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(What 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
Cliff McKenzie
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 called home.
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 of death.
      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 entrails.
      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 after death.
     “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 suffocating emptiness.
     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 living.  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 guts.
     “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 struggling flames.
     “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?”
     I laughed.
     “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 jump, boy?”
     “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.”
     “I’m sorry.”
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 replied.
     “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 it.  
     “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 brightening.
      “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 the other.
     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 muster it”
     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 and smell. 
     “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 expect…”
      “Stop, boy…stop…”
     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 glistened.
     “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 soul.”
     My heart pounded.  I wheezed and gasped.
     “You are my nightmare, boy.   You are an intruder.”
     “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 at me.
     “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 on earth…”
     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.   Cliff McKenzie.

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