Ichabod's Childhood

by Kadorienne

 

"Where is Mother?"

It had taken me some time to find the courage to ask. All I could remember was that she had been gone for several days. Every time I had tried to recall where she had gone, a deep dread had turned my thoughts aside, and my bandaged hands had ached harder. (I had been ordered to leave the bandages alone, though they itched and I had no idea why I was wearing them.) But at last I managed to ask.

Father glared at me.

"She's dead," he said flatly.

"She's in Heaven?" I asked, remembering my catechism.

He turned away abruptly. "God willing. With the penance we helped her to perform."

None of this made any sense to me. I was too perplexed to even cry. "Shouldn't we have a funeral for her then? Like we did for Grandfather?"

Father's face contorted and he swiftly brought the back of his hand across my face. I fell and covered my head with my arms, not daring to make a sound. Father had always been stern, but it was different lately. Now it seemed he was always angry, no matter what.

"Don't ever mention that woman again!" he thundered.

I did not move or speak till he left the room. Then I slowly got up.

I was sure there were supposed to be funerals when people died. I had even held one for a cardinal once. I had found it on the ground, dead, and it had made me sad, knowing its bright crimson wings would never fly again. I had taken it to Mother, and she had explained how the cardinal would now be able to fly even higher, as high up as Heaven. Together we had given it a little wooden box for a coffin and buried it under a cherry tree, and she had said a prayer over it, and I was comforted.

If the adults would not do it, I would tend to it, I decided. In my room was a small metal box, dented and scratched, in which I kept various odds and ends. I emptied it and went to my parents' room. Since I could not bury my mother, I would bury something that belonged to her.

But there was nothing of hers in their room. Her clothes, her few items of jewelry, her brush and comb, even – all were gone.

I considered what to do for a time before going back to my own room. If I could not bury my mother or anything that belonged to her, I would bury the things she had given to me. But a great deal of that was gone as well. All I found was the spinning cardinal toy that she used to comfort me on stormy nights, and her father's ring.

"He would have wanted you to have this," she had told me after her father's funeral, pressing the heavy ring with its shield insignia into my small hand. "When you are a man, you will wear it, little love."

I had stored the ring carefully at the bottom of a drawer, wrapped in a handkerchief. Now I took it and put it in the metal box along with the cardinal disk. I could find nothing else that she had given me, so I set out with this mostly empty box to the cherry tree. It had shed most of its blossoms, but there were a few left.

I dug until I supposed it was deep enough, and then put the box in the hole. I did not find the cardinal's little coffin, though I knew I was digging close to it. I buried the metal box and recited the prayers I knew over it, and finished by placing a nosegay of forget-me-nots on the little grave. Thus I laid my mother's soul to rest.

* * *

It was getting late. I was about to retire when Father strode into my room. I cringed instantly, nor was I disappointed. He seized me by the ear.

"What did I do? I'm sorry!" I cried promptly, uselessly.

"It's what you're going to do. I saw that woman start fires by her black magic. Tonight I'm going to find out once and for all if you can do the same!"

"I can't!"

"We'll see about that!"

He dragged me into the backyard. I was wearing only my thin white shirt, my vest, and my trousers. It was January. It was freezing.

"Father," I whispered pleadingly. At my whisper, he only tightened his lips. I had stopped actually asking for mercy years before; it never helped, and often made things worse.

He shoved me into the toolshed. Earlier that day he had told me to empty it, to put everything into the barn, without explaining why. Now it was bare save for one thing: a small pile of wood right in the center, laid ready to make a fire.

"You'll stay in here until midnight. If you don't want to freeze, you'll use your black magic to set this fire!"

I clung to the door, bracing my feet, trying to hold it open. "I can't do any black magic!"

"Then what do you call those noxious vapours you've been creating?" he thundered.

"Chemistry!" I exclaimed desperately, already shivering violently. "It was just chemicals, Father. They would do the same thing if you were mixing them! Or Reverend Charleton! Or anyone!"

He cuffed my ear. Not a particularly hard blow, by any means, but enough to knock me back from the door. Quickly he slammed it, and as I struggled to pull it open again, I heard him locking it. "You'll stay in here till midnight!"

"I'll get ill!"

"That will prove your innocence," he shouted through the door.

"Father!" I called uselessly. Then I heard the door to the house slam.

I spent a few minutes trying to break out, shuddering violently with the cold. I was not strong enough, however, and after a few minutes I huddled in a corner, hugging my knees to my chest.

I was locked in a freezing shed with no coat, no matches, nothing except a pile of wood. And my brain.

Which was all humans really had, when you came right down to it. We had no fur, no claws, nothing to aid us in surviving on this harsh planet except the mental ingenuity that had enabled us to create shelter and food for ourselves, that had made it possible for us to harness the power of fire.

With that thought. I hunched over the pile of sticks, picked up one that was dry and strong, and began twirling it between my numb hands, the bottom end rubbing against another stick. Humankind had survived for thousands of years without matches in this way. Surely I could do it.

And I did, but it took a very long time. My teeth were chattering and my ears frostbitten by the time a spark was finally kindled. Whoever invented matches was a true Prometheus, a great benefactor of mankind.

But after what seemed an eternity, I did have a small fire burning. It was not really enough, but it gave me some relief from the freezing cold.

Until the door was thrown open. My father had seen the faint glow of my little fire under the crack of the shed's door.

He looked at the little flames in outrage. "I knew it!"

I stood and held my head defiantly high, even though I was shaking all over, from fear and anger as well as cold. "You knew what? I just did what people did before matches were invented! What they did in the Old Testament! I suppose that using one's brain would seem like magic to you!"

The back of his fist met my cheek with jarring force. I fell against the wall, stunned by the impact, my head ringing.

"Get inside," he ordered curtly. "I'll thrash you for your insolence in the morning. And I'll smoke out your sorcery yet. I have more tests planned for you, sly as you think yourself."

Still unsteady on my feet from the blow, I staggered into the house before he could change his mind. I went straight to the kitchen stove and stood before it, rubbing my arms, trying to restore feeling to my numb hands.

"Go to bed," he snapped.

I spoke in a whisper, shivering. "May I make some tea, sir?" I desperately needed to drink something warm, but I knew better than to prepare anything without permission.

He let me wait a long minute before saying, "No. Go to bed."

"Yes, sir." I did not dare to argue. I got into bed and huddled under the blankets, trying to warm up, but I did not sleep. I lay awake in the darkness, my ears straining for every sound, alert and waiting. A new fury was building in me, unlike anything I had felt before. A cold determination that this was not going to continue. Whatever else happened, whatever else was done to me, I would not tolerate this for one more day.

Another thrashing was no great matter. I had received plenty of them already. But more tests — who knew what further torments my father had devised in his quest to make me reveal powers that did not exist? He was quite capable of killing me in order to prove my innocence. So much suffering, mine and others', so many deaths, and all in the service of superstition.

I heard my father go to bed, and I listened. My cheek throbbed with pain. When his room had been silent for a very long time and I was certain that he was sleeping soundly, I cautiously got out of bed.

I dressed in my warmest clothes, putting on two shirts to begin with. In the pockets of my coat I put a box of matches, having new appreciation for them now, and my favorite book, Aristotle's Ethics. I had nothing else of any value. But as I crept quietly outside, it occurred to me that there was something else I had to take with me. I went into the barn and found a shovel where I had laid it that afternoon when I brought it from the toolshed.

I took the shovel to the cherry tree under which I had held my mother's funeral so many years ago and began to dig. It was the very first grave I ever dug up. I had to dig three holes before finding the right spot, but in time the shovel struck something. A battered metal box, dirty from the seven years it had spent underground. Its contents were still intact; the thaumatrope with its caged cardinal was in surprisingly good condition, still creating the same illusion when I spun it before tucking it in my pocket, and the ring was still waiting patiently.

The last time I had held this ring, I had been almost small enough to put two of my fingers into it at once. I remembered my mother's words: "When you are a man, you shall wear it, little love." This night I was striking out on my own. I was a man now. I pulled my right glove off to try the ring on. It fit my index finger perfectly. I positioned it on that finger and never removed it again.

* * *

I slept beneath the stars many nights. It was cold, but I had known colder. Other nights I would spend on a cramped couch or in a hayloft of some farmer who had given me a meal and a bed in exchange for a day's work. I made myself ask for the work when I found a prosperous-looking farm. The farmers invariably looked curiously at my bruised cheek. Some of them simply looked compassionate and assigned me some labor. A few asked about it. I always claimed that I had been thrown from a horse. I doubt that any of them believed me.

I knew somehow where I was going. The city. Surely in a city the people must be wiser, more enlightened, less in thrall to superstition. And there were so many people there, surely he would never be able to find me.

It took me several weeks of walking and working where I could, but in time I was in New York. I was daunted, of course. I had never seen so many people in my life. In the village where I had lived, people looked at you and spoke to you wherever you went, and then told everybody else whatever you had been doing. It was comforting to have no one care what I was doing, to have no one pay any attention to me at all.

I had never easily made friends with boys my own age, but needs must when the devil drives. It was not long at all before I met with others like me, orphans and runaways forced to survive on their own. They told me what I needed to know. There were places where boys could get work; not much, but enough to live. There were stores and pubs and street corners one could linger at until someone who needed something done held up a coin and barked out an order. There were rooming houses, large, dank rooms filled with hard narrow cots, as many as the room would hold. A few pence allowed a boy the use of one for a night, and a bowl of oatmeal in the morning. The blankets were stained and threadbare, and if you did not want to be robbed you slept with your belongings under your head. I was worried the first time I woke the other youths with one of my nightmares, but I soon learned that I was not the only one who had them. Everyone simply closed their eyes and went back to sleep.

These things were not spoken of, I learned. All of us had our tragedies. When a new boy appeared, he had bruises, more often than not, and when one of us removed his shirt to wash it was not unusual to see thin scars across his back. The orphans had their secrets too; they generally had some token of their families that they treasured safely, concealing them when possible, never commenting upon them. I could not help making my conjectures, but I kept them to myself. It was a hard world, and we were all alone in it. We had no time to pity each other or ourselves. We set stern jaws against our memories and turned to survival.

"What's your name, boy?" I was asked by one of my earliest employers. Most of them never bothered to inquire; "boy" or "lad" was name enough for most.

"Ichabod—" I began, but stopped. If my father were looking for me, I could not dare to give out my name.

"Ichabod what?" the man demanded impatiently.

Nervously I clenched my fist. The movement made my ring press into my flesh, and I remembered my grandfather's name, my mother's maiden name.

"Ichabod Crane," I blurted.

As I said the words for the first time, I felt a great surge of satisfaction at denying kinship with my father. From this day forth, I would be my mother's son.

Since my mother's death, I had not expected to ever know happiness again, and so the bleak freedom I found here was satisfactory enough. The long hours of work — or worse, of no work; the unspoken rule, never to show weakness; the many mundane hardships of life in the slums; all of this was still far better than the unremitting terror I had lived in for seven years.

The things I saw plagued me more than the things I underwent. With each passing day, I found it more outrageous that anyone could find the nonsensical working of spells or the messing about with chemicals evil. I saw murder, theft, and vices too vile to name. I saw all the injustices those who are poor and powerless must endure. I saw evils I could never have dreamt up. I was furious at the entire world, that all this was allowed to go on.

My only salvation, then as in my earlier years, was in books. Exercising my mind gave me relief from all my fury and pain. I read through the Ethics so many times that I memorized it. And there were many days when I did not eat so that I could buy a book. William Godwin's masterpiece, "An Inquiry into Political Justice", fired my imagination and held out a small ray of hope to me. If someone could conceive this, perhaps in time it could be put into practice.

* * *

The man had seized my bag and was about to run away with it, but I clung to it for dear life. The only thing in it of any value to me was the cardinal disk, but I was angry, angry at all I was having to endure. I resolved that I would not let go of my bag unless he killed me.

Perhaps the same thought occurred to him, because he brought his fist into my stomach. I gasped, but did not release my grip. He kicked at my shins next. I was too breathless to try to fight back, but I did not let go. I did not cry out; it did not even occur to me to call for help.

Then suddenly my assailant collapsed before me. He groaned as my bag slipped from his fingers. I clutched it closer and took an apprehensive step back when I saw what had felled him.

It was a constable, a beefy man about to enter his middle years. He had struck the man on the back of his head with his nightstick. Since running away, I had been in the habit of fleeing those uniforms, fearing that perhaps they might send me back to my father. But now I found I was rooted to the spot.

Glancing at me, he leaned over and quickly shackled the man’s wrists. Straightening, he studied me. To my surprise, there was a sort of resigned compassion in his face, as if he saw too much misery to alleviate it all, but still wished to offer a hand. Indeed, he must have been a compassionate man, to trouble himself over such a petty theft and such an outcast victim.

"You hurt, boy?"

It was a moment before I could speak. "Not really." I could feel the ache of bruises already forming, but I meant that I did not need a doctor.

His eyes took in my wary expression, my ragged clothes, and finally came to rest on the ring I wore. "Where did you get that ring, lad?"

My hand curled into a fist, ready to cling to my one valuable possession. "My mother left it to me." My voice was firmer than I think it ever had been before in my short life.

He examined my face and I think he saw that I was telling the truth. The compassion in his weathered face deepened. His eyes next settled on my vest pocket, from which Aristotle’s Ethics was protruding. His eyebrows lifted slightly at the sight.

"You can read?"

"Of course!"

He leaned over and dragged the stunned thief to his feet. "At Ninth and Beechnut Street, there is a large printer’s shop. They always need bright lads to work for them."

"Yes, sir," I managed in a whisper. He threw me one last regretful look before striding off with my assailant in tow. When he was a few yards away, I found my voice. "Mr. Constable, sir!" He glanced back. I spoke shyly. "Thank you."

A bit of the weariness seemed to lift from his face as he nodded his acknowledgement and continued on his way.

I stood watching him go. Later that day, having washed my face and hands and brought what order I could to my worn clothes, I did go to that printer’s shop and worked there for some time thereafter. But I knew from that day on what my life’s purpose was to be. I never saw that constable again, but he rescued me from more than a thief.

 

 

Fiction
Sleepy Hollow