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 Seven.
The Music Store
The store Erik lived in was on the Isle of Misfit Toys. On the day he was brought here, Erik managed to see that a multitude of stores lined the landward side of the road that spiraled from the glittering bridge and wound around and around the massive pile of rock up to the mighty castle that rose from the peak of the island.
The music store with Erik in it was about two-thirds of the way up the path. To enter, you walked through an oaken door that was carved on both sides with musical notes, scales, clefs, sharps, and flats.
Inside, the lights hung from the ceiling and were covered with lampshades that caused soft yellow emanations to bathe the scene in golden light. The wooden floors matched the oak of the door. Aisles branched off at sudden angles, as if triangles, circles, ovals, and odd-shaped polygons were the guiding light of the builder.
Sometimes, the aisles inside the store seemed to extend as far as the road from bridge to castle. As if the stores could expand forever so there was always space as the poor, unused, and unwanted toys accumulated.
The shelves in the music store stretched from floor to ceiling from the front of the store to the back. All were at least a foot and a half deep.
Innumerable drums cluttered the aisles so it was almost impossible to walk straight down an aisle, and sometimes you had to strain to reach over or around them to catch a glimpse of all the instruments on all the shelves.
Some of the instruments in the music store, like many toys in other stores, came from the manufacturers broken, battered, or torn. Some had suffered from years of abuse in cruel or indifferent homes. Some had been rubbed shiny by tiny hands of boys and girls now all grown up. Some had been used to make mesmerizing and beguiling music by loving hands and lips. Many of the instruments were now just tired and wanted to rest.
The little harmonica knew they were all the same in their deepest hearts no matter their kind or current dysfunctions. Inside each instrument, no matter how well hidden by time or suppressed by misuse or exhausted by joy given, was the heart of music and the desire to bring harmony to the world.
The proprietor of the store was a spry old man, thin and tall, almost cadaverous, his cheeks sunken, his chin pointed. The scruff of his goatee around his chin and mouth was snow white as were the last few wisps of hair on his head. He had sharp brown eyes that knew things about the ways of the human heart, both good and bad. It lent him wisdom and an ocean of sadness as if his knowledge had bent his heart the way it had bent his bones over the many years. But you didn't see despair in his eyes, just the twinkle that came with the profound joy of living.
The proprietor's favorite day of the year was Christmas Eve. Because on the Isle of Misfit Toys the day before Christmas was different. All the other days, anyone could come and purchase a toy, but on this day, any poor, abandoned, or needy child could come to the Isle and choose a toy to take with them. A free toy to cherish for as long as they wished.
In the music store, the children most always took the shiny ones, even if their music was twisted, warped, and awful.
And still the bullies among the instruments brayed on in hopes of being chosen.
Some of them were from the lists of toys dangerous to children. These were in a special category and were meaner than all the other toys. When those toys talked far into the night after their shop owners had left, they often boasted about how tough they were. That all the other toys were wimps, and then bragged about the children they'd hurt and maimed. They openly laughed at the toys that were on the ten most safe toys list.
The little harmonica rarely had anything to do with them. There weren't that many dangerous toys in the music store, but over the years when he'd encountered them, he'd been very afraid. He didn't know what the mean toys were capable of.
Erik had never been picked, barely ever been noticed. He had been huddled on his shelf so long that some days he had a hard time remembering how happy he'd been in the hands of the last little boy.
These days, he tried to comfort the frightened little car, make things better for the tiny little thing.
A horde of fighters from the other side rushed out of the night. In seconds, the camp was overwhelmed.
Once captured, Luke lay on his face on the ground. He understood their language. Some of them bragged about killing and winning the night. A few talked about how clever they had been. One kept warning them that they'd better leave before a counterattack began.
They'd come to the medical compound and seized all the drugs and medicine they could find. Luke saw that they were beginning to leave. He tried to raise himself up on his elbows. The nearest attacker bashed Luke with the butt of a gun. Luke fell back. He saw the killer raise the rifle to hit him again.
Then the tent was filled with shouts. He heard them begin to fight about killing any prisoners or taking them as hostages.
One of the enemy reminded the others about the band of cloth on his arm that identified Luke as a medic. Another one of them shouted orders.
Luke was seized by the armpits and stood up. After they bound his hands and feet, they dragged him to the back of a truck and threw him in. They tossed his medic bag and the stolen drugs in with him.
Other wounded men from the enemy were tossed in with him almost as roughly as he had been.
As they drove through the night, he could hear the men around him moaning and calling out in pain. His own head ached from where he'd been struck. He touched the spot with his hand and it came back daubed with blood. He shook his head to try to clear it. He thought it likely that he had a concussion. He willed to keep himself awake.
Wherever his body touched the bed of the truck, he felt the blood from his companions in misery seeping into his clothes. If he was unbound, he'd have tried to help them. His wounded leg throbbed.
Through the night, they drove on rough and rutted roads. Each wild jostle caused the men to cry out. Luke could see that some around him slept. Or maybe they'd died. He dare not think about them or what might happen to him next.
Captured and frightened, what got Luke through the night was thinking about his wife and two children. He imagined their faces and promised himself and them a million times that he would return to them.
All night long, they drove without stopping. He could hear the rumble of other trucks. None of them turned their lights on. Above him, he could see stars and a sickle moon.
Luke didn't remember falling asleep. He awoke with a jerk as dawn was breaking. From his prone position in the bed of the truck, he looked over the edge. On all four sides tall mountains loomed. They were in some distant valley.
When the trucks turned off their engines, Luke found the silence the only comforting thing. The bitter cold seemed to penetrate his very bones.
Luke worked for months, thinking every day would be his last. Since they were shorthanded, they made him use his medical skills on military and civilian alike. His wounds sometimes ached. His knee often stiffened in the cold. For a long time, every once in a while, he felt dizzy. But he healed better than many he treated. He was grateful for even being alive.
His conscience racked him with the notion that he was fixing these men up to go out and kill more. But he'd had enough training to know that healing was his vocation, not killing. Eventually, they came to trust him enough that they brought local people to him. Men, women, and children who had no other medical services.
After they learned he spoke their language, Luke was often given the task of translating.
It was always cold in a camp where he now helped all the wounded and ill.
The nights were the worst. Few lights were lit for fear of an attack. The same thin blankets served for prisoners, wounded, or warriors. The rations for prisoners were slim. Medicines and drugs appeared in fits and starts. He used what he had on hand. Some of the locals taught him a few techniques of their own folk medicine. He was grateful when these procedures worked.
But every day, Luke thought of his wife and children. In a corner of his heart, he hoped against hope that he'd be rescued somehow and brought back to them. Through the cold nights and meager provisions, he struggled on.
As the bitter days wore on, he knew it was getting close to Christmas. On normal days, Luke tried to greet the world with kindness. He knew that you had a choice when you met people. With his family, he was always most patient. Although they were poor, Luke had always tried to make this holiday special for them.
He wanted to gather them together on their shabby old couch in their little apartment. As Christmas neared, he missed the preparations, the warmth, the closeness. He wished he could sit with them and watch the lights on their little tree.
Each day that passed seemed to be another eternity that made the dream more and more impossible. The days began to blur together in pain and agony. While somewhat better, his leg wound hadn't healed completely.
One day when Luke thought it must be a week before Christmas, the leader of the forces holding him entered the medical tent. He'd learned over time who the leader was.
Outside, the wind howled. The tent sides shuddered and flapped. Nearly horizontal snow rocketed by.
With the leader were his usual henchmen toting their dark and deadly weapons. This time, the leader also had a woman and a child with him. Luke saw that it was a little boy about Matthew's age. The leader held the boy in his arms. He brought the child to a cot and motioned Luke over.
The leader said, "My son is very sick. The locals cannot cure him. You must do so." He took his gun off his shoulder and pointed it at Luke. "Cure him or you die."
Even in the cold, Luke began to sweat. He said, "I will do my best."
"Better than your best."
"All that I can."
They stretched out the child on a cot. Luke examined him carefully. The child was very sick. His body was alarmingly warm.
Luke imagined many things. What if this was his son? What if he couldn't cure him? Would they really kill him? He'd seen others dispatched on the whims of some of the guards. He suspected he'd only been spared because of his knowledge.
Luke quickly realized he was likely only a few bits short of the medicine that the boy desperately needed. He thought the boy had Indigenous Fever. A local disease the natives had never been able to combat or cure. If he told them what he needed, would they raid some village or compound and kill to get a cure? When they raided, did his captors care which side of the fight the attacked people were on? Would people die as a result of some decision of his?
End of part seven. Part eight coming next week