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.
A Cradle Song: Part Two.
Chapter One: Erik
He was the most down and scared and lonely that first Christmas Eve. He'd been sniffling. At first, Mildred had offered comfort.
Erik had told her about his desire to be part of a cradle song, to make a joyful noise with an orchestra, or even just one stringed instrument, or, if necessary, all by himself with some woebegone child.
On that day, Mildred had heard his little plaintive noises. He had whimpered as he'd told her his dreams. She had listened and when he'd finished, she had laughed. What's worse, she'd told the other musical toys who were just as unsympathetic.
The words she'd said when she'd stopped laughing were seared into Erik's memory. She'd said, "We've all got sad stories. Get over yourself. Besides, you're not a real harmonica, are you? You're never going to play for anybody. Even if you were in the best of shape, and you're not, the noise you'd make would be pathetic. I imagine it would be the smallest cacophony I've ever heard." And she'd laughed crueler and harder than any laugh the harmonica had ever heard.
Erik didn't understand how she could say this when she'd never even heard his music, but that didn't stop her.
This was very much like what mean Agnes had said. Although this time, the laughter and sneering was much harsher and more malicious.
Mildred didn't have to remind him about how small and beaten up he was.
He knew his limitations.
For many days after, she didn't stop picking at his dreams. Nothing seemed to ever shut her up.
The others had laughed at him. To this day, they still did. Erik never knew why they made fun of his dream. Sure, he was small. Sure, he wasn't likely to get anywhere near an orchestra. But he wanted to try, one night, especially on a Christmas Eve night, to make at least a soothing sound.
Others could be even nastier. A great mean tuba named Lawrence had bullied all the other instruments, but his worst venom was saved for Erik. Fortunately, Lawrence had been picked by a boy whose parents were making him take music lessons.
Mildred hadn't been chosen for many years either, even though she had been out front with the bigger and shinier instruments.
Mildred had finally been taken away a few years ago around Christmas, but not before she'd announced for the thousandth time to the world, always with a sneer and a snide remark, the little harmonica's hopes and wishes. Now there was always someone who remembered and passed the story on to the new arrivals so they could keep the derision fresh.
Erik often wondered, didn't they have goals and ambitions? If they did, they didn't tell anyone? The little harmonica thought it was so strange and so sad that there was bullying even among the toys.
Erik was glad that Mildred hadn't been around when Reginald arrived. He shuddered to think what the mean trumpet would have said about the little car.
As the days passed and Erik was not picked, his dreams seemed to die note by note as the uncounted years unspooled and the steps of each child who wandered by faded to silence.
Reginald was no help. Erik reassured the nearly inconsolable toy car as best he could. But Reginald seemed to make Erik's problem worse.
Often hours passed between them in companionable silence. After the first few days, they had nothing new to share in their tiny corner. What little comfort came from each other, and both dreamed of being real toys again. They knew they'd never be like new. Each understood that, but to be cherished again, by a child and make him or her happy. That would be joy enough indeed.
So now, most often, Erik embraced the shadows. Being lonely was awful. Being lonely and laughed at was even worse.
Erik lived on his shelf hoping against hope that he'd be picked.
Chapter Two: Matthew
Matthew was nine-years-old. He was small for his age. As he struggled down the dark and damp street, he was dressed in a worn brown jacket, a tattered shirt, and ripped and torn jeans. Bits of cloth poked out of the holes in his shoes. In an attempt to keep his feet warm and dry, Matthew had wrapped them with rags before he put his feet into the shoes. Torn newspapers stuffed inside his shirt tried to help keep out the cold. Matthew used the discarded newspapers from the barrels in the park.
Matthew's daddy was away to war. Like most wars, it was in a distant land, and the boy didn't understand where his dad was or when he was coming home. His father had been gone far too often. He missed him every time more and more. This deployment had been the longest.
Matthew found shelter in a tiny alcove that could only be found down a narrow alley, through a passage under a rickety flight of stairs, then through a narrow cave-like space. Once in a while, the noise of the city leaked through, wailing sirens from emergency vehicles, from time to time a loud, booming radio, or now and then shouts and screams from unseen people who lived far above and around him, people who fought and cried often until the middle hours of the night and beyond. Every so often, he heard a baby cry.
The most important part of his tiny space was the heat. It wasn't much, but the back wall was warm to the touch for about three feet on each side of a pipe that came out of his floor and then travelled through his ceiling. Matthew figured there must be heating pipes in the wall of the building. He guessed that other homeless people hadn't discovered this spot because they were too big to fit in. He'd only gotten here the night he was chased because he'd squeezed through the final opening.
Inside his tiny space, which was maybe bigger than a refrigerator box, cached in a brick he'd hollowed out, were his few treasures. A plastic super hero holding a sleeping child. Two marbles: one a steely with a nasty dent, the other a cat-eye with a chip in it. A tiny toy train engine with its coal car. A small caboose maybe from the same toy set as the engine. A red fire truck nestled with the rest. He wished he could gather at least one more tiny toy.
Even worse, the week after his dad left, his mom had gotten sick. She took to her bed and rarely moved. Matthew had gotten very scared.
Matthew felt her forehead once as she had done to him. She was burning up. His mom could barely lift her head from the pillow to drink some water and take her pills. No one came to help. No one told him what was wrong. At that time, his little sister often cried into the night. Matthew thought his sister needed medicine too.
Matthew rocked her cradle and sometimes she fell asleep when he did that. She was so tiny, years younger than him.
He'd tried to find someone to help his mom, but they were poor.
One day, Matthew had gone to the store for some medicine for his mom. There was no one to go for it but him. He knew the way back and forth. He only had to cross one busy street, and he was very careful as his mom and dad had taught him.
That day, there was a rain and sleet storm. It had taken a long time to get to his destination. He'd nearly slipped and fallen several times especially after passing big people who stumbled into him. Then when he was almost to the store, a passerby lurched and staggered into him.
Matthew had gone down on one knee and torn his pants. He'd braced himself as he fell with one hand on the pavement. When he looked at his palm, he saw nearly a third of it was scraped raw, and a few spots had flecks of blood. He'd wiped the residue of his fall on his jacket sleeve.
Then Matthew had to wait many extra minutes as the line in the store shuffled forward. As the time dragged, he'd worried that he'd been gone too long. On his way back, at the busy street, he'd rushed ahead of the crowd waiting for the light. He'd stepped off the curb, but a second later, he'd almost been run over by a massive rumbling truck. Others around him had screamed and screeched.
At the last instant, a man behind him had pulled him back.
Matthew had turned to thank him, but the man had snapped, "Watch where you're going."
When he'd gotten home that awful day, his mom and his sister were gone. It had taken only seconds to search every room.
He'd shouted for them, but no voice answered.
Finally, the landlord heard him and came to see what the ruckus was about.
The landlord was always callous and demanding about their rent. He hadn't been as nasty when Matthew's dad was home. His dad had always met the landlord's bluster with serenity and a smile.
Matthew had watched his dad with the landlord and with everyone. His dad was always calm, and kind, and strong. Matthew wanted to grow up to be like that.
But after his dad had gone to war, the landlord had gotten meaner and meaner. As his mom got sicker and she couldn't work, the landlord got crueler, harsher, and more demanding.
That day when Matthew had told the landlord his mom was gone, the landlord had chased him away, and said if he ever came back he'd sic his big, snarling dog on him.
Matthew hadn't known what to do. His mom and sister had been taken away. They were sick. He didn't know where they were. He didn't know who to ask.
On that day after he'd left their apartment, Matthew had huddled in a doorway down the street to be out of the icy storm. He'd seen people beg. Their part of town was poor and filled with desperate homeless.
When the rain let up, he set out, he knew not where. After a while, he'd gotten very hungry. He wondered if he could sneak back into their apartment and get something from the cupboard or refrigerator, but on that day, he didn't dare.
He'd found himself in the shadows of a park that was twelve feet wide and a building's length deep. It had begun to rain again. A big mean dog and a snarling man had come upon him.
Matthew had run and dodged and stumbled through alleys and backyards until he'd tripped across some boards and found a tiny opening in a doorway, slipped through it, and followed his circuitous path that he now knew well.
The night after he left, his hunger drove him. He snuck back into their apartment. He ate what he could find. He took as many of his clothes and a few oddments as he could carry. None of the objects he took were very large, but what he thought he might need. He also stuck deep in his pockets a few small treasured toys.
Every day he searched for his mom, but he couldn't find her. He had no grandmas or grandpas to go to. They'd moved from their hometown so his dad could learn to heal people. He knew no one in this city.
His parents had said he was too little to have a phone. Very few kids his age in this poor part of town ever thought of having one. That cost money.
Was his mom in a hospital? He didn't know which one it might be, where it was, or how to get there. Once in a while, the fear that she might be dead flitted at the back of his consciousness. He knew that war might bring death, but he didn't understand how or why. But his mom wasn't away to war, nor was his sister. He didn't know how to wrap his mind around that possibility. He feared asking an adult.
End of Part Two. Part Three coming next week
Go back to Part One here: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/A-Cradle-Song-Part-One-/64431.html .