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Mark M Lichterman

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The ClimbingBoy 9:Mama’s Dead
By Mark M Lichterman
Posted: Sunday, December 11, 2011
Last edited: Thursday, August 16, 2012
This short story is rated "G" by the Author.

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Climbing Boy 9:Mama’s Dead

London, England

December 24, 1843

“St. Nicholas.”

 

“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

gets cold.”

 

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,

thoughtful gaze.

 

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

the sea…”

 

Thinking…

 

“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 bed.

 

“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

sob, couldn’t.

 

“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

shoulders.

 

“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

incessant crying.

 

“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.

 

Quiet…

 

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

at him.

 

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

Christmas.”

 

“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.”

 

Helpless!

 

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.

 

“Mum.”

 

Turning back, “Yes, Zachariah?”

 

“I thank ya, Mum!”

 

“For what?”

 

“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.

 

 


Web Site: mmlichterman.com  

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Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado 12/12/2011
Powerful story, Mark; well done!

(((HUGS))) and much love, your friend in Texas, Karen Lynn. :(


Books by
Mark M Lichterman



For Better or Worse

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The Climbing Boy

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Becoming

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