08 Jan In The Land of Black and White
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"In The Land of Black and White"Written by Stephan D. Harris
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Estimated reading time — 9 minutes
“Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host.
But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.”
– Maya Angelou
I know of an anecdote, one about a little girl named Madeline. Little Maddie was seven years old, with dark chestnut hair and wide blue eyes. Everyone thought she would grow up to become such a pretty woman, and a smart one at that. Maddie loved to read books, all kinds of books; fairy tales and history, fantasy and mystery. Her parents were so proud of her for being so smart and pretty and brave, they knew she was special. But they were also scared. You see, little Maddie was sick… very sick. She rarely left her bed. But she had her books, and the love of her parents to keep her company. She was brave for both herself and them. Of course, Maddie didn’t know any better.
One day, on a sunny afternoon in December (Not a dark stormy night in Autumn), just a few days after Christmas, Maddie’s parents came into her room, full of books and the left over wrapping paper, all crinkled and sparkling in the sunlight that leaked through her window. They said that they’d have to leave her alone for a while. Not long, just an hour. Just enough time to meet with the doctor. They said that they would be right back and that if there was any trouble, to call them with the phone that was kept on the nightstand, the one next to her bed, the red one. Maddie wasn’t scared, and she knew it wasn’t a good idea to move around too much. She was just too brave. Her father kissed her on the forehead, her mother on the cheek. Maddie smiled, and asked if they could open her window. It was an especially warm day with a clear blue sky. Some fresh air could be good. Maddie’s father smiled back, as he opened the window.
“Anything else?” Her parents asked before they left.
“No I’ll be alright,” She said to them. “I’ll just read a story for a while.”
And then Maddie was alone. All by herself in that great big house, no sound at all except for the beeps of the machine, the one that kept check on Maddie’s heart. She tried to read her book, but the sunlight that fell on her face made her sleepy. Maddie closed her eyes, for how long she didn’t know. Not long enough to dream, but long enough to loose time. To her it was just a blink and nothing more. But she didn’t open her eyes willingly. The squawk of crow, a black crow, forced her from the peace of sleep. Well, it wasn’t just a crow. Maddie also felt warm, too warm for December in even the best of times. When she woke up, she saw that a crow had perched itself on her windowsill. She also saw something else, something that made her shriek.
The chair that was kept in Maddie’s room, the chair that her mother would sit in just before bedtime, the chair that should have been empty, had been filled by a stranger. Too Maddie, it looked like a person, but also not like a person at all. It had a face, with eyes and a mouth and a nose and all, and it had arms and legs, just like a man’s. It was even wearing a suit, a black suit with a white shirt and a purple tie. But this stranger, this man if you will, looked wrong to Maddie. His face had all the right parts, but they were mutilated in ways almost incomprehensible. Shiny and pink in some places, black and crackled in others. He had no lips, and his nose was made of two small holes that flared in and out as he breathed. His eyes were yellow and sunken, never blinking, not even once. His body, while never falling to ash, had small flames dancing up and down the lengths of his arms and face, flickering hot light. His cloths were covered in the stains of blood. He looked much like a burn victim would, before the fires were put out. The machine, the one that kept watch over Maddie’s heart, began to beep quickly and loudly. Maddie forgot how to be brave.
“Don’t be scarred Madeline,” Said the dark man, his words sounding like nails against glass, more of a rasp than a voice. “I’m not here to hurt you.”
“Who are you?” Asked Maddie, feeling a bit less frightened.
“My name is Lazarus, and I’m a bad man for all the right reasons.” He said back to her. Smoke was rising softly from the fires. He seemed to be in pain, but doing his best to ignore it, somewhat stoically.
“Lazarus,” Maddie said out loud, pronouncing each syllable carefully. “That’s a weird name.”
“It’s an old name. A very old name, from a very old story.” His eyes searched Maddie’s face, looking for any sign of expression, but she gave nothing away. His eyes eventually fell upon the book in Maddie’s lap, Alice in Wonderland. “I see you like stories,” Maddie nodded her head. Everyone knew that she liked stories, even strangers. “I happen to know a few. Would you like for me to tell you one? We have some time to spare.”
Maddie didn’t know what to say. She thought the burning man was being friendly enough, even if he was scary. But Maddie was alone, she was always alone she realized. She never got to meet anyone new, so she decided it best to let Lazarus stay. Besides, she loved stories, even bad ones.
“Okay,” She said, “You can tell me a story. But you’ll have to leave before mom and dad come home. I don’t think they’d like you.” Lazarus inhaled deeply, a wheeze through his mouth and an exhale of smoke through his nostrils. He nodded in agreement.
“There was once a family of rabbits, a mommy rabbit and three baby rabbits. They lived in a rabbit hole in the forest. They were happy. The baby rabbits would jump and play all day under the shade of the trees or in the tall grass of the sunny meadow while their mother looked for food in the forest. At night, they would return to their hole, and they would snuggle together in the warmth and safety. They never worried about anything, as there was always plenty of food and fun things to do, and they always had each other for comfort when they got sad or frightened. It was good. But one day in while playing in the meadow, a fox hiding in the grass approached the three little rabbits, who were unaware of the impending danger. Their mother came out of the thickness of the forest just in time to see the fox, but was too far away to call to her babies. She knew that she could not reach them in time to get everyone safely into the rabbit hole, and even then, the fox would always know where to wait.
“What did she do?” Asked Maddie. Lazarus raised his charred hand, motioning for Maddie to wait and listen. “Well, the mother rabbit had a difficult decision to make. If she wanted her children to get away from the fox, then she would have to take action. But all actions have consequences. She knew this, but she also loved her children more than she feared the fox. So, she ran out of the forest as fast as she could go. She ran towards the fox hiding in the grass, and when she was close enough, she called out to her children. ‘Go, ran back to the hole!’ she yelled. The three little rabbits heard their mother just as they saw the fox. But the fox was no longer interested in the little ones. The mommy rabbit had caught his attention, as she led the fox further into the meadow, away from their hole and away from them. They little rabbits got away. Their mother was not so lucky. The fox had caught her, ripped her to bloody ribbons, but her children were safe, and that was all that mattered.”
Maddie was silent for a moment. So was Lazarus. “That was a sad story,” Said Maddie. Lazarus nodded his head, because he knew it was a sad story, but then again, the truth doesn’t pick favorites. “I didn’t like how the mommy had to die.”
Lazarus gritted his teeth together. “She could have lived, if she had wanted to. But then what would have happened to her children? She died to save them, for the greater good and out of love.”
“I guess so, but it’s still sad that they had to grow up without their mom.” Maddie looked at her windowsill, there were two more crows perched there. One of them stretched its wings and settled next to the others. She thought it was odd, but said nothing. “Would you like to hear another? We still have some… time.” It was hard for Maddie to tell if Lazarus was happy or sad or angry; his voice was always the same. His face never changed either.
Before she could answer, Maddie coughed into a tissue. It was a long, hoarse cough. When she finished, she saw that there was blood soaking through the soft paper.
“I’m sick,” she said, looking at Lazarus. He leaned in close to her, so close that Maddie could count each of his crooked brown teeth. He leaned in close, and whispered into her ear.
“Do you have any stories about sick people?” She asked. Once again, Lazarus, the burning man, nodded his head.
“It doesn’t have a happy ending either.”
“That’s okay.” She said. “I’ll still listen.” Lazarus placed his bony fingers on his lap, and breathed in deep.
“A long, long time ago, there was a small town on the shore. There were people who lived in this town, all sorts of people; bakers, silk weavers, carpenters and many more. They lived happily and productively. They would work and play and marry and live long happy lives. But one day, people started to get sick. Not everyone, but quite a few, and more every day. The ones who got sick would grow black boils on their faces and necks, their skin turning yellow and green. It was a very painful sickness, one that would eventually kill. The doctors of the town could do nothing to stop it, as there was no cure. The only option was to barricade the town, to stop the great plague from spreading. No one was allowed to leave once they entered the town. One of the people who lived in the town, a tailor, had a wife who was outside of the town limits before the sickness had taken over. She had been away, to visit her family a ways off. When she returned, she was stopped by a guard, who said that she may not enter without permission. The tailor’s wife begged and pleaded to the guard, telling him that her husband, the man she loved, was in the town. The guard finally told her that if her husband would allow it, then she would be able to enter. He also warned her that she would not be allowed to leave again.
Word was sent to the tailor, that his beloved wife was awaiting his permission at the gates. At first, he was overjoyed at the prospect of seeing his dear wife again, as he had been very lonely since her initial departure. But, as he thought upon it, the tailor’s heart began to sink. He realized that if he were to allow his wife to enter the town, that he would condemn her to the same fate as so many others. The thought of her suffering through the sickness, the sores and bile and rot, the festering misery, he could not allow it. He wanted her with him, of course he did, but he loved her too much to let her perish along with him. He was already showing symptoms of plague. So it was with a heavy soul that he refused the messenger. He was heartbroken, his eyes wet with guilt and grief. When word came back to the tailor’s wife, who had been waiting at the gates all morning, her heart was also crushed. It wasn’t until years later, after she had remarried and raised several beautiful children that she was finally able to forgive him. She understood that her first loves only wish was for her to continue on and be happy.”
By now the sun was no longer shining. Overcast had made the sky a light shade of gray, almost white when compared to the crows on the windowsill. More had shown up while Lazarus told his story, so many that there wasn’t enough room on the sill for all of them. They were starting to perch themselves on a nearby tree. Maddie coughed some more.
“I liked that one better than the first. At least it wasn’t all bad.” She said after her fit of coughs. “But why are you telling me all of these sad stories?”
Lazarus looked at Maddie, never blinking, never smiling. In a voice as black as coal, he said, “I think you know why.”
Maddie looked down into her lap. She did know why. But she wasn’t scared. No, Maddie knew how to brave, and not just for herself either. She turned to Lazarus, his face charred and scarred beyond recognition of humanity, former or otherwise.
“When?” she asked. Lazarus turned his head to the window, towards the black crows that had gathered.
“Soon.” He said to her. The beeps from the machines, the ones that kept check on Maddie, they became irregular, slowing down.
“Do we have enough time for one more story?” She asked him.
“Not much, but we can try.” He replied. Maddie shook her head. She said that it would be okay, that she would still listen. Even if it had a sad ending.
“There was once a sweet little girl, with chestnut hair and wide blue eyes. She loved stories, all kinds of stories….”
When Maddie’s parents returned, they found her lying still in bed. She had stopped smiling, stopped breathing. They cried into each other’s arms. What they had been told by the doctor, they knew it was only a matter of time. Even still, they didn’t think that it would be this soon. Their souls had been profoundly crushed, shattered into oblivion. But in a strange way, not in a callous or indifferent way, they were relieved. The weight of the inevitable had been lifted, and in its place a sharp sting. They knew this as they wept, and while gazing out of the bedroom window. They were focusing on the sky, which had grown into a perfect and terrible shade of gray. They were so focused in their sorrow, that they never even noticed the burns left on the chair.
The crows had taken flight.
Credit to: Stephan D. Harris
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