Climbing Boy 9:Mama’s Dead
December 24, 1843
“Yes, Mum. ‘St. Nicholas,’ ‘e brings presents to all them
children, all over the world! An’…” Zachariah’s personal
experience telling him this is impossible, but feeling rather
sure that the lady would not lie to him, “‘e, eh… ‘slides down’
all them chimneys?”
“Why, uh… yes.”
After all, why would she lie to him. “Who-ee,” said in
absolute amazement, “‘e must be one dirty bloke.”
Albert had listened to this exchange looking at Zachariah,
up to his mother, and back to Zachariah, his head turning
as each spoke.
“Zachariah…” For the sake of Albert she wanted, very
badly, to end this conversation. “You’d best eat before it
Patting her son on the behind to get him started, the lady
followed. When she reached the kitchen she entered, turned
back, and watched the other boy through a slight opening
of the door.
On the tray there was a fork, spoon, knife, and a linen
napkin. Lordy. Tentatively extending a finger to
touch the napkin, as though fearful of soiling its gleaming brightness, he withdrew his hand. If there were nothing on the
tray but the napkin he’d have been astonished and, looking at what
the lady had brought him, Lordy, his eyes opened wide in wonderment because he’d never seen such a feast.
On the tray there was a steaming bowl of pea soup, a
slice of heavily buttered bread, a thick slice of glazed ham,
two cookies with half a walnut baked into the middle of
each, and a cup of frothy milk.
Putting the ham on the bread, he hungrily bit into it,
then, not even considering using the spoon, the boy drank
the soup directly from the bowl.
Standing behind the partially open door, watching the
boy eat, thinking, That child! My Lord! What if he
were my child? What can he think? What must he feel,
abandoned and left to a man like that? His mother,
his father? The lady wondered, Where are his parents? Knowing Zachariah might very well be an orphan, How could anyone give a boy—a beautiful child like him—to the likes of Johnson? He’s no better than a slave being forced into this type of filthy work, and most probably… tears of anger and pity coursing down her cheeks… and most probably not even to live long enough to put what he’s learned to his own use. And the look of him! The hair, the eyes, the look of his face! Even knowing it, truly, was nothing more than a coincidence, If I had a sister (which she hadn’t) I’d swear he’d be the child of that sister, she thought again. Or, a warm feeling came to her thinking of the possibility, this boy could be my Albert’s big brother.
When she’d engaged Johnson she had been led to believe
that Zachariah was his son and—thoroughly against the
system, at least as practiced by men like Johnson—not
Johnson’s apprentice. If he’d told the truth she would never
have hired him. Now, of course the lady was glad that she
had met Zachariah… Or was she? What could she possibly
do to help him? Except…
Oh, Lord, she prayed, her lips moving silently,
Please help this boy! The thought of Moses
actually coming to mind, Please take him from this
bondage! Please allow him some bit of joy in his life!
Albert, at the table, watched his mother, as…
Watching Zachariah wolf his food, Oh, Jesus, if
there were something I might do for him! Some
way to help him! But she knew all that she could possibly
give was momentary comfort and remembrance in her prayers.
Sighing, giving the boy time to finish eating, leaving the
door, the lady went about her chores. In a short while, taking
Albert by the hand, she returned to the living room as
Zachariah was finishing the second cookie.
Still unsure of this scary person, as before, Albert hid
behind his mother, but every few seconds the little boy
bravely ventured a look around the front of her skirt.
“Zachariah,” she asked, “where is your family? How long
have you been with Mr. Johnson?”
“Mum…” Considering both questions, taking a long drink
from the cup, finishing the milk, he put the cup onto the
tray. Appearing all the whiter due to the contrast of his soot
coated skin, Zachariah now had a startlingly white milk
mustache. Wiping his sleeve over his mouth, leaving a lighter
smear across his cheek, “Mum,” he repeated, “I thinks I
been with Master Johnson for…” closing his eyes in thought,
“for more’n three or four years. I ain’t certain ‘cause I
remember so little ‘bout the time with me mum.” Looking
at the lady, “I can’t remember ‘zactly ‘ow she looked, but I
know she was pretty.” Stopping, staring, he looked intently
at the lady, causing her a momentary feeling of discomfort.
“Pretty, she was…” he said as wisps of lost memories
returned. “Me mum, she looked like you.”
Surprised that he’d also noticed the strong resemblance,
the lady was aware that she was blushing under his intense,
Closing his eyes, concentrating, “I think me mum an’ pap
an’ me lived… nearby the water, ‘cause I thinks I remember
‘earin’ ships bells an’ warnin’ ‘orns an’ the like.” Hesitating,
thinking, screwing his forehead in concentration, “Me pap
was most always away…” he continued, slowly, as
recollections, one at a time, returned. “An’ I remember me
mum would ‘old me on ‘er lap an’ sing songs to me; most
always ‘bout them big sailin’ boats an’ places away across
“An’ she’d tell me that when me pap gets ‘ome ‘e’s gonna
bring me presents from far away.” Stopping, leaning his
head against the fireplace, putting a face onto his mother
triggering long forgotten remembrances, Zachariah then
remembered what he’d never remembered before.
Waiting patiently for him to continue, the lady thought,
Whenever he’s ready. Then, when the seconds became a
minute, two minutes, Maybe he has fallen asleep. But…
His eyes opening suddenly, “‘e never came ‘ome!”
Speaking as though in great pain, attempting to hold back
tears, “Me pap never came ‘ome an’ I remember me mum
cryin’. T’were an accident. The boat… the boat sunk or
somethin’.” Swiping his sleeve across his eyes, “Me mum
waited an’ waited, an’ we ‘ad no money, an’ me mum… me
mum, she did somethin’ like…” stopping again, thinking. “I
would sit on the bed an’ watch while she’d heat press other
peoples’ things an’…” looking at the untouched napkin on
the tray. “Napkins, like that…” pointing. “An’ lots an’ lots’a
table covers. An’ she cried most all the time.”
The memories coming faster…
“An’ every mornin’ me mum, she’d wrap me into a blanket
an’ put me sittin’ a’top’a them pressed things in a cart an’
she’d say to me…” speaking quickly, wanting to say it all
before forgetting again, “‘Zachariah, ‘old on tight!’ Me mum
would say, “old on real tight!’ An’ we’d go bumpity-bump
on the streets. We’d mostly go to this big ‘ouse. I think… I
think it’s a place where rich folks go to eat. Mum would
give the lady at the back door the things she’d pressed the
night before, an’ the lady would give me mum some little
money an’ more things to press. I’d lay on ‘em when we’d
get ‘em ‘cause they’s all wrinkled an’ mum would let me
bundle into ‘em. They felt soft. It would be warm an’ soft an’
sometimes I went asleep.
“Me mum, she’d cart ‘em ‘ome an’ she scrubbed them
white things out in a big wash tub that was set in the yard
that she’d filled with water she’d ‘eated from the fireplace.
She pumped water an’ carried water an’ scrubbed an’
pressed them things all the time.”
Stopping, it became difficult for him to speak.
“I remembers one day…” Choking back a sob, waiting a
long moment, he continued. “One day me mum fell down
when we was comin’ ‘ome an’ she couldn’t get up an’ some
men ‘ad to come an’ carry ‘er back ‘ome an’ put her onto
“The doctor came an’ left me mum some medicine, an’
that night mum got real sick, an’ the next day she couldn’t
get out’a bed, an’ ‘cause we didn’t ‘ave no money, the doctor,
‘e never came back.
“The man what owned the ‘ouse came an’ told us unless
‘e gets ‘is rent we’d ‘ave to get out an’ go someplace else to
live. That very same night mum must’a got sicker, ‘cause…”
Stopping again, tears welled in his eyes, “‘cause in the
mornin’, when I woke she’s layin’ in bed an’ she ain’t movin’.”
Standing stock still, staring at the little boy sitting on the
hearth of her fireplace, her hand at her throat, the lady
attempted to hold her own tears back, but, choking back a
“Why’d me mum ‘ave to go an’ die like that, Mum?”
Looking at her with watery eyes, the rolling tears leaving
shiny black, streaky trails on his cheeks. “Why’d she ‘ave to
die without so’s much a goodbye?”
Her voice lost to emotion, the lady wanted to speak, to
comfort him, but could do little more than shrug her
“That day the man what owned the ‘ouse came with some
other men an’ they took me mum away—I don’t know
where—an’ the owner, ‘e took me to ‘is ‘ouse, and I cried.”
A slight smile formed on his lips as he remembered how
upset the landlord and his wife became at his near
“I cried most all the time, I was missin’ me mum so
much.” Stopping, Zachariah brushed his soot-covered
shirtsleeve over his eyes, leaving a brown smear across the
bridge of his nose and far corner of his eye.
Sitting on the floor, Albert watched Zachariah as he spoke
and, seeing his tears, turning his face upward, the little boy
was surprised to see tears on his mother’s cheeks also.
Finding it hard to speak, “I… I never…” Staring at the
five-pointed star atop the tree, Zachariah struggled against
the pain in his throat, behind his eyes, and in his heart, until…
Turning his gaze, looking directly at the lady, “I never
saw me mum again,” he said, speaking in a low monotone.
“The man what owned the ‘ouse said ‘e couldn’t stand
‘earin’ me bawl, an’ ‘e an’ ‘is missis would ‘it me, makin’ me
bawl all the more. An’ in a day or two, when Master Johnson
came to do his chimney, ‘e told ‘im me mum died ownin’
‘im back rent an’ if’n ‘e’s wantin’ me for ‘is ‘prentice, ‘e’d
give me over to ‘im for just the back rent owin’ an’ a bit more.
Master Johnson argued with ‘im ‘bout the money, but
then I went with ‘im when ‘e left.”
Having nothing left to say, turning his face from the lady,
once again gazing absently at the Christmas tree, Zachariah’s
eyes, once again, appeared to be fixed upon the star.
The room was absolutely quiet.
Shaking his head as though clearing a fog from his mind,
forcing his eyes to focus, Zachariah looked about.
Still on the floor, sitting perfectly still, Albert was staring
Standing before him, tears upon her face, Lord help him! her mind repeating the same, simple prayer, Lord help him! The lady stared at Zachariah, too.
“Mum, why you cryin’?”
“Zachariah,” having no idea what to say in light of the
boy’s story, turning away, taking a handkerchief from the
pocket of her apron, the lady dabbed at her eyes, then,
turning back, simply said, “I’m sorry.”
“Yes,” he replied, rubbing his sleeve across his face again.
“Thank ya, Mum.”
“Zachariah, does Mister Johnson have a wife? Will you
at least have a Christmas dinner tonight?”
“A wife?” Knowing how drunk Johnson would be by the
time he got home, Zachariah knew he’ll be lucky to have
any dinner tonight. “No, Mum. ‘e ain’t got no wife, Mum.
An’ Mister Johnson, ‘e don’t…”
“Yes, I know. Mister Johnson doesn’t hold with
“No, Mum, ‘e surely don’t.”
“Do you go to church? At least can you go to church?”
“No, Mum. But we prays, ‘im an’ me. We prays a lot!” He
smiled. “Whenever we goes up on’a ‘igh stack.”
The lady felt so helpless!
There has got to be something! Some way to help! But
what? How? There was no way she could think of to help the boy.
Sighing, “Zachariah, best you finish your work so that
man will have no cause to be upset when he comes for you…
Come, Albert!” Reaching to the boy, helping him to his feet,
they began towards the kitchen.
Turning back, “Yes, Zachariah?”
“I thank ya, Mum!”
“For the food, Mum. T’were the best I ever ‘ad.”
“Zachariah, my goodness, it was only soup and…”
“An’ also for lettin’ me talk to ya. I liked talkin’ to ya. An’
I ‘membered things ‘bout me mum I ain’t ‘membered afore.”
Stopping, thinking he did not want to end this conversation.
“An’,” he said brightly, prolonging his time with the lady.
“Mister Archibald at the wheel factory, ‘e said that I can be
‘avin’ one’a them new kittens that the mama cat at the factory
made, if’n it meets with Master Johnson’s ‘proval.”
“And will Master Johnson approve?”
Slow in answering, “d’know, Mum.” Frowning, the boy
looked down. “No, Mum, don’t think ‘e will.”
Looking up, the boy’s and the lady’s eyes locked, and the
two stared at each other unblinkingly for two… three… four
heart beats, then his eyes lowered.
Looking at this pitiful boy, her throat tightening, blinking
back tears once again, feeling even more helpless than she
had felt before. But also, beyond pity, beyond anger… The
lady sensed a deeply felt hatred. A hatred for the man. A
hatred for the system that held this sad, beautiful boy in
bondage. Beyond words. At a complete loss for words,
turning away, the lady left the room.