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Tunnel of Ashes

A young girl witnesses the death of her mother in a tuberculosis ward.

By Kooper Shagena Published 2 years ago 4 min read
Tunnel of Ashes
Photo by Hoshino Ai on Unsplash

A small girl sat cross legged next to a sickly figure in a mass of stained sheets. The girl held something in her pale bony fingers, a teddy bear. Her face was dark with wisps of stringy blonde hair as she stared down at the toy in her hands. She did not caress her teddy, or even regard it with a loving look in her eyes. This girl, this pale, bony girl was prying open her dear teddy’s chest exposing the soft fluff. Snap, snap. She tore teddy’s body apart thread by thread. With each snapped thread, the cold hard hatred within the small girl deepened and the grimace on her sour face tightened. A woman in a short white gown stepped into the doorway of her wretched room.

“Della dear, would you come with me?” Snap. “Oh, come now child, come away from your mother’s bed.” Snap, snap. “Della, come away from there immediately. Your mother is to be sent to the surgery room.” Snap. The nurse blew an exasperated sigh at the stubborn girl and clicked away in her heels down the hall. The child was filled with hate. Hate for her father for leaving them, hate for her brother for dying, and hate for her mother for having this awful sickness. Hate for her miserable life. Della was pulled out of her deep pit of self-loathing by low voices in the hall. One sentence was clearer than the others: “1911 has been a cursed year for Waverly Hills. Louisiana has never seen an epidemic like this before.”

As she returned her attention to the gaping body of her teddy bear, two doctors in long blue gowns stomped across the room to her mother’s bedside, without so much as a scoff in Della’s direction. They wheeled her mother out of the room and down the hall. She listened to the squeak of the un-oiled wheels until the gentle squeals faded into a memory. As time passed, minutes, hours, days, Della did not know, fear began to envelope her. First, it only pricked the surface of her skin, but deepened to gripping her bones with its long black fingers. What was taking so long? Were they being careful with Mother? Even though she told herself to despise her mother, she couldn’t do it. She tried to paint a thin layer of hate over that old feeling bubbling up. Love. Love was bursting the seams of the heavy blanket she had spent so many years covered in. just as she began to succumb to the love, a large man in an ugly blue gown entered the room and glowered down at her. He spoke in a deep monotone voice.

“Della, I regret to inform you that your mother has died in surgery. I’m so sorry for your loss.” The love was shoved away. The insensitive doctor looked down at the sour girl with anything but sympathy. He sniffed and cleared his throat. “You may come… say goodbye to your mother now.” He spat out the words as if he tasted something vile. Unwanted tears were pushing at her eyes but she forced them back. The two walked unceremoniously down the hall, the large man tugging the frail girl along by her arm. All Della could do was stumble along behind him. When they reached the operating room, Della stood by her mother’s body. This limp figure with empty eyes could not be her mother. Not the one who tucked her in every night with a kiss on the nose. Not the mother who danced around the kitchen in her apron preparing a meal. No. Della refused to believe it. The doctor tapped his foot rudely as the child stared at the empty shell of the only person left in this world she had loved. Della watched as the team of nurses loaded the cumbersome thing into a wooden cart and began to shove it out of the room.

“Where, where are they taking her?” Della pushed the words out of her stomach. The doctor looked down at her with mild surprise.

“To the Chute.” Della swallowed and wrung her hands.

“And w-what happens then?” she asked. The doctor cleared his throat and sighed.

“The body is put on a train and taken away.” Della’s heart hardened from despair into determination.

“Then I am going with her,” the girl said with such fierceness that the doctor's eyes rotated down at her, and his eyebrows raised.

“I, uh, I’m afraid that isn’t permitted.”

“I don’t care,” Della muttered through gritted teeth as she slid out of the room. She ran down the cracked concrete stairs to the entrance of the Chute. She took a shaky breath and entered the earthy darkness. As she jogged downward, the smell of decay slammed her head and she got a little dizzy, but she pushed on. Then another scent entered her nose and mouth: smoke. Her chest clenched in fear and desperation. “Mother!” she screamed and fell to the earthen floor. Then a billow of smoke dissipated, and she saw a slumped figure beside an overturned wooden cart. “Mother!” she wheezed. The little girl sat choking and gasping next to the limp body, holding her mother’s hand. The flames licked at the fringe of her dress, but she didn’t care. Tears slid down her dirty cheeks as the flames ate up her legs and fried her fingers. She curled up in a heaving ball next to the cold body. Fire burned her hair and stung her face as she squeezed her mother’s hand one last time.

Most things take their place back into the earth. The corpses dissolved into dust, and the cart rotted away into dirt. But something still remains deep in that awful Chute.


About the Creator

Kooper Shagena

hi :) I write short stories and poetry about emotions, experiences, and interactions with the universe, others, and nature!

Most my stories are fictional, but some are my real life experiences as I remember them.

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