THE BOWL OF MUSH
Bolivia looked at the bowl of mush. It was mushy. She had no desire to eat it. Though her stomach screamed in agony with every heartbeat, threatening to begin digestion of its own inner lining at any moment, Bolivia stared at the brown glop with disgust. She had been eating nothing but mush for three hundred and four days. She had counted. And it was time for a change.
Bolivia stood up.
The room went silent.
Not a spoon moved. Not a mouth slurped. Every child at the worn hardwood table stared at her with a mixture of amazement, curiosity, and outright horror. Her brother Emanuel reached out from across the table as if to stop her, but it was already too late.
She pushed her rickety stool back from the table and picked up her bowl. Taking a deep breath she turned and walked. Walked with every eye in the room following her breathlessly. Walked with a loud echoing clack of her hard-soled shoes on the cold, damp cobblestone floor. Walked with trepidation flip-flopping in her stomach.
“But at least it’s fear in there,” she thought to herself, “and not that dreaded mush.”
The old man sat at the far end of the drafty room watching the kettle boil. Not stirring. Not serving. Just watching. There seemed to be some fascination for him in the ever turbulent grainy mass falling in upon itself over and over again.
As Bolivia approached, she felt her fear turn to terror and her terror coalesce into an abysmal white horror. She stopped just behind his hunched form and said nothing. He didn't turn, but continued staring into the churning pot of brown. But they both knew that he was more than aware of her presence behind him.
Slowly, but steadily, she held out her bowl.
"Sir," she said quietly, "I am tired of this."
Even the pot seemed to stop its noisy bubbling.
Perhaps it was the sudden gasping of dozens of tiny lungs sucking up all of the air, leaving a soundless vacuum around a brave little girl and the grizzled old man at the kettle. His gnarled hands slowly gripped the splintering arms of his chair. His legs trembled as he slowly, painfully rose to his feet, still facing the boiling broth.
When he finally turned, he leapt at her with an unimaginable fleetness of foot that took her breath away and sent Bolivia's stomach plummeting to her toes. His eyes were red and watery as they stared, ever accusing, boring into her own frightened face with their uncommon steadiness. His bony finger stretched toward her as if to single her out for damnation.
Though she stood her ground Bolivia felt as if every inch of her were shrinking back from the face of cruelty before her. But the worst was yet to come. And she and all of her fellow orphans knew it. No one stood up to the man about anything anymore, but never had anyone dared to refuse his morning meal.
With a voice made of equal parts gravel and the grave, the man spoke.
"You good-fer-nuthin’ kids, gots no clue how fribbin importn't it is to eat a hibbety-jibber hot breakfast!"
And with that his steel-tipped boot lashed out and struck the tiny, parentless child in the stomach, knocking the ill wind right out of her and catapulting her on her backside.
The seething geezer’s intimidating gaze swept across the room, almost daring anyone to speak out against him. Neither his advancing age nor his ridiculous way of talking did anything to diminish his menacing presence.
"I ate flibbety-jibbet oatmeal every gol-blibbin' day since 1942,” he roared, “and was grateful to have it!”
And again, like lightning, his foot lashed out at the defenseless waif, this time slicing into her side, breaking bone and shoving it deep into the soft tissue beneath.
Her limp, motionless body lay on the cold stone floor and the ill-tempered man prepared to turn back to his bubbling gruel.
Bolivia slowly brought her hands up beneath her. Coughing up blood, she lifted her tear-stained head from the damp rocks.
The disheveled, malnourished children at the tables gasped and pointed. What was she doing? Why didn't she stay down? What could she be thinking? Didn't she know what he would do?!
"When..." she coughed, again spitting blood as she tried to catch her breath.
"WHAT?!?" the man cried, his voice like a nail in her coffin.
"When… are you gonna learn how to cook, old man?" she said, struggling to bring herself to her feet.
"Bolivia!" Emanuel screamed. He tried to bolt from the table to stop her, but the boys on either side of him held him back, saving his life.
"But he'll kill her!” Emanuel cried, throwing his head onto the table and sobbing like a baby.
The old man’s anger rose, bubbling within him like the horrid oatmeal he served, growing hotter and hotter within him like a violent volcano primed to erupt with a devastating fury.
Bolivia wavered, almost fainting from the pain, but kept her balance and stood defiant before him. This only made him angrier.
"She's trying to find a way out," Emanuel sobbed. "The only way out she knows…”
Bolivia stared the apoplectic old man in the face, standing taller now than she ever had in her nine years on earth.
"I said ‘When are you gonna learn how to cook, old man?!?'"
"AAAAAAH! " he screamed as the fury exploded from within him,
And with that, he let the steel fly. His boot tip sank into the side of her head with a crack that echoed throughout the stunned room and Bolivia went down like a sack of wet oatmeal. Dead. And finally free.
The man turned away from the lifeless child and shuffled back to his chair by the fire.
The children didn't cry. They didn't eat. They didn't speak. It was silent. Perfectly silent.
Except for the bubbling of the mush.
The moral of the story: There’s a difference between brave and stupid.