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Crossroads of Right and Easy

Editor's note: This serial, which explores the days leading up to that fateful night in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," continues through Christmas Day. The story thus far: Marley returns to his childhood home of Queen's Row, where he recalls his life among the destitute.

As in all things, the second conflict with the Americans ended. We signed peace in Ghent and it all went back to normal.

For some, anyway. The hungry stayed hungry, and so many more that hadn’t been before joined our seemingly banished communes, driven mad by images of blood and fire that wouldn’t leave their dreams. We welcomed them into our dysfunctional society, so many weathered boats floating toward a crumbling lighthouse.

The old man helped as many as he could, tucking scraps of linen into still-bleeding wounds and pouring measures of his treasured bourbon to disinfect. For more meticulous procedures, he offered random possessions to bite down on, anything in arm’s reach: sticks, balled-up tears of fabric.

Years ago, he told me once, it would have been easier. He'd been a proper physician, long intimate with cutting instruments and medicine. His colleagues held him in high regard.

That would change, he said. 'Twas bourbon that toppled him, a bitter swindler that seduced him with fleeting promises of courage and warmth, swore oaths that those who died in his care would not haunt his dreams. It drowned his old life, swept him away on a foul-smelling wave into the darkened alleys of Queen's Row.

He moped for a time, certainly, but melancholy is a poor substitute for purpose. And so the old man took up knife and vial once again, a pauper of particular expertise. As before, he healed and diagnosed and assured. But supplies were short, so he took a long swallow on his pride and reached out to his former colleagues, the crowd he'd been a part of before the bottle took everything.

They agreed to help, offered him armfuls of medicine and bandages and thread. Cutting instruments and needles. Such generosity humbled him.

He stockpiled everything he could. Six months later he met me, a cholera-ridden ragged toy of a child that was more bones than skin, and nursed me back from the edge of death with clean water. I joined his odd, noble practice.

Renewed purpose. Supplies. An assistant. The world suddenly seemed brighter to the old man.

This sudden optimism did not last. Conditions being what they were, death was a more probable outcome than before. My journey back from the edge was a rarity, the old man said, a miracle. He hated that he could not replicate it, how much it felt like luck.

He wept in private, sponging his tears on the ends of his tattered sleeves.

Thoughts of how many more he would have been able to save had we been part of his old life forced themselves on me. I thought of a gallant, colorful world where medicine was plentiful and doctors were calm, experienced; where food and warmth were attainable, nearly certainties.

I’d lay half a crown the old man coveted such scenes as well. On a particularly dreadful evening, he wept beneath our bridge, knees pulled up to his face while the remaining coals of a dying fire sputtered their last breaths. I awoke and stared at him in the darkness, but never went to comfort him or ask what was wrong, just peered through the shadows and wavering firelight until sleep wrapped its dark arms about me again.

We awoke the next morning and dined on ratty crusts of bread and stayed out of the sun, seeking shade in tattered awnings that drooped from abandoned shops. I said nothing of the night before, asked no questions about why he wept so.

Screams broke our silence.

“Help! Help, please!” A man's voice, desperate and terrified.

We peered in his direction. A wiry boy sprinted toward us, a billfold clutched in his fist while his bare feet slapped on the cobblestone. The billfold’s owner, a gentleman in a top hat, followed. Queen’s Row residents cheered the lad on as he passed. They spit at the well-to-do, cursing him and throwing rocks and nearly empty bottles of lush. I watched, fascinated. A slow boil of my own cheers started inside me, got closer and closer to erupting with every step the thief took.

I thought of the night before, of the limits fate seemed to impose on the old man and how privileged men like the one chasing his money had none.

“Jacob,” the old man said. “Help me.”

His gentle voice shook me from my thoughts. He stood and walked to the center of the cobblestone, directly in the thief’s path. I ran to his side.

The thief grew closer, closer still. His dirty face contorted with each breath, encouraged by the cheers of so many men. I recognized him, had seen him around Queen’s Row many times. He boxed for sport, fed mangy hounds scraps and trained them to fight others. Row veterans kept their distance. New residents learned to quickly.

I’d never known him to steal. That had changed, it seemed. He ran toward us, red-faced and swiping his arm to the side, screaming for us to get out of the way.

“What are you doing?” I asked the old man.

“We’re stopping him.”

"Why? This fancy bloke doesn't need the money. Queen's Row does."

“What the boy’s doing is easy, not right,” he said. “To be at the crossroads of Right and Easy and choose Easy is to stray. To choose Right is to walk through fire and cold but to come out unscathed in the end. To not have to look back and wonder what the other route looked like.”

“What?”

“We’re better than this, Jacob,” he said. “You, me, this frightened boy, the man chasing him all of us.”

“Clear the road, you glocks!” the thief screamed.

The old man would not, only dug his heels in and held fast. The old man's body absorbed the thief’s sprint and stopped him cold. It sounded like two boulders colliding. I jumped aside and watched them fall to the cobblestones. The old man’s head struck first, bounced. A gasp expelled from his lips.

The world seemed to move at a slower passing. Colors and shapes blurred and oozed, and the sounds of Queen’s Row went distant and echoed. It was as though someone had stumbled past the completed canvas of my life and doused it with water, pulled the old man out to sea in a violent tide and dashed his head against the coastal rocks.

A fire roared to life in my belly.

The thief struggled to get back on his feet. I saw to it he did not.

Read part 7 here.

Crossroads of Right and Easy