Regret

My feet are going numb again. I double my blanket, so it is now barely large enough to cover my curled-up body. My coughing must have awakened Peter, lying on the upper bunk, because he begins to taunt me, singing in a high, quavering voice, “Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed…”

I used to rail against him, but now I only weep. The minutes tick by, and between coughing, cramps, and shivers, come tear-dampened memories of my mother.

I vividly remember her scarred but powerful hands the day that she extended the yellowed, wrinkled paper as if it was a precious jewel. “This is your heritage, your freedom, brought to you at great cost,” she told me.

“Freedom?” I asked.

“To speak your mind, to make your own mistakes, to worship from your heart, and to bring your talents, hard work, and ingenuity to the marketplace.” Tears stained the weather-beaten face, but her gaze was clear and steady. “Your forebears counted no cost to preserve this gift. You must pass on their example and honor their sacrifice.”

“I know more than those old folks,” I told her and walked away.

I turn over. The blanket is scratchy around my neck but doesn’t make me warm. I had never known cold in those days when Mother stood, arms crossed and resolute, defending the weak against freedom-robbers who had murdered and enslaved millions.

“You are bad, and I am good,” I hollered at her from my comfortable spot, feeling very noble. “You love war, and I love peace.”

“There is a shadow slowly covering the earth,” she replied. “We must drive it back. You’re a man now. Help me stop the freedom-robbers.”

I didn’t move. “I’d rather be a slave than dead,” I said.

From then on, Mother fought on two fronts. She battled my enemies even as she warded off my blows.

I called her a warmonger when she drove back those who would steal my heritage. I called her a thief when she generously gave to the poor, sick, hungry, and enslaved. I called her a despotic imperialist when she released imprisoned peoples and helped them set up free democratic governments. I proclaimed her to be cruel, ignorant, and oppressive, even as children all over the world clamored to be adopted into our family.

I did everything I could to undermine her efforts to protect me.

I even visited the freedom-robbers and told them I was ashamed that Mother stopped them from gobbling up their neighbors. I laughed and posed for photos when they showed me the big guns designed to kill and imprison my brothers and sisters.

I gave the freedom-robbers new hope and the resolve to fight harder.

When my mother asked me why, I showed her the paper. “It is my heritage to speak as I choose, and I choose to tell the entire world how much I hate you.”

No one had used the paper for that purpose before, and the world gasped as my once-invincible mother faltered, swayed, then dropped to her knees. I jeered and spit on her as she abandoned her post and slowly crawled home. Then the invaders poured into the vacuum, leaving a trail of blood in their wake.

She recovered eventually, though, with new large, ugly scars, and she became as sinewy, strong, and resolute as ever.

Then, one terrible day freedom-robbers sneaked past Mother and attacked her children, killing thousands in our own home.

Mother stormed into their lands, threw the freedom-robbers out, and set up new democratic governments. She captured and killed many freedom-robbers, and the rest of them cowered and hid, burying themselves in holes in the ground, only popping up occasionally to make defiant statements before running away.

When mother caught some ringleaders, she held them upside-down and dumped water on their heads until they told her their plans to blow up airplanes, skyscrapers, and bridges in our homeland.

She locked up the others on an island, with food, shelter, and exercise, so they couldn’t kill any more of her children as she scoured the earth for their fellow conspirators.

I was so horrified by her treatment of the poor freedom robbers, that I proclaimed to the entire world that Mother was a savage torturer.

Then I demanded that she give the murderers of our family the privileges that my forebears sacrificed so much to bring to me — the freedoms listed on the piece of paper.

Then I announced that the freedom-robbers’ slaughter of our family was just vengeance for Mother’s evil deeds throughout the world.

“We are losing, and the freedom-robbers are winning,” I said over and over. “We are losing, losing, losing.”

Once again, I gave the freedom-robbers new hope and the resolve to fight harder.

I blow my nose loudly on my shirt sleeve, causing Peter to rouse and resume singing in reedy, heavily-accented English, “Oh say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” Peter’s father had been thrown in prison for teaching him that song, and now he uses it as a tool to show his hatred for me.

They all hate me. Because Mother had been their last hope.

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