SHORT STORIES THAT TEACH US LESSONS IN DEALING WITH
FEAR, INTIMIDATION AND COMPLACENCY
does Terrorism do to a person when he gives up believing in Hope?
Are there times when the Terrorism “within” is more powerful than any we
can imagine “without?” In The Scariest Place On Earth, we see a
man in a world where he no longer cares. It was created by
fear, intimidation and complacency But all is not doom and gloom.
A young boy comes and delivers him a message of Vigilance. Note:
In 1965 I spent Christmas Day at a leper colony. This story
is based, in part, on the experiences from that visit . See end of story
for more information on the visit to the lepers.
Cliff McKenzie )
The Scariest Place On Earth
November 2, 2001
Once upon a Halloween Night, in a very very dark forest, bats hung upside
down by clawed toes on spindly leafless branches of a Spider Tree.
Crimson strands of unctuous blood, sucked from creatures long-since dead,
oozed from their mouths.
Owls’ eyes pierced the dank night in search of
Tree Beasts who hunkered on rotting limbs over swollen paths of undulating
mud, ready to leap upon the backs of the unsuspecting and crush their
skulls and eat their brains.
On this night of abysmal fright, a shriek shuddered
through the atrophied forest’s fetid womb, wakening sleeping warted toads
and mangy cats the color of dirty onyx.
I grabbed my staff
and brushed scabs and flies from my left arm, remnants of an old wound
left by a rabid Skull Skunk. Earlier, I had fallen asleep near
a patch of Gnarled Mushrooms. Their purification created an
unconscionable perfume luring the blood-sucking Death Flies who chose to
feast upon my decaying flesh while I slept. They grew so fat they could
not lift their leaden bodies above the floor of the Devil’s Forest I now
My bones creaked
and groaned. I leaned on the walking stick to keep from falling on
the nest of maggots that dined on the festered sores bulging from the tops
of my toes. I heard the wail cut through the night’s shadows,
echoing off rotting trunks of fallen trees that were smothered by blotches
of greenish yellow fungus spores, symbolic of life living upon the carcass
The mushy earth quivered under my weight. Mud sucked
around my ankles as I walked, the slurping sound similar to a dying carp
floating on its back gasping frantic gulps of air before the Swamp Ravens
swooped down and ripped its bloated belly open to consume its luscious
I forced myself toward the soul-scarred screech
of a human Voice, trapped as I, in this Hellish forest.
The forest was
not kind to my movements. I warily watched for the Snarled Toothed Spiders
who spun thick wet webs in hopes a Death Fly might slap its blood-glutted
body into the spider’s wet, sticky fingers of silken death and fruitlessly
flap its diaphanous veined wings to escape. Many times, to pass the
boredom of the night, I had watched the Snarled Tooth Spider slowly stalk
its captured prey; its fuzzy fur-like legs dancing gleefully over the
silvery strands toward the struggling fly; its bent and twisted fangs
masticating in preparation to drive the deathbite into the Death Fly’s
gluttonous belly, and then, sensuously suck its organs until all that was
left was a chitenous shell of protein. Such a web stood guard across
my path this night.
“Back, you ugly bastards,” I yelled, squishing one of
the Snarled Tooth Spider’s bodies against the desiccated bark of a
long-dead tree with my staff. The crackle of its body bursting sang
in the night as I drove the spider against a crumbling tree stump whose
ecoskeleton was weakened from the inside out by Tarantula Termites that
would, over eternity, level the Devil’s Forest to random piles of sawdust.
As I slurped through the sludge, a Green-Horned Toad
leapt before my path. I froze. It had the privilege of the
night. I feared crossing it and waited for it to pass. The
toad's venom heated its victim's blood and blistered the body until all
the organs were flaccid. When the bones crumbled, the victim’s body
fell like an empty sack upon the hoards of maggots wriggling in a vigilant
and vulturous soup line, eager to feast on its remains. I took
no chances with Green-Horned Toad.
Ahead, bony fingers of naked, sharp branches hampered
my passage to the sounds of sobbing and wailing of a lost soul in
purgatory—trapped as I, in the nether of night and day. I had cried
those same cries long ago and knew them well. It was the cry of life
“I’m coming,” I painfully shouted. I could taste
blood from the broken fever blisters pulsing at the corners of my mouth
where the Fungus Fleas attacked me two weeks earlier. I tried to
call again. My feeble Voice died in the thick gauze of the night's
I remembered when I could speak with great force,
projecting my Voice across long valleys to the horizon, its mellifluous
tone attracting the wandering lost souls who sat at my feet and listened
to me speak of the secrets of life. I told them over and over--what
they want they have--and what they seek they are. But they did
not listen to my Voice.
Least of all, I did not either. I moved my lips
faddically in those days, like the Raven Of Death cawing a warning no one
heeded. My empty words fell upon hollow minds.
I wondered why I was so eager to push ahead.
Why should this lost soul listen to the likes of me? Why did I
even care about another? This world was about survival, not about
Yet, I could not stop my forward trek to
see another human. To hear its Voice.
Instinctively, my feet stopped. A Black Swamp
Snake was coiled in front of me, its head weaving, its poison sacs
puffed into angry fists. Its jaws were hinged open revealing its
ochre-colored hissing fangs that spat venom into the eyes to blind its
prey. I reeled back, not from fright, for I was not afraid of
this serpent. I recoiled from the stench of its breath that expelled
the odor of a Forest Hunta Rat rotting in its pregnant belly, the vilest
of all vermin in the forest.
“Take that, you Evil bastard,” I ranted, swiping my staff at the
viper’s head, knocking it down onto sludge as I ducked the stream of venom
it spat at me.
“Take that, and that,” I pounded the serpent with the
staff. “You rat-eating bastard!”
The serpent slithered off, hissing its foul
breath in retaliation. The odor was putrid. I clutched the
scarf around my face and fought the instinct to gag and wretch out my
“I’m coming…I’m coming…” My toothless mouth
munched out the words in hopes whomever’s soul-scarred Voice was
screeching would hear my presence.
I broke through the thicket of briars where the sounds
seemed to emanate. I pulled the tattered robe tightly around me so
he or she could not see the wrappings on my legs where the leprosy had
eaten holes in my thighs and calves. I tugged the scarf noosed
around my neck across my face to hide the vacancy where my nose had
been. I did not want them to see the empty cavity where the Mushroom
Maggots chewed away the rotting flesh.
“I am here.”
A young boy looked up, startled. He was perhaps
twelve or fourteen. His eyes bulged and his body shook
uncontrollably at seeing me.
“Who…who are you?” His teeth chattered loudly as
he spat out the words. In a few years, I thought, they would
all fall out and his shiverings would be soundless.
“I am the Keeper Of The Forest,” I lied. “I
am here to help you.” I lied a second time. What good
would it do to tell him the truth, I thought. Why should I tell him
I was like he, a lost soul in the nether land of death and life.
“Then show me the way out.”
I took a step toward him, clutching the scarf tightly
so that only my eyes were revealed. He scuttled back until his
shoulders pressed against the rotting stump of a tree.
“Don’t be afraid. I will show you the way out.”
“You will?” His Voice was skeptical. I loomed
over him, my staff clutched in one ragged hand, staring down.
“Yes, in due time. But first you must tell
me why you are here?”
“I don’t know,” the boy gasped, hugging himself,
his body convulsing as though it had never felt the chill of death before.
“I will light you a fire,” I said reluctantly. I
did not want to use my inconsiderable matches on this lost soul.
But I felt pity for him because of his youth. Pity, I thought,
why waste it on another.
“You gather the wood. Get the least wet
twigs first. Then larger ones secondly.”
I crumpled onto the wet ground, long ago numb to the
chill it sent through my body. The boy timidly tossed a
handful of twigs at me. I put them into a pile and
reached inside my robe for a match. I only lit a fire once a
month, sometimes less often, for I had no idea how long I would be here.
I struck the match and held it under the pile until the
damp twigs began to smoke and sizzle. Then, I leaned down so the boy
could not see my face, and blew as hard as I could on the smoldering mass
until a few flames licked up.
“Ahhh, we have warmth.”
The boy brought more twigs. I fed them slowly
until the fire coughed, spluttered and hissed as the heat scorched the
steam from the wet wood.
“Don’t block the air, boy,” I warned as he tried to
huddle too close. He jerked back and put his shaking hands over the
“Don’t burn yourself, boy, you’ll get an infection and
the flies and maggots will eat you alive.”
“Why are you here?” I pressed.
The boy didn’t look up. He pressed his palms
toward the flames. “I was standing on the edge of a cliff, thinking
about jumping. I didn’t want to live. Then a big wind
came and pushed me and I grabbed the ledge of the cliff. I was
hanging onto a small bush, and I went unconscious. I woke up here.
Is this Hell?”
“No…No…boy…Hell is where you just came from…where you
were trapped in Fear and Doubt and Failure… Why did you want to
“I didn’t want to live…but then…I decided I didn’t want
to die…then the wind pushed me over…and I grabbed hold…and…” His
Voice trailed as he jerked his hand back from the fire.
“I told you not to get too close, boy. You will
die here if you’re not careful.”
He was a skinny kid, with a long nose
and thin lips. His eyes were set in deep sockets, as though he had
died many times before, and with each death, his eye balls sunk deeper
into his skull.
“Tell me about your Fear, boy. Tell
me what you were afraid of that made you want to jump?”
The boy flinched.
“Why should I tell you that, old man?”
“If you want to leave here, you will tell me anything I
want to know,” I snapped, pushing my staff into the fire, stirring it.
The boy scowled.
“I am not as good as others,” he grumbled. “I
never will be. Look at me. I am ugly. Others tease me.
They say I am walking death. Girls point at me and put their hands
over their mouths and say things to each other about me. My parents
treat me like a slave, and my brother like a king. I hate myself.
I hate life.”
“Then why didn’t you jump?”
“I don’t know. I just decided not to.”
I took my scarf away, exposing the holes in my face and
my twisted, blistered lips.
“Oh, my God…” The boy scrambled back, horrified.
“This is ugly, boy. Compared with me, you
are very handsome.”
I placed the scarf back . There was no need to
keep the boy repulsed. Besides, I could see my own ugliness in
his shocked face. He mirrored my feelings toward myself.
“If you stay here, boy, you’ll look like this too.”
“You said you would show me the way out, old man.
I told you why I am here. Now, I want to go home.” He started
to sob, but caught himself. A tear streaked down his cheek.
“But I thought you said you hated home? Hated
your mother and father? Hated your life? ”
“I do. But I would hate this life more,” he
“Logical,” I said, adding more twigs to the fire.
“So, can I go now?”
I studied him. He was very ugly indeed.
Conversely, I had been strong and handsome and full of life and
purpose. But then the ugliness had grown inside me as the
fungus consumes the healthy tree. It had taken me slowly, over time,
turning my life into a nightmare of endless days of purposeless drudgery
until I wished for death, embracing its emptiness, its nothingness.
My soul had died long before I came here.
“What will you do if you go back to change your life,”
I queried. “What tools will you use to fight your fear?”
I tried to make my Voice sound like I knew the answers,
which I didn’t. I just wanted to hear another human Voice. If he
knew I knew nothing of his way out, he might not sit with me by the fire.
I would lie to him as long as he accepted it, then I would go my way, and
not think about the boy, or his struggle to survive.
“What will I do,,,to fight fear?” the boy mused.
“Hmmmm…I will not look in the mirror and see ugliness?” He posed the
answer in the form of a question, searching my eyes for approval. I
didn’t really care if he was right or wrong, I just soaked up the sound of
another human Voice.
“That’s a good answer. What else?” I
looked up and saw an owl blink.
“I will not hate those who hate me?” Again, his
eyes searched mine.
Hate, I thought. What does this boy know of
hate? I know hate. I have hugged it—he has only kissed
“What else?” I shoved another few twigs into the fire,
careful not to place too many so the wetness drenched the flames.
“I will not cower to others when they berate me.”
This time there were no eyes searching for approval.
“You must be eager to go home, son?”
“I am, old man. Can we go now?”
“In just a moment,” I lied again. I had
come here like the boy, thinking I could leave. It kept me
alive, that Hope, until Dismay finally took its toll, and I resigned
myself I would be stuck here until all the flesh on my bones dropped off.
“Tell me, boy, how will you fight Fear of yourself.
The Fear you are a nothing…a nobody…God’s mistake…a piece of rat dung…a
useless appendage on the tree of Life?” My question was acidic.
“I will seek Courage to fight the fear. I will
find a purpose for wanting to live.”
“And…” I stirred the fire again and motioned for the
boy to place more twigs on it, “…and how will you sustain this Courage?”
“Conviction,” the boy quickly answered, his eyes
“And how will conviction sustain courage, boy?”
“When I become afraid again of who I am not, or why I
am not loved, I will remember this place. Conviction will be
my desire to never come here again. It will give me the Courage I
need. This place is scary. It’s the scariest place on earth.”
I dropped the scarf again, exposing my face, to test
this boy’s arrogance, his defiance. He looked at me without alarm.
His eyes roamed over the gaping cavity exposing the inside of my skull.
“Do you breathe through that hole?” He turned his
head slightly, like a monkey looking in a mirror, first to one side then
I laughed. It felt good to laugh.
“Yes…” I leaned my head back and sucked a gush of
wet air into my sinus cavity. I remembered the spider that had
crawled into the cavity one night as I slept, and caused me to gag and
spit it out. From that night on I always placed the scarf over my face
when I slept.
“So, boy, this Courage you talked about…how will you
The boy poked at the fire. I could hear the
groaning of the trees, and screeches of the bats, and even the belly of
the snake sliding around. My eyes had become my ears..
“I will take Action,” the boy finally said.
“Action? What do you mean?” I wanted to
scream at the boy to stop dreaming. To tell him there was no way
out. Action, I thought. Ha. The only action the
boy would take would be to eat maggots to stay alive, or kill a rat
and eat it, puking out more than he consumed because of the wretched taste
“I will wash my face. Comb my hair. I will
look for something good in me. I will look for something good
in my enemies—in all those who hate me. I will return anger with
calmness, and repulsion with appreciation. I will thank people for
their comments about my ugliness. I will square my shoulders.
I will walk with dignity. I will hold my head up. I…..I…will
be thankful I am alive…no matter what I look like, or feel like…I will
value life…I will whistle and hum…I will talk to the birds and trees…I
will honor the sun and moon….I will kiss a leaf…I will not look at others
with envy…or lust what they have…I will appreciate myself for who I am…and
give more than expected of myself to others who may give me less than I
I held up my hand. The barrage was overpowering.
I had not expected it. Such fantasies were useless here in the gloom of
death, in the shadows of existence.
“But you said…”
“I know, I know…” I put my scarf back over my
face. “I just don’t want you to get too excited…”
“But I am…old….” He paused, clipping the word “old
man”…”but I am excited, sir. I want to live life. I don’t want
to die here, in this nothingness.”
No matter what he believed, I knew the Leech of
Nothingness was inside the boy, sucking out his will to live, digesting
his elan vital—just as it had mine. Soon, it would destroy his
dreams and hopes of escaping. He would become the muck and fungus
and flies and maggots and bats and spiders and serpents and fleas that
made this world both intolerable and inescapable.
“You want to live, don’t you?” The boy’s question
hammered into me.
“I have chosen to not want to live…” I said. “I
have chosen to reject happiness and love and hope and respect for life…”
“Or, you just gave up?”
The boy’s retort angered me. I clutched the staff
in my hand and started to raise it against his impudence, then elected not
to. The boy did not let up.
“I think you have just given up, sir…you’ve let
yourself die from the inside out…at the last moment as I was standing on
the cliff, about to jump, I realized I was killing myself from the
inside…and that’s why I didn’t jump…I suddenly had something to live for…”
“And what was that, pray tell me?” My Voice was angry.
“Myself, sir. I chose to live for myself.”
“That’s selfish, isn’t it? Living for yourself.
Isn’t that a violation of what you just said about giving yourself to
everyone. I did that, boy. I gave myself to everyone. I
was a great hero of the people. But they gave nothing back.
Serving yourself is a waste, boy. Serving others is an equal
waste. You get nothing back. If you get nothing back, you
might as well be dead.” I jabbed the stick into the fire.
“Not if you believe you have worth, sir. As I
clung on the cliff, I suddenly saw myself as a worthy human being… I
realized I had been living my life by how others judged me…my ugliness and
shame and failure and fear all came from outside me…all those feelings
buried who I really was…I was terrorized by life…sir…terrorized I was a
nobody…because I lived by others’ standards. Now, I know I’m
somebody. I’m me. To reach inside and find the
good is a selfless, not selfish act. It’s like jumping into a raging
river to save a drowning child. It’s easy to live the way you
do, sir, with fear, hatred, ugliness, failure, unworthiness, guilt,
shame…but it’s hard, sir…very hard to live with hope and belief and
conviction and courage.” He paused. “It’s hard to dig out your
good when all the bad has formed a mountain of defeat on your soul.
That’s how you feel, isn’t it, sir? Buried in the grave of defeat?”
“Who the hell are you?”
I climbed to me feet and raised the staff.
“Who are you?” I demanded.
“I am you, sir.”
The boy stood and smiled at me.
“Look at me again, sir.”
His features had changed. He was young and
handsome and his Voice rimmed with power and strength. His eyes
“I am you, back when, sir. Back when you believed
in miracles and dreams and Hope and life’s beauty. Before the Beast
of Terror began to consume you as it has here, in this Land of Horror.”
The boy swept his hand in a circle. “Look, sir,
horror all around you. You are in your own soul, sir. You are living
in its darkest, dankest corner where light no longer shines and hope has
been buried so deep you do not see it when you step over its grave.
You are trapped in the nightmare of nothingness you became.
You rejected your good, sir. You made your good ugly.
You made your beauty terror. You never gave life the chance to grow
in you. You wanted to take from life, like this land takes from
everything, and gives nothing back.”
“What are you talking about? That’s all
gibberish. I gave. I worked hard to give to others, to
do things for them. But I got nothing back.”
“That’s the point, sir. You never stopped to do
anything for yourself. You never stopped to love yourself. To
look in the mirror and love who and what you were for who and what you
are. You wanted life to give you reflection and definition.
And you have it, here, sir. This is the darkest corner of your soul,
sir. This is the scariest place on earth—the inside of your tortured
My heart pounded. I wheezed and gasped.
“You are my nightmare, boy. You are an
“No sir, I am here to take you home.”
“I have no home.”
“Yes you do.”
“This is my home.” I swung the staff about, and
as I did, I saw them on the fringes of the circle--the toads and snakes
and fleas and rats and flies and spiders and bats and maggots--all looking
“Take my hand, sir. Let’s go home.”
“You think I could go back and walk the streets as a
leper, holding out a cup and seeking people’s sympathy, their pity…
You think that living the life of a beggar dressed in rags and having the
world shun you is better than this— Why, here I am king of the land, a
survivor of hell. You have the temerity to ask me to return to a
world where I will be a nothing again, a nobody, and worse, a leper.
Begone, boy! Begone!”
I raised the staff to strike the boy with a killing
blow to the neck. As I brought the staff down I felt myself weaken
and stopped the deathblow.
“You cannot kill me, for I am you. See, you
want to live.” The boy smiled at me.
“No! I want to die. To die here.”
“I will help you look inside. I will help
you find your soul again. When you feel the light of life
again, you will be happy.”
“And what if you are lying to me. What if I find
I hate myself more than ever?”
“Then you can return here.”
He smiled again and reached out his hand. I
looked at it, and then into his eyes. They were warm, giving
off a heat that made the marrow in my bones feel comfort for the first
time since I had arrived.
“Come,” said the boy, “let’s leave the scariest place
I sucked a deep breath and reached out, my ragged
trembling hand, hoping it would make it across the empty nothingness to
touch his, but not sure it had the courage or conviction to leave the
scariest place on earth .
Author's historical note: In 1965, the 1st Marine Division staged
for a few months on the island of Okinawa prior to landing in Vietnam.
That Christmas I volunteered to go with a group to a leper colony and
bring presents to the patients and their children. At the
time, lepers were, by law, condemned to live their lives within the
compound. More importantly, if they had any children born after
being diagnosed with the disease, their children were also never allowed
to leave the compound. Leprosy is not a contagious disease, despite
the fables that history has labeled it as. It also is not a
genetic disease. But even with all the knowledge of what
leprosy was not, I still had great fear and trepidations about "touching"
anyone in the compound. We arrived and the people were
overjoyed we had come. They smiles and their eyes gleamed.
Many had pieces of their faces, arms and legs missing where the disease
had eaten away their flesh. Timidly, I finally reached out my
hand and shook theirs. One woman embraced me, and I fought the
urge to not hug back. Then the children came. They were
healthy, happy children, with big brown eyes and curious imaginations.
They sat on our laps and jingled our dog tags. We sang carols
and opened presents. Before I knew what had happened the "fear
of leprosy" melted. The people became people, despite those without
any noses, or ears missing, or bandages covering wounds where
infection--the great enemy of anyone with leprosy--had set in.
I felt sad for the children that they could never leave the compound even
though there was no medical reason why they couldn't. Fear
trapped them in the compound--not their fear--but the Terrorism in other's
minds that they "might be infected." Terrorism "within" is an
insidious disease. Like leprosy, it eats at the flesh of the soul.
Defeat, Intimidation, self-worthlessness, can prey upon the mind of both
children and adults until they live in a compound of horror, self-imposed,
self-regulated. At the leper colony I realized people who
suffer one of mankind's' most "horrid" diseases, can live a life of
happiness and joy. I saw their children beaming with life.
As we left that day, I looked back at the gate that was closing and the
faces of the mothers and fathers of leprosy, and their children who waved
and smiled at us for bringing them a moment of joy. I wondered
if people who were afraid of themselves and what they thought they
"weren't" visited a leper colony, it might heal their self-depreciation
and self-loathing by realizing the "leprosy of terrorism" was all a state
of mind, and that the victims of the disease were the children who were
trapped in its shadow. Think about becoming a Parent of
Vigilance. Think about fighting off the shadow of terrorism from
within, so it doesn't cast darkness on the innocent who stand nearby.
- 2004, VigilanceVoice.com, All rights reserved - a ((HYYPE))