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.
Chapter Eleven: Matthew
Matthew entered the flower store. He wandered up and down the aisles. The woman at the counter smiled at him. Matthew found a beautiful metal red rose in a vase by itself. He gave it a gentle touch.
The woman was beside him. Matthew hadn't noticed her walk up. He yanked his hand away, but the woman gave him a gentle nod, yes. She spoke in a soft voice. "Here, it's okay to touch as long as you are gentle."
Matthew nodded. He understood gentle because that's the way his dad always was.
The woman continued, "You can take one gift for your mom."
"I don't have any money."
The woman repeated what he'd learned from the first woman who wore the sparkling crystal dress at the end of the bridge. "On this day, it is also true that each gift you pick for someone else is free. Only one for each person. You can take one gift for your mom, one for yourself, one for your baby sister, and one for your daddy. Don't take more, they'll all disappear. Pick carefully and take only what you can carry."
"This would be for my mom." Matthew hesitated. He felt a tear in his eye. He sniffled it back. "I don't know where she is."
The woman said, "If you take it, when you do see her, you will have it to give to her."
With warmth and gladness in his heart, he put the rose in his deepest pocket and left. Five stores up beyond the flower store, he came to one with dolls: pretty ones, plain ones, exotic ones, ones that looked like they came from foreign countries with different features and colors.
Matthew saw a tiny doll with a lace dress and golden hair. It would be perfect for his sister. He went inside. A portly man with a white beard smiled at him.
Matthew silently pointed out the little doll. Now, the man beamed and nodded. The clerk asked, "Do you need a bag, young man? Or a box? Maybe you'd like it wrapped?" His voice was deep and sonorous.
Matthew shook his head and said, "No, thank you." He placed the little doll in the same pocket as the red rose.
Matthew continued on past so many stores filled with children's delights. It seemed to him that they were all magical. They were a little bit like the toy store that was a portal to the island, but these were a zillion times better. He didn't know if he'd ever have time to visit them all.
He stopped at the one with toy trains. He pressed his nose to the window. There was a miniature mountain with trains chuffing around different levels. And vast tracks with Super Chiefs and the Zephyr pulling long lines of cars behind their glittering engines. The tracks seemed to travel in miles of ovals, and swirls, and straight lines. But they were too grand for his little hovel. So he moved on.
Then he came to the music store. In an instant, he fell in love with the miniature instruments in the window. He eased himself through the door. Inside, many of the shelves were almost barren. A few had been picked clean by the throngs of children on this special day.
Matthew found himself peering into the depths of each shelf, reaching in and touching gently. Sometimes, he had to stretch and stand on tiptoes.
Matthew neared the back of the store. He peered into the last shelf near the bottom of a tall stack that soared to the ceiling.
Matthew and Erik
Many of the other instruments on the shelf had been chosen as night deepened on Christmas Eve. It was the time of the year that the most light leaked back into Erik's little space.
The little baby harmonica heard the soft padding of small feet. He wondered who was left this late on Christmas Eve. He waited and hoped.
Then a shadow fell over his shelf.
In the opening, Erik could see a child's face, with black hair, dark brown eyes, and a look of curiosity and warmth around his lips and eyes. Then a hand reached toward him.
As Matthew peered inside each shelf, he hunted for small toys. He touched different instruments but left each one without picking them up.
He came to Erik's shelf. Matthew's gaze searched into the dimness. His hand groped forward but missed Erik and Reginald.
Erik watched the little boy's sad eyes. Matthew looked and began to move away. Erik wished and wished for the boy to take one more look, to reach in one more time.
Matthew glanced back at the shelf. Moments later, Matthew returned close up, and he looked as carefully as he could. There was a glint in the dimness. He opened his eyes wide and reached in.
Matthew stretched and leaned as far as he could. He touched something of metal and wood and pulled him forward.
Carefully, he picked it up and brought it toward him.
The little harmonica felt himself lifted up. A thrill ran through him. Moments later, Erik blinked in the bright light. He felt so thrilled to be moved at all, but now to be in the hands of a little boy, joy indeed. He hoped the child would try to make music.
Matthew clutched Erik tight. He thought the little baby harmonica was the most perfect thing in the whole world. In the store's light, he saw it was a little bruised, and one end was worn, and there might be a bit of rust on the other end.
Matthew brought it to his lips and blew a note. A tiny sound emerged, the most gentle and warmest he'd ever heard music make.
He took his lips away and glanced around.
The white-haired woman who was behind the register looked over her eyeglasses and peered down the long aisle at him.
She smiled and nodded.
Matthew put his lips to the baby harmonica again.
The little boy played a few notes and the little harmonica sang with all his might. And the music they made filled the store with joyful noise.
Erik's heart trilled with happiness. Then great fear overtook him. What if he got put back? Every toy feared the same. Chosen. Thought about. Returned.
The boy stopped and glanced away, and waited, and then placed his lips back on the harmonica.
And they played a song together for a few moments.
Erik trilled so mightily even some old trombones and tubas in the back of the store woke up.
The little harmonica had never felt such warmth and happiness. Now, he could finally sing for someone.
Matthew stopped playing, enfolded Erik in his hand, and turned to go.
Then Erik thought of Reginald. He wished with all his might for the little boy to check again.
Matthew hesitated. Once more, he gazed deep into the shelf. He saw a little yellow glint and reached. His hand came out with the little toy car.
Matthew looked at it in his open palm. It would be perfect for his dad. Now, he had one gift for each person that was important to him.
Reginald joined Erik in Matthew's hand.
Reginald shouted, "Oh, joy! Oh, bliss!"
They both snuggled deeper into Matthew's grip.
The harmonica felt himself being carried close to the boy's heart. Erik snuggled in as best he could. He was ready to play and sing for as long as forever.
Matthew carried them to the counter. The woman smiled and nodded again. She said, "Perfect," in a low and kindly voice.
Matthew smiled back. He tucked the little harmonica in his shirt pocket. He nestled the little toy car down next to it. All four gifts were now together.
Matthew had great joy in his bit of oddments. The only shadow on his heart grew on his passage back over the bridge. As he got nearer the far end, he knew for his Christmas to be perfect, he'd have to have his family, someone to give these to. He clutched his treasures closer as he stepped off the near side of the bridge.
He walked back through the mainland toy store and out into the street. Once outside, Matthew realized he was back in winter cold. Stray flurries stung the night.
A block from the store, he saw three of the bigger boys who had robbed him before. He clutched at his presents and began to run.
The boys chased him. They were very fast.
At the next corner, the traffic was heavy. Matthew had to stop. Despair poured into his soul. After the glory and kindness of the island, he would lose what little he had.
He heard a soft creak behind him. Matthew turned.
It was the man in the wheelchair and Tawny.
They placed themselves between the advancing boys and Matthew.
The large boys laughed but slowed down.
The man said, "No."
Tawny took a small step toward the attackers and growled.
The boys came to a complete stop. They looked to each other.
The man said, "Go." Tawny took another step toward them.
They turned and ran.
Matthew reached out to pat Tawny. The dog let him for a moment. Then dog and man trundled away.
Matthew whispered, "Thank you."
Minutes later, Matthew crawled into his hovel. He added the tiny doll, Reginald, and the steel rose to his cache in the hollowed out brick.
Matthew sat up against the wall that had warmth. He brought the harmonica to his lips and together they made joyful music that drove back, at least for a little while, all the loneliness and fears of the night.
As Erik and Matthew sang together, the little harmonica felt this was right. He belonged here.
On the plane ride back from the war, Luke dozed fitfully. Most of the time he sat, wide awake, worried. He'd tried to contact his wife, but he'd had no luck. He should have been able to. The connection had gone through. The lines were clear, but he'd gotten no answer. As the plane neared its destination, Luke's fear grew that something was very wrong.
While sitting in his seat, Luke found himself pushing his right foot down on a non-existent gas pedal to try to make the plane go faster, desperate in his hope for more speed as the aircraft bucketed and swung through the night, more like Tarzan on a vine than an arrow to its target.
After each jolt, rattle, or dip, he might doze for a few moments. After a brief, disturbed nap, he'd jerked himself awake to find he'd once again been holding his foot down to the floor. He knew nothing he did could make their flight go faster. He would ease up on his foot, and then a few minutes later note that it was once again pressed hard to the floor. He stared out at the brown earth racing by far below. The plane couldn't possibly go as quickly as he wanted.
They made stops on continents and in countries, he didn't care to know the names of. Men and women came and went. Then the plane was in the air again. This time, they'd be passing through deep night with lights far below.
At long last, the plane landed in his city. The late afternoon darkness descended on him. He had only one bag so he didn't have to wait.
Luke took several packed buses. He crowded his small ditty-bag under his seat. At his home, his key didn't work. He knocked, and a woman he didn't know answered. Beyond her, he didn't recognize any of the furniture. The smell of cooking that was unfamiliar wafted through the door.
Luke said, "This is my home."
The woman carried a tiny baby in her arms. She said, "I don't know who you are. We've lived here for quite a while. You better talk to the landlord."
Luke trudged to the basement.
"Gone," the landlord said. "They came and took them. She was sick."
"They aren't my children."
Luke didn't know how he kept his temper.
"Where did they take them?"
"She was sick. Try the hospitals." The landlord slammed the door in Luke's face.
End of part nine. Part ten coming next week.