I hate New Amsterdam.
Bram Bakker shouldered his leather satchel and shuffled discontentedly through the ankle-deep snow with a snarl on his face.
Why did I come to this God forsaken New World if all that waited for me here was more snow and just as many damned people, he thought?
He glared disdainfully at the mass of humanity trudging through the mud- and snow-covered streets.
Damn the lot of them.
Bram landed in New Amsterdam just 6 months prior, after a less than agreeable voyage from Holland. He spent the majority of the trip below deck, barely leaving his pallet and heaving into a bucket. While several of his fellow travelers attempted to aid and befriend him, Bram snapped at anyone who approached.
Truth be told, landfall improved his mood very little. If pressed for an answer, Bram could not say what he’d expected to see upon arrival at Ft. Amsterdam, but he was certainly underwhelmed. Not a single street was paved with cobblestone and the place stunk to high heaven. Perhaps two thousand people lived in the city but to Bram it seemed to teem with hordes of unwashed and uneducated peasants.
And every one of them, useless to the bone.
Shoving past a young woman carrying a basket full of fresh bread, nearly knocking her to the ground, Bram crossed the muddy road to his butcher shop. It was a rude structure made of unfinished logs roofed with thatch, barbaric compared to the tidy white painted shop he’d taken over from his father-in-law in Holland. The rest of New Amsterdam was equally rustic but that did little to diminish Bram’s disdain.
Inside he lit an oil lamp hanging from the thatched ceiling, though with meat curing on hooks around the room, it served only to cast grisly shadows on the windowless walls. Bram despised the little shop, the symbol of his self-imposed exile, but any thoughts of returning to Holland were brushed away with even greater loathing. After all, she was there.
A sturdy pine table stood in the middle of the room, stained with blood. Bram overturned his satchel carelessly over the table, and a smaller leather roll bounced out onto the floor.
Bram cursed, and stooped to pick it up. Righting himself he placed it on the table more carefully and unwrapped it revealing the implements of his trade. When he left Holland, the knives had gleamed brightly, their blades well-oiled, their edges sharp. Now they lay on the table dull, encrusted with days old blood.
Shoddy tools for this shoddy town.
A shadow appeared in the doorway and Bram squinted to see a tall man with arms folded over his chest.
“You said you’d be by the farm to collect my pig two days ago, Bakker.”
Bram grimaced. He had no desire to spend half the day trudging out to the DeVries farm and back in this ungodly weather.
“I’ve been busy, DeVries. I’ll come collect the sow tomorrow.”
“You will come today, butcher,” the silhouetted man said, stepping into the shop–his broad farmer’s features coming into focus. He did not look pleased.
“Each day you delay I must feed this pig. Each day you delay paying me, I cannot buy a new harness for my oxen and my fields go untended. If you do not take the pig today, I will slaughter it myself and sell it for a fraction of your prices.”
The man placed both hands on the rough table and loomed over Bram saying nothing for several seconds.
“Fine!” Bram snapped bitterly. “You could have brought the damned thing yourself, you know.”
The farmer ignored the butcher and turned to the door.
“Today, Bakkar,” he said and stepped into the grey winter sunlight.
With a muttered curse, Bram rolled his tools back into their bundle and shoved them into his satchel.
He trudged back across the street to the public stables where his mule, an emaciated grey thing, fought him tooth and nail as he harnessed it to his rickety cart.
In Bram’s opinion the animal ate far too much and had cost him nearly what a sturdy plough horse would have back in Holland. Everything cost more in this supposed land of plenty and the money his father-in-law sent with him was nearly gone. He feared writing for more. It might come with questions like, “When will you send for my daughter?” And, “How long until I see a return on this investment?”
The answer to both questions was never, if Bram could manage it. Getting away from that blasted woman and her father’s overbearing expectations were the only positive results of his passage to New Amsterdam.
Mila Bakkar’s sunny disposition began to grate on her husband the day they wed. Worse, she seemed to take Bram’s perpetually sour demeanor as a puzzle to be solved. She kept their small home immaculate, presented him with scrumptious meals, and showered him with affection. Within a month Bram wanted to strangle her. Within a year he announced he would be seeking his fortune in the New World.
Mila’s father agreed she should not join Bram until he set himself up in New Amsterdam; he even paid for Bram’s passage across the Atlantic and gave him a sizable sum to get him started, with the understanding that 10 percent of Bram’s profits would return to him until the debt was paid. Markus Janssen was a singularly fair man who did not care for Bram but doted on his daughter. Bram suspected Markus thought the challenges of the new world would shape him into a more suitable husband for his daughter.
Not bloody likely.
If Bram had his way, he would never see the woman again.
Sour thoughts followed Bram all the way to the Devries farm. The road felt frozen solid but with autumn rains, came the mud and cart travel left deep rivets. The road was so poor, Bram had to clinch his jaw just to keep from biting his tongue.
Arriving at the farm after 2 hours of being thrown around the cart like a sack of potatoes left Bram in too dark a mood to even argue over price. He wordlessly doled out coins and with a scowl led the fat sow onto his cart. When he tried to climb back onto the front to leave DeVries blocked his way, hand extended.
“Will you at least shake my hand, Bakkar?” the farmer asked. “To seal our business.”
Bram sneered at the larger man’s dirt encrusted hand for a moment, rage bubbling just below the surface. He wanted to hit the fool man, making him come all the way out here in the dead of winter, but he would lose that fight. So, he shook the man’s hand once, sharply, then shoved past him to climb onto the cart without a word.
Bram’s mood did not improve during the ride back into town. Although the sun had climbed to its zenith, the wind picked up, scoring the sour man’s face with frosty needles, blurring his vision, and numbing his fingers.
Bram grew impatient as he approached the outskirts of New Amsterdam. He lashed the mule with his reigns and the beast whinnied discontentedly but did not pick up the pace.
“Blasted animal!” Bram shouted. “Move damn you!”
Passersby stopped and watched the man as he cursed the mule and slapped it with his reigns.
“I’ll slaughter you for pig slop! I’ll leave you out for the dogs to gnaw on! I’ll feed you to your own damned mother if you don’t pick up the blasted pace!”
Bram grabbed the thick stick he used as cudgel from the seat next to him and gave the animal a solid blow to the hindquarters. With a shriek the mule bolted, dragging the cart and Bram along with it down the uneven road.
Ahead Bram heard screams.
The butcher yanked back on the reigns but to his surprise the mule reared and pushed forward again. The cart hit something, and Bram wound up in the bed next to the sow, who, also in a panic stepped on the butcher’s left arm.
Bram shrieked in pain.
The Butcher moaned for several long moments before noticing the cart had ceased moving. The pig, still panicked, leapt from the back and galloped down the road back towards the DeVries’ farm.
“Damn you, mangy hog,” Bram shouted after it.
He clutched his arm protectively and rolled to a sitting position at the back of the cart. Only then did he realize that the street had gone deadly silent. The crowd of people he’d barreled through just stood facing the cart, looking at Bram, mouths agape.
“The hell are you fools looking at?” Bram demanded. “Don’t know enough to get out of the way, you country bumpkins. You wouldn’t last a minute in a proper city.”
Wordlessly one of the gawkers raised a finger and pointed to the front of the cart. Bram turned and saw a bloody mess.
A boy, Bram thought. Perhaps five or six judging by his size though it was impossible to tell since his face was hidden under the front wheel of the cart.
A young woman in brightly colored scarves knelt next to the body eyes wide with horror.
“Is he…” Bram trailed off.
Of course, he’s dead.
The woman raised her eyes from the boy to meet the butchers. They were wild, unblinking. Bram took a step back.
“He should have gotten out of the bloody way,” he said softly lowering his eyes.
Angry mutters spread through the crowd.
Bram whirled on the crowd.
“What? It was an accident! These things happen every day!”
The mutters grew louder. Several of the men closest to Bram started forward as if to take him but stopped short as a voice rose above the rest.
“You took my son,” The brightly clothed woman said, voice clear and commanding. “What is your name?”
Bram said nothing.
Why couldn’t the boy have just gotten out of the way? Why won’t they all just leave me be?
“That is Bram Bakkar,” a voice rose from the crowd. “A butcher newly arrived from the homeland.”
“A sour customer if I’ve ever seen one,” said another. Bram thought that was Anika Jenson, the cobbler’s wife.
The Mother took a few steps towards him then looked back at the body of her son. Some of the wildness had left her eyes, tears leaked from their corners now, but when she spoke her voice was steel.
“Bram Bakkar, my son is dead. Will you make atonement for him?”
Her Dutch was poor, and Bram could not place her features, but her brightly colored scarves told Bram everything he needed to know.
“I’m not paying for some gypsy whelp that didn’t have the brains to stay out of the street.”
Another round of mutters rose from the crowd. The Romani woman’s chin dipped to her chest. Her tears fell freely, making tiny depressions in the dirty snow. She mumbled something to herself in a language Bram did not recognize then her head snapped up eyes ablaze.
“I curse you, Bram Bakkar.” she said. “You are a miserable man and miserable you will remain until you show compassion to the people of this place. Show them mercy and mercy shall be bestowed upon you, but until then you are a prisoner to this place and its people.”
They buried the boy in the growing cemetery outside of town that afternoon. There was little ceremony. The woman had no friends in New Amsterdam and life was hard in the new world. Most of the graves were populated by the young and the sick. One more small body made little difference. Still, the parson gave a homily and a few folks who’d witnessed the boy’s death attended out of respect.
The Romani woman watched the whole affair with a vacant look in her eye.
She’d been born in England, but like so many of her kind, she was shipped to the British colonies as an indentured servant with no choice in the matter. A few of the ship’s crew made it clear she had no choice in the matter once again when they took her to their beds. She’d arrived in Virginia pregnant, with a 7-year debt to a plantation owner, who treated her little better than his slaves.
After her son was born, he became her only solace. Dreams of providing a better life for the boy gave her purpose during her years of servitude. But as he grew, so did her patron’s attentions towards the boy.
Maria knew her patron’s reputation amongst the slaves. He liked children, girls and boys alike, old enough to understand something terrible was happening, young enough to keep their mouths shut about it. In another year the boy would be just the right age.
Maria would die before she allowed the vile man to use her son as she’d been used. So, she bundled him up in the warmest clothes she could find and absconded north. It was a treacherous journey through the British colonies. The boy nearly died of pneumonia along the way, but they made it to New Amsterdam.
Two weeks later Bram Bakkar crushed the boy’s head under the wheel of his cart.
Maria watched in silence as the undertaker buried her son in the frozen earth. Long after everyone else left, she stood in the cold, unfeeling and unblinking. Then, as the sun set, she turned from away from the grave, away from New Amsterdam. She trudged through deep snow into the forest surrounding the town and was never seen again.
The next morning the governor sent a couple men around to Bram’s shop to ask questions. He answered them tersely and they left. Nobody liked Bram, and clearly, he’d been in the wrong, but sometimes animals bolt, and sometimes folks were hurt. Besides, nobody had seen the boy’s mother since the funeral. Without an accuser, there was no way to hold the butcher accountable.
A few citizens grumbled, and a few who’d seen the incident even spoke of handling matters on their own-whatever the governor said, but it was just idle barroom grandstanding. Nobody knew the gypsy woman or her son, and frankly, it was generally agreed, with the English pushing further and further into Dutch territory every day, there were more important things to worry about.
Bram’s business did suffer though.
His sour disposition, already well known in the town, curdled all the more as many of his neighbors now actively avoided him and his shop. A new butcher arrived in the spring and Bram’s business dried up completely.
All of this was made worse by the words that haunted Bram from the moment he rose to the moment he collapsed in exhaustion every night. The words of a woman who’d lost everything that mattered to her in the world. The words of a curse.
“You are a miserable man and miserable you will remain until you show compassion to the people of this place. Show them mercy and mercy shall be bestowed upon you, but until then you are a prisoner to this place and its people.”
It was nonsense of course. Bram did not believe in curses, but still the words were ever present in his mind. Perhaps the smallest part of him thought to heed them, to change his miserable disposition, become a man of fairness and compassion, but truth be told, he had no idea how. And the greater part of him had no interest in learning.
Winter finally gave way to spring and summer and most of the men of New Amsterdam went off to fight the English, who’d made disturbing headway into Dutch territory. Bram did not.
“It’s no affair of mine if you lot want to go off and get yourselves killed. I’ve got a business to run.” Never mind the fact he hadn’t seen a customer in months. In fact, there wasn’t a single cut of meat hanging from the ceiling of his shop.
His arm seemed to heal though he kept it in a sling against his chest and complained to anyone within earshot about the damned swindling DeVries, and their cursed sow.
Eventually the men of New Amsterdam came home with the British hot on their heels. The siege was short, and Bram did not participate in the fighting.
When the British invaders finally broke through the Dutch defenses and took the city, Bram tried to run, but on the outskirts of the city took a musket ball to the thigh. Later Bram could not decide if the ball came from a British rifle or one of his loathed neighbors, but at the moment of impact all he thought through the pain was, I hate New Amsterdam.
The British were quick to rename the city, New York, and soon new settlers arrived from England, taking possession of many formerly Dutch businesses including Bram’s. The one-time butcher found he cared very little.
Many Dutch settlers stayed in the newly named New York and became productive, if reluctant, members of their new society. But not Bram. He roamed the streets with a limp, arm still clutched to his chest, snarling at and begging his neighbors for food and money. For their part the city’s new residents mostly looked on Bram with contempt or ambivalence.
As the years went by, the city grew, and it became easier for Bram to sink between the cracks of polite society. He left his hair and nails uncut, the clothes on his back were rags more often than not, though on occasion some blessed soul would take pity on the beggar and give him food or warm clothing. Bram always met these acts of charity with a sneer and muttered curse.
Bram grew old and the passage of years left him withered and pained but even as those around him grew feeble and died, Bram remained.
And ever present in his mind, the Romani woman’s words, “You are a miserable man and miserable you will remain until you show compassion to the people of this place. Show them mercy and mercy shall be bestowed upon you, but until then you are a prisoner to this place and its people.”
There were days and then weeks, when this was the only thought rattling around in the old beggar’s head. By the time citizens of New York clamored to overthrow their British rulers, Bram knew the words were unequivocally true.
He did not care.
Bram was by this point completely mad, but beyond his psychosis, he remained what he had always been, a creature of hate.
Even had Bram wished to heed the grieving mothers’ words, that task had become near impossible. New York was a massive city, with hundreds of thousands of residents, and new ones arriving every day, both by boat and from their mother’s wombs.
Another war came and went, and Bram became a citizen of the United States of America, though he barely noticed. When a thought managed to cut through the Romani woman’s words, it was usually, I hate New Amsterdam.
Eventually even these words lost their meaning. As New York grew, Bram grew more monstrous. He felt nothing but pain– his own, living in a body that should have died centuries before, the pain of those around him, and the pain Maria, the grieving mother had damned (he sooth)?.
By the end of the 19th century, Bram’s eyes failed and he retreated to the sewers where he ate rats and drank fetid water. He hadn’t spoken an intelligible word or felt the touch of another human being in a century. But ever present in his mind, was the pain of his neighbors, ever growing, inescapable.
He lived as an animal, naked, covered in shit, ears withered to nubs, with rotted teeth and gums that bled and filled his mouth with puss. Bram wanted to die. But death would not come.
Then, after years untold, the bombs came.
The ground shook and Bram’s emaciated ears were deafened. For a moment the pain in his head soared to levels he’d never felt in his nearly 400 years of existence and then eased as if a great weight had been lifted from his ancient shoulders.
And for the first time since he’d been cursed on the dirt streets of New Amsterdam, Bram knew how to help his neighbors.
He crawled from the sewers into an irradiated wasteland. His vision long gone, Bram felt his way through the rubble on hands and knees. He didn’t need eyes to find his way, the pain in his head drew him onward. He did not need to go far. Bram’s first neighbor was less than 100 yards away.
He was young, barely 20, moaning in pain from blistered skin. His hair was already falling out from radiation poisoning. He sat in broken glass in the remains of what had once been a trendy coffee house, praying to a god he did not believe in.
Bram could not hear his cries or see his pitiful state. He didn’t need to. He felt the young man in what little was left of his mind.
He crawled forward, reaching towards the wretched thing, feeling his blistered skin, finding its face.
Bram spoke for the first time in more than a century.
He grasped a piece of glass, cutting his fingers, then thrust it into the blubbering man’s neck. He thrust again and again, savagely snarling, until the pain in his head eased.
For the first time in centuries–from the first moment since whipping his horse into a frenzy and crushing the skull of a young boy when the streets were still made of mud, Bram felt relief.
He leaned back on his shins and breathed slowly for a few moments, then began crawling through the rubble once again.
Bram had many neighbors left to help.
It took him many days but finally Bram completed his task. His body was covered in sores and radiation blisters of its own, though he did not care. His mind, though still in tatters from centuries of anger, solitude and disuse, was blessedly quiet. He raised himself from the body of his final victim, an old woman so poisoned by radiation and weak from dehydration she had not registered Bram before he crushed her skull with a piece of loose concrete.
Bram was in Brooklyn, a part of the city he never visited before this quest for redemption, though he did not realize this. All Bram knew was quiet. Blessed quiet.
By instinct he dragged himself back the way he’d come with aching slowness, his mission complete, his body finally relenting to centuries of what could barely be called life. But he pushed on through the physical pain, a trivial thing compared to his past agony. Thought did not drive him forward, only instinct. Instinct that he was dying. And desire. Desire not to die in that cursed place.
He found his way onto a bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, somehow untouched by the nuclear blast. He dragged himself halfway across.
As he plummeted towards the icy waters of the Hudson he thought, I hate New Amsterdam.
Thanks for reading Acts of Mercy! If you enjoyed it, hit that like button and leave a comment. If you’d like to check out more of my weird stories and musings about life, the universe, and the meaning of existence, then subscribe to mindful of madness. You can also find me on twitter @drewjokeringram or on Instagram @andrewingram88. Thanks, my self-esteem depends on you.