Johnson’s eyelids drooped, flickered open… and
Tap… tap… tap
His arm dropped to his side; slipping from his fingers,
the bottle tottered, fell and rolled…
Clink… clink… clink.
Clinking melodically on the uneven floor till, its
progression halted by a table leg, stopping, the liquor flowed
from the opening until the fluid level reached the bottom
curvature of the neck of the bottle.
One last tear…
One last drop of blood…
One eyelid opened.