Death in the Dust Days - part one

This is the continuation of what I hope to be a treatment on what Death has taught me. I already posted the prologue. Again, I do not know where this is going to end, but it just seems right and real to record this in this way.

Lesson 1: Its Color 

I stared at death, his eyes were still closed tight. I half expected them to open and for him to show me that they glowed an awful green or red. Shouldn't Death have eyes that reminded me of wounds and decay? They wouldn't be a peaceful blue or a jet black. I shook my head and noticed that he held my hand in a manner that was causing it to cramp. I tried to let go a bit to signal that I wanted to shift its position but there he remained; a still, solid stone.  

As beads of sweat began forming on his forehead and his hand grew moist and warm my initial perceptions of him began to change. I was beginning to see him more tormented than tormentor. Wanting to inquire who could be oppressing him so my tongue froze before I could seek the name of his assailant. I took a rather macabre comfort in his strain, but barely for a moment. Shuddering slightly I groaned at the shiver sent down my spine as if there were a sharp breeze coming through the open window. But it was the stillness of the air that aroused me and I sought comfort as I closed my eyes. Gazing into black the light danced and a picture, from where it came I could not tell, began to form in my mind. 

These were the dusty days when nothing dared disturb the silent still. I awoke that morning to the familiar sound of the garbage truck that always seemed to rattle the beer can collection that graced the metal shelving next to the casement window of my attic bedroom. I had no use in straightening or securing the my menagerie for I rather liked the sound and the harbinger it was that another day, another Summer Wednesday, was new and holding no limitations for me. I noticed that my bother's bed across the room was empty and unkempt. He had not been up long and there was still opportunity to convince him of a grand adventure or two.

As I stumbled out of bed I brushed against the plaque that my mom and dad had given me. It was blue an round with a picture of a blond boy like me holding a little chick while several others milled about not waiting their turn to be held but not afraid of the gentle giant in their midst. My middle name, Francis, was a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Legends about of St. Francis' love for and care of animals both domestic and wild. It was as if his love for them were somehow transferred to me.  

Making my way downstairs I turned on the light in my aquarium that housed my two goldfish. "Hey guys!" I greeted them getting out their favorite food. "It's going to be a warm one today, I hope you are not sweating in there." My goldfish were cold water specimens and I had to disposable income to create or purchase a chiller for their water. They were at the mercy of the internal temperature of the house as my parents had no extra income for central air. They seemed happy enough so I lazily looked for someone to greet. 

My mom had a rare work day at the dry cleaner's a couple doors down and left a list of chores for us to accomplish. Taking note of them I noticed that some of the simpler ones were crossed off already. My brother was diligent to not only complete them but to make sure that he would hold it over my head that I had not done a single thing yet that day. Undaunted I half-hearted dusted the basement family room when I saw him for the first time. 

"Hey, I think there was a party at the Exempts last night," I started shaking the dust cloth out the window. 

"Yeah there was," he almost laughed. "I had to turn the TV up on the porch to drown out the noise." 

"Well, you know that means that those dumpsters are going to be chock full of bottles," I continued wringing my hands like an evil scientist. "And that wooden wire spool is still down there as far as I can tell." 

"I think you're right. I saw it a couple 'a days ago. I think we'll get some good busting in before the others get there. But our list, it's not done yet and..." 

"Mom works 'till three, we'll be fine," I reassured him. Not that he needed it. He was already getting his swamp shoes on. These were the ones he wore in deference to our parent's wishes to not muddy up our "good sneakers". Those were ones that we'd wear to picnics, or the museum, or any other place that required something less than shoes and a bit more than the muddy, scuffed footwear that had laces barely long enough to tie. 

Today of all days the right shoes were necessary as we were heading to one of the most coveted places in the neighborhood. There was a swamp at the end of our street. A swamp where we would go and collect tadpoles or break liquor bottles that we would find in the dumpster at the back of the bar that was not 300 yards from where we liked to play. The swamp held special significance in the neighborhood lore and its name betrayed its importance: Dead Man's Swamp. It was there, as Goody Goodwin would insist, that a man was buried. Deep in the middle of the swamp, inaccessible to us kids as it was over six feet deep, a man took his last breath and succumbed to death. Now no one was sure if it was the swamp that killed him or just where "they" threw him after he died. The missing details were not unimportant as they shifted depending on who was recalling the story. Suffice it to say that no one dared to swim to the middle of that ruthless body of water for fear of disturbing the man's rest. Or maybe they wouldn't venture in for fear that the tale wasn't true. Whichever reason the journey was never endeavored was somewhat irrelevant as the story lived in the mind of this almost 50 year old man. 

This day was soon to take a different tack as my brother and I sprinted across the field between the bar and the swamp with arms full of the largest liquor bottles we had ever seen (and a cut finger or two). It was only then that we saw the two older boys that had already arrived. My younger brother and I had never seen them before but we could easily chalk that up to the fact that we were on the early side of our almost-daily pilgrimage. We weren't sure what their names were and we quickly ascertained that they weren't interested in ours. 

What held their interest was the necessity to catch a frog for some sort of "science experiment". At least that is what we thought we overheard as we set up the bottles on the large, wooden wire spool and began to look for suitable rocks to throw at them. As I knelt down and dug a rock out of the mud a tattered, blackened form seemed to darken the scene and quickly vanished. It was as if that simple act disturbed the rest of a memory, one that this Death, lusted for me to recall. As I tried to cling to forgetfulness I signaled to him that I was not much interested in being transported there. When I tried to open my eyes they remained shut. I summoned some strength to shake my body in an attempt to affix my energy to another place. I could see louder, more colorful days in the distance and I attempted to make my way towards them. They were quickly sealed in a translucent haze almost mocking me with their inaccessibility.  

Now, gazing upon my brother, I found him growing less solid and more phantom like. I could feel his bones fade as I attempted to grab him by the arm silently mouthing the words, "We need to leave." No sound escaped my throat as he lightly shook his head, looked me between the eyes and loudly whispered, "Remember."  

I found my attentionagain, fixed on the older boys and I saw that they had, indeed, caught a frog. When one of them mentioned that it was little use to them alive I vividly recalled their treatment of it. I looked for comfort from my brother but he was gone, and I was frozen, alone, and barely ready to watch them. I held a stone in my hand and knew that I had to hurl it at them to focus their attention elsewhere, but my arms hung limp and I lost my grip on it. It fell into the water near my feet scattering tadpoles and bringing up a cloud of silt. They were to abuse our ever-increasing, God-given dominion over nature and kill this frog. One of the boys threw it to the dirt as hard as he could. The other skipped it along the same semi soft ground while his friend ran to retrieve it. It was barely alive when it was dashed against a half buried boulder of a rock and finally lifted as a lifeless shell its tongue hanging out of its mouth so slightly.  

"We should have toyed with it more," one of the boys confessed seemingly wishing that its life was taken much more slowly and deliberately.  

"Yeah, well, we have what we need now don't we?" his friend confessed as they chuckled and left taking part of my life with them. I felt as though I had been diminished 

I couldn't leave. Still somewhat frozen I looked around for somewhere, anywhere to retreat to when I spotted a well-worn spade sticking straight up into the ground. My heavy feet plodded towards it as I looked for the boulder, the embedded stone altar, they used to strike the final blow. Making my way towards the rock I as determined to dig it out and throw it in the middle of the swamp. That is where death lived. That is where his instruments were to remain. As I dug, and sweated, and swore, and cramped I sang my silent screams. The rock seemed to go for miles under the earth and the more I dug the bigger it grew. The bigger the hole became I found that the rock filled increasingly filled it. I could not defeat it. I could not bring it to its rightful resting place upon the dead man's chest. Knowing that I would not save a another frog from the slab I would now save a frog from another's hands. 

Almost desperately searching for a frog to rescue, cherish, and comfort I frantically splashed about making so much noise in the early morning air that I swore I could hear windows closing and shades being drawn. After witnessing what had happened I reckoned that a frog could not have been all that keen on staying in Dead Man's Swamp. Not for the rest of that day anyway. I wanted to reassure the frog that we were not all like that. There were people there who, even though they broke bottles, would never harm a living thing unless they were feeding a worm to the tadpoles that they had in their fishbowl at home. I couldn't find one and I feared that I would never find one again.  

My world snapped back to my kitchen table and the chair creaked as I jerked. Conscious again of my surroundings my skin tasted the fresh, warm breeze that moved the curtains on the south facing window. Death's sweat was gone and his hands were cold, shrunken, and wrinkled as I drew mine out slowly at first and then with abandon. It was then that I shot straight up in my chair. 

"I was young!" I cried a single tear rolling down my right cheek. 

"Why didn't you look away?" Death rasped seemingly accusing me of crime that I had merely witnessed.  

"I was held there!" I shot back in my defense knowing that inescapable fact. 

"By whom?" Death retorted as he gripped the side of the table. "You were, indeed, held. But not by me." 

"But you know how much I loved animals. I would have never done that to the poor frog." 

"And that is the criteria? That is what you thrust upon me for my selection of whom, or what I touch? My Master is no respecter of persons and you should be joyful that I cannot resist him. What am I to say? To whom should I appeal?" Death started to shake a bit as if he were being summoned. "You were held," he continued, "yes, most certainlyYou were arrested by you."  

It was there that I had nothing to admit by my fascination with it all. I was not utterly sheltered from the reality of death. I had killed before and seen, on more than one occasion, the carcass of an animal strewn on the road. A squashed fly here, a goldfish that expired in the middle of the night or while I was at school there. But now, there, then, I saw something more like me. Something that had legs. Long legs like mine. A tongue, a sticky one that tasted food. Tight, waterproof, freckly skin. And all of that encased something like a life that I seemed to have. It was this thing that helplessly happened upon a greater, merciless force that would not allow it to move one more muscle toward preservation. Rather this force sought the weaker vessel's destruction bending it to its own will. It was that aggression, that violence, that reckless careless abandon against that which I esteemed that cemented this journey in my mind. 

I longed to be the one to designate those that he afflicted. I couldn't bear to think of the frog let alone my wife's, sons', parents', brothers', or sisters' bodies and wills bent and broken by him. All of them I wanted to preserve from his penetration and the pain that we would face as the wake of their absence wet my feet. I knew he was restrained but he marched to a drumbeat that seemed to assail my soul and thickly veil my understanding.  

"Will it ever leave?" I asked. "Will I always remember this?" 

"That's for Him to decide," Death sniffed, almost exhausted, and now with sweat re-forming on his forehead. "Now take my hand, please, quickly," he almost sobbed lips quivering as he spoke. "There is still much to show you." 

Reluctantly, my left hand crawled toward him when he reached out and snatched it. His was, again, warm and wet as his eyes rolled into the back of his head just before hiding them from me.

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