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 Ten.
Chapter Thirteen: Luke
Luke had to trudge halfway across the city to get to the nearest hospital. The poor parts of town didn't have many medical facilities. One of the things he'd hoped his medical training at the local college and in the military would do was make him qualified to help the people who needed him most in his own neighborhood.
The waiting room was crammed with people wearing woolen scarves, bulky hats, and heavy coats. Their sad eyes told of distress that must have brought them here on Christmas Eve. A baby's squalls seemed to echo for an eternity before he and his parents were taken back to be examined. Every noise complaint the baby made sounded like music to Luke's ears. He'd give anything to hear his own child make such a cranky, joyous noise.
Luke had to wait in a long line. His sturdy boots helped him stand. He was tired from the trip and the lengthy walk across the city. He stood stoically and waited his turn.
When he got to the front of the line, before he could say anything, the receptionist demanded his phone number. Luke didn't understand why. He said so.
The receptionist had a pencil behind her ear, a beehive hairdo, and wore too much rouge. She sniffled and dabbed a tissue to her face.
Luke said, "I'm not here to see the doctor."
"This is a hospital," the woman said. "What did you think went on here?"
Luke swallowed any anger. It was Christmas Eve and this receptionist might have been working all day, facing all these ill and cranky people, and maybe she just wanted to take her runny nose and go home to her own family.
A woman stood a few steps behind the receptionist. She heard them and moved closer. Luke saw that her name tag said her name was Ruth and that she was a nurse.
Ruth asked, "How can I help you?"
Luke said, "I'm looking for my wife and children." He gave his name and a brief explanation.
Ruth checked the hospital's records.
His wife was at the hospital.
As he heard the news, Luke's heart leapt. He rushed to take the elevator to her floor.
He hurried down the corridor to her room. In her bed, she was hooked up by innumerable tubes to blinking and buzzing machines. He rushed to the bed and knelt on the floor next to her. He took her hand.
His wife opened her eyes and gazed at him. At first, she looked confused and disoriented, but after a few moments, she smiled. Tears started down her face. Luke leaned over and hugged her. She felt weak and frail.
Next to the bed was a bassinet with their baby girl.
Luke asked, "Where's Matthew?"
"I don't know." More tears streamed down her face. "I only woke up this morning. They claim they're looking."
"He's been gone?"
"Yes, I'm sorry."
"I'm the one who's sorry."
"Find him," she whispered.
Luke held his daughter, comforted his wife, spoke to the staff, and knew he had to find his son.
Luke went out into the cold. He didn't know which way to go or where to start searching.
He took the long walk back to his neighborhood. He asked everyone in his building, people he met on the street, and those in the closest buildings. No one had seen his son.
Luke found people that might have seen him, but they weren't sure. They pointed in every direction.
As the hours passed, his shoulders slumped, his head bent, his feet felt as if they were encased in lead, but his heart still hoped.
Luke began the long trek back to the hospital. He thought and thought. Where would Matthew go?
Filled with despair, the tired, worn, and wounded soldier, trudged on. He wasn't sure on what street or what alley his weary steps took him. All he wanted to do was find his little son. He'd followed every rumor and whisper, and he'd found nothing.
The wound in his leg began to ache again. Almost as much as when he'd first been hit.
Luke hoped Matthew didn't live down these awful streets. He feared what he might find. The bells of the churches stopped their midnight tolling. For a moment, the clouds broke and stars burst forth.
Then he saw ahead of him a man in a wheelchair with his great golden dog at his side. They approached slowly then stopped at a low curb in front of a dark alley.
As they stood there, Tawny, the dog, seemed to look at Luke. With his cane, the man in the wheelchair thumped the cold ground once. Tawny approached carefully, lowered his head, and sniffed Luke's ankle. Luke touched the golden fur. For a brief moment, his heart ached less.
He began to step around man and dog. Tawny shifted slightly so that Luke had to ease his way farther around, toward the opening in what Luke thought was an evil and forbidding alley.
Then Luke heard it. Faint and dim, a song echoed in the night. He lifted up his head. Someone was playing a harmonica. He wanted to find whoever made such a beautiful and plaintive music on this night of the year.
Luke lifted his head. His eyes tried to pierce the darkness. His ears strained to listen. He entered the alley and stepped toward the sound. He hesitated briefly, looked back at man and dog who were now gone.
He glanced ahead and continued to follow the soft, plaintive notes. At first, he tiptoed to make less noise. As best he could, he shut out all the racket and clamor of the city. The more he moved forward, the less the clatter and din mattered. He let the sound draw him forward.
A Cradle Song
The little harmonica felt the boy's joy. Felt the song in Matthew's heart, and Erik was glad he was home at last. The little harmonica felt perfect in the darkness and closeness.
The little boy played with soft gasps of despair. His poor, tired, spent body doing as much as it could. And the notes became louder, each one seemed to give him new strength. The Isle of Misfit Toys had given him hope. With each note, Matthew felt an enveloping peace and joy. As his breaths grew stronger and the song soared, he knew he would never give up.
Matthew's tiny hands clutched him with all their strength of mind and will. The music swelled with each breath the boy took.
And the little harmonica trilled with all of his heart and all of his might. He took the boy's breaths and played so hard he thought he might burst all that held him together. He didn't care. He would give all that he was and all that he had to give the slightest moments of comfort to the poor little boy.
It wasn't a song that had been written before. It was a song from Erik's heart. To bring comfort to the boy's soul. To soothe the boy's mind. To relieve all his sorrows.
And Erik sang with all of his heart. And he took each breath the boy breathed into him and made it into a symphony of joy and peace. All the gentleness of every cradle song, all the power of an Ode to Joy or any Hallelujah chorus, all in a few simple notes.
Erik got his wish. The world seemed to echo and re-echo with all the music he could make.
He didn't have the power of great sweep and majesty, of harps and trumpets and sounds mixed with profound joy. He had the power of gentle peace.
Erik didn't care that the boy who held him didn't know real songs. He didn't care that it wasn't a cradle song that he remembered. Nor did it matter that every note wasn't perfect. He cared that it was their cradle song. Something that they made together that came from the purity of both their hearts. The purity of longing, being together, and hope. For now, Erik was part of this child's life. He was part of soothing a boy's heart and soul. Erik helped with a song of comfort and joy.
The music rose up so high, it touched the stars. Greater than all the symphonies ever written, brighter than the stars in the firmament. More powerful than vast sweeping armies.
And still the little harmonica willed the little boy to hold on. To breathe again and make any kind of music, any kind of noise that the little harmonica could transform to light and warmth and gentleness.
The song trilled in the little harmonica's heart. And the little boy played with all his might. But it was a tiny sound that barely disturbed the oceans of night around them.
But it was enough.
Luke followed the tiny little notes, which spoke of warmth and comfort. Notes that wanted to break your heart. Each sound reached his soldier's heart. Down dark passages, through cobwebs, past dark corners. He squeezed through narrow openings. Always following the cradle song, trying to find its origin.
And the notes became clearer as he neared.
Far above Luke, the clouds in the night sky parted for another brief moment. The light from a single star smote his heart. He moved toward the old hovel from which the music came. He thrust past barriers and shoved through the darkness.
Louder now, the music drifted to his ears.
The soldier moved the last thin wooden barrier and then pushed aside a shabby blanket. He could see an almost spent candle sputtering in a tiny cup. And the little boy crouched and bent over with his tiny musical instrument, taking each desperate breath and making them magic.
He saw the boy clutching the harmonica and himself for these moments of warmth and song.
It was Matthew.
Forgetting all pain and weariness and wounds, Luke called Matthew's name and rushed forward. He pulled the shivering boy to him and enveloped him in all the warmth of the universe.
He held him so tight, he thought his heart might burst.
Matthew smiled and cried and held on tight. The boy felt the rough stubble on Luke's face that the boy remembered, and his daddy's smell of work and sweat. His memory rushed forward.
At the same time, in one hand, Matthew clutched the harmonica with all his might.
Erik, Matthew, and Luke
The little harmonica nestled himself into the boy's clamped fist. Now crushed between soldier and son.
He'd played his song.
He belonged here.
His little harmonica heart nearly burst as the tiny boy clutched onto his daddy. All the warmth of the universe flooding over all of them.
With his son in his arms, Luke rushed back to the hospital. In the room, Matthew's heart almost burst at the sight of his mom and his sister.
After tears and hugs and greetings, Matthew sat on the side of the bed. He brought out his gifts. He put the doll next to his sister and nestled it into her blankets. He gave his mom the rose, and she smiled through her tears. He handed Luke the little car. His dad folded it carefully into his big hands.
Matthew took out his harmonica. And the little boy's lips found him, and they played what became their own cradle song. The song they made was the most wonderful Christmas music of all time. Greater than all the choruses and carols ever written or sung. Softer than an angel's wings. More pure than ice-crystalled snow. Mightier than any army.
Matthew and Erik sang together in great joy and happiness.
And the Christmas star glowed in the night, showering the world with joy.