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An Abecedary of Tragic Ends, Explicated for the Reader

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No-one will ever say at a child’s funeral, “Well, it’s a tragedy, but at least the unpleasant one died.” Even if they are thinking it.

They condoled with Alice on the loss of her twin, who had broken her neck when her patent leather shoe slipped at the top of the stairs. Alice nodded, looking saintly and heartbroken: whatever would she do without Amy?

In the mirror, the bow over her right ear appeared to be over her left. She smiled at her reflection. A malleable sister, two bows moved, and one push; it had all been quite simple, really.

*

Basil never listened when they told him in Sunday school that bad things happened to godless little boys who didn’t learn their Bible.

If he had listened, he would have known better than to mock the bald old man he saw on the street one Wednesday afternoon, laughing at the fellow’s shiny pate and calling him unkind names.

But Basil had not learnt his Bible -- specifically the second chapter of 2 Kings, verses 23-24 -- and so he was taken entirely by surprise when a pair of shaggy bears came out of a nearby alley and tore him limb from limb.

*

It started as a little cough. Nothing unpleasant, no hacking noises or unsightly things spat into a handkerchief when no one is looking; just a delicate little sound, followed by a sigh.

Clara was such a pale child, people were forever asking whether she was quite well. When she said she was, thank you, they nodded and ignored her. So she coughed . . . and she sighed . . . and she grew pale . . . and she made it true. Not the ghastly reality of consumption, but the poetic image, which is far more attractive. And bit by bit, she simply . . . wasted away.

Ever so prettily.

*

There used to be cards under Christmas trees: Good for one ride with Santa Claus next year. He would choose one boy or girl who had been exceptionally good, and reward them with a trip in his sleigh on Christmas Eve.

But even the best boys and girls often got over-excited that night. Desmond was worse. He broke presents, insulted the elves, and poked the reindeer with pins, for he had already been the best boy in the world, and now wanted to try the other side.

When the sleigh passed high over Desmond’s house, Santa sent him home early.

*

There is a game children will play, wherein they stuff their cheeks with marshmallows and attempt to enunciate some difficult phrase, such as “fluffy bunny,” in a manner that can be understood by others. They compete in this game to see who can stuff his or her cheeks the fullest without either descending into incomprehensibility or losing the contents of one’s mouth.

This game works best with soft objects like marshmallows. It is not recommended to use hard objects like peach pits -- as Ernest so tragically discovered.

He did, however, succeed in pronouncing “fluffy bunny” quite clearly before he choked.

*

After Fanny came home from an afternoon of wading with a leech stuck to her leg, her family consulted a doctor. “Leeches are medicinal!” the doctor said, citing precedent going back centuries, with all the most learned names speaking in support.

So her family left the leech in place. When Fanny began to feel weak, they consulted the doctor again, and he prescribed a course of leeches to mend the problem. The leech grew and grew, until one morning they came to wake Fanny, and found only a Fanny-sized leech where she had been, which they adopted as their daughter.

*

George was terrible at games. He picked the most useless squares in tic-tac-toe, dropped every ball ever thrown to him, and told people what cards he had in Go Fish. But because his siblings were kind, they never mocked him for this, and always told him, “Good job there -- next time maybe you’ll win!”

One rainy day, when there was nothing else to do, they played hide-and-seek. And because they did not want to hurt George’s feelings, nobody pointed out that they could see the enormous lump beneath the rug. They kept “hunting” for him long after it stopped moving.

*

If you asked him, Hector would insist he only appeared to be an ordinary little boy. In truth he was a notorious international spy, with a head full of secrets that men would kill to keep hidden. (Sometimes he also claimed to be the last heir to some foreign throne, and would one day reclaim his rightful place.)

The neighbor parents told their children not to play with such a shameless liar. And so Hector was alone the day a furtive-looking man stepped out from behind a column and killed him, then went to collect the bounty on his head.

*

Ida was a conscientious child, well aware of the problems facing society around her – poverty, foreign wars, domestic oppression – but there was little a child could do to influence such things. “Wait until you’re older,” everyone said patronizingly.

Ida was not inclined to wait.

Clearly a regime change was in order. Since she was not old enough to vote, she chose a suitable candidate and, when she knew he would be passing by, went out in her best white dress.

Unfortunately, the weight of the sword dragged her down before she could lift it above the surface of the lake.

*

There are perils to teaching children poetry.

James read A Shropshire Lad, and did not enjoy it much, but one bit fired his imagination. He went next to encyclopedias, and then to history books, and then to biographies, reading everything he could find about the ancient king Mithridates. And since he, too, wanted to die old, he promptly set to work.

It would have turned out splendidly, except that the labels became faded over time and hard to read. James therefore accidentally poured himself a fatal dose of lye, to which he had not yet begun to cultivate an immunity.

*

His aim, it must be said, was not very good. His courage was unquestioned, and the generosity of his heart more than amply demonstrated, nor could you fault his diligence in keeping the edge of his axe polished and razor-sharp.

But he could not aim for beans. When he swung to cut the wolf’s head off, he cut its belly open instead, and little Kate scrambled out, covered in blood. And when she shrieked that her grandmother was still inside, and he swung to cut the old woman loose, he was not careful enough as to where the backswing went.

*

Leo’s mother was hypochondriac, and regrettably, she passed this trait on to her son. She was forever complaining of some ailment or other, pestering the doctor to “do something” about her ill health, and investing in quack remedies (which may in fact have contributed to her ill health).

She became convinced that her son was suffering from anemia, despite his lack of symptoms. The doctor refused to prescribe any treatment. And so Leo, fearing he would die from his grievous deficiency of iron, attempted to take the only supplement he could find among his possessions: a handful of iron tacks.

*

Maud’s tragic fate could easily have been avoided had anyone taken her seriously.

She wanted nothing more than to become a pirate. At last she found a suitable ship upon which to begin her career of freebooting and plundering. But when she asked to be taken aboard, they laughed at her and sailed away.

Maud was not deterred. She got a plank to serve as her raft and began paddling after them. Alas, she could not keep up with the ship, even with the help of an offshore wind.

She got to sea, but not the way she had intended.

*

There is nothing interesting to say about Neville. He did not have a fascinating personal history or any habits, good or bad, about which much can be said. He was neither adored by his friends nor detested by his enemies, and his family never gave him much thought at all -- but neither did they neglect him. His end was not amusing, or tragic, or ironically appropriate, or gruesome in a way that could be considered entertaining to readers of suitably morbid character.

He simply died. Boringly. For no good reason. Because he could not think of anything better to do.

*

One day Olive’s mother caught her running with scissors in her hand. “Never do that!” she scolded the little girl, taking the scissors away and spanking her. “You could trip and fall and hurt yourself!”

Olive learned that lesson well. Unfortunately, she did not learn the broader point, which was that running with sharp objects of any kind was dangerous as a rule. She ran with knives and with corkscrews, with chopsticks and with pens that had metal nibs, and one day she ran with an awl.

But only once. After that, she ran with no sharp objects at all.

*

When adults say that children should not be allowed into saloon bars, they are usually worried about liquor, vulgar language, loose women, and the corruption of those children’s morals. These are valid concerns, but in certain cases, there is one more that should be added to the list.

Contrary to her name, Prue was not a prudent child. So when a man in the bar told her to run along home, she took exception to the idea, in quite strident terms. The man took exception right back, and when the matter was done, Prue would not be running anywhere again.

*

They had already played Roman soldiers and Egyptian pharaohs and salty sailors and train engineers and everything else interesting, and it was only a little after lunchtime. Quentin’s friends were bored. “Think of something else to do!” they demanded.

Quentin did not want to disappoint his friends. He thought and he thought, and he remembered the picture-book his uncle had given him for his birthday. “Let’s play Ancient Germans,” he said.

So they wrapped a cord around his neck, strangled him (very badly), and drowned him in peat to make their own bog body. Then they went home for dinner.

*

There is a lovely tradition followed in Scandinavian countries wherein a girl is selected to portray the martyr St. Lucia on St. Lucia’s Day. They dress her in a white gown and tie a red sash around her middle, and she leads a procession of women who sing a traditional song about the saint.

Each of these women carries a candle, and the girl at the front of the procession wears an entire crown of them. They say this is in memory of the fire that refused to burn St. Lucia during her martyrdom.

It burned Rhoda, however, just fine.

*

It may seem an exaggeration to say Susan was the most disagreeable child of all time. After all, she was hardly the only child to turn her nose up at supper and demand a meal more to her liking, or threaten to scream without ceasing if she did not get the dolly she wanted.

She is, however, the only child ever to perish of her disagreeableness. One day her mother, in frustration, hired a governess who decided to take a strict hand. And Susan indeed screamed long and loud -- but not without ceasing, for the noise ended when she did.

*

When caring for dynamite, it is important to understand the material is not stable over time, and becomes even more explosive if it is allowed to degrade. Nitroglycerin will sweat out of the sticks and pool in the bottom of the box, and crystals may form; these are very sensitive to shock, and will explode far more easily than dynamite in its mixed form.

Titus understood the safety precautions. Unfortunately, the dynamite in question had not been cared for properly in some time. For the good of others, he volunteered to turn the box, but it was already too late.

*

Have you ever walked down the street and shied away from the opening to a drain, for fear that you would slip or the covering give way and then you would fall through into the sewers and never be seen again?

Have you ever felt the conviction that something in the sewer was just waiting for the opportunity to pull you down?

Likely you told yourself your fears were nonsense. Everyone told Una the same thing. But one day, to get rid of her fear, she made herself walk over the top of a drain.

She was never seen again.

*

“Keep an eye out, lad,” Victor’s father said before he left for the war, ruffling his son’s hair. “Keep watch for me, and I’ll see you again.”

Then he got on the train, which ran past Victor’s house on its way out of town. After Victor’s mother took him home, he went out to keep watch for his father. He kept watch faithfully, hardly even allowing himself to blink, because he had promised to keep watch; he did not even move when he heard the whistle behind him.

And so his father’s promise came true. They saw each other again.

 

Winnie was the most perfect little girl who ever lived. She was not only beautiful (which is what adults often cite when speaking of ideal little girls); she was kind and generous, sweet-tempered and patient, and modest as well.

She had only a single fault, which is that she could not bear the thought of becoming less perfect than she was. What if she committed some error? How could she endure it? She could never forgive herself for such a fall.

To avoid this fate, Winnie elected to freeze herself in a block of ice, preserving her perfection for ever.

*

Xerxes’ parents were very proud when their son brought home the winning prize from the school’s science competition, for his excellent work on the behavioral conditioning of mice.

He would not have won the prize had the judges known about the side effects his conditioning produced.

Late that night, while Xerxes was asleep in bed, the mice broke free of their cages and came in search of him. They chased him into a corner, chittering their little teeth; then they swarmed him and ate every last scrap of flesh from his bones.

As he had, inadvertently, trained them to do.

*

Ever since he visited Stonehenge, Yorick had been entranced by the mystery of that place. How had the ancients dragged the stones such tremendous distances? How had they levered them upright, and placed the lintel stones across their tops? And why had they gone to such effort?

Experimentation answered the first of these questions to his satisfaction, and he was well on his way toward a possible answer to the second. Unfortunately, his engineering was not quite sound, and instead of settling firmly into place, the lintel fell on his head -- before he could answer the third question at all.

*

Zillah found her consolation in her father’s bottle of gin -- or bottles, rather, for she no sooner finished the first than she reached for the next, though it did not take more than two bottles to do so small a girl in.

And why did this little girl need such consolation? Why, because she was, like you or like me, a very enthusiastic reader. And one winter’s day, when it was cold outside and warm inside, she curled up in an armchair and read twenty-five stories in sequence of children meeting sticky or tragic or amusing or unspeakably gruesome ends.