My teacher had made his request very clear. Homework must be finished, and on his desk first thing Monday morning.
Normally, I hated homework. But this assignment was about the birth and life of my country. Something I knew very little about.
The way Mr Williams spoke about our history filled my mind with questions. For the first time on a Friday afternoon, I ran all the way home to learn about U.S. history. For the first time I couldn't wait to study.
I arrived home and threw my school bag on the floor, rushing upstairs breathlessly and turned on my computer.
‘No, no, no… not now,’ I said frustrated at the Internet going down yet again at the worst possible moment. I jabbed the monitor, trying to fix it unsuccessfully.
‘Hey mister, what's going on up there? Oh, and hi mom would be nice,’ shouted my mother from the bottom of the stairs. ‘The Internets busted again mom. I have to do an assignment for school; I gotta finish it by Monday.’
There was a pause from her obvious shock at my new enthusiasm towards my school work.
‘Are you feeling ok.’ she asked me suspiciously. ‘Yeah, I'm fine. I just wana make a start on this. But I can't do anything without getting online.’ I said sulking.
‘What's the homework? Can I help?’ She offered. She always fussed over my education, and had good reason to. I was a self-confessed lazy child, and studying had always been the last thing on my mind. ‘No thanks mom. Can you get the net working again though?’ I said, and pulled my school books out, miserably contemplating an evening with my nose in its pages.
‘You know I don't understand how that works. Your grandpa’s here, I'll see if he can fix it,’ she offered, and walked into the kitchen.
Grandpa was a master at anything technical, and if anyone could solve my Internet problem, it would be him. He walked in and ruffled my hair, the same way he had always done since I was small. ‘Hey Jr, your mom told me you're having a spot of bother?’ He pulled up a chair next to me where I sat at my computer. ‘Mind if I take a look.’ He added, and checked the connection to of all the cables which were impossibly tangled behind my desk. ‘Well now, I don't know what's wrong with this contraption, but maybe I could help you with your homework. What is it? Math, science?’ he asked me interested.
‘No. It's history grandpa. We have to find out about how the U.S. became our country. I'm actually excited, but without Google I don't stand a chance.’ His face lit up at my mention of history. I realised then the reason why. He loved history. I would always find him reading his leather bound volumes he hoarded like treasure. In his home he had even turned my mom’s old room into a library for his historic collection.
I kicked back on my bed and he swivelled around on the computer chair to look out of the window. Running home now seemed like a good idea, as we both watched the rain hammer down outside.
‘U.S. history eh…’ he said rubbing his chin pensively. ‘Ah…I know the perfect place to start. Have you ever heard of the Boston Tea Party, squirt?’
‘No. Grandpa, I need to learn about our countries beginnings. You know; like battles and that kind of stuff. Not some tea party. Come on, give me the juicy stories.’ I said thinking he was kidding around with me.
‘Oh this is juicy alright, and it was the spark that ignited the beginning of our nation.’
‘What… a tea party?’ I said unconvinced with his explanation.
‘Well it wasn’t exactly a tea party like you think squirt, but like the weather outside it did go down with a splash. You see, at the time, King George the III, who was the British ruler, levied impossible taxes on all the things people in those days needed. The colonist saw themselves as British subjects, but old King George just didn’t see it that way. He taxed things like wine, tobacco, and yes, tea also was taxed, along with anything else of value traded with the colonies.’ he explained, taking his glasses off to rub the bridge of his nose.
‘So they had a protest tea party or something. I can’t see that doing any good.’ I said not seeing how something like a party could have started a nation. He laughed gently and looked back out of the window.
‘They didn’t exactly have a party you know. On December 16th 1773 they all just had enough of the unfair British taxes. So they all marched down to Boston docks and boarded an East India Company ship, which was owned by Britain, and emptied its cargo into the water. Coincidently that cargo was tea. I am sure they had a real good time doing it too. The actions of those brave men and women sparked the first open rebellion.’
He was a great story teller, and I could tell he was enjoying telling me all he knew, but I wanted to know about the fighting.
‘So did the British come here and start the war of independence?’ I knew that we fought the British, but my teacher would expect more details than just my awareness that a war had happened.
‘Oh, they came for a fight alright. King George didn’t see the people here as British citizens. He saw them as just colonists and subjects, and wanted them to bend to his will, or he would break them like a disobedient horse. After all, he had to pay for the French Indian war, also known as the seven year war in the 1750s. The British had won that war against the French, with the aid of the colonists. But wars are expensive, and he believed the best way to pay for it was with high taxes.’
I got a pencil out, and started to write down what he was telling me. I knew nothing about it, and I was hungry to learn all I could from the human encyclopaedia, who was my Grandpa.
‘So how did they stand up to him Grandpa?’ I asked while sharpening my pencil.
‘Some men just couldn’t take the tyranny of a foreign ruler thousands of miles away. Samuel Adams was one of those men, and he along with his supporters encouraged the colonists in Boston to resist that tyranny. Britain responded in the only way expected and killed some protesters in what was known as the Boston Massacre. This added more fuel to the fire, and eventually the king sent an army to eradicate the rebellion in its tracks.’
I knew the name Adams, but the John Adams I knew was one of the countries founding fathers.
‘Wasn’t it John Adams grandpa?’ I said helpfully, thinking he had mistaken the name.
‘No squirt, John Adams, was his cousin, and would become one of the countries founding fathers, and second president of the United States. He would contribute to what we know as our constitution. He was a lawyer in those days and tried to seek a diplomatic solution to the colonist’s grievances, which were snubbed out of hand by the British overlords. He believed that every man had the right to fair trial and fair justice. Even the captured British after the war were entitled to their rights to counsel.’
My hand was starting to ach from the speed of note taking, but what I was getting was good stuff. My teacher on Monday would be impressed as long as it was all true. Knowing Grandpa of course meant that it all was.
‘So what happened after the British sent their army?’ I asked wide eyed.
‘Well the colonists didn’t have the pockets for a war like the British had you see. They retreated inland to Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and formed the Second Continental Congress in 1775.Thomas Jefferson, along with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and the other founding fathers authored and signed the Declaration of independence on July 4th the following year.’
We all had that date in our memory. Our teachers and even some of the cartoons I watched would show the events of that day.
‘The new Congress, which was represented by the thirteen colonial states, had one problem.’ he said quizzically. ‘What was that?’ I asked
‘They didn’t have the money to pay their army.’
‘Couldn’t the soldiers have fought for free?’ I asked him. ‘Not if they wanted to eat and feed their families,’ he reasoned soundly. ‘But even though money was tight, they still won important battles, at Lexington and Concord in 1775, led by the well reputed George Washington who was the commander of all the colonial forces.’
‘At last, some battles.’ I said triumphantly. ‘Yes. But without money, those battles would not have happened. Take the muskets they carried. Who would pay for those? The ammunition and cannon would have to be paid for, as well as the supply of horses and feed for those horses.’
‘Ok, so how did they do it? The Colonial army I mean.’ I understood now that wars could not just happen without money. Grandpa pulled out a pipe from his inside pocket but didn’t light it. He never smoked in the house or in front of me. The habit of holding it sometimes though was just too powerful to resist.
‘They did have the help from the likes of John Hancock as well as other wealthy merchants and landowners, but in all honesty the war would have been lost if it were not for the French joining the colonial rebels in 1778.’
‘What did they have to do with anything? I thought the colonists fought alone.’ I said confused.
‘Not at all Jr; The French smelled an opportunity for revenge, because of the last time they were whooped by the British in the seven years’ war. Spain also got involved, so did the Netherlands, turning the tables on the fully stretched purse of King George III.’
I knew we won the war. That was common knowledge, but the way grandpa told the story made it come to life. I imagined sitting in the Second Congress chambers and seeing the four fathers sign the Declaration of independence. I closed my eyes and imagined the long marches that would have been necessary to cross the vast country to fight a bloody and brutal confrontation when they got there. Mom called up, interrupting the tale suddenly. ‘Dinner will be on the table in an hour. Dad, are you staying for a bite,’ she called up to us both.
‘Yes please dear. We could be some time though, I’m not finished boring this whippersnapper with some history,’ he called back from his seat.
‘It’s not boring Gramps, I love your stories.’ I said to him honestly. In fact I could have listened to him all night, and looking at the sky outside, it could very well come to that.
‘Ok where were we?’ he whispered more to himself. ‘Ah yes… the French. They helped the Rebels in many ways, not just the supply of fighting men. They had a decent navy, but most important of all, they could lend money and pay for the guns and food required. They nearly bankrupt themselves for their efforts, but they did get their revenge on the old enemy the British.’
The smell of a roasted chicken began to waft up the stairs, making my mouth water. I had eaten very little all day, but dinner would have to wait until Grandpa finished. We had only covered the beginning of our great history, and I was expecting more wonders as he took me on the journey through time.
‘So the British just left when they lost a few battles.’ I asked.
‘Over the course of the long war there were many skirmishes and battles. The colonists forced the British out of Boston and then the British took New York and held there until eventually capitulating. The victory at Yorktown was the final straw for King George, who had lost interest in the expensive and distant war. At last we had our own country.’
‘So what happened when the British left grandpa? ‘I asked.
‘George Washington put in place the Constitution, and in 1789 became the first President of the United States of America. He brought together the feuding factions of the other thirteen states, and was elected for two terms before retiring. He and his Vice President John Adams enjoyed a near decade of peace after all the blood they had shed to create our country,’ he said, standing up to turn my bedroom light on. It was completely dark outside now, the light cast the room in a soft glow as the light bulb warmed up.
‘That my boy was how we became a nation.’ he added.
My writing hand was becoming even more tired, but I couldn’t stop now. We had only just begun really, and I wanted to fill the empty pages ready for Monday.
‘Do you want to stop now for dinner squirt?’ he asked me when he heard my stomach rumbling. ‘I’m ok Grandpa; you can carry on if you don’t mind.’ When he told a story the deep baritone of his voice captured my imagination instantly. He loved to tell them, and wouldn’t pass up the chance to share his passion.
‘Ok, as long as your mother doesn’t come knocking.’ He rubbed his chin once more and looked like he was deep in thought before continuing.
‘The colonists were now a free nation, but unfortunately, it would take a long time for all men and women to enjoy those same basic freedoms. Heck even today we have our problems. Before and after the war of independence, the slave trade in this country made a lot of people extremely wealthy indeed. Even Benjamin Franklin, a man who fought so hard for liberty and freedom had slaves. Later in life, to his credit, he freed all the slaves that he owned.’
‘I can’t believe Benjamin Franklin had slaves.’ I said shocked. We looked up to our founding fathers as role models of how decent our society can be.
‘Well he wasn’t an evil man you see. It was just normal at the time to have slaves. In the south, the cotton plantations needed a strong and cheap work force. Some of them were treated terribly and as I said before, there is still unrest to this day.’
‘We had done some stuff on slavery in history with Mr Williams. He showed us some pictures that gave me nightmares.’ I told grandpa darkly. ‘It is a sad but truthful part of how our nation was born. We didn’t treat its original inhabitants any better you know. The native Indians were all but removed from the east coast after the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Our great expansion west would come at the cost of the blood of its original inhabitants. Indian tribes were nigh on wiped out in the eagerness to settle on the newly discovered land. Boats loaded with people from Europe fed that expansion, with the promise of land for all U.S. citizens.’
‘Was Washington the Capital Grandpa? You said earlier that they agreed the Declaration of Independence in Pennsylvania.’ I asked, not sure if presidents lived there, or in Washington after the war.
‘Good question. Our first President George Washington chose the site of the Whitehouse, but never actually governed there. The cornerstone was laid in 1792 a, competition to design the building was won by an Irish born architect called James Hoban.’
It was unbelievable to think he knew this much about history. I was aware he was a clever man, but the facts he had memorised were awesome. ‘How do you know all this stuff?’ I asked him impressed. ‘From lots of books my lad; as well as a great deal of time on my hands. When your Grandmother passed away I was left with you guys, and my books.’ he said with a hint of sadness at the passing of Grandma a few years ago. ‘The Whitehouse wasn't completed for another eight years and in 1800 its first resident moved in to take the office.’
‘The second President was John Adams right?’ I asked, knowing he had just told me who took over after George Washington. ‘That’s right. You have been listening then.’ He chuckled.
‘I'd like to go there one day,’ I said.
‘Maybe I’ll take you, but you won't see the original unfortunately.’ He replied.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked confused once again.
‘Well the British burned the first one down.’
‘What!’ I replied astonished once again. ‘You two, come down right now or I’m gonna scrape this food I’ve slaved over for nothing.’ Mom screamed up to us. Perhaps it was time to call it a night. ‘Come on squirt, let’s chow down. Hope you get a good grade for your homework.’
‘Thanks Granpa, can we do this again sometime?’ I asked him hopefully. ‘You got another project coming up? He asked back. ‘Mr Williams always has something to throw at us, but I’d like to know more about history, well… for me.’
‘Of course I will my boy. Maybe I could swing by at the weekend and tell you about the birth of another nation?’
‘Definitely,’ I agreed as we joined my irritated mother for a late dinner. As I chewed the cold chicken I thought of how America was born and how it is still changing and growing from one triumph to another crisis. We had definitely come a long way since the beginning. But history as I was learning would be a great guide to stop us from making the same mistakes of the past.
The Angel of Death was not his usual self today.
Throughout the eons of his existence, he had always gone about his business with a cold and somewhat ruthless efficiency.
But today he felt strange. He would always despise the meetings with the angel, who was commonly known as Mother Nature.
Today however was different. Strangely, Death was actually looking forward to their meeting, which they would have every once in awhile.
The table was already set for him as he approached the always exquisite looking visage of the Lady; Mother Nature.
She always did pick beautiful spots to meet with him he thought, as he looked past her briefly, in utter wonder at all of her creation.
That was the problem he mused. He should not find the sweeping meadow and sparkling river that trickled gently past their table pleasing.
Yes. something had most definitely changed within the heart of the taker of souls.
He sat at the table and smiled at his host. The surprise showed on her sanguine face. He was not known for his smiles, and had not done so before her until now.
‘In all of our meetings I have never seen you so happy. It pleases me nevertheless.’
She liked surprises, and poured the tea for her guest.
They did not need to eat or drink for sustenance, but even angels could taste and appreciate the fine food and drink of humanity.
‘I must confess my lady, I do not feel myself. I am pleased to see you. Normally I detest these meetings.’
Her eyebrows rose, but not one wrinkle creased her ageless brow.
‘Truly you are different, you have never been pleased to leave your work and meet me. I know you would not come at all, if the rules did not say we should gather every cycle. Will you take food this time, or has the change only affected your humour.’
He eyed up the many cakes, stacked neatly on a serving plate. He had always denied himself food and drink. Never needing it to sustain him, he did not see the point in the indulgence of pleasure for pleasure's sake. But then again today was a day of firsts.
‘A small piece of cake would be nice my Lady.’
She cut him his slice of cake and watched him eat the first mouthful. It was like watching a child eat their first taste of chocolate, and Death ate the rest, clearly enjoying every heavenly mouthful. His smile widened, showing bits of cake stuck between his perfectly white teeth.
‘I take it you have enjoyed your first taste of cake my lord. Would you like more my old friend.’
The cake had been delicious. What was happening to him? Had he finally given in to actually enjoy himself.
He nodded graciously to her, as she piled on another slice of mouth watering dessert.
‘I have a message for you my lord, which might explain the changes you are experiencing.’
His curiosity was sparked. Who would have a message for him, that they could not give to him themselves.
‘Oh… and I thought we were the only bearers of news. Who is this herald, who thinks themselves mighty enough to presume to give me a messages?’
They both chuckled at that. There were many angles tasked with different roles to play. But the two sat at the table, were notably ranked the highest in their order.
‘The message does not come from any of our fellow brothers and sisters.’
Then it could have only come from two others, thought Death.
‘Then who does it come from my lady? From the master above or the master below?’
She had been looking forward to telling him this news. He had been a loyal servant for a long time. They had both been there at the beginning. She was the creator and he was the destroyer.
He had accepted his role without question when the Masters created him. But recently he had lost the taste for his grim work. He was beginning to feel compassion for humanity, and after all the long years of his existence he had finally began to marvel at the beauty of all creation.
‘The news comes from both masters actually. They have told me your services are no longer required.’
Curiosity turned to horror, as he tried to digest what she had just said.
He was told shortly after his creation that one day his services would not always be needed.
He had thought he would have been told personally by his masters if this was ever likely.
‘Is this the end of days my lady? Why was I not told this news personally?’
She did not keep the anguished looking Death waiting.
‘They both came to me not so long ago, and told me that I was to bring you this news. It is not the end of days my lord. No one knows if that day will ever come, not even them.’
She paused to pour him some tea that steamed as it filled the intricately made china cup, and she stirred in, two cubes of sugar.
‘My Lord your burden has been great. You were made to carry that burden with a cold heart. But you were also made to one day change, and be free of your terrible duty.’
Death looked at her for a full ten seconds before speaking. A single tear rolled down his pale chiseled cheek.
‘It is true my Lady that I have felt… different. But I thought I was just becoming weary of my task.
I never knew there would be a change in me one day. I am afraid of it, and thrilled at the same time.’
Mother Earth smiled; she had not envied him his role of taking back the souls of the masters.
Sometime she would have to create chaos to breed new life and creation. Inevitably, life would die during this necessary process. Deaths job in comparison was no way near as rewarding, and finally he was to be released from service.
‘What will I do now if I am not to take the souls? Who will guide them to the Kingdoms?
She had been expecting that question. Fortunately, they had given her that knowledge to share.
‘They have created another Angel of Death to take up your mantle. You are to be rewarded my lord, for the work you have done. You May choose to do whatever you wish. you may wander amongst humanity, or you may ascend or descend to one of the kingdoms.’
‘Is my decision final, or may I go where I please.’
He sipped at the cooling tea, enjoying the bitter sweet beverage for the first time.
‘Your decision will be final my Lord, and it must be at this meeting. You have time of course, but I would counsel that you choose wisely, and perhaps not take the most obvious choice.’
The obvious choice was clearly to go to the Kingdom above, he would find peace there he thought.
When the Masters made a soul, they also gave it a choice. Be wicked and cruel, and Death would guide them to the Kingdom below.
Most went there willingly. They would often confuse that place as a heaven because it was so similar to the way they had lived in life.
The rest, although not perfect were taken to the Kingdom above, and to peace.
He had made his choice.
‘It is strange that I do not yearn to return to my work. I have seen them suffer for so long my lady. I never have taken pleasure in it like the Master below.
He stood and removed his cloak to reveal polished black armour, and a sheathed sword. He removed the blade, exposing its black steal, and kissed it tenderly for the last time. He then pushed the tip into the ground, and drove it in firmly.
The armour was then removed with reverence, and placed next to his sword.
‘I choose to dwell with humanity my lady; and experience all the pain and joy that comes
She had hoped he would choose thus. The Masters would have to wait for their first son to return to them.
One day she would also be released, and given the same choice, but was glad she could watch her brother angel enjoy all that humanity had to offer.
She stood to join him, and took his hands into hers.
‘You have chosen well my brother. Even though this has been the only meeting you have enjoyed attending, I have always loved seeing you. It pains me that we will not meet for a while.’
He leaned over to kiss her hand.
‘Thank you for the tea and cake sister. I go now, to ease the suffering of humanity, where I can…. Oh, and to eat as much cake as my stomach can carry.
They both laughed, and embraced in farwell. If only he had always been like this. But then again, he would not have been able to be Death.
He would need a new name now.
‘What will you call yourself now my lord.’
Death looked into Mother Nature's eyes and winked at her.
‘Humanity may call me what they wish. But you will know me now, as Life.’