Provoke Not Your Children To Wrath
K. G. McAbee
I watched them come into the court.
They were the usual. Hard, cheap, their eyes a dull flat black that gave back no light. The boy had homemade tattoos peeking through the prison-orange sleeves of his dirty coverall. The girl was in one of those shapeless shifts, the same day-glow orange, that floated about her thin straight frame like a cloud drifting around the top of a building. They didn't look at each other when the guards settled them at their lawyer's table, but you could see that they were communicating, all the same.
I've been a bailiff for a million years, seems like. I've seen 'em come and I've seen 'em go. At first I thought these two were the same as all the rest. You get so's you can pick the guilty ones out right off, by the way they hold their mouths when their lawyer talks about them, or the way their hair falls limp and defeated against their skulls. But these two . . . no, they had all the signs. But there was something else going on there, something that couldn't be explained by the same old excuse.
Parental neglect. Parental abuse. The current favorite and acceptable reason for every kid under a certain age, whether he'd kicked a dog or she'd mooned the cops. It was never the kids' fault. It always came back to the parents.
Oh, sure, these kids hadn't had the greatest parents in the world -- but then, who had? Their parents were in the courtroom, right behind their lawyer's table, separated (protected?) from the kids by the wooden fence that stretches waist-high to bisect the room. I stood to the side of that table, just in front of the fence. I had a truncheon in my belt. I didn't enjoy using it, if that's what you're thinking. But sometimes I needed it.
The kids were the defendants, of course. What, you thought that they could have been plaintiffs? With their tough, smart, I'm-in-charge looks? No way. But those looks wouldn't last long in prison. Not when the big bruisers got ahold of that skinny boy, or his scrawnier sister. No, those looks would get wiped away pretty quick, when real life kicked in for them.
The plaintiff shuffled into the room. She was a stooped, pale old woman, her nose curving down like it was trying to meet up with her long chin, or maybe it was sniffing out that big hairy mole that lived under one corner of her pressed-in lips. She was dressed in rusty flowing black. Not surprising, I guess, since it was her sister the kids -- excuse it please, the defendants -- had offed. Anyway, she settled down at her own lawyer's side, bending sideways to whisper in his ear, nodding like a metronome at his answering murmurs.
I sighed as I thought of what those two kids had done to the old woman's sister. She -- the sister, I mean, the one the kids were on trial for burning to death -- had lived alone, in a pretty quiet and isolated location, what you might call rural, I guess. She had a tiny little house, just a couple of rooms, but she was always making candy for the neighborhood children and baking them treats in her big old-fashioned wood oven that sat out back, behind her house -- it was more like a cottage, really.
It was one of those old Victorians, covered in all that lacy folderol that looks like it'd be hell to paint. I think they call it gingerbread or something. Anyway, the old lady lived there by herself, and got pretty lonesome, I suppose. That was why she was always looking for ways to entice the local kids in, offering them treats and candy and such, ruining their teeth and their appetites. Just a harmless old lady.
Then these two had got hold of her. Now she was a harmless dead old lady.
Everybody in the courtroom struggled up as the judge paced in, elegant and medieval in his long black robes. He seated himself behind the gleaming mahogany desk and gave a nod, somehow managing to take in lawyers, defendants, plaintiff and all the court at once.
"Proceed, gentlemen," he intoned.
The kids' lawyer jumped up and trotted over to the jury. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, pacing nervously back and forth as he caught first one juror's eye, then another's, "these poor children before you are accused of a grisly crime. A horrible crime. But look at them, please, just look at them."
Agreeably, they did, and I joined them. The boy was cleaning his nails with a paper clip. The girl was chewing gum with her mouth open.
Deciding that maybe this wasn't the best tactic, their lawyer went on, "Remember, these are just children. And children, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, who were ignored, starved, beaten and finally-- " He paused for dramatic effect. One juror yawned and he hurried on, "--and finally abandoned. Yes, abandoned by their own parents, thrown out into a cold world to fend for themselves."
I looked at these poor abandoned waifs. The girl was scratching her arm. The boy was picking his nose, with every sign of enjoyment.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, what actions can be expected from children who are treated so, and treated so by their own parents? Parents are supposed to love their children, to care for them and feed them and nurture their little minds. Instead, these poor children were tossed out, like garbage, into the streets."
Well, he went on in this strain for a while, pointing out how weak and scared the two kids must have been, how frightening it is sometimes for grown-ups out in the world, not to mention children. The kids didn't help him out much, though. A proper pair of little toughs they looked.
At last their lawyer sat down, and it was time for the plaintiff's lawyer. He got up and approached the jury, then lit into them about how weak and helpless his client's sister had been. Just a nice old lady, helping out the neighborhood kids while ruining their teeth with her sweet homemade treats. She'd only been trying to help these two kids, as she helped all the others that visited her. she'd never asked to be pushed into her own big wood-burning oven and scorched to death by this pair of young punks.
All the while the lawyer was talking, the murdered woman's sister snuffled quietly into a black handkerchief, her white hair scraped back into a bun so tight that it looked like she could barely close her eyes.
At last this playing-on-the-jury's-heartstrings interlude was over, and it was time for the real trial to begin.
"Bailiff," said the judge, "call the defendants."
I turned to face the court, called out in my loudest voice.
"The court calls Hansel and Gretel."