A Cradle Song, written by Mark Zubro and illustrated by W.S. Reed, debuts in the Windy City Times as the new holiday classic. Filled with travail and woe, warmth and great joy, it is a story for the ages. It will appear in ten installments from October 17 to December 19 and will also be available for gift giving as an e-book and as a paperback. For the true joy and meaning of the season, this is the book you want to read.
Today A Cradle Song: Part Five.
Matthew shied away from the indoor kitchens as the people who worked in them had knowing eyes. They'd find out his secret and maybe take him away. He'd had friends who were in the government system. The authorities had come into his school and taken them away. Lost and alone and never back in their old neighborhoods, never seeing friends again.
So he waited every night, scrunched down in the dark shadows of different churches until everyone was gone, and then snuck to the front and grabbed a few coins from poor boxes. Sometimes, there was more cash than others. Usually just enough. Or the boxes were already broken and emptied by desperate people. He had to learn to dodge bigger kids, bullies, who took his money.
Matthew wasn't strong enough to break into the poor boxes. He had no weapon to use.
When he thought it was the perfect time, he crept and slid over, under, and around the pews and pillars until he arrived at the poor box. He had one advantage. His little hand managed to move the locks just enough and because his hand was small and slender, it fit into the openings.
Inside the Catholic Church, the priest stood in the shadows as he did every night. He didn't really have much more than the boy, but he always made sure there were a few coins so the boy could have at least something. He'd noted the missing collection, meager as it was, and watched, and then he noted the thief, but he was a wise old priest, and he followed the boy, and before he lost him in the crowd as he always did, he saw the boy make sure other little lost children were fed.
The priest observed as the boy looked fearfully into every shadow, put his hand in as he did every night, grabbed the coins, then sprinted through the shadows and out the side door of the church.
The priest shook his head sadly. He wished he could do more, but this church would be closed soon. Once the priest tried to approach the boy, but before he could get close, the boy spotted him and fled.
The priest watched again. The boy didn't come back, or at least he never saw him although the coins once again began to disappear. Maybe it was someone else or perhaps it was the boy. It made no difference to him. The priest left a few coins and abandoned his hiding place.
An even more ancient rabbi, a frail and broken imam, a clergyman from the Episcopal Church, and the priest sipped tea together late most nights.
"Has the thief returned?" the rabbi asked.
The priest nodded. "Someone has."
The imam said, "I wish we could do more."
The priest said, "We all wish we could do more for all of the children of the city."
It was an impossible task.
Matthew visited the library as many days as he dared. If he went after school hours, he was most likely safe as there would be other children there. Always after school hours so no one would be suspicious about whether or not he went to school. He went to the same little cubby every day. He barely glanced at anyone. Matthew just sat and read and got warm and wondered where he'd find something to eat. He drank deeply from the water fountain every day so that was something. Warmth and water in the same place without having to trudge through the city.
The meanest librarian was Belinda Marcellus. She ruled from the Information desk. She hated anyone who spoke above a whisper. Her coworkers were afraid of her because Miss Belinda was very strict and enforced every rule.
She had a severe nose on a hatchet face. Glasses dangled from a silver chain around her neck. She wore dresses that hung to mid-calf. Mostly gray: dark grey, light gray, medium gray, sometimes a washed-out navy blue. In her earlobes were two tiny pearl earrings you might need a microscope to see. She had slashes of blush under high-cheek bones and deep black eyes. If she smiled, Matthew had never seen her do so. She didn't like disruption, and she didn't seem to like children.
Miss Belinda noticed everything. If you were shabbily dressed, she was on high alert. Matthew barely said a word, but he knew she watched everyone's every move.
When Matthew finished with a book, he always put it back on the shelf and in the spot where he got it from. Miss Belinda would know if he didn't. She missed nothing.
She let him sit and read in the children's section. He just started at the beginning of the alphabet and read. The worn chairs were comfortable, and cushy, and warm. He loved snuggling down into them. He often nodded over the books but no one ever bothered him.
One day, he stayed later than usual. He'd fallen asleep in his chair. He awoke to find the room nearly empty, but he could hear the murmur of voices.
He crept to the end of the bookcase. Matthew looked into the small children's play section. There was a thick throw rug, bigger than any rug Matthew had ever seen. The floor was strewn with safe nerf toys, large stuffed animals, and brightly colored chairs.
In the middle of the floor sat Miss Belinda. With her was a boy named Edwin. Matthew had seen Edwin almost every day. They were about the same age. Edwin always came in with his little sister who must have been about three. The little sister was asleep at his feet.
Matthew knew Edwin stuttered. He'd heard him talk at times to his sister or a librarian. Edwin always turned very red when he spoke to someone.
Edwin and Miss Belinda were reading. Matthew listened in. He realized it was a play. Matthew could see the cover of the book. He recognized the author's name. She wrote plays for children. Matthew had read many of them. He liked them.
Edwin was reading the leading role of a brave boy who fought bad people and monsters. Miss Belinda acted out all the other parts in dramatic voices, or low voices, or happy voices, whatever the character and scene needed.
After eavesdropping for a short while, Matthew realized that Edwin wasn't stuttering. Not once.
Matthew didn't know that, if they were acting, people who stuttered often spoke clearly and without hesitation.
Right then, Matthew was enchanted. He slid to the ground at the base of the bookcase. He was out of sight. He listened.
He wondered about Miss Belinda and her reputation for being nasty. He'd seen her be pretty mean to some kids and even adults. He also knew Miss Belinda's shift was over. Matthew noted things like that. And here she was spending her time being kind.
Matthew left them and felt a little warmer in his heart.
On that Christmas Eve, Matthew was on his way back from begging for a few coins from the passengers at the train station. The few bits of cash he gathered while sitting next to a hot air vent would allow him to buy a few morsels for his dinner.
It was a good spot, and he'd been at the train station for hours. Matthew had to be careful because several of the large adult homeless also used this location at busier times of the day. Twice, he'd been chased away by others claiming it for their own. He couldn't fight them. He was too small. He always moved along.
Today, the gloom of a late December afternoon surrounded him. He'd made enough money to buy his dinner, a few scraps from a shabby store, but then the bigger boys had come and pushed him down and taken his precious little.
His face was dirty and smudged from the attack. When he'd dried his tears, he'd smeared the dirt even more. His little brown eyes peeked from under his unruly dark hair. Sniveling and dirty, wiping his nose on his sleeve, which he tried to conceal.
He trudged on. He wanted to wear clean clothes, but it cost a lot of money to go to the laundromat and use the huge machines that he didn't understand.
His thoughts whirled. He'd been happy with his few coins, and now he was devastated and hungry. The big boys didn't have enough?
He wondered when he saw cruel people do good things. Or when a policeman was supposed to help but did mean things. He didn't understand. But then the policeman helped Mr. Schermerhorn. He also knew that the officer looked the other way when people worked in the garden.
Sometimes, like today, Matthew wanted to run away. And run and run and run and never come back. Ever.
But if he did, he feared his dad would never find him. In their apartment, Matthew remembered a Christmas tree and tiny blinking lights, a star at the top, good food, laughter, and warmth.
The vision faded.
His dad had been called to war.
Each afternoon, Matthew walked by a toy store. He'd stop every day and look in the window. He never went inside. The owner was a gruff old man who stomped around the store using a cane to help keep his balance. Hair grew out in tufts around his ears and peeked out in black and gray strands from his nostrils. He had a few stray wisps around the edge of a shiny empty baldness.
Matthew had seen the old man eye with great suspicion every kid who entered his store. The man saved his nastiest looks for the kids who were not accompanied by an adult. More often than not, those kids wound up being unceremoniously ushered out of the store. Sometimes, they were rude to the man and said bad words. Matthew didn't like that. He might be scared of the man, but he knew better than to treat an adult like that, especially an old man.
The owner moved in jerky motions. He shooed many kids out the door, mostly big kids who would laugh at him. The old man always spoke gruffly when he saw kids touch the toys. The old man didn't like when they did that. He hated when kids weren't there with parents who could pay.
There were a few younger clerks, but they stuck close to unaccompanied kids. They caught a kid once who stole a toy. Matthew saw that the thief wore rich-kid clothes. He wondered why the child of wealthy parents had to steal. They had called the police who had been meaner than the owner. The boy had sassed them back and looked stubborn. He'd been marched away. Matthew didn't think that boy was much older than he was, but even so, through the boy's defiance, they'd been merciless.
End of part five. Part six coming next week.