Climbing Boy 4: Black
December 24, 1843
Unslinging the rope, the boy let it drop to the deck.
Taking one end of the rope, Johnson fashioned double
Zachariah slipped one leg through each loop. Johnson
pulled upward, then slackened so the rope didn’t cut into the boy’s groin. He then ran the rope up Zachariah’s back, to just beneath his arms and made another, larger loop that the boy slipped over his head and arms so that the rope now formed a harness that held Zachariah by each thigh, around his chest, and under his arms.
Opening the toolbox, Johnson removed a rope belt
holding a scraping tool and a hard bristled brush by means of twine loops attached to both tools. Tying the belt around the boy’s waist, “Ya looks fit ‘n’ ready.”
Pretending encouragement to cover his own fear, “Let’s make for it!” the man said, slapping the boy on the rump.
Standing directly beneath the imposing chimney, looking upward, squinting against the rain, sleet and falling soot, the structure looking far taller than its twenty visible feet, Zachariah gloomily nodded his head and, reaching upward, took hold of the first iron rung, then—the boy first, the man following—both began to climb.
Hand over hand.
One small, filthy, chafed fist closing around one wet, cold, rusted rung… one after another.
Hand over hand.
A strong gust of wind…
Never admitting to having a God. Never calling on his
God except when His name was used as an expletive, or, most usually, when in terror, “Christ! Oh, Christ!” hanging on tightly, the man screwed his eyes shut as…
Never in a church. Other than an occasional quick,
“Godly” lecture by a well-meaning household servant, not aware that one as lowly as himself could have a God, but wishing he had a God, “Oh, Lordy, Lordy!” His eyes wide open, the boy hung on tightly as…
…The structure swayed.
Their arms held through the steel rungs directly opposite their faces, they hung on by their crooked elbows till…
Till finally, after an hour that lasted no more than seven
seconds, the wind abated, and…
The fear no more on this day than on the two previous
days when they’d begun this job, breathing deeply, blinking a number of times to bring moisture back onto his eyes, his blood appearing redder than normal against the black of his skin, three knuckles on one hand and two from the other bleeding from where they’d scraped on rungs, I must! Hating having to, his mind repeating, I must, I must, I must! Zachariah started up again.
A few rungs lower, feeling a cough building in his chest,
Johnson closed his eyes and concentrated on, Don’t cough! Don’t cough! Turning his head he looked down and seeing the barely noticeable but definite careening motion of the chimney, quickly closed his eyes again and, if at all possible, tightened his arms even tighter. Hugging the rung even closer, he brought his face back to the level of the bricks directly before him. If at any time he felt pity for the boy it was now, because of all the things he hated, Johnson hated this the most: the height, the wind, the cold! He looked up; the boy was almost to the top. Swallowing his fear, along with the urge to cough, putting his foot onto the next rung, hesitating, letting go, loosening and lifting one arm, Johnson began to climb again.
He was there. Zachariah had reached the top, and now—of all the dreadful things in the boy’s formidable existence—what he had to do next was the most frightful.
A step beneath the boy, locking one arm around the rung, Johnson grabbed hold of the dangling rope that hung from the boy’s back and, using one hand, bringing a few feet of it through two rungs, said, “Zach, boy,” his teeth clicking with cold, with fear, “get on with ya. Ya knows I can’t tie ya down till you’re onto it!”
Up this high, the winds blew stronger and almost
Waiting a moment, Please! Praying to his unknown God,
Please! Another moment, waiting, hoping the wind would slacken, but…
“Zachariah, do it!”
The wind did not slacken, and slowly, I must! slowly, his
heart thumping, Please! ever so slowly, I must! Lifting one foot off the rung, the other foot, hesitantly, slowly following the first, Please! I must! he climbed the last few rungs… till his head and shoulders rose above the crown of the chimney. His heart thumping so hard the boy thought it might leave his chest, his head and shoulders above the crown of the chimney, Lordy, above the minimal protection the brick structure allowed, I must, the boy was buffeted by more wind, by more rain, by more sleet. His teeth clacking with cold, in fear, his chest and hips rose slowly above the circular
structure, and now, rocked by the wind, fearfully, using all the willpower he possessed, the fingers of his left hand opened slowly as he released the top rung. Quickly now, stretching his body and reaching across the width of the flue, Zachariah grasped the support rung on the opposite side and, his bleeding knuckles turning white with the strain of holding on, Lordy! Lordy, pulling the rest of his body upward, he lay face down across the hollow, black hole of the chimney.
The back of his long-coat ballooning upward and the tail
of his scarf blowing backward, the cold wind forcing tears from the slits of his eyes, sleet slicing his face, the boy hung on for his life.
A few feet below, hanging on for his life also, one elbow
locked through a rung, playing out just enough rope to allow for the boy’s movement, “Lad… Lad, careful, boy.” Speaking quietly, more to himself than to the boy, whispering, as though were he to speak aloud it might upset his and Zachariah’s precarious positions.
The wind worse now, the fear even greater than on the
two previous days, carefully, “Lordy,” the boy’s one-word prayer being sucked from his lips, turning his body, “Lordy,” pulling himself up, sitting up, lifting his legs, he put them into the flue. “Lordy!” fully exposed now, just barely able to hold onto the lip of the chimney with one hand and the support rung with the other…
The wind gusts. The tall, cylindrical structure swayed
and the boy wanted to close his eyes, but was afraid.
Another gust almost blowing him over, his throat dry,
unable to speak, bending to the side he looked down
“Good lad!” Testing the rope once again, making sure it
was woven through and firmly wound around two rungs,
“Aye, boy,” he said. “Do it!”
Quickly now, wanting to be through with it, releasing
the support rung, sliding off the chimney’s edge, dropping into the black hole he fell four feet till, biting into his groin, grabbing at his shoulders, the slack playing out of the rope tightened around the boy’s body and the sudden halting of his fall swung him to the side where he hit the wall with enough force to cause the breath to push from his lungs, leaving Zachariah to hang near sixty feet above the ground.
Climbing upward till his head and shoulders rose above
the crown of the chimney, feeling the winds full force,
“Christ!” Leaning into it, Johnson peered into the black hole.
Hearing the expletive, Zachariah looked up.
The top of his head four feet from daylight, such as it
was, his clothing and the skin of his face melding with the cylindrical black wall, Zachariah’s eyes were the only bright spots within sight. Shouting to be heard above the wind, Johnson said, “Ya set, boy?”
“Aye,” spoken with minimal enthusiasm and conviction.
Flexing his fingers a number of times, trying to regain
the circulation in his cramped hand, “Aye,” Johnson repeated as, leaning across the flue, he took a hitch around the support rung, then, stepping down two rungs, he released the hitch on the rope from the lower rung and, making a large loop, ran it beneath the rung and upward forming a kind of pulley. Reaching behind his back he took a small lantern that had been hanging from his belt, then, stepping up again, leaning into the flue, hanging from his mid-section, he clipped the
lantern to the rope about a foot above the boy’s head.
Leaning a bit further into the chimney, shielding it from the wind as best he could, striking a match, putting it in the lantern the wick sputtered, burned a moment, and
Rotating in a tight circle, the lantern light cast circling
shadows of the boy’s body.
Out of the wind-driven sleet and rain, in the comparative warmth of this closely confined place, a feeling of comfort came to the boy, but he’d been here twice before and knew that this sense of comfort was temporary as…
“‘ere we go!”
Tilting his head upward, still leaning into the chimney,
he looked at the silhouetted half-figure of Johnson and,
knowing where he was going, “Aye.” The boy looked
Inch by inch he is lowered into the narrow, black depth.
Looking upward, the light from the sky above becoming
Foot by foot he is lowered until the light above is but a
pinpoint, as below…
The blackness becomes larger…
Larger, until below is all there is, and…
The deeper the boy is lowered, the more frightened he
becomes, as rotating, What if…
Rotating in half turns, his swaying, slowly turning body
casting eerie shadows upon the round wall of this closely confined, ever-revolving tomb. And, What if, thinking…
The boy’s brain told him he was safe, But…
He knew that so long as his master held the rope he was safe, But…
But, he thought, what if while ‘e’s ‘oldin’ me, what if while
‘e’s lowerin’ me, what if while ‘e’s ‘oldin’ the rope while ‘e’s’ lowerin’ me, ‘e starts in to cough an’ lets go? What if while ‘e’s lowerin’ me a wind comes an’ blows ‘im off’a the chimney? What if ‘e’s still mad at me ‘cause I asked for the baby cat an’ ‘e lets go’a the rope?
Zachariah looked up, to the speck of light. Lout! Berating himself. ‘e ain’t gonna let go’a the rope an’ I ain’t gonna fall! He looked down, to nothing. And, “I ain’t gonna fall!” he said aloud.
Whooooo… Whooooo… Moaning, as if in pain, blowing
over and across the mouth of the flue, the wind played its one, continually hollow note.
Whisk… Whisk… The rustle of his swaying, slightly
rotating body upon the bricks.
Fearful now of the sounds about him, the boy listened to the whispered whisk… whisk… whisk… of his clothing upon the wall and the whooooo… whooooo… whooooo… of the wind and his eyes opened wider… wider as, looking down, trying to penetrate the darkness, the boy saw, Tis only brick ‘n mortar, he told himself. Tis only brick ‘n mortar! Tain’t nothin’. Attempting to convince himself, Nothin’!
The moaning wind. The eerie shadows. The whisk of his
body, and the acidic odors of damp soot and ash.
Imagination mixing with claustrophobic fear, Tain’t
nothin’… Nothin’! Zachariah became damp with sweat and an internal coldness penetrated his clothing. Trembling, he wrapped his arms about his chest as lowering… inch-by inch… lowering… foot-by-foot. Lowering so slowly… Till…