Sin… the black stump…

Have you heard of the black stump?

It’s not like the fabled black spot of the pirates, immortalised in Treasure Island – although if you came across it, your time might be ticking away just as much as if the palm of your hand had suddenly had a black hole appear on it, sucking your life away until you didn’t even exist anymore.

The black stump.

You’d expect it to be capitalised. Bee and Ess. But it’s not.

There’s one outside the window. Not right outside, just a bit further away. All on its own, as if the other trees had fled in fear or simply didn’t want to be associated but such a deformed, maimed exhibit. IT’s only a few feet high – a little over waist height at most. Charred and black, the top disintegrated by the lightning bolt that destroyed the rest of the stump’s trunk, probably a million years ago. Well, possibly not that far back, but it was before anyone that currently resided in the asylum had arrived.

It was a spectre, haunting the edge of where any dare to go. Promising untold horrors if you were ever foolish enough to stray beyond its marker.

The black stump.

It was black. Completely. Not a hint of browns or greens or greys, or anything treeish remained. And, as mentioned, it was a stump. The other trees that adorn the vista beyond the bars on the window are behemoths in the world of flora. This was a maimed shadow of what was surely its former glory.

But the black stump’s power lay not in what it was, but rather in what it had become.

To colonial Australians, it signified, effectively, the end of the world. It marked the edge of what was known and what was unknown. Safe and scary. Okay and ohhhhh no!

Here, we were probably not so distant from them. The black stump was a sentinel, guarding against unwary travellers, warning them to step no further. And if you did, you’d quite possibly suffer the same fate as the stump itself. A lightning bolt from the heavens, striking you down, leaving nothing but your smoking shoes.

Not that we get to go out often, of course. Or are allowed anything more than simple plimsoles.

But that one time. That one time.

I hadn’t been here long. A few weeks. I was still the new boy, not yet Reverend Sin, yet to find my feet or have them swept from beneath me. I can’t even remember his name. And no-one knew how he had managed to be outside in the first place.

But he was.

Apparently he knew of the Antipodean reference. It obviously translated very well to here.

But he would be the one. He would be the courageous adventurer who tamed the savage beast. Yes, that savage beast was the burnt remnants of a long dead tree, but the significance was the same.

Unfortunately, it seemed the Institute’s very own Indiana Jones was actually scared of his own reflection. The bravado was a facade to disguise the fear. He’d hoped, if he pretended to be brave, some of it would actually rub off on him.

It didn’t.

We all watched him. We could see him shaking from the Recreation Room. His hands were moving as he was playing an invisible piano impossibly fast. His legs were wobbling enough to make him stumble on more than one occasion. The orderlies saw him too, but, rather than stop him, they enjoyed the entertainment. He wasn’t going fast enough to warrant them initiating a chase.

As he approached the black stump, lower case bee and ess, his advance slowed and his trembling increased. He was walking through treacle with ten thousand volts coursing through every sinew. His eyes were glued to the stump as if to look away was to invite an attack.

After forever, he drew level. Even from our distance we could see his face was almost purple. His breath was laboured. His whole body one enormous shiver.

Then he stepped beyond.

He left safe and entered scary.

And he collapsed.

He didn’t move and, for a long moment, nor did anyone else. Then everyone did.

Except him.

The sounds of crying mixed with those of cursing as the orderlies reliased they should, perhaps, gone after him a little sooner.

It was fear, abject and total, that killed him. A legend reached out and stopped his heart without the need of a heavenly dagger.

But it could have been something else.

It could have been that, beyond the torched carcass of the tree, no-one could actually go. The world ended as literally as his heartbeat had.

It could have been the black stump.

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