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By Magic or By Mercy


From three stories up, she sat with the window propped open wide, allowing a merciful breeze that carried its own consequence.  The smell was putrid.  The stench of urine baking in the fiery indignation of the hot city sun violated her nostrils.  The view to match,  the broken down brick building only 10 feet away and an alley way full of trash, drug paraphernalia and used condoms scattered about.  Not much to look at, no essence of wild flowers. No babbling brook flowing gently against lush green growth. No beauty.  Just the breeze that touched the sweat building on her brow giving slight relief from the blazing heat on what seemed to be an eternal summer afternoon in The Projects.  Still, this is not why she sat quietly, gazing intently, from her third story window.  No, this is not why at all.

Like clockwork, a little boy covertly rounds the corner into the filthy separation alley between the two dilapidated buildings.  This is no place for a little boy of any age.  She guesses him around 6 or 7 years old.  It’s hard to tell, she thinks.  He is dirty.  Not just a little dirty, but like he didn’t have a mother dirty.  Unkempt, uncared for dirty.  She imagined he probably smelled pretty badly too.  His hair is long and brushes his shoulders in wisps and clumps.  His pants are too big and his shirt, too small.  His shoes are discernably held together with duct tape and rubber bands.  But what’s more, what infuriates her and breaks her heart at the same time, is the fresh bruise rising above his dirty little cheek and the limp he walks with as he favors his left leg or foot.

She remains silent in her window, but eyes the boy carefully, peering up and down the alley way for danger just as the little boys does. They are alone and do not acknowledge each other. The little boys pushes the hair from his face as he walks deliberately into the alley.  She can sense his fear, see it in his eyes, even from so far away, but she can also see that he is learning to hide it.  He has an unusual awareness of himself, of his surroundings, and it chills her into gooseflesh.   She’s reminded of soldiers returning from war, and her heart breaks a little more. This is a broken child who will become a broken man.

His dirty little face turns from pensive to thoughtful, she notes, as the little boy begins to look about the ground.  Inside her mind, she screams at him not to touch any of that filth, but she stills herself.  This is his moment. She does not wish to break it.  His face begins to soften, turning childish and innocent.  A smile breaks quickly across his face.  He sees what only one can see through the eyes of a child.  He has spied his playground, his carnival, his childhood paradise.  She sees light burst in his eyes, and her heart pleasantly skips a beat.

He begins to kick rocks and garbage with his feet. His hands come out of his pockets and he begins to pull weeds in one little area. He throws bottles aside, moves bags and small pieces of glass. In a matter of minutes he has cleared a space. Nothing left but clean dirt.  His elation is rich and priceless. With intent fascination she watches. This child is new here in these Projects and he doesn’t understand the rules yet.  There is no hiding place from the degenerated state of human condition here, no matter where you look or where you try to hide and she fears for him.  But there is nothing she can do.  She is hypnotized by this creation of something beautiful from nothing but filth and she must see it through with him.

Two weeks now, every single day, it’s been the same thing.  Just before noon, he has turned that corner.  He has sat himself up against her building in an attentive silence. She’s not sure if it had been luck or if this child had Angels, but no one has paid him mind.  He has become a chameleon and blended into his surroundings by magic or by mercy. He would fiddle with something in his pockets as if in deliberation.  He would absently smack at the long weeds gathered in clusters and bunches all around, maybe throw a few rocks, pick his nose and wipe it thoughtlessly on the front of his pants.  He would do this for hours, and then as if to say, “Nope, not yet”, he would get up and walk away.

Today is different, it seemed.  Today was the day!  He has busied himself with his creation and has fashioned a fresh plot of dirt.  He seems so amused, so pleased, so committed.  His hands slip into his pockets and that look of fear flashes over his face once more.  He stiffens and turns to contemplation. It seems to her that what he has in his pockets is either stolen treasure or treasure he does not want stolen.  Treasure just the same.  He is protecting it with what felt like his very life.  He hesitates, looks up and down the alley way, fiddles more with what he holds in his pockets.  Clearly, he is about to do or die.  She watches at the edge of her seat, her own muscles tightening from the tension, her hands wringing the window pane.  She feels his anguish, and he fiddles once more like little boys do when they really want something and just aren’t sure about themselves, and then does it.  

Both hands fly out of his pockets, each holding a matchbox car.  The cars, themselves, were tattered, missing doors and hoods and such, and are dim paint.  But he looks at them with ravenous pleasure. She knew then, these are cherished, not stolen.  A treasure, his lifeline.  She knew these broken little toys were his sanity, his happy place.  He had denied himself, sacrificed days of sunshine, has been deliberate and ever so patient to ensure the safety of his treasure.  This is his moment and he takes it.

Giddy with pleasure, he drops to his knees into the fresh dirt.  His smile is incorruptible innocence, as he forgets the real world, becoming a child once more. The unforgiving sun, the burning piss, the stench of garbage and human waste had no meaning.  He has built a race track and his two matchbox cars are racing at a fever pitch!

In this moment, she knows something so pure, so tragic, and so exceptional.  This is not a child she has given birth to, but she would give her life for him just the same, if only to give him this moment.

He played and played with childhood content, rapt with pleasure for the next hour.  There were no more horrors waiting for him inside the building, no more hunger, no more pain. He remained adrift inside of his private, peaceful bit of heaven.  Racing up and down the mounds of dirt he had built, jumping cars over bottles and crushed up bags, crashing them into the dirt creating tiny dust explosions, he lay back and giggles as every little boy should, from his belly

Then came the screams.  She knew they would, although, she had prayed as hard as she could to her God that they wouldn’t.

Instantly, the boy locked up.  His body stiffened, his eyes changed. The voice that came was cold and harsh, unforgiving and without mercy.  It sounded angry.  Frantically, the boy grabbed up his two matchbox cars and shoved them back into his pockets.  He smacked at his clothes to release the dirt, and the evidence.  Even though the look in his eyes had turned mournful and distressed, she saw that there was a definite sense of triumph in his stride.  He had come and accomplished what he had been so desperate to do.  This happiness that he did not understand would give him the power, the force, to get him through what he must face on the other side of that screaming voice. As he walked towards the opening of the alley way, he turned his head up at the lady in the 3rdstory window with a deep and genuine smile.

He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t need to. He waived boyishly with one hand and held his pants with the other as he disappeared around the corner to face his fate. Left sitting alone in her window, with a heart so full of undefinable love, and a sadness that struck her very soul, she wiped the tears that had fallen down her face.  Her own merciless and angry voice would be home soon.  With a deep sigh, she stood and closed her window and turned to face her own fate.


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