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  WINDY CITY TIMES

A Cradle Song Part One
by Mark Zubro; Illustrated by W.S. Reed
2018-10-17

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A Cradle Song 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 One: Erik

The loneliest little harmonica sniffled. As best he could, he ignored all the distraction and noise from the store.

His name was Erik. Especially on a Christmas Eve like today, he tried to shut the world out. Then in his heart, he would listen to a cradle song for harmonica and orchestra, the most beautiful and soothing music he'd ever heard.

Deep inside of him, Erik had several secret wishes. The most important was that he wanted to be chosen by a good and caring child, and for that child he wanted to play a cradle song.

Long, long ago back to a time he could barely remember, Erik had heard cradle songs for harmonica and orchestra, a beautiful lullaby music. Only a few of those tunes existed. He wanted to make more. New ones. If not that, he wanted to make music with one little boy or girl, for one little boy or girl, music that would soar to the heavens in purity and grace. Music that would change the world, or at the least, heal a child's tired and broken heart.

He wanted to play a song like that, be part of a song like that. To play for a child with or without an orchestra, to play a lullaby as the child fell asleep on Christmas Eve, all this in Erik's forever home, nestled in the child's hands. That was his deepest dream.

But he'd been stuck back here for years, longer than Erik could remember. He'd never been chosen, not even close; picked up and put back only once.

Erik wore a coating of dust most of the year. Maybe in the big cleaning before Christmas, he was noticed in his quiet refuge and someone wiped away the year's dirt. Most times, they skipped him because they didn't see him.

Erik was far, far back on his shelf. The dim light rarely reached as far back as he was. He was a little rusty and dinged up. All the bright, shiny trumpets, French horns, tubas, flugelhorns, coronets, and so many more were out in front on the big shelves throughout the store; ready to blare and blast at the slightest sign of interest. The kids who wandered this far back rarely even saw, much less put a hand out toward him.

Erik wasn't as frightened as he had been in the beginning. He was used to feeling alone. He liked being so far back because he refused to ever show anyone that he was close to sniffling, or worse, crying.

Every Christmas Eve was the worst. Most days, the store thronged with children who all passed him by. He didn't blame them. They couldn't even see him all tucked away. Christmas Eve was the busiest day of the year, with the poor and dispossessed kids admitted to the Isle of Misfit Toys to pick and choose among them, and then take away a free toy. On that day, the crowds were the biggest of the year. To be bypassed by so many, added an extra drop to his despair.

On Erik's own shelf, a cluster of knocked-around but shiny trumpets lounged way out front, followed by the battered but preening flutes and then, way far in the corner, him.

Erik was an oddity, a little baby harmonica. He hadn't grown. He always thought this was because he'd been snatched from the factory too soon. The truth was, he'd been made that way, but he didn't know that, and really, it didn't make any difference to him. He was happy being the smallest possible harmonica. He just wished with all his heart to make music.

Today, Erik tried to be brave for the tiny little race car who had been thrust onto his shelf a month or so ago. The little car had been shoved way back, by a boy who was being mean to his younger brother.

Reginald was the little car's name. It was his first Christmas Eve not being in someone's home, without being cherished by a child. That woe-filled first day, he'd told Erik his story between stifled sobs and snorted sniffles.

Reginald was barely bigger than a Monopoly token and must originally have been bright yellow. He'd been loved and held and played with until he was worn to a dull sheen. Now, Reginald was all dinged, rusted, and seedy-mustard yellow. He had lost his left front tire. In his home, he hadn't cared because he'd known he was loved.

Erik thought one of the worst parts of Reginald's story was that, years before, the poor little car had lost his mom and dad to a crazed parent who was determined to throw away all her son's so-called childish junk. Then disaster had struck on that recent fateful day just after Thanksgiving. That had been Reginald's very worst moment.

The little car had talked between his tears about his home and the boy, Daniel, who loved him. How he always stayed in a special place in the boy's bottom drawer. He had always been safe in that one tiny snugglement.

Daniel cared for Reginald, treasured him, and was very kind, and always protected him. On that horrible day, Daniel's older brother, Harold, had waited in ambush to snatch the car out of Daniel's hand. The little boy couldn't get Reginald back.

Daniel got very angry and cried. His big brother dashed away and laughed at him. Daniel ran after his brother. He even chased him down the street, but the older boy danced and skipped away always an inch out of his brother's reach. All that time, Harold waved the weeping little car above his head.

The little boy told his parents. His daddy was harsh, said he needed to get tough and not be a baby. His mother kept silent because she was afraid of her husband and also fed up with hearing the boys argue. Then later that day, in this store on the Isle of Misfit Toys, when no one was looking, Harold had thrust Reginald as far back on this shelf as he could. Daniel didn't see him do it. No one did.

Their parents had been tired and shushed the squabbling boys, then rushed them out of the store so their fighting and wailing wouldn't embarrass the adults.

Erik felt sorry for the little car who had no one and nothing in common with anyone on his shelf. After he'd been crying, Reginald tended to hiccup in the night. Erik comforted the little car as best he could.

As for himself, Erik had been passed around for years in many homes. In each one, he'd tried to be cheerful and make friends, but so many of the other musical instruments were indifferent or cared only about themselves. Plus, he was so tiny, it was easy to ignore or overlook him.

In one home, he'd met some snotty violins. One time when he'd thought they were feeling mellow, he'd explained to one of them about music for harmonica and orchestra, cradle songs, the kind he loved. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to him, he'd picked the most wrong one to confide in.

Agnes, the meanest violin, had snipped at him, "Well, even if that kind of music does exist, and I doubt it, you're not a real harmonica, are you? You're a little baby harmonica, hardly worth the few notes you can play."

Agnes had liked to make the other toys feel bad. She tried to lord it over everyone, but Erik knew her secret. First, he'd noticed how she took to heart slights from the two closest other instruments, an oboe and a bassoon. He also saw that the bigger instruments and even other kinds of toys picked on Agnes. It was only when all of her tormentors weren't around that Agnes attacked and berated the ones smaller than herself.

The little harmonica felt sorry for Agnes, but his every kind word to her always fell flat. She was always meaner faster than any other toy he'd ever met.

Erik knew he didn't make as many notes as other instruments. Once, he'd met a huge grand piano. He'd lived in its bench for the longest time. The little boy of the house was made to take lessons on an instrument that seemed to be a bazillion times bigger and have a million more notes than the harmonica.

After his interminable session every day, the little boy would sneak Erik out of the great bench. The boy would hide in a vast closet in one of the elegant rooms, and he'd play and play. Erik did his best to help the little boy feel better.

His second favorite times at that house were when the mom or dad would read out loud with the boy. Erik would be all nestled in the boy's shirt pocket, or if it was at night, in the pocket on his pajama tops, and Erik would feel the words wash over both of them as if they were part of a long flowing stream of stories stretching on endlessly into magic.

Then one day, the boy had taken him outside to a park. He had swung and twirled on a round-a-bout tilt-a-whirl. The boy had gotten dizzy and sick and forgot the little harmonica on the edge of the sandbox.

While climbing over the edge of the sandbox, a three-year-old girl with angelic blond locks had accidentally knocked Erik off the edge and down into the sand. The next day, the little boy had come to search for him. Everyone looked and hunted, and the little boy had cried. But Erik had landed under a small drift of sand that only got bigger as hands reached and searched for him.

Erik stayed buried in the sandbox for the longest time. It had rained and gotten very cold. Many nights, the harmonica shivered and shook.

Then one sunny spring day, another little girl had found him. She'd cleaned him up almost as good as new. Try as she might, she couldn't get every bit of the rust off, but she got most of it. Her fingers weren't skilled enough to fix the dents.

Erik lived for a while on a shelf with her dolls. They were friendly in a stand-offish way. They didn't like to talk to him because he wasn't one of them.

Later, Erik had been thrown into a box of junk, which made its way through garage sales and rummage sales and finally giveaways in church basements.

Erik survived the drops, dings, and dents as best he could. He was seldom played with during all his jostlings and journeys. These days, the noise he made wasn't as true as it had once been.

In this store on the Isle of Misfit Toys, when he was brought in, they'd cleaned him up as new as he'd felt in years.

Even here with its kindly proprietor, the clarinets, flutes, and oboes farther along the shelves could be mean and snotty, most often in a snide way, whispering in their high or low-pitched whines.

The little harmonica knew he'd been here for years. No one had picked him. He'd barely ever been touched. He longed for one set of hands and one set of lips to bring him to life.

On his first Christmas Eve in this store, he was at one of his lowest points. At that moment, Erik had made the mistake of telling one of the other musical instruments his dream of playing a gentle cradle song for a child. He'd forgotten the lesson he'd learned from Agnes. He'd hoped her attitude wasn't shared by anyone else. Surely, no one could be as cruel as that violin? Alas, he was wrong.

Mildred was a brass trumpet who'd lost one of her shiny knobs and had a couple of big dents. At that time, Erik was closer to the front of the shelf, before he got shoved so far back out of the light and had begun to lose hope.

Part two coming next week.

A Cradle Song will be available soon as an ebook and as a paperback online and from Unabridged Bookstore in Chicago and Outwords Books in Milwaukee.


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