Part 1: Rose Red
Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses
A pocket full of posies
We all fall down.
The man how he begged and pled,
With every cough oh how he bled,
To this very day, I am still not sure what illness my grandfather had. If I had to hazard a guess, I would assume that he suffered from tuberculosis or some horrible respiratory illness. He would fall into these coughing fits that would double him over. He would hack and sputter for a few minutes. Back when he could walk, he would shamble around the house. It was always easy to tell where he was due to the wheezing and coughing. As a result, he had a voice that sounded like he smoked a pack of cigarettes a day and gargled gravel.
When I was at around eight years old, my grandfather became bed-ridden. He was confined to his bed on doctor’s orders when I came across him one day lying face down in the kitchen. The doctor’s claimed that it was exertion that brought on the coughing fit that almost took his life. He ordered my grandfather confined to his bed. It was in his bed that he would eventually succumb to this illness.
I feel like I should elaborate on my home-life for a bit, or lack there-of. You see; my parents had a very busy work life. My father was a businessman, an occupation I still am not entirely sure what it entails. My mother fancied herself a writer, a skill that she never passed down to me. I am sorry that I can’t describe my life in the flowery prose that she had or with the charisma my father possessed. As a result of my parent’s jobs, they often found themselves traveling and away from the house for days at a time.
Typically they relied on my grandfather to take care of me while one or the other was away. I was fairly easier to care for. I loved to run around the house and play with toys. My favorite activity by far was to listen to old nursery rhymes. My grandfather would have me sit by the side of his bed while he would recite a few of them for me. To this day those memories of me listening intently to him telling me old nursery rhymes are my favorite memories of my childhood.
When I was younger, my parents left my grandfather to care for me while they worked. In the twilight of his years, they passed that responsibility onto the caretakers and maids who worked at the house. Their double-incomes afforded us a lavish lifestyle, but as a kid; I would have given it all up for more time with them. My grandfather would pass away while both of them were out of the house.
At the time of my grandfather’s death, my father had a business trip that took him cross-country and my mother had a writing seminar four states away. As a result of this, I was left in my grandfather’s care with the maids and caretakers. My parents would be out of the house for about a week. On the second day of their absence, my grandfather would kick all the staff out of the house.
My grandfather was a choleric man. He was used to being in control of things and having that privilege taken from him by his illness made him bitter and quick to lose his temper. His words that were once law had been transformed into rambling in the ears of the servants. Now that I am older a slightly wiser I can’t say I blame him for being a bit bitter, but back when I was a child; I feared his outbursts and tendency to fly off the handle.
His largest episode happened while my parents were both out-of-town. He had become convinced that one of the maids was stealing from us. I don’t know how he came to that conclusion, but he was certain of its veracity. To be honest, I doubt that was true. I think he just wanted to feel like he was in charge again and he tried to control the servants. On the second day, he called them all into his bedroom. I was playing in the hall and I overheard bits and pieces of the conversation.
My grandfather demanded that the thief come forward and confess. When no one did, he accused the others of defending the thief. As his tantrum grew, he charged the entire group of being thieves. He dismissed them all and broke down in a fit of coughs. The maids and caretakers left sullenly convinced that he had fired them all. I am not sure if his dismissal was meant to be temporary or permanent, but on the second day everyone left the house except for my grandfather and me.
My grandfather called me into his room and explained that it would just be the two of us for the next day or so. I was initially excited by the thought of being man-of-the-house, but that initial excitement waned as my grandfather’s health deteriorated. He erupted into coughing fits that lasted longer than before and when he would dab his lips with a handkerchief, it would come away spotted with blood.
I tried my best to take care of the two of us. I would venture into the kitchen and fix us sandwiches and soup. At night, I would bring my book of nursery rhymes to him and he would read me stories until I would grow tired. I remember on the first day of being alone with him, I fell asleep in his arms as he read to me. It was a pleasant memory that is marred by what happened next. I woke up that day to see him throw a now rose-red handkerchief into the trash.
His condition grew worse. He coughed and spat blood. He wheezed and his eyes took on a feverish light. Heat emanated from him like a radiator. His skin felt like he was nothing but skin wrapped around a turned on furnace. I think it was his hubris that prevented him from calling the doctors or servants. I hope it was pride that stopped him and not the fact that he wanted to die.
On the fourth day, he began to drift in and out of consciousness. I was too young to understand that he was dying. I continued to play and fix us sandwiches. He stopped eating and stopped using the bathroom. His bedroom smelled horrible. I managed to break him out of a daze that night and ask him to read me some more nursery rhymes. He tried telling me he was too tired, but I persisted and he relented. I climbed up into his now soiled bed and listened to him recite nursery rhymes.
This night was different. I think it was the fever that cooked his brain, but the stories and rhymes seemed macabre. He added additions onto the rhymes that took the stories and made them darker. The only one I can remember at this time was the crooked man rhyme where my grandfather added at the end, “They all took crooked little wives, and try as hard as they could everything came out crooked in their lives.” I drifted off listening to the distorted rhymes brought on by his feverish brain.
I woke up next morning to his corpse. He must have passed away during the night. I tried to shake him awake, but he didn’t stir and his body had grown cold and pallid. For the next three days, I was alone in the house. I don’t remember much of what I did during those three days. I think I spent most of my time in his room with his corpse, trying to wake him up. The house became a sinister thing when I was all alone. My movements sent shadows dancing along the quiet halls. Every sound was amplified and I was certain that there was something else in the house with me.
My father was the first to come home. I can clearly remember his face as he came into his father’s bedroom. He had been looking for the servants and decided to consult my grandfather. His nose wrinkled in disgust at the smell of days old excrement and death. The pieces of the ghoulish puzzle clicked into place as he saw his father’s cold corpse and me sitting in the corner crying with the nursery rhyme book in my lap.
Part 2: Cock Robin
Who killed Cock Robin?
I, said the Sparrow,
With my bow and arrow.
I killed Cock Robin
The boy kicked and played so,
With my words I laid him low.
After those ghoulish days I spent with my deceased grandfather, I spent the next few years seeing therapists. My father had insisted that I was emotionally traumatized by my grandfather’s death, but I wasn’t so much disturbed by that as much as I was perturbed by the nursery rhymes he had feverishly mumbled while in his final moments. They stuck with me and in the dark of the night, I found myself recalling them. Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockle shells, with pretty tombs all in a row.
I stopped reading nursery rhymes, but they stuck with me. Every now and then, I would find myself humming one of their familiar tunes or twisting words into a rhyme and I would get goose bumps up and down my arms. The therapists didn’t find much wrong with me except for some of the usual childhood anxieties. Eventually my dad stopped taking me to therapists and my parents stopped handling me with kid gloves. I was finally allowed to leave the house and play without their supervision.
It was on one of my many expeditions outside that I first encountered my first friend. His name was Will Rufus. He was an energetic boy around my age. I first met him while I was throwing rocks at glass bottles. I was doing a piss-poor job of hitting my targets. He had snuck up on me and grabbed a rock from the pile and shattered the nearest bottle. I was shocked at his sudden intrusion and when I turned to him, I found him standing nearby tossing a rock back-and-forth in his hands. He spoke, “I can teach you how to throw.” We became fast friends after that and were practically inseparable.
We did what you would expect typical ten-year-old boys to do. We sword fought with sticks, talked about t.v. shows, rough housed, and played tag. Our most favorite past time was exploring the woods. My house butted up against a couple miles of woods and we would spend hours running up and down the hilly terrain, finding tiny treasures in alcoves and clearings.
Most of the stuff we came across had been pitched into the woods by lazy people. I remember coming across an old tattered pack of cigarettes with an old zippo lighter stuffed in the carton. We took turns smoking the old beat-up cigarette and pretending we were older than we actually were. Whenever I smell cigarette smoke, my memory travels back to those young and foolish days.
A few weeks later, I had the brilliant idea to play hide-and-seek in the woods. I proposed the game as an excuse to hide in the hollow trunk of an old tree I had found earlier so I could leap out and scare the crap out of him as he passed by. He agreed to the game on the condition that we would stay in the woods and wouldn’t hide anywhere else.
Will went first. I counted to thirty and began to look for him. I quickly spotted him crouched behind a downed tree. I think it was the fact that I had found him so quickly that made him insist on hiding again. He blamed his jacket on giving him away. He had a bright red jacket that really did make him easy to spot. Since it wasn’t a particularly cold day, he took off his jacket and hung it on a nearby branch. He told me to turn around and count to fifty this time. The last I saw of my friend Will Rufus, he was stomping off into the woods to find a good hiding spot.
I looked for an hour or so before giving up. I assumed he had grown tired of hiding and had gone home without telling me. I looked a little while longer before giving up and going home. It was beginning to get dark and I didn’t want my parents to worry. I went home, had dinner, and went up to my room. I remember waking up at around four A.M. I had left my window cracked and now my room was freezing. I got out of bed to close it and it was then that I saw it.
At first I assumed it was someone in the woods looking at my house. They were standing amidst the copse of trees, practically obscured from vision. I was worried that it was bandits or possible murderers scoping out my house. I was scared when I thought it was a man, but I was terrified when I realized what it was that I was seeing. It wasn’t a man I was seeing, but a jacket, a bright red jacket that stood out amidst the thicket, Will Rufus’ jacket.
I snuck out of bed and put on my coat. I slipped out of the house without alerting my parents. I took a flashlight and my pocketknife for protection with me. It doesn’t really warrant mention, but the woods can be a creepy place. It was shocking to see how much they could change and become sinister by the absence of light. I walked into the woods with my hands in my pocket and my breath fogging up the air.
Will’s jacket hung exactly where he had left it. It hung from a branch on a nearby tree. I turned to my house and looked for my window. I could barely see it, but the bright red jacket was easy to spy from my house due to its vibrant color in the autumnal setting. A small part of me hoped that he had just left it when he had grown tired of the game of hide-and-seek, but I wasn’t sure and that uncertainty drove me to wander the woods at night looking for my friend.
I wouldn’t have seen him if it wasn’t for my flashlight. I had been looking for about half an hour without any real discoveries other that my self-confirmed fact that the woods were a common horror movie trope for a reason. Every rustling and snap of twigs under foot made me want to run screaming into my house. I was getting ready to head over to Will’s house and see if he was there when I saw him. The beam of light made his skin stand out so well amongst the bed of leaves due to the contrast. The fact that his skin was extra pale was what really caught my eye.
As far as I could tell, he had tripped over a stick or tree root obscured by the leaves and tumbled down a hill. At the bottom of the hill, he had cracked his skull on a nearby rock. He had probably lain at the bottom of that hill for hours while I looked for him a couple hundred yards away. I don’t know if the blow had killed him outright or just concussed him. I hope it was the former and that he didn’t spend hours lying partially buried in a pile of leaves in a disoriented and horrified state while the cold set in and slowly froze him.
I stood over his body for a while. I think I was in shock. The memories of my grandfather’s corpse and his morbid nursery rhymes rushed back up to the fore-front from where I had buried them. It wasn’t until I realized that the sun was rising that I went home. I don’t want you to agree with my decision, just to understand. I was a scared little boy and I was so terrified of disappointing my parents and angering Will’s parents that I kept quiet. It was my fault. I had insisted on playing hide-and-seek. I had gone home instead of looking more thoroughly for him. I watched his parents combing the woods for days until they found his body amongst the leaves and filled the forest with wailing and I felt twisted to the very core.
Part 3: A Crooked Man
There was a crooked man, and he walked a cooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile;
He bought a crooked cat which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a crooked house
The man how he wept and cried,
Lamenting a life that was denied.
I wish I could say that my life took a turn for the better after those two early tragedies, but I cannot. I don’t think I would be writing this if it did. After William Rufus’ death due to prolonged exposure to the cold, I became introverted and socially awkward. I kept people at a distance. I became an avid bookworm. I would read any and all genres, fiction or non-fiction. Time had returned my appreciation of nursery rhymes and they were one of my favorite things to read. I snapped up information and developed an almost encyclopedic knowledge.
One of my favorite stories was by Harlan Ellison and it was titled, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” It was about a super computer named AM torturing the five last remaining humans on earth. In my more melodramatic moments, I fancied myself as being tortured by the whim of some sort of higher power without reason or release. Years passed by and my antisocial behavior moved me through life and into college.
I got the call one late night while I was in college. I was in the process of studying for one of my finals and my phone rang. I picked it up, expecting it to be a wrong number. I got more people misdialing my number than actually calling it. I didn’t recognized the voice, but the speaker called me by name and informed me that my parents were involved in a fatal car crash. They wanted me to come down and confirm it. I numbly hung up the phone and had a sudden urge to just drive and keep driving. I wanted to get away, but I know I couldn’t do that.
I drove down to the police station. Where I lived was a small town with a morgue attached to the police station. They sat me down and re-hashed everything. They had been out for a drive when a truck had drifted over into their lane. The truck driver had been up all night driving and was exhausted. He had drifted off and drifted over. They didn’t see him until it was too late and they had been knocked off the road. The car had flipped three times and smashed into a tree.
When the officer asked me if I had any question, I told him that I wanted to see them and say my goodbyes. I also wanted to confirm that it was actually them. I had the foolish hope that maybe it was some sort of misunderstanding. He tried to dissuade me by telling me that they were in no condition to be seen and I responded that it wasn’t the first time I had seen a body. He eventually relented and took me to see them.
On the way, I passed by who I could only assume was the trucker who had caused the accident. He was a rotund man with ruddy features. At the moment he was talking to a police officer and was on the verge of breaking down. He looked like the kind of guy that always had a joke or smile. I sincerely doubted that even with all the king’s horses and men that he would be able to put my broken family together again. I passed by him and proceeded to the morgue where my parents lay on steel gurneys, side-by-side.
The bodies were covered by a sheet up to their chests to provide some sense of modesty. It was them. There were odd protrusions that made the sheet look like it had been put on a pile of junk. I quickly realized that those protrusions were their bent and broken limbs and their bones that had poked through the skin. I confirmed that it was them and said my goodbyes to them. I don’t want to mention what I told them because I don’t want to cry again. After all these years, the thought of them lying broken on those gurneys still makes me want to break down and weep.
Time passed and I graduated college. A few years later the unthinkable happened, I met and married the love-of-my-life Cassandra. I met her at work. I don’t know what drew her to me, but I do know that when I was with her, I could forget all of the horrible things that had happened to me. With her by my side, the deaths of my grandfather, friend, and parents seemed to drift away into oblivion and be forgotten. A few years with her was like being submerged in the river Lethe and coming out the other side cleansed of all past traumas.
We weren’t married a year before we had our first son. Cassandra was a fan of Greek literature and mythology. She had majored in Greek mythology when she was in college and was enamored with the tales. When our son was born, she insisted on naming him Perseus, the hero who was the slayer of the mythological Gorgon. I had wanted a more normal name, but I couldn’t deny her. I loved her and I loved my son.
Three months after his birth, Perseus developed a cough. Watching his tiny form, swaddled in a blanket and coughing until he was red in the face drew a macabre comparison to my grandfather who was prone to coughing fits. We took him to the doctor right away and he was diagnosed with whooping cough. We were given erythromycin to treat it and he re-assured us that Perseus would improve within a week. He didn’t.
Perseus continued to cough and as the weeks went by, he grew redder and redder. We kept giving him his treatments, but his condition slowly began to deteriorate. Cassandra was always optimistic. She kept up her sunny disposition and every day declared that he was looking better. That wasn’t true. In reality, Perseus was circling the drain just like my grandfather and I know why it is happening. I know why all of this has happened to me. It is because I am a crooked man.
My grandfather’s nursery rhyme addition was completely true. They all took crooked little wives, and try as hard as they could everything came out crooked in their lives. I am a crooked man and everything I touch ends up being crooked: my grandfather, my friends, my parents, and now my son. I poisoned and dragged everything I had ever known or loved down with me. I cradled little Perseus to my body tight. This was going to be the last time I would hold him.
I cradled him in one arm and with my free hand I pulled out the old weather-worn book of nursery rhymes. He coughed fitfully as I read each rhyme and tale to him. Cassandra has gone to the drug store to pick up more erythromycin. The nursery rhymes flowed through me and into him. I can’t help remembering those nights of my childhood spent with my grandfather and the very same book of old nursery rhymes. When I was finished, I put him in his crib and went into the backyard to fetch some rope from the shed.
I am typing this now as my note. People usually leave some form of note right? I want to explain to you why this must happen. I have made a noose from the rope and I am going to take this noose into the backyard and hang myself. My reason is simple; I am crooked, I will always be crooked and everything I touch will be crooked. Cassandra and Perseus I love you with all my crooked little heart, but I don’t want to walk down this crooked path anymore.
Written by EmpyrealInvective