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 Six.
Most often, Matthew stood with one foot in the tiny space between the toy store and the bakery next door. This way he was half in front of each store, and he hoped less noticeable to both. He hung onto a drainpipe with one hand so he could lean farther over. He'd stare for the longest time. He hoped no one noticed his longing gazes at the toys or the bakery.
The smells from the baked goods were nearly intoxicating, fresh bread being his favorite. Once in a while, Matthew could find a discarded sweet snack or bit of bread out back. While waiting for scraps, he lingered out front in the tiny corner with its dripping drain pipe.
In the bakery window, he could see cakes piled high with swirling frosting and bright confections of flowers heaped and nestled in mounds of multi-hued icing and filled eclairs. Nothing like the stale and tough stuff he ate. On the food he found, Matthew often scraped off the moldy parts.
He remembered he'd had a cake on his last birthday. His mom had made it. It was perfect. And his dad had been home. And he'd gotten a tiny little car which had a wonderful sad face. He'd loved it.
His eyes always strayed to the toy store. There were other reasons Matthew didn't dare go into the toy store. He didn't want the look of pity. Or the glare of annoyance of a clerk or the owner after admitting he had no money and them telling him he couldn't stay. He had no mom or dad to keep him company.
The toys displayed in the window were a wonderment of childhood joys. Matthew's favorites were the little trains. They chuffed around on their miniature mountain. He could see puffs of real smoke come out of the trains' chimneys. They ran round and round on tiny tracks that traversed bridges and spanned painted streams. Crossing gates would lower by themselves. Small plastic people waved forever from their silent, unmoving perches. One static man in a uniform held out tickets.
In the window, Matthew also saw metal machines whirr and spin. A million blocks of a zillion colors climbed in a wild array more than halfway to the ceiling. Wisps of cloudy cotton filled every space. Stars twinkled and shone in the ceiling. Every time Matthew looked, there seemed to be more to see and wonder at.
Through chinks in the stacks of toys or when he caught glimpses inside as the front door opened and closed, Matthew could get a little bit of a better view to the aisles crammed with more toys than he ever imagined having as his own in his own house, in his own room.
One time, he saw two little girls about his age admiring some brightly colored paper dresses covered with frills and ribbons. The girls pointed and shyly giggled. When the old man looked at them, the girls hung their heads. Matthew feared for the little girls, knowing how much the old man didn't like it when kids lingered too long. That day, he saw the old man scowling at the girls. As the door opened and closed, he heard him harrumph and grumble. The old man put out his hand to grasp his cane. Matthew knew he was going to chase the little girls away.
Then an older woman appeared between the girls and the old man. She worked at the table with the cash register. She frowned at the old man and said the girls could pick one dress apiece. The woman paid for them herself and told the girls they could go. As they rushed out the door, the little girls were beaming and thankful.
The old man seemed to nod and almost smiled. The girls walked away. The woman returned to her regular perch.
Matthew thought that was really wonderful.
In another direction inside, Matthew could see war toys: cannons and guns and bazookas and tanks, and ranks of plastic, still, tin, or wooden army men. All that unmoving, pent-up violence caused him to frown. He didn't like the danger they represented to his dad. He didn't like that they didn't move. He wanted his daddy to be alive, not rigid, inert, and lifeless.
He tried to look beyond to other shiny, noisy toys with mechanical parts that chuffed and huffed. Some of them tooted and twisted and twirled and sang songs. He didn't like the dolls that seemed to blink at odd moments. He wished he could touch the tiny little cars and trucks, some barely bigger than his thumb. He wished he could touch the little red fire truck that always had a sad look on its face.
If other kids came to the store window, Matthew sidled away. He didn't want them intruding on his dreams and hopes.
On this Christmas Eve, the gray iron sky let loose a few flurries. It was as cold today as it had ever been during Matthew's exile. What light the dun-colored sky had let in was fading.
The Christmas display in the window was even more wondrous with packages covered in brightly colored wrapping paper with cheerful bows spouting from their tops.
This Christmas Eve, Matthew was drawn even closer to the window from his safe perch by the drain pipe. His fingers touched the pane. His nose was an inch away from the glass. He gave a wistful sigh.
Matthew noticed Tawny, the big golden retriever, walking beside his human in the wheelchair as they approached. They came up beside him, Tawny on his right, the man on his left. Tawny sat down next to the boy. The man stopped and rested his hands on the arms of the wheelchair.
Matthew wasn't afraid. He could see the dog's breath in the cold. He had on a harness and a dog coat.
Together, the three gazed at all the wonders on the other side of the window. The golden retriever leaned against him. Matthew felt great comfort in that closeness. He lowered his hand and let his fingers touch the soft fur.
As they lingered, Matthew felt Tawny's muzzle nuzzle under his elbow as if urging him toward the door. Matthew glanced down at the dog. He thought the animal might be smiling. Do dogs smile? The animal looked in his eyes. For several more moments, all three, boy, dog, and adult stared at the little trains going round and round on the toy mountain filled with tiny humans, bridges, and little trees.
It seemed to Matthew almost as if wheelchair and dog had formed a funnel right to the front door of the store itself.
He found himself grasping the doorknob.
As he opened the door and stepped inside, Matthew looked back for a moment. Man and dog seemed to be smiling. As he closed the door, the little bell at the top tinkled. Neither the gruff old man nor any of the clerks or the woman at the register took note of him.
Matthew stepped farther inside. No one bothered him as he let his feet lead him into the depths of the store, down long wondrous aisles with shelves filled with toys mounting to the ceiling.
The Isle of Misfit Toys
On every continent, in every country, in cities and towns no matter how big or small, most often in the shabbiest part of town, there was always an old toy store. Sometimes it was very hard to find on a not-very-busy street next to where the old dime-store used to be, or around back in the alley behind the last independent bookstore in town, or near a used bookstore, or next to a shoe repair shop, or down a little ways from the closed-up uptown theater, or near the river where it sometimes flooded.
If you were lucky enough to find it, the bell above the door tinkled when you entered. You could wander forever up and down aisles past treasures and glories. Every child could find something his heart desired.
If you spent a long enough time and followed the paths into the depth of the stores, you might stumble onto a winding path that led to a dark passage, which opened onto a sun-lit pathway. This narrow lane had well-manicured shrubbery on each side. Tall trees rose behind it. If you followed the narrow lane for a short while, you came to a metal bridge covered with little starlights: top, and bottom, and up and down along each metal strut and beam. The bridge arched high over a vast expanse of deep blue water. If you were lucky enough to stumble onto the bridge and walked across to the other side, you came to the Isle of Misfit Toys.
The Isle of Misfit Toys was a magical place.
Its cobbled street stretched in great sweeping curves that wound around and around the mountain that made up the heart of the island.
All along the path the multi-hued buildings gleamed and shone. On the landward side, the street was lined with a myriad of cheerful little stores. On the other side, a small parapet rose over which you could see a magnificent vista of the deep blue sea.
Every kind of toy had its own special store. One might have blocks, all the kinds and shapes and sizes you might ever want were in that store. There were stores specially for action figures, or boy and girl dolls, or board games, or little kids games, or big kids games, music stores, just a myriad of children's delights. There was another store for trucks, and one for cars, and one for trains, and another for fire engines, and on and on from the end of the bridge up to the very top to the castle's drawbridge.
The toys on the Isle were never brand new. These were toys that had been loved and used, or too frequently abused and scorned, many often simply outgrown and neglected. Lost in sandboxes. Misplaced and mislaid. Toys rejected by kids. Toys whose kids grew up and no longer loved them. Sold in garage sales. Designated for the trash as unwanted or unfixable. Broken toys. Toys with manufacturer's defects. Forgotten or stolen. Overlooked under front porches. Left in the rain. Thrown out and dumped in disgraceful landfills.
No matter their story or background, all misfit toys were welcome here, everyone had a place.
They were delivered from all over the world, from toy boxes, attics, garages, basements, back rooms, and emptied storage spaces.
Many of the toys came to the island in the arms of an army of retired teachers and librarians who spent their remaining years now dedicated to bringing smiles to children's faces. Mostly, these people were old and kindly and alone, or people with aged and wrinkled faces who lived in homes where their memories were nearly gone. They came, their arms filled with broken toys that they brought to this last refuge.
From the toys they carried, these people caught snippets of remembrance of happier times when they'd known the joy of toys as children.
All helped find the toys and bring them in hopes that these once loved objects would find a new home. All were volunteers. A few were permanent residents who lived behind or above their stores. A very few dwelt in the castle high above. When they were young, some of these people just came to work or help deliver toys for a few weeks during their vacations.
If you purchased a toy on the Isle and went back the next day to the magical store, and searched for the same aisle that led you away, and the same secret portal that led to the bridge, it was never there. If you returned with greed in your heart just to take more, the memory of the Isle of Misfit Toys faded forever.
If you treasured your toy and were grateful for what you had, the memory remained pure and whole.
When a child talked with a proprietor of a store on the Isle of Misfit Toys, every one of them spoke with him or her in their own language, a Babel of joy. It was one of the bits of magic present on the Isle.
Most importantly, on the Isle of Misfit Toys, on the last day before Christmas they let the poor, homeless, little boys and girls come to the Isle and pick toys for free.
It was always a special, perfect day for the forgotten and neglected, both toys and children alike, to have at least a few moments for the possibility of happiness.
The goal of the Isle of Misfit Toys was to bring smiles to children's faces and delight to the heart of a toy.
In your heart you really had to want them, not just be greedy for things you didn't deserve. That's how you got to pick toys. Some small, some large.
End of part six. Part seven coming next week.