Sooty Labyrinth Walls

The pounding hooves charged toward Henry. The horse stood on his hind legs as if bitten by a snake and the frightened horse careered into the blizzard. Snow merged with soot in Henry’s lungs. He rubbed his red eyes. Is this a dream? Piles of mashed potatoes and bowls of beef stew beckoned. A three-tiered yellow cake laced with pink icing lured him to come closer. The wind slapped his face, shattering the desirable mirage.

“I escaped him.” His lethargic gait turned into a brisk walk.

Henry interlaced his chilblain fingers and rested his head on his soot-filled sack. After he cleaned a chimney, he wished he could stay longer in the house warmed by fire. Caress the soft, velvety carpets. Admire paintings framed in gold. Accept the kind offer of a clean white shirt with button holes and matching buttons. Anything but black. Can I steal those slippers? He watched the movement of other children’s feet on frosty winter mornings. His day slippers were his night slippers. Convenient for mounting ashy walls.  

“I hope they’re safe with You now.” Henry faced the night sky. Tears and snow flooded his eyes remembering other chimney sweeps. Harry’s lifeless body laid at the bottom of a chimney on the eve of his seventh birthday. James fell and sat down forever. Annabelle’s days became enduring nights, starless and moonless.

The cushion of snow supplied a barrier to the hard road. Henry’s elbow hit a lamp pole.

“Gotcha, ya lazy kid.” Henry turned his glare away from the master’s reeking whiskey breath.

Whip-crack. Old bruises merged with new lacerations. Henry watched the horse’s head move convulsively understanding the creature’s pain.

Snowfall pelted the shanty roof. Henry rested his head on the cold floor. Crisp air crept through cracks, and broken windows caused shivering and chattering. Eight chimney sweeps circled Henry.

“This is your best escape, Henry, gone for more than a day.” One chimney sweep’s toothless grin and sparkling eyes met his hero’s modest gaze. 


The master knocked the door of the orphanage one day and pointed across the room with his big, hairy finger. “The thinner the better,” said the master to Sister Anne. She grabbed six year old Henry. Henry wept but only in the streets. Weep, weep, weep weep like hailing a horse and carriage for a ride, except this time it was for a chimney sweep job. The pennies ended up in the master’s pockets, and while the boys got thinner, the master’s belly extended.


The day it all ended, a shaft of light entered through the wooden door. From a distance, his master’s voice merged with that of a chorus of male voices. He followed the big boot snow prints from the threshold and arrived at the hooves of a chestnut horse. Men circled the master, dragging his heavy weight into a carriage. The master’s face, framed with violence and revenge, stopped at Henry, but Henry never saw the master again.


Henry, a veteran at twelve, returned to the orphanage when a law ended the use of child chimney sweeps. He ran into Sister Anne’s arms, coughing into her black robe while she caressed his hair, squirming with lice.

“Now let’s get you all cleaned up,” she said. Her cheeks glowing with joy and gratitude.

Cool waterfalls calmed the noughts and crosses on his back. Sister Anne threw away the torn chimney sweep uniform and Henry slipped into clothes without holes.

Henry spat black into his handkerchief. Heads perked up from the row of bedsheets when Henry’s volcanic-like coughs woke the other orphans.

Am I going to wake up tomorrow morning? He walked up to the window, I can walk. His eyes dazzled at the red spot in the sky, I can see. The perfume of the wisterias growing over the walls reached Henry’s nostrils, I can smell. He ran his hands over the window sill, then his fingers crawled up the veil of a curtain and he marvelled because he could feel hard and soft. I’m alive.

He muffled his coughs for fear of waking the boys. Eventually, he shut his eyes and dreamt of cream cakes with sixteen birthday candles. At sixteen, he dreamt of reaching his seventeenth birthday. At seventeen, he dreamt of reaching his eighteenth birthday, leaving the orphanage and carving toys for every little boy and girl in the world.


Isabelle B.L

Isabelle B.L is a writer and teacher. Her work can be found in the Best Microfiction 2022 anthology, Flash Fiction Magazine, Ample Remains, Five Minutes, Visual Verse and elsewhere.