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Life or Death

Life or Death

Background
Erik had to leave his hometown at age 10, and for the next ten years he traveled alone. During that time, he had his ups and downs. But each time he was knocked down, he managed to pick himself up again. That is, until the day came when he was knocked so far down that he couldn’t get up, and that event nearly cost him his sanity, while, at the same time, giving him a new hope.
     This scene begins when he’s nearing 15. He's been living alone beside a small lake in Italy, but his desire to learn makes him decided to leave his temporary home and see the world, learning about it in the process. He’s gathered all the possessions he needs to do so, and that includes two more horses; Libre and Luke. Read more to see how this desire almost lost him his body, mind, and soul.
  
 Life or Death
The day I planned on packing up and leaving my summer home, the weather turned bad and I had to change my plans. I sat for a while, contemplating loading up anyway, mostly because of the uneasy feeling continuing to grow within me. But I decided to give the weather a few days to clear up, and then, if it didn’t, I would leave anyway. In the meantime, I studied a map and decided where I wanted to visit first.
     At that time, I was in the northeast part of Italy, and since winter was upon us, I thought I would head south again to reach a warmer climate. Also with the added information about the uprisings, I decided to move southeast and out of Europe. Therefore, I planned to head down the east coast of the Adriatic Sea.
     The talk at the auction told me that Turkey and Russia were two areas that were unaffected by the revolution, and since Turkey was in a warmer climate, I made it the focal point of my journey. As it turned out, the rain stopped in two days, so I didn’t have to put off departing too long.
     It was late afternoon, and I was on my knees in my spacious tent packing for our move. I huffed when I heard Libre’s familiar squeal and then a splash. I sat back on my heels and listened closely for more information from her, and then within a few seconds, I received it. Taking a deep breath out of irritation, I got up, put on my coat and hat, and stepped out, ready to chase away the intruding squirrel.
     When I did, I saw one man slipping a halter on Big Luc and another larger man farther back in the trees moving toward Molly. Instantly, all the hatred I had for the world of men pooled together in one large festering mass.  
     Without a moment’s thought, I calmly and yet boldly declared, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Signori.”
     They both jumped and looked at me, and then they looked around, as if looking for someone else. I also wanted to look around in case there were more of them, but I didn’t want to take my eyes off the two would-be horse thieves.
     Next, the smaller one with Big Luc stepped forward and answered me. “And why not?”
     “It simply wouldn’t be a good idea to do something so dangerous to your health,” I responded, without a hint of how I was going to pull off my threat.
     The one going for Molly looked at her and then back at me before bursting out, “All we want are your horses and your money—that’s all.”
     “That’s all?” I echoed.
     Snickering, I slowly slipped my hat and coat off and tossed them on a nearby tree stump. Then I focused intently on the eyes of the smaller one closest to me and took a few steps toward him. Trying to buy time and think of what I should do, I momentarily glanced down at my feet. Nonchalantly rubbing the back of my neck, I tried to give the impression that I didn’t fear them. I looked at both of them in turn and responded somewhat casually through a fake smile.       
     “Well then, Signori, I think we might have a problem—because so do I.”
     Silence filled the evening air, while the three of us stood still and assessed our options. Then when the larger one began walking toward his partner, I released a counterfeit smile and motioned toward my tent.
     “Would you take a cup of hot tea instead?”
     “We didn’t come here for tea. We want your horses,” the smaller one boldly declared.
     I wasn’t sure what I should do. But I knew one thing for certain; I wasn’t going to give up any of my hard-earned possessions—especially not my beloved horses. So while still evaluating my choices, which weren’t many, I moved to another tree stump. Propping my foot up on it, I tried not to show my anger or how uncertain I was about my own defense.
     When the larger one had almost reached his partner, the smaller one started moving to my left. We must have resembled cats circling each other, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce.
     Once they had me flanked, with one on my right and one on my left, the smaller one threatened, “There’re two of us and only one of you, so give us what we want and we won’t hurt you. Give us your horses and your money and we’ll go away.”
     Still buying time, I leaned down, and while casually dusting off my propped up boot with my fingertips, I looked up at them and snickered.
     “From where I stand, that looks like unfair odds. So why don’t you both move on before one of you gets hurt?”
     They looked at each other and laughed, causing my blood’s temperature to move up a few degrees.
     Then the larger one to my right questioned, “Are you crazy?”
     “Some would answer yes to that question,” I responded quickly, without a smile that time. Then standing back up to my full height, I finished with a more serious tone. “But then—some never have a chance to answer at all.”
     My mind raced, trying to think of what in the world I could do next. If I couldn’t threaten them enough to talk my way out of that dangerous situation, or if I didn’t keep my anger in check, then I would have to fight them. And with my being flanked, I honestly didn’t see how that would have a good outcome—at least not for me.
     Again, they looked at each other, and then the smaller one spoke as he gestured toward my face. “Look, from what I can see, I would say these horses probably belong to someone else anyway. We really don’t want to hurt you, so give us what we want and you won’t get hurt.”
     With that comment, he stepped over the line by making his attack personal and insulting my appearance, which left me hanging onto my temper with only a thin thread.
     I replied slowly and deliberately. “I don’t think so. You see, things aren’t always what they seem.” Then, wanting to get them on only one side of me, I began walking to the left of the smaller one, and continued, “Regardless of what you might think, I paid a high price for everything I own, and I don’t intend to give anything up easily. Therefore, the call is yours, signori.” Still walking, I sneered and raised my hands out to my sides. “Either walk away now or prepare to pay the highest price for what rightfully belongs to me.”
     I’d no sooner gotten myself in a better position when the larger one furthest away pulled a long blade from his belt and waved it as a threat in my direction. Remembering the last man who threatened me by waving a blade at me, I looked coldly in his eyes and shook my head.
     “Not a good idea, Signore.”
     Then instantly, the smaller one lunged at me. I turned quickly to the side and kicked out, connecting the heel of my boot with his knee. He howled and bent down, reaching for his knee, giving me the opportunity to raise my knee and jam it into his face. With a loud groan, he went to the ground—face first. Not giving me a moment to think, the second one came for me with his knife extended. I stepped aside again just as he lunged past me, and then he turned to face me.
     While shaking my head and motioning to his partner on the ground, I tried another verbal threat. “Big mistake!”
     Once more I assessed my options, but I saw few. I watched him lower his body and spread his arms and legs, readying for a fight. So I shook my head again and smiled, trying to throw him off guard.
     “Look, I don’t want to hurt you. Why don’t you take your friend and go away.” 
     But my actions and words had the opposite effect on him than what I’d intended. He once more charged and swung out toward me with his knife, and once more I jumped sideways, barely escaping his blade as it sliced the air in front of my chest.
     But as he passed me, I did manage to move behind him and wrap my left arm around his neck. He growled and swung back over his right shoulder with the knife. As I grabbed his wrist, I felt the blade slice through my ear, along with the single thread restraining my anger. So with it unleashed, I jerked his neck and his wrist at the same time, telling him to drop his weapon, but he didn’t. Instead, he continued to push back, with the blade only a few centimeters from my face. Again, I jerked his neck and wrist and repeated my demand for him to let go, but he only fought me harder.
     A third time, I jerked his neck and wrist and snapped at him, “Drop it, you fool!” 
     With that, he dropped the knife, and his body went limp. Remembering lessons learned in my past, I immediately released him. He dropped to the ground, and I grabbed his knife quickly. Throwing it as hard as I could toward the lake, I screamed at the top of my voice. 
     My hand next went to my stinging ear and pressed against it. I then stepped back until my feet hit a fallen log. Tripping, I landed on the ground behind it, and then I sat there looking at my unconscious enemies. I stayed there waiting for my racing heart to slow, my anger to calm, and my ear to stop bleeding. I could feel my hand become sticky with my blood, and I closed my eyes, feeling so tired of that repetitive act. Why? My heart groaned. Why don’t they just leave me alone?
     I remained quiet for a short while, holding one of Molly’s white rags against my ear. While I did, I watched carefully the two men lying before me. I knew I had to move fast and tie them up before they regained consciousness. I didn’t relish the thought of fighting another battle—a battle that could end with me on the ground instead of them.
     Once I got up, I quickly found some rope and went to the man who I’d dropped first. Cautiously, I rolled him over and prepared to tie his hands. But when I saw his face covered with blood and dirt—his open, dead eyes included—I gasped. Then, with horror, I wrapped my arms around my stomach and turned away.
     Closing my eyes and doubling over, I screamed, “No!”
     This couldn’t have happened. I couldn’t have killed him. I only hit him once in the face—only once. I couldn’t have killed him. 
     I slowly turned back around, and without looking at him again, I rolled him over on his face. Breathlessly, and in fear, I looked toward the other man. I couldn’t move. I simply stood there as I watched for his chest to show any signs of breathing—but I saw nothing. I hoped beyond all hope that he would wake up, even if I had to fight him again.
     I don’t know how long I stood there before I moved next to him and leaned down. While holding my breath, I wrapped my fingers around his throat, feeling for a pulse. I waited for some time, feeling all over his neck, before I gave up and realized I must have broken his neck. With that realization, I collapsed to my knees beside him and closed my eyes. I pushed on my temples with my palms, trying to rearrange the scattered pieces of my life into their proper places, but they wouldn’t go.
     I whispered, “Papa, I’m only one boy against the entire world. That’s no contest, Papa, no contest. What do I do now, Papa? What do I do?”
     I’d won a life-and-death battle against two full-grown men, and yet I felt defeated and crushed. I felt so small and incapable of fighting the entire world. It was much too big for me. I felt like the boy I was—not a genius and not a masterful musician. Only a lonely boy in need of just one minuscule morsel of hope—but there was none. 
     Three men had died, no, four men, counting my father. Four men had died so I could live. Somehow that was completely wrong. How could my one life equal their four? It couldn’t. I tried to reason that they attacked me, I didn’t attack them. But no amount of reasoning helped. I was responsible for two more deaths—two! How could I live with that bloodstained fact?
     Eventually, I stopped pushing on my temples, and I stopped trying to make sense of it all. I simply gave in and allowed my psyche to go wherever it needed to go. I first felt sick in my heart and then in my stomach, and I began vomiting.
     While fighting the nausea, I also fought against my growing anger. But before long, anger took over completely, and I doubled up my fists and began beating on the dead man lying before me. I screamed into the night sky with all the hate of a lifetime surging from me. I jumped to my feet and started kicking the man violently and again screamed. I continued until I had nothing left in me. Collapsing again at his side, I fell into a daze and remained there staring at the latest of my victims.
     I could feel the warmth of my blood still running down my neck and I could see it on my fingers stretched out on my leg. I stared at my hand blankly, and when I did, I could also see the invisible blood of the two men before me. I slowly shook my head and closed my eyes again, as if that would make my reality disappear.
     With each new tragedy in my life, another scar streaked across my young heart, and with each new scar, there remained less of my heart to feel or even care. Without a human heart that felt or cared, I became even more distant from the human race.
     I sat quietly, thinking about my life. Only minutes earlier, as I packed and got ready to start the journey to the rest of my life, I’d felt excited and so confident about my future. I was leaving the horrible happenings of my past in the past.
     But as I looked at my hands, both my past and my present were looming in front of me—like a gigantic and thunderous wave crashing on the defenseless shore. And just as those waves, over time, could wear down the strongest and most majestic of rock formations, those continual developments that kept unfolding before me were eroding whatever amount of resolve I might have had at one time—to live without hurting myself or others.
     So my past and my present had both become my future. I’d always valued and welcomed learning, but my new revelation I could have lived a lifetime without. It encompassed the sickening and frightful knowledge that, no matter where I went, there would always be men who wanted to do me harm. I felt certain that, to protect my life and my freedom, I would continually have to leave a trail of dead and broken bodies in my blood-laden dust. 
     The last remaining threads of my shroud had been securely woven into place and could then be laid over my wavering heart, concealing it completely. The scene before me became a simple mathematical equation and nothing more. Three minus two equals one. There were three of us before and then there was only one. A very simple mathematical equation.
     The sun was completely gone, and I was still sitting in the dirt when Molly tried to remove me from my stone cold and numbing world. She nibbled at my mask, but I could only respond to her with a slight touch to her soft nose.
     By the time I got to my feet, the stars were out in all their glory, and as I walked to the water’s edge to wash the blood from my hands and neck, I looked toward the stars and marveled at their brilliance. Their beauty moved me, and yet as I looked back down at the two fools who had tried to take my life, I felt nothing.
     I sat on a downed tree trunk and watched either the stars twinkling or the reflection of the moon moving across the small lake. I removed my mask and closed my eyes from time to time, enjoying the feel of the breeze on my bare face. I watched with a stone face in silence as different nocturnal animals made their way to the water to drink—all of them unaware of my watchful eyes. I was still there as the first rays of the morning sun began to send their warmth to my naked cheeks, waking my mind from its cloudy haze. 
     Physically, I was still in the same position I’d been in the night before when the stars began to appear. But emotionally, I’d moved into a place that was distant and unfamiliar. My face might have been bathed with the warmth of the new day’s sun, but my heart had been soaked with the frigid and dark waters of reality. That reality shoved me into that place—that different and unknown world.
     As I got to my feet and turned back to look on my camp, I wasn’t cognizant that two lives were over and turning cold in the brisk morning air. I wasn’t cognizant that my bloodied hands had taken away their ability to breathe or walk the earth. I wasn’t cognizant that I’d broken the highest of all moral laws and could be hung or beheaded for what I’d done. I simply wasn’t cognizant at all.
     I looked down at their bodies as nothing more than an annoyance that had gotten in the way of my journey. I could look on my victims as mere stepping stones to get where I wanted, and, more importantly, needed to go. A very sad but very real transformation had taken place that night, and I no longer feared killing anyone.
     I completed my packing without giving much more thought to the fools I had to keep stepping over. As I left my camp, I left them lying alone on the unfeeling earth, without a second thought or glance. 
     I wasn’t yet fifteen, and up until that point in my life, I’d struggled relentlessly to balance my anger and the desires of my heart. I don’t think I ever really did balance them, but at least I had, at most points, a measure of a human heart to help me in my struggles.
     With those two men lying lifeless, I believe whatever part of my heart that earlier had had any feeling of compassion or remorse over my past was non-existent. My heart was completely dead in all respects except for the physical. There was no feeling, good or bad, left in it. In all respects it would have been better for all concerned if my heart had died a physical death that evening, because I became something far less than human. 
     I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was entering into a period of my life when the struggles I’d had up until that time were insignificant. I was entering a period when there was no longer a struggle between right and wrong. I simply did what I wanted—right or wrong. My anger and hatred were no longer defused or balanced by what my father had taught me. I gave up the struggle for a rational mind and gave in to something that was easier for me. I gave in to my anger and hatred for the world—which hated me. I no longer tried to bridle it. I let it have free rein over my life, and, unfortunately, for those I came across during that time, it also had free rein over their lives. 
     From that day on the jetty with my father, I’d sincerely tried to keep my anger on a leash. But as I looked at my latest victims and felt what was inside me, I knew my hatred had won the battle. I wouldn’t or couldn’t or didn’t think of my beloved Papa during that dark period in my life. I was in a much different world than he could have ever imagined. A world full of darkness and hate, a world I was trapped in, a world I loathed. From then on, I would be like an unleashed tempest.
     I headed southeast, down along the east coast of the Adriatic Sea. Then I headed east toward .Turkey and then the southern region of the Black Sea. From there, I continued on to the southern tip of the Caspian Sea and the breathtaking region of Mazenderan. When the warmer weather started, I headed north along the east coast of the Caspian Sea and into Russia. I moved east in that country until the weather changed again, and then I headed south toward India. I was there for a while before I was drawn back to beautiful Mazenderan.
     When summer came again, I headed north once more between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea and then west toward Europe. I eventually found myself going through the southern region of Germany, as if I was being drawn back to my birthplace—France. But I was forced to leave Germany long before I reached my native land, and long before the weather changed. There were too many tall, blonde men with blue eyes in that part of the world. Their presence was bringing back memories of the one man in my life who had given me, what used to be, a strong moral compass—my father.
     I sat in a café one day, watching people pass by, and something inside me felt a kinship with the people there. I remember thinking, that’s why my father looked so different from the rest of the population in Perros-Guirec—his German heritage gave him his coloring. And my name, Erik, I heard spoken often in the streets I walked. Erik was a common name, and it seemed as if every fifth person had my name in that country.
     It’s strange how the puzzle pieces of your life can fall into place when you least expect it. I often turned my head when I heard my name being called. But then I was left only to watch a conversation being carried out with someone with my name, but, fortunately, that was all he had in common with me.
     The thought of my father and his idealistic views and the life he wanted for me were in stark contrast to the life I was leading at that time. Picturing him and all the conversations we had while sitting on that driftwood or riding in his work cart was tearing at the fabric of my protective shroud.
     Being in that part of the world was like watching my father all around me, and the pain began to seep through the pores of my hardened exterior. My heart was beginning to feel, and that was the last thing I wanted, or needed, right then. So I simply left that land and buried even deeper my father’s memory, along with what should have been my moral direction. 
     I kept up that routine of following the good weather for two-and-a-half years, until I was seventeen. During that time, my only companions were my horses. I formed a special bond with each of them, but only Molly held that unique place in my heart, and it was only her that I played with in our private little game of keep-away. I loved her so much, and during those years of my staunch and hateful attitude, only Molly had a way of making me smile. She alone released me from my hatred—even if only for a few minutes.
     After I left Italy that tragic night by the little lake, I felt there was no longer a heart to keep unmasked. It was lifeless, without a beat or a care for any breathing thing and only barely for my horses. I no longer bothered to avoid running into anyone. I did pretty much what I wanted and when I wanted. I ate the finest foods and drank the finest wines in the most splendid restaurants, and I slept in elegant hotel beds. I walked down any street I chose and entered and shopped in the most expensive stores, all in broad daylight. I did everything without hindrance, not surprising considering I had the attitude and appearance of a hardened criminal—which I was. But what was amazing was that I was never caught, arrested, or punished for my crimes. I can only attribute my escaping that fate to the skills I’d learned in my past.
     Even though I was only between fourteen and seventeen during my hateful time, I looked, acted, and felt far beyond my tender years. I was at least as tall as, if not taller than, the majority of those I came in contact with, and I wore exclusively my black wardrobe. That, along with my black mask and my thickening dark beard, made me a formidable looking opponent in itself. But I don’t believe that is what frightened everyone the most—it was my attitude. I no longer lowered my head or hid my eyes from those around me. Much to the contrary. I looked everyone straight in the eyes, and, I’m sure when I did, mine were seeping nothing but pure venom. 
     I took offense at everything anyone said or didn’t say, at the way they either looked at me or didn’t look at me. I was ready for a fight if someone accidentally bumped into me, or if they stepped out of my way. It didn’t matter what anyone did, good or bad, I found something wrong with it. I was just waiting for an excuse to wrap my fingers around someone’s neck and listen to it crack. But for the most part, few gave me a chance, which I now recognize as a blessing. They could easily tell I was similar to a lighted keg of gun powder—ready to explode with the least provocation. So, in most situations, everyone simply moved out of my way out of pure fear.
     I had all the money I needed for everything I wanted, all without my customary sinister raids. I simply took the training I’d received all those years and put it to good use picking pockets. My hatred for mankind in general was exceeded only by my loathing for the rich and the way they flaunted their wealth. Therefore, my favorite game was to sit in a first-rate restaurant and watch someone of the upper crust eating and drinking while showing off his affluence. Then, when he paid for his meal, I would notice where he put his money, and the rest was pure child’s play. I would simply walk past him as he was on his way to a carriage or out for a stroll and slip my nimble fingers into his pocket. It was so easy that, at times, I would get quite bored with my little game and tried something more daring; like picking a fight with him first. Then, as I masterminded the fight, I would take his money, all without his suspecting anything.  
     Overall, for a long time after that last night at the lake, I was a dreadfully dangerous person. It didn’t matter to me if I lost my life or someone else’s in a fight. I didn’t care if I lived, and I didn’t care if I died. I simply didn’t care. I hate to admit that, during that period, there were some who lost their lives because of my indifference. 
     Even the idea of being imprisoned wasn’t a deterrent to me during that time. I was so full of hate and cocky confidence that the thought of being put behind bars only presented me with an exhilarating challenge of finding a way out from behind them—and nothing more. There was never a question in my mind about being able to escape. 
     Along with those I harassed, my music also suffered during those cursed years. I still played and composed, but what resulted wasn’t the music I loved. It was bad through and through. I never thought I could say those words about my music, but it was just plain vile and evil. The music was dark and sinister from which all light or beauty fled. The notes were harsh, loud, disturbing, and disconnected—filled with hatred and bitterness. I can still hear their horrible sounds, and I have to turn to my violin and play for long periods of time to erase them from my conscious mind.
     Something else that vanished during those years was my plan to learn everything I could about the world around me. I still learned more languages, but only out of necessity. I learned about and saw outstanding architectural sights, but only because I had eyes and not to see them was impossible. Cultures I also learned about, but again it was only because I was there and soaked everything up through osmosis—not because I wanted to learn or enjoyed what I saw and heard. 
     At times, it’s hard for me to believe that I actually committed those atrocities and that my heart wandered in darkness for so long. I hate the crimes I committed, and I hate myself even more for committing them. But thankfully, an event happened one spring day that marked the end of my reign of terror, when once more I could feel my heart start a painful, human beat. 
     It was a morning in May of 1853 when my feet were placed on a different path and one that changed my life forever—both inside my mind as well as inside my heart. Fortunately, that time, it was for the better, even though it came at great cost. 
     I’d had a good breakfast after a warm bath and was on my way to the stable when I stepped into an alleyway. Nearly being run over by a fast approaching cart and horse, I bellowed at the young boy driving. I instantly pulled him from his cart and threw him up against the alley wall.
     “You need to be more careful about where you’re going, you little fool,” I growled at him, while squeezing my fingers around his neck.
     Then a hand on my shoulder pulled me back, and a strong voice demanded, “Leave him alone! He’s only a boy!”
     As if I wasn’t angered enough, those words infuriated me. At seventeen was I not still only a boy? Did the world care about my being only a boy all those years? Did it ever care about the boy I was and the tortures I went through? No, it didn’t!
     I turned on the blonde man and instantly hit him in the face with my gloved fist, sending him to the opposite wall. With three long strides I was on him again, only that time, I wrapped my trained fingers around his neck.
     As my fingertips pressed against his vertebra, I narrowed my eyes and hissed, “Wrong decision. You should have minded your own business.”
     Then I squeezed my fingers and jerked his neck severely. He went limp and I released him. Then, uncaringly, I let him fall to the ground. I stood over him and looked down with indifference, knowing there was no need to feel for a pulse. I knew he was dead, and that was just the way I wanted him.
     I heard a gasp from the young driver behind me, and I turned and glared at him, which sent him running full speed out of the alley. I watched him fleeing with nothing but contempt in my heart. Once he was gone, I proceeded through the alley and around the corner toward the stable as if nothing had happened. I was only a stride around the corner when I heard a woman scream from behind me, causing me to swing around and step back into the alley with more anger.
     I was ready to unleash verbal abuses at the dark-haired lady, when the sight of her stopped me cold and left me speechless. She was on her knees beside the man I’d dropped, holding him in her arms and crying hysterically. Then a small boy, also dark-haired and perhaps six or seven years old, appeared around the corner. When he saw her, he also ran to the man and threw himself over his chest and began crying out.
     “Papa, Papa, Papa!” 
     In an instant, I was back in that dark street of Perros-Guirec with my father’s burnt face before me. With that memory, I felt pain for the first time in two-and-a-half years. First the pain I’d experienced when I was ten and held onto my lifeless father, and then I felt the pain the small boy was feeling, knowing his father was dead. Next, the final and culminating pain, which ripped the protective shroud from my heart, came with the realization that I was the cause not only of the woman’s tears but also of the little boy’s.
     Those lives I’d been so carelessly taking weren’t only the lives of the men who had gotten in my way, but the lives of those whom they left behind. I’d been making widows and orphans with less effort or concern than when I made one of my masks. I’d become worse than Luca. He killed because he was drunk and stupid. I’d been killing because I didn’t care about their lives. I cared more for my horses or a cat or dog or some lone rat running down a dark alley than I did for the men I’d killed. I was worse than Luca—much worse. How many orphans had I made? How many boys had to live on their own, without a father’s guidance or perhaps any parent at all, because of me?
     Papa’s story about the three friends and the ripple effect our actions have on others surged through my unprotected thoughts. How many lives had I affected for the worse? My heart was ripping apart watching them, but I couldn’t move.
     I could feel the inside of my mask being soaked with my tears—the first tears I’d shed in many years. As each tear rolled from my eyes, it made its way to my heart and began softening it. Just as the pouring rain can turn a seemingly barren desert into fertile ground and produce the beauty of millions of flowers, so my heart was being transformed from its hard and cold state into a pliable and feeling soul.
     My moments of transformation ended when the boy from the cart came running into the other end of the alley with several other men. He first pointed at the woman and child crying over their lost loved one.
     Then he looked toward me, pointed, and screamed, “There he is!” 
     The men started running toward me, and, at that point, my normal and fine-tuned instincts took over, causing me to turn and run. I managed to outmaneuver them easily enough as I ran through the streets and shop doors until I reached the stable. I quickly mounted Libre and left without being noticed. Just as so many times in the previous years, I outmaneuvered the men, but there was no way I could outmaneuver the scene that had taken place, or my awakening guilt and remorse. That episode, and the resulting realizations, began another long period of isolation for me.
     After every tragic encounter with the men of this world, the more reclusive I became, and the harder it was to try to do anything creative. To write or play my music or to try to stay in one place long enough to recognize the scenery became so taxing on me. I felt so tired and old; far beyond my young years. I stayed away from towns and people, only that time it wasn’t for my protection—it was for theirs.
     Nothing mattered any more. I felt dead inside. I’d killed another man and his dead face, along with all the others, would forever haunt me. If I was awake, they were there, or if I was asleep, they were there. Their dead faces and the face of that crying boy in the alley haunted me day and night, so I pushed myself deeper into nothingness, trying not to think—trying not to feel.
     I rode continually for some time, not even knowing where I was going, or caring. If I wasn’t riding, I would sit and stare for long periods of time without any thoughts in my head at all. If I did start to have a thought, I would quickly push it out. No thought meant no more memories, and no memories meant no pain. There were times when the last thing I would remember was sitting in the bright sunlight of day and then the next recollection would be of sitting and shivering in the cold, surrounded by the total darkness of night.
     I was so heartsick and full of self-loathing that I stopped eating and refused to do anything that would at one time bring me pleasure, such as making my music or playing with Molly. I had to keep my hands hidden from my view, because each time I saw them, I saw the blood of the men I’d killed. At those times, I would double up, with my stomach twisting and convulsing. I wouldn’t sleep for fear of my nightmares, which painted vivid pictures of my wretched existence filled with the faces of the dead I left behind. Then when I would eventually pass out, I couldn’t sleep because of their persistent attack on my already deplorable mind. I even stopped eating, and the only time I would drink was when my throat was so dry I would cough and gag.
     After more than three months of my self-torture, I became so weak that I could no longer sit in the saddle, so I stripped my horses of their gear and let them loose. Then I collapsed amid the damp grass and all my worldly possessions and waited to die. Just kill me, I begged. I welcomed death and was ready for it; that is, until the day I began to feel that familiar burning in my lungs, which meant only one thing. If I didn’t die of starvation or dehydration first, then I was destined to suffer terribly, waiting for my lungs to fill with fluid and drown me.
     I wasn’t a coward when it came to dying, but I had to admit that I was a coward when it came to unbearable pain for extended periods of time, and I knew that’s where I was headed. So I was forced into making a choice. I could either die a slow and agonizing death, or go into a town and purchase what I needed to save the life I was hoping would end. I could still remember clearly just how painful the lung infection could get; therefore, I opted not to die in that fashion.
     Since my conscience was plaguing me enough right then, I made the calculated decision to purchase what I needed instead of stealing it. But when I did, I couldn’t look anyone in the eyes. I felt they could read my mind and see the demented person I was inside, so I didn’t look at anyone.
     At that time, I was to experience something interesting about human nature. I looked like the same person I was several months earlier when I was tormenting everyone around me. I might have been thinner, and my hair was longer, and most assuredly I was much dirtier, but I was basically the same. I was the same height, and I had on the same dark clothing and black mask, but because of the change in my attitude, I was treated differently. 
     People no longer moved out of my way. In fact, they deliberately moved in my way and pushed me around, abusing me both physically and verbally. They even beat me, and since I felt I deserved every blow, I didn’t fight them. Instead, I simply lay there, allowing them to repeatedly kick me, while hoping they would end my life—my miserable life. But they didn’t. Rather, they stole what money was left from my purchases, and then stood around laughing at what they’d done—women and children included. Then I lay perfectly still until all their voices left me.
     Filled with pain of the worst possible kind, both physical and, more importantly, emotional, I managed to raise my face up out of the mud enough to look around for my mask. I didn’t find it until I was on my feet and leaving the alleyway, and then I saw it smashed and stomped on in a pile of horse manure. I thought it was a fitting symbol of all I represented. That is where I belonged, so that’s where I left it. 
     I recalled my father’s words regarding the power and influence of an attitude. Because of my dejected manner, they’d taken advantage of me and I refused to lift a finger to protect myself. Another lesson I learned the hard way. 
     I again remained in my solitary state for almost six weeks, until something unexpected happened. Once more, my father’s words about never knowing what tomorrow will bring rang true and changed the way I would live the remainder of my life. 
     I was in Kischenev, Russia, picking up a piece of leather from the saddle shop to replace a pack strap that was ready to break. That was the first time I’d been back in a town since I was beaten and robbed. Therefore, I was somewhat apprehensive as I walked through the streets and dark alleys. I was almost to the stable when I heard faint footsteps behind me. I turned quickly, just in time to hear a strange swoosh, and then something wrapped around my neck—all within a split second. 
     My air was instantly cut off, and my hands went instinctively to my throat, trying to loosen whatever was strangling me. But I couldn’t get my fingers under the tightly wound coil. I was still struggling when I heard the steps come quickly up behind me, and then the noose around my neck was pulled even tighter. I wanted to turn on whoever was behind me, but I couldn’t stop trying to free my neck and breathe.
     I’d just gathered my thoughts enough to realize, if I wanted to live, I had to turn on my attacker. But then my head became fuzzy, and I went down on my knees. I next felt hands moving through my pockets. My intelligence told me to grab the hands responsible for my state of affairs, but my natural instincts wouldn’t let my hands stop their attempt to release whatever was choking the life out of me.
     Then my shoulder hit the ground, and I had the most horrendous panicky sensation run clear through me; one new to me. It started in my mind with the thought: this is it. This is what all my victims felt like; helpless to stop the process of dying. Then the irony of my predicament struck me. Was I to die in the same manner that I’d ended the life of so many? 
     Only a few weeks before, I’d been welcoming death, and here was my chance to let go and die, and yet I was putting up the hardest fight I could, and I didn’t understand why. I used every muscle in my agile fingers and body to release my neck from that unexpected trap. My head and neck were twisting and straining, trying desperately to open my throat and breathe. Inside my head I screamed, no, I don’t want to die yet.
      So often I’d felt that I didn’t care if I lived or died, but at that point, I knew I didn’t want to die. I wasn’t ready to die, especially by the hands of someone else. If I was going to die, it had to be my decision—not someone else’s. 
     I next felt fingers on my throat, and I was instantly released from the peril of death. Then I closed my eyes as my lungs were finally able to take a deep and gasping breath. While I felt I’d been struggling for my life for a long time, I believe the entire episode lasted only a matter of seconds before I was released. While I continued to force my throat to open and my legs to get me on my feet all at the same time, I heard the steps run away.
     I was disoriented and confused as I turned in circles, trying to understand what had happened. I was rarely put in the position where someone else had the upper hand, and it left me feeling anxious and vulnerable, which was a feeling I wasn’t enjoying.
     Once my intellect kicked in, I stopped turning and stood still. In the quiet darkness, I tried to gain my bearings, and then I heard the faint footsteps again in the distance. I strained my eyes in their direction, and then I took off running toward them. I had to stop several times and listen carefully before I could pick them up again, and then I continued the chase. 
     That kept up for several minutes before I caught sight of a figure moving into an alley, and then I was in hot pursuit. I entered into the alley and stopped to look and again listen for steps, but all I heard was that same faint swoosh. I turned instantly and raised my hand to the sound, and then I felt the coil latch onto my wrist.
     Shortly, the steps started again, and the chase was on once more. Only that time, I was close enough to them to catch up and pin the one responsible to the ground. We were both panting by then, and my hands went naturally to his neck, while my knee on his chest held him down. The light from the moon on his face told me he was probably around my age, although he was much smaller. He struggled under my weight, pushed on my wrists, and reached for my neck, trying to free himself. But my arms were considerably longer than his, which kept my face and my still stinging and welted neck out of his reach. 
     The thin coil, which I could then see, was still wrapped around my wrist and causing my hand and fingers to go numb. So I released my other hand from his neck and unwrapped the coil from my wrist. I looked closely at the thin rope, which resembled a small, smooth twine, almost like a violin string. I felt it between my fingers and then looked into my attacker’s eyes. He was only a small boy with a harmless looking piece of rope, and yet he’d rendered me powerless, robbed me, and come close to ending my life. But then, he let me live.
     I frowned as I continued to look at the defenseless child under my control and wondered about what had taken place so quickly. Then I knew I wanted and needed to know more about this strange weapon.   
     I held the rope between our faces and demanded, “What is this, and how did you do what you did to me?”
     He first shook his head, and then I tightened my grip around his neck, causing him to answer me with a slight nod. Cautiously, I let up on my grasp only enough for him to respond to my question.
     “It’s called a garrote—a Punjab lasso.”