Painting by Louis-Léopold Boilly

Boilly was once a child, just like you or me, until we changed him.

The silly giants, our mothers and fathers and the strangers they warned us about, as soon as we could walk or talk, paid us no mind.

We were just children being children. Boilly was just different. That was his only crime.

We lived in the same neighbourhood, down cobbled alleys joined by the crisscrossing mesh of washing lines and dripping clothes.

The sun had ceased to go down since longer ago than we cared to remember, so we chose to treat the drips as rain.

Boilly’s family were the poorest on the street. This was enough to warrant the name-calling and jokes at his expense.

But Boilly didn’t want to be alone. Boilly became our friend even though he didn’t fit in.

Our mothers insisted we treat him like any other child. Our fathers warned us when they knew our mothers could not hear them. We too would become just like Boilly, if we didn’t fall in.

One day Boilly became the brunt of a blunt-edged joke as piercing as any sharp sword thrust through armoured skin.

We convinced him we had found an oasis, hidden between the spires of rubble in the one place we were not allowed to go. Being only children, we could not have foreseen what would happen next.

We told Boilly we were all stripping off for a dip, skinny though the waters might be in this era of endless drought. Like Boilly, we wanted to believe what we knew in our hearts could not be true.

When Boilly disrobed, folding his clothes neatly and unlike the pauper that he was, and more like a vagabond with affectations above his station, we took those clothes and set them alight using matches stolen from a father’s cigar drawer.

Boilly’s walk of shame was only meant to be a game. When we followed him, sometimes from the front, other times from the rear, but always skirting him from above on the wall-edges looking down, our opinions of what we had done mortally changed.

We stopped seeing Boilly, rather looking upon the gleeful lack of sympathy and cackling laughter in the eyes and mouths of all who looked upon him.

When we eventually did look upon him what we saw shook us deeply and unraveled our once sure footed strides.

Boilly wore an expression which we could not define though which we came to later realise was something called ‘dignity’.

Though naked, hobbling due to his disfigurements and on the receiving end of the worst treatment by other people any of us had ever seen, he behaved as though he walked into the night and nobody else was there.

Time passed in our little devolution of a town. Some unspeakable change came over Boilly. He behaved as though nothing had happened and even seemed to take enjoyment from day to day life.

We started to change though we did not see it at first. Our mothers and fathers started to worry. They could no longer recognise us, or themselves; everyone who had once ridiculed Boilly seemed to be mysteriously affected in some similar way.

Boilly’s change spread to everything about him, and, with the passing of years, his stature and gait. His disfigurements appeared to fade while every one of us who once laughed grew sickly and unhinged in our skins.

Years later, I approached Boilly, hobbling on my cane and striving hard to squint through the folds of deciduous skin that hung like wilted leaves over my eyes. As I did my best to project my hoarse whisper and my gullet ached, with its reduced ability to siphon breath, Boilly turned and stepped into the glare of the sun. Thankfully, this shielded the strained nerves crying out in their inactivity at the back of my eyes.

“I am sorry, Boilly. I’d meant to apologise sooner. I haven’t seen you around the old neighbourhood in years. I asked, but all I could ascertain was that you moved on. We are all, every single one, so very sorry for that day.”

“Heavens,” came his reply. The casual nature of his response filled me with dismay. “Whatever do you mean?”

“That day, when we told you of the oasis,” I muttered, feeling like a gnat in the glare of his light.

“I’m afraid you must have the wrong person, old man,” he smiled. “My name is Billy, but strangers call me Bill. This day of which you speak, when was it?” he asked.

“Surely you remember,” I pleaded, feeling like a head bashed against a brick wall. “We were children.”

When he spoke, it was with purpose and clarity. His confidence rendered a feeling of weakness deep inside my throat. “I remember very little from my childhood,” he said, the lovely fabric on his strong, suited frame glistening with a velveteen shade tender to the eyes and inviting enough to touch. “I remember feeling ugly, but I grew up, worked hard and put the past behind me.”

He smiled a little which unsettled me completely. I felt every fragile inch of my frail and battered core.

“It’s a funny thing,” he said, levelling a deathly, hellish stare. “My mother once told me I was cured. I asked her of what and she simply said the curse had been lifted when I looked into the darkness and still chose to see light. Perhaps if I remembered what you speak of I might have carried scars. Tell you what, old man. Why don’t you consider yourself forgiven and we’ll hear no more of it. Feeling guilty will get you nowhere. I definitely do not. After all, the world can be quite beautiful, if you don’t give into the ugliness inside.”

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