The Littlest Dream by Eric Laing
Far up on a topmost shelf, behind an old and well-worn first edition of Huntley Mann’s The Fine Art of Miniatures and Doll Craft–long dusty since the tome’s contents had been learned by rote for so many years gone by now–there was concealed a small hole, just the size of a cufflink, precisely chiseled through the back of the bookshelf as if it were no more than perhaps a common knothole. Should it ever have been examined closely by human eyes–which it had not–it would’ve been discovered that the hole in question was no mere imperfection, however, as it clearly went further, disappearing into the wall beyond.
Neither was it a mouse hole–no rodent ever possessed the skill or inclination to so carefully manage such a smooth and perfectly circular portal–nor was it a natural phenomenon, as nature would be defined by man. But it was a portal, since it was the entry to the home of the second, and most unsuspected, secretive resident of the edifice in question.
It should also be noted that it was no coincidence that Huntley Mann’s leather bound labor of love had been chosen as a door of sorts for the mysterious occupant’s home within a home, for the creature therein was quite familiar with Mann’s tutelage.
To continue this introduction, it should be mentioned about now that the fact that such a comprehensive text dealing in the fabrication of dolls and their appropriately-sized abodes could be found there was of little surprise–even given the scarcity of the work– since, while the uppermost story of the little brick building in question at 37 Sunning Lane was the living quarters to the sole human resident, the second and ground floors were reserved for the workshop and sales parlor of Tuttleby’s, the most well-regarded doll shop in all of the city. For three generations, Tuttleby’s, the namesake of the current proprietor, Colm Tuttleby, and his father and grandfather before him, had been the name on the tongue of anyone who knew anything of quality miniatures and dolls.
Little boys and girls from families whose fathers and mothers were flush with wealth had learned from an early age to ask for a Tuttleby by name. No other substitute would do. Poorer children sometimes knew the name as well, but with excellence comes price, and so their knowledge of Tuttleby’s superlative craftsmanship did little but frustrate their desires. The fortunate of those less fortunate would sometimes be graced with a Ruttleby or Muttleby, imitation brands whose work could be described as shoddy, at best. Ruttleby dolls frequently lost an eye–a disturbing enough turn of events–and Muttlebys seldom survived a month of attention before casting off their first limb. If a child persisted in engaging themselves with their crippled Muttleby it was almost certainly only a matter of time before the remaining appendages followed suit. Still, often enough, many children clung to their mutilated Muttleby’s until nothing but a head and torso kept them company at teatime. In the case of the Ruttleby’s dolls, on the other hand, after that first eye was lost, interest in the deformed thing was usually discarded as well. Very few children could find comfort when tucked beneath the covers with a cycloptic Ruttleby winking back at them.
As could be expected, the very existence of Tuttleby’s rivals perturbed the current proprietor to no end. When Ruttleby’s came onto the marketplace during the senior Tuttleby’s final years, the elder had laughed to his son, Colm, his apple red face stretched in delight.
“Imitation is confirmation!” the elder had bellowed in glee.
“Confirmation?” Colm echoed in confusion.
“No one copies a loser, Colm, my boy.”
A year after Colm’s father expired–unexpectedly in neither time nor place, as he’d died in his ninety-fourth winter at his workbench where he’d passed nearly every waking hour–Muttleby’s threw open their doors as well and offered their first limb-shedding abomination. That doll had been simple enough; a painted porcelain face with a cheap fabric body adorned with a modest plaid dress of red and green. It was a knockoff of one of Tuttleby’s original designs from years past and not a single aspect was redeemable in Colm’s eyes.
“Charlatans,” the doll maker had complained when he first discovered an advertisement for it while sipping tea and reading the local paper as he waited for a coat of resin to dry. He’d always been given to such mutterings in the past, and between Muttleby and Ruttleby it seemed his ill-temper would only get worse.
From his bench in one corner of the workshop on the second floor, beneath the natural light cast through an expansive window on one side, and almost an arm’s reach to the dusty shelf where Huntley Mann’s volume concealed his secret roommate’s front door on the other, Colm Tuttleby fretted every day and most nights. He often worried himself into the wee hours over the most minuscule details, and the blazing lights of his workshop ensured that at least one block of Sunning Lane was no place for ne’er-do-wells to waylay the hapless. Whether it was the application of eyelashes or just the right hue of blush, Colm pestered his sensibilities as if each doll was both his first and last.
“A Tuttleby is a one and only,” Colm’s father had told him time and again. Before that it’d been the father’s father who’d instilled diligence.
“The only babe more beautiful was made by your mother!” Silas Tuttleby, the founder of the family’s trade, would proclaim each time upon the completion of his latest creation.
And it was there, in the Tuttleby tradition of excellence that their story became interesting.
For while it was true that from father to son, and yet another son again, that every doll and each dollhouse and its accoutrements was created with the care of an unparalleled master–from the miniscule armoires to the miniature plush divans–there was an unknown factor that ensured every Tuttleby toy was the best to be had.
When the last lamp of the long night was dimmed, but before the amber haze of the day to come could begin, for one hour of each night, the most secretive resident of 37 Sunning Lane rose. From behind the massive, long out-of-print edition of Huntley Mann’s The Fine Art of Miniatures and Doll Craft, far up on the uppermost dusty shelf of the workshop, out of a hole that was no knothole, a tiny hand would reach out like a toe testing cold water. Then another hand would appear and together they would grasp the edges of the small portal, teasing it open wide as though it were but folds of a cloth. With the hole now made as big as a postcard, first one foot and then another would emerge and then finally knobby knees, long thin thighs, bony hips, potbelly, pointy shoulders and neck. Lastly, with a small “pop” and a distinct whiff of soap and sulfur, the mysterious creature would free its slightly bulbous head and climb out from behind Mann’s text, stretching like a cat in a sunbeam to have done so.
No more than a foot in height, and as green in color as the most remarkable dew-drenched valley, the little oddity was quite a spectacle. Standing on end at the very tip-top of an otherwise bald head was a curly tuft of nine thick brown hairs which looked something like varnished yarn. For nails, little nubs of gray stone adorned the tips of its twelve fingers and eight toes, and its teeth and eyes were as black and shiny as freshly chipped coal. It called itself Tup, although it had not heard its name uttered in decades upon decades. After all, there’d been no one thereabouts familiar with it and to so bother.
Tup wasn’t a he and yet equally no she, but rather a little of both and somewhere in between. Aged beyond recall, Tup had moved into the space behind the bookshelf on the second floor of 37 Sunning Lane some sixty years gone by now, endeavoring to wind down into the twilight of the last few centuries of its old age, and, up until of late, it was quite content to have done so indeed.
During the course of those years, Tup had played the part of the silent, unseen and unknown partner of Tuttleby’s. For just an hour each night–and that was often more time than needed–Tup had descended from its secret home and set to work upon whatever work was to be had.
When a child noticed a glimmer of mischief in a doll’s eye, it was certainly the handicraft of Tup. When a mother was stopped in her tracks by a doll’s fetching dress in Tuttleby’s window there could be no doubt that Tup had added something special in the pleats and lace. If a hue of blush brought a porcelain cheek to life, to be sure it was Tup’s hand that’d been played. Should the details of the most miniscule furnishing be so fine as to disappear into obscurity under the scrutiny of the human eye, only Tup’s dexterous touch could be suspect. For three generations of Tuttleby’s then, the curious Tup had made sure that the merchandise therein was as special as any child could dream.
It would be important to know, however, that this grace was not extended without merit. No, for Tuttleby dolls, dollhouses, and miniature accoutrements were blessed with Tup’s magic because they were so finely made in the first place. Tup took pride in its human partner’s craftsmanship, and the creature’s unknown assistance was testament to that fact.
At present, unfortunately, Tup was discontent. Standing atop its bookshelf perch, surveying the workshop and its curious contents, even through the darkness of the early morning hour, Tup had spied something amiss. With an unusual huff of dissatisfaction Tup performed a corkscrewing back-flip down upon Colm Tuttleby’s workbench to better examine the problem at hand. There on the workbench was the most horribly constructed doll Tup had ever seen. How Tuttleby could have made such a thing, and so insulted them both, infuriated Tup. It was a frustrating misunderstanding that had begun just after Colm’s morning tea and biscuit earlier that day.
No more had the tinkling of Colm’s spoon subsided against the china then the sound of the shop door chime seemed to answer it, announcing the morning’s first customer. Nudged in by the briskness of a late October wind, Simon Lassiter, a gentleman of old money, pushed through the door clapping his mittens together in an exaggerated attempt to drive away the chill.
“Most excellent morning to you, my good sir!” Colm said, rising to greet him.
“And you. And you,” Simon Lassiter exchanged pleasantries while blowing heartily into his cupped mitts. As the man’s hands were about his cheeks, Colm failed for half a moment to recognize one of his better customers. “One could scarce believe it’s still October, eh Tuttleby, old man?”
“Oh, ah! Mr. Lassiter, sir! No, no. Hardly indeed,” Colm blustered about, happy to suddenly realize just who it was that’d interrupted his morning tea.
“My good man, I’ll waste neither your time nor mine. I’ve come to give you a bit of business such as it were,” Lassiter said as he unbuttoned just enough of his woolen overcoat and silk frock to produce his errand.
“Very good,” Colm agreed. “And what business shall we not dally ‘round this morn?”
“This, I’m afraid.”
In Simon Lassiter’s hands, the doll maker suddenly realized, was none other than an accursed Muttleby. As could be expected, it possessed but one leg.
Colm Tuttleby bit his tongue for several audible ticks of the clock as his lids narrowed to slits at the sight of the crippled thing in Lassiter’s grip. If nearly any other soul had dared insult his place of business by so foolishly crossing the threshold with one of his competitor’s pathetic pinchbecks, Colm Tuttleby would’ve chased them from his shop with a tongue lashing to last a lifetime. But in this case, Colm considered the man, a gentleman who had on more than three occasions purchased some of Tuttleby’s finest and most expensive work–and in such quantity that a half dozen delivery boys were sore for a week afterwards–and so, with a deep breath, he conceded to hear him out.
“I can assure you, Mr. Tuttleby, you’re not alone in your consternation. This, this thing,” he said, presenting the doll at arm’s length as if it were skunk-soiled trousers, “is my brother, Benny’s…well, it’s his idea of a gift for my daughter, Charlotte. Among other less than admirable traits, Benjamin is both a cheapskate and a boorish lout with no eye for quality. However, love can be a powerful force, and, as it is, my young daughter fancies her Uncle Benny to be something of a dashing sort. As a loving father, far be it from me to shatter my child’s devotions where her family is concerned, no matter how ill-placed those affections may reside. So you see, dear sir, this broken rag doll is my Charlotte’s prized possession.”
Simon Lassiter paused there to judge whether he had the doll maker’s sympathy. The air between them was still and thick with the scent of spruce, no doubt from some woodworking in progress but not clearly on hand.
With a great inhalation that belied his willing reply, Colm Tuttleby took the doll. “Fine. Tomorrow.”
“Mr. Tuttleby, I’ve said it before now and I will sing it to the rafters once more. You, sir, are a dream maker. God’s good graces upon you. I’ll see you again the first thing on the morrow!”
Elated with Tuttleby’s agreement to repair his daughter’s favorite doll–a prospect he’d wisely been unsure would take place heretofore–Simon Lassiter practically did a pirouette as he spun on his heels and rushed from the shop before Colm could change his mind. And it was a good thing for Lassiter that he did. For not three minutes had tumbled away before Colm Tuttleby was about his shop muttering and sputtering, wishing he could rescind the offer.
Colm carried the Muttleby doll about in his apron all that morning, trying his best to forget it. Failing at that, he abandoned it at the cash till and went upstairs, closing the store for lunch. He returned a little less than half an hour later, and the Muttleby was still on the counter where he’d left it, of course. He’d hoped that somehow it wouldn’t be. So put off was Tuttleby at the thought of repairing the doll, that by the end of the day all he’d done with it was to stash it away out of sight in a dusty drawer under the counter.
Begrudgingly, he retrieved the Muttleby after returning from trudging halfway upstairs upon closing up at dusk, and then he stomped back up to his workshop like a scolded child sent to his room. From the doorway he gave it a toss–something he never did with his own dolls–rudely landing it on his workbench in the corner. With a few more mutters he continued upstairs to dinner. An hour or so later found him puttering about his workshop sweeping up after sawdust that wasn’t there. After each push of the broom his eyes returned again and again to the little three-limbed lump waiting for him on his workbench. Still refusing to give in, he went downstairs once more to wash and re-wash the storefront windows, a task he despised. A few pedestrians paused under the light of the corner streetlamp to consider whether the doll maker had lost his senses. Colm Tuttleby ignored them but there was no escaping the task at hand. As he teetered in the gloom tippy-toed atop a little stepping stool, rocking upon the uneven cobblestones outside the shop, he finally gave in.
“Oh, bothersome bother,” he snorted as he left the last pane soaped but unpolished. He even forgot his little stepping stool. “Fine. Fine. Fine!” he could be heard to bellow as he mounted the stairs.
The Muttleby before Colm was a simple thing, both in design and fabrication, being little more than a ceramic head glued onto a raggedy linen body. It was a girl doll that wore a dress of cheap fabric bereft of the lace collar that its Tuttleby progenitor enjoyed. It also lacked the perfumed premium wool that made each Tuttleby a treat to cradle and love. Instead, the Muttleby was packed with sawdust and wood shavings. The result was a lumpy, ill-shaped body whose touch could probably cause a rash and whose scent tended to leave the nostrils dry and somewhat irritated. Furthermore, while Muttleby dolls were handed-painted, just as were the Tuttleby dolls, the paints were applied with very little skill or sensibility. Where Tuttleby dolls appeared lifelike–and often were mistaken as such, especially in the case of the life-sized baby dolls–not once had a slapdash Muttleby fooled anyone in that regard.
“I’ve seen Jezebels along Barrow Street with better painted faces,” Colm Tuttleby disparaged as he pinched the three-limbed Muttleby’s smudged little countenance between his delicate but accomplished fingers. “Pray tell, who has ever seen an infant wear mascara and rouge? Abominations all!”
The Muttleby did not respond, and all things considered it would’ve had little defense against the toymaker’s admonishments even if it had possessed the means.
Where its missing leg had been, there was a small hole that might have been leaking sawdust but for the woodchip that had lodged there. In his continuing disdain Tuttleby pulled the chip free allowing a minuscule cascade of sawdust to pour forth onto his table. He wasn’t content to wait for the Muttleby to bleed away gradually, however. Producing a razor blade from his drawer of tools, Tuttleby sliced the remaining seam from the hole all the way to the other side of the torso bottom, cutting free the other leg as well. In a plop, the entire contents of chips and dust covered his workbench. After removing the arms and draining them and the single leg of their contents as well, he used a brush to sweep the offending filling from his desk. He worked diligently then, and after constructing a matching leg he plumped the doll with scented wool and reattached the newly filled limbs making the doll whole once more.
Not satisfied to leave off his work by merely repairing the Muttleby, Colm produced a jar of acetate and began the process of removing the offending paint from its face. The canvas of ceramic discovered underneath was not as pleasing as he would have cared for, but once he’d cleaned the surface he began to carefully reapply pigments in such a way that the doll’s expression was vastly improved.
The clock in the corner chimed that it was half an hour past his usual bedtime by the time Colm Tuttleby was as satisfied as he ever would be with his task. He forgot himself for a moment and had begun to sign the sole of the doll’s new shoe, but only got as far as a capital “T” and half a line of the “u” when he stopped short.
“Egad, no!” he proclaimed and pushed the doll away. He would never grace such an inferior doll with the Tuttleby name.
Up near the top of the bookshelf, down a narrow tunnel hidden behind Huntley Mann’s well-regarded text, Tup blinked open its eyes, having been disturbed from its slumber by Colm Tuttleby’s unusual late night exclamation.
Tup had dealt with a handful of nuisances at 37 Sunning Lane over the years. Worst of all had been the cats. No less than seven kittens had been brought home by Colm’s father and mother. And one after another, those felines had been dispatched by Tup. Tup hadn’t killed the poor creatures. No, that wasn’t Tup’s way. Tup had, however, pestered, harassed, and tormented them one and all until each had fled of their own free will. On two different nights, some nine years apart, Old Mrs. Neebles, the gossipy neighbor, had witnessed what she was sure she’d never see for the first time, much less the second. Those had been the occasions when she’d seen Tup by moonlight riding hysterical cats as they dashed madly down the cobblestones with the little creature grasping their ears and whooping in a strange, cackling voice. Mrs. Neebles was the only human being ever to lay eyes upon Tup, and wisely she kept those sightings to herself. She’d also seen the last of the line of cats as it fled just as its predecessors, Tup-less, but just as harried, since it ran off with its tail afire.
Tup didn’t like cats. Thankfully, neither did Colm really, and so following his father’s passing that was to be the last of them at Tuttleby’s.
But worse than any cat was what Tup had awoke to discover this night. There on Tuttleby’s workbench was a horror of horrors. It made the little Tup ill to look at it. How things had come to this Tup couldn’t bear to imagine. It would rather share the workshop with a pride of domesticated kitties than to suffer what it rose that night to discover. There at the center of the workbench, caught in a spotlight of a moonbeam as if to further mock Tup with its presence, was the most ill-made doll that Tup had ever seen. It was fourth-rate at best, Tup thought, giving it a kick with one four-toed little foot. Its proportions were too far off even for a whimsical sense. The construction was of base materials, with the exception of its filling, and most of its needle work was hurried if not altogether unskilled. It was a disgrace to the Tuttleby name. It was an insult to everything Tup stood for. Tup had no idea it was a Muttleby. It had no way of realizing that this was merely a repair job that the proprietor had undertaken begrudgingly. The original leg that had gone missing had borne the Muttleby stamp on the bottom of its shoe. But now, as Tup couldn’t help but notice, there on a shoe sole was the beginning of the Tuttleby signature. That the signature was left undone brought a nod to Tup. At least the old boy hasn’t completely sold out, Tup considered. Nonetheless, there was no way under heaven or over hell that Tup was going to let this abomination of a doll leave the Tuttleby store. Tup was just going to have to give Colm Tuttleby a lesson in integrity.
In an ornate hand-scribed calligraphy that was no longer found in contemporary texts, the page that the book was opened to was titled, “Quality Materials and Ingredients, Your Stepping Stone to Superlative Craftsmanship.” Above that was a great golden numeral denoting that this was the seventh chapter of Huntley Mann’s The Fine Art of Miniatures and Doll Craft. The book was at the center of Colm Tuttleby’s workbench and it was the second thing Colm noticed when he came downstairs the next morning. The first thing he noticed was that the entire workshop was in shambles, looking as if a pair of twisters had wrestled there.
Colm’s first thought was burglars, of course, but to his surprise, when he went downstairs he found the shop’s front door bolted shut and the four large windows intact. Furthermore, he could find nothing missing. Back upstairs, those windows were whole and fast as well. Tiptoeing amongst the puddles of spilt paints and solvents, gathering up first the numerous doll heads that were not too damaged, and then the other various arms, legs, torsos, paint brushes and tools, Colm became more and more perplexed as to just how this wave of destruction had come to pass. He’d heard not the slightest sign of commotion during the night even though he knew himself to be a light sleeper. And, as he continued to clean up, he still could find no means of entrance or egress for the hooligans responsible. A few hours later into the morning the discombobulated doll maker was still nowhere near putting things right again. He’d yet to gather the peace of mind to consider the clue of the book left open on his workbench, when suddenly there came a sharp rap from downstairs upon the shop’s front door.
Up on the bookshelf, down a little hole revealed by the absence of the book normally found there, a little black eye could be seen glimmering like a pearl in the early light. It had been winking there mischievously as it spied all morning on the doll maker’s frustrations. When the rap at the front door repeated itself, and Tuttleby rushed down the stairs to answer it, little Tup stepped out of its hole with a pop as silent as a soap bubble bursting on goose down and stole down the steps behind the man to revel some more in its previous night’s hijinks.
“Oh, bothersome bother! Yes, yes. No, we’re closed,” Tuttleby cried as he descended while the rap came yet again.
“Tuttleby, old nut, let’s get on with it,” Simon Lassiter bellowed from the shop’s stoop.
Colm ceased his muttering when he realized who it was that awaited him.
“Let’s have it, old sport.” Simon Lassiter demanded as he entered. He was chipper, but wouldn’t be for long.
“Yes, Mr. Lassiter. You’ll pardon me while I fetch your doll. It’s just up in the workshop.” Colm had no intentions of relating the disturbing news of his suspected break-in, at least not at that moment.
“You’ve finished it, yes?”
“Oh, yes, yes. I had forgotten our appointment however. Many apologies. Just half a tick if you please.”
“I don’t mind waiting, Tuttleby. But don’t think that if you leave me about here that I’ll find myself enamored with something I can’t let go. The impulse purchasing of dollhouses is my daughter’s domain!” Simon Lassiter crooned, laughing long and hard at his own idea of jocularity. In fact, he could still be heard chuckling downstairs while Colm Tuttleby stood in a perplexed panic over his workbench on the second floor realizing that he’d no idea where among the mess the repaired Muttleby had gotten off to.
It was then that he noticed Mann’s tome on doll craft rested just where the Muttleby had been. And, as he stared at the opened page of the seventh chapter, there was no escaping the odd little four-toed footprint that was left in magenta upon the page; the same magenta that’d been spilled so copiously along with most of the other of the doll maker’s paints.
“Curious,” was all Colm could manage as he let his finger hover above the enigmatic signature.
“Tuttleby!” Simon Lassiter’s roar shook Colm from his confusion. “Tuttleby!” It came again punctuated by a resounding cane thump upon the floor.
“Yes, yes,” Colm Tuttleby found himself answering mindlessly as he rushed downstairs once more. In his hands he carried Mann’s volume, having snatched it up in his muddled state.
“Do my eyes deceive me here?” Simon Lassiter stood with his cane held at arm’s length pointing to a jar sitting between two dolls where no jar had any business being.
On the third step, too tiny to be noticed, having shrunk to the size of a finch’s eye and giggling as quiet as a mouse’s sneeze, Tup was drowning in mirth.
Still perplexing himself over the book in his hand and keeping the chapter cracked with an index finger, Colm crossed the room to add Lassiter’s query to the growing mystery. At the tip of his customer’s cane, which came a whisker from nudging it, sat a clear jar of paint thinner amongst a display of rag dolls. That would’ve been odd enough, even if the jar hadn’t contained the head of the Muttleby doll both men sought. Like a frog preserved in formaldehyde, the ghostly ceramic Muttleby head, washed white once more, floated in the amber solvent above the muddy layer of pigments that had once adorned its features. Clean as it was now, the pockmarks of its shoddy creation were all too obvious and Colm couldn’t help but wince to notice the mold seam that ran upon its lips.
“This is not what I think,” Simon Lassiter said with a most accusatory squint.
“I know you were rather displeased to be burdened with my request, but really. Tuttleby, have you lost your senses?”
“Pranksters,” Colm muttered.
“What’s this then?”
“Last night. Pranksters. They broke in. Ransacked my workshop. They’re responsible.”
“Rather like a ship in a bottle, wouldn’t you say?” Simon Lassiter said, leaning in to observe the Muttleby head more closely.
He was correct and Tup was pleased that its handiwork was not going unappreciated. Although the ceramic head was the size of a large orange, the mouth of the jar containing it was no bigger than a grape.
“Curious,” Tuttleby said as he finally set aside Mann’s huge book and lifted the jar to examine it more closely.
When he did, the Muttleby head suddenly disintegrated as if it’d been no more than smoke on the wind.
“Oh, dear. Now you’ve done it in proper, old man,” Simon Lassiter snorted.
Tuttleby couldn’t have been more surprised. He uncorked the jar and sniffed the contents to confirm that it was nothing more than paint thinner.
“That shouldn’t have happened,” the doll maker said puzzled.
“I am a busy man, Tuttleby. I’ve no time to split hairs. I brought you a doll to have you repair it, and overnight you’ve managed to wipe it from existence like so much chalk on a board.”
“Now then, the way I see it, you’ve but one recourse. Replace the doll altogether, by whatever means, it is of no concern to me. But I’ll have it by tomorrow, if you please.”
At this point in the conversation Tup sat up from where it had been rolling about on the stairs following the dissolving of the Muttleby’s head. Did Tup hear correctly? Tuttleby hadn’t constructed the offending doll after all.
“As I said, that was my daughter’s favorite doll. So I expect that if you know what’s what, then you’ll set this matter right, Tuttleby.”
“I don’t understand this at all,” Colm Tuttleby said, and was still repeating just that to himself as Lassiter swaggered out of his shop.
“Tomorrow, Tuttleby. First thing,” Simon Lassiter called out over his shoulder as the chill wind slammed the shop door behind him.
“Of course,” Tuttleby answered with no one to hear save Tup.
“Goodness, but what have I done?” the startled creature squeaked to itself and flew off up the stairs leaving Colm Tuttleby to sit for another hour staring blankly into the Muttleby polluted jar of paint thinner.
As Huntley Mann clearly explains amongst the countless rules outlined in his pages covering paints, stains and varnishes, while stains may be applied during the higher humidity of inclement weather, it is not advisable to apply paint, and varnish was right out. Colm Tuttleby knew those rules all too well and couldn’t help but nod silently to acknowledge it, when, not twenty minutes after Simon Lassiter departed in a snit, the weather went as foul as that man’s demeanor. First a drizzle began. But soon enough it was made all the worse as those wispy droplets coalesced and became crazed about on a wind that seemed to be from everywhere at once. By noon it was a winnowing sleet that kept the customers away, which would have been fine, if such weather didn’t also make for such poor working conditions.
“Far too humid,” Colm lamented.
With the weather as his accomplice, Colm Tuttleby put things off all morning. He spent three hours cleaning up the mess in his workshop, and then the procrastinating doll maker took his lunch of pumpernickel on rye an hour early in another effort to busy his distracted mind. When his luncheon of breads and forgotten cold cuts was near its conclusion, he finally gave up, kicking his feet and locking the bolt on the front door three hours before his usual closing time. There were no receipts to tally, and so before he’d even finished chewing the last of his dry crusts he was mounting the stairs.
“Bothersome bother,” he muttered. For the first time he was upset that there was a doll to be made.
Meanwhile, upstairs on the top shelves of the workshop, Tup had been stacking curly dust motes, a nervous habit from youth that the little old creature had all but forgotten it knew how to do so well. Tup was up to eleven stories, nearly a record, when the doll maker burst in, sullying the still air and sending most of the ghostly tower billowing off into the four corners.
Tuttleby immediately settled down at his workbench and Tup took a seat up atop Huntley Mann’s book, dangling its slender legs down the book’s spine. Tuttleby went to work while Tup pretended to not be interested, precisely sending little puffs of breath into the surrounding air to herd a few of the lingering dust motes. Shortly, they began erratically orbiting about Tup’s head like tipsy moths.
There wasn’t any danger of the doll maker noticing Tup, even if the creature hadn’t shrunk itself down to the size of a thimble. Amongst the usual clutter of the workshop, from the ubiquitous doll parts and endless supplies and tools scattered hither and thither, little Tup was far off and lost in the distance of Tuttleby’s harried state.
Colm Tuttleby had a rule against working while tired. He also normally never abided by deadlines; the demands for his talents allowed him such luxuries. Colm’s habit was to work in the mornings, muttering his way downstairs from the workshop when the shop door chime signaled customers. Those who came too early were chastised if they interrupted Tuttleby without making a purchase. He treated them even worse if they came in from off the street only out of casual curiosity.
“Oh, please do come back in the afternoon. We can dawdle and gawk as much as you like then. But for now there’s work to be done,” he’d say without hesitation when it was clear that they’d just popped in for a look.
He would clear his throat loudly and point to the sign at the front door when children entered unaccompanied by an adult.
“No Children Unattended!” it read in menacing red script. Many times those children fled without knowing what the sign said, having gotten its gist through Colm Tuttleby’s demeanor alone.
And that wasn’t the only sign. Tuttleby didn’t like to repeat himself, but his signs did. There were no less then a dozen that proclaimed, “DO NOT TOUCH!” and four that warned, “Staff Only!”
But he wasn’t an ogre. In fact, those children who conducted themselves accordingly were always rewarded. If Tuttleby wasn’t required to clear his throat or tap a sign, then he would call those children over to the counter before they left where he presented them with a little gift. Very often it was a teddy bear for the boys and a ballerina for the girls. And, in keeping with the Tuttleby tradition, the gifts were miniatures. No larger than the size of a large coin, but remarkable in detail for so small a doll, were Tuttleby’s rewards for good behavior.
Colm had settled into his work and ceased his grumbling, although his thoughts weren’t given completely to the task before him. He couldn’t help but drift back to the mystery of the ruined Muttleby as his nimble fingers worked with a needle and thread.
“Ship in a bottle, indeed,” he said softly as he continued his work between yawns. The minute hand crept around the clock face not once, but twice, and Colm’s own hands grew slower and slower while his work’s completion seemed to always remain a ways off, like some frustrating mirage that couldn’t be reached. The clock ticks seemed to grow more profound and the scent of the workshop became like ether, causing the doll maker to pause and look around every so often as he searched for some bottle left inadvertently uncorked. He found none.
His best work lamp, as well as several others, had been shattered or disassembled earlier by mischievous Tup. As a result, Colm was forced to make do with a less than adequate backup and he wasn’t accustomed to working in such low light. There was no sunlight from the window beside him as he normally might enjoy during the day, just the streetlamp outside on the corner, little more than a golden island too far off in the rain that still fell through the night. Dry and warm in his workshop, at the very least, Colm hunched beneath the much smaller island cast by his desk lamp. The gloomy sea of the workshop gathered around him. The large fireplace across the room was half-filled with licking flames, providing a bit more illumination by which to see, while the eerily bent shadows cultivated from the room’s menagerie of dolls and mannequins and their numerous loose limbs would’ve been enough to keep most strangers from straying off into the darker corners.
Spying through his jeweler’s loupe when the newly cracked magnifying glass mounted to his bench wasn’t enough, Colm moved on to painting buttons, a personal touch he enjoyed adding to his more impressive work.
After a half an hour more the buttons were done and drying on the bench. So much still to do. If the clouds hadn’t obscured it, Colm could’ve watched the moon rise and then slip off behind the nearby church tower by the time he was satisfied with the doll’s shoes. So much still to do.
Colm’s eyelids were drooping more and more, fluttering between half-nods–but he was sure they were still open– when something very odd occurred. First, the doll he was crafting got up from his lap and crawled onto the workbench. Colm considered halting its departure, but his hands were tired, and besides, the air was thick with heady vapors. The rain had slowed but still pattered against the window pane. The doll’s little footfalls matched its cadence. Once the new doll reached the center of the bench it turned to him with a smile, curtsied in its unfinished dress, and sat.
“What a ridiculous thing,” Colm Tuttleby whispered. He hoped Simon Lassiter’s daughter would prefer such a silly doll.
With the doll having reverted back to an inanimate state–as it should have been–a pair of scissors, a sewing needle, and several spools of various colorful thread took their turn to amaze the doll maker. Tumbling across the workbench, the spools bounded at the insistence of the needle as it pricked the slower or otherwise straggling spools, wrangling them over to the doll. The spools chirped out from time to time, smarting at the needle’s pokes, but following its bidding just the same. The scissors brought up the rear of this strange little parade, overseeing all as it strutted across the table on its pointy ends. Within another flitter of Colm’s drowsy eyelids, the needle had the gaggle of spools corralled between the seated doll’s legs, and, as the assortment milled about with their different colored tails of thread trailing behind them, the needle set to work. It flew through the air about the doll deftly sewing length after length of colored threads which were supplied as needed by a snip of the scissors that otherwise stood guard at the doll’s feet. Colm Tuttleby watched in amazement then as a bundle of paint brushes rolled out a company of little jars of paints and within no time at all the whole air around the doll was a beehive of activity.
As if the fact that his tools had decided to complete his task for him wasn’t enough, the tired doll maker was in awe of the remarkable job they did. When they were finished, and the last jars of paint had been rolled away by their brushes–which had made sure to clean and dry their own bristles as well before retiring–and the needle had led its bumbling spools away, the scissors were the last to go, and did so with a sharp snip of a salute before somersaulting back into their holster at the workbench edge. All that remained was the finest doll ever to have been created in the Tuttleby shop. She still sat at the center of the workbench, though now blinking as if unsure of what had happened herself. Where he’d been fatigued before, the doll maker was ecstatic. As Colm Tuttleby did a Rumplestiltskin dance amongst the gamboling shadows of the shop–and as those shadows seemed to join in his revelry–the most perfect doll ever made laid down her little head and went to sleep.
On the sole of her shoe was Colm Tuttleby’s signature although he certainly had never signed the doll.
The dawn came as it should, chasing away the last of a rain that it had seemed would never end. Colm woke as day broke, but not from his bed. He found his neck stiff with a crick and his posterior as sore as a chastised truant school boy’s when he finally lifted his sleepy head from the workbench where he’d slipped off into slumber sometime during the night before.
“Ah, bother,” he moaned as he put himself right.
And there’s no doubt that he would have complained more but for the sight that greeted his hazy gaze. Seated there before him was the finest doll he’d ever seen. It was so astounding that at first he thought she was a real girl or perhaps an angel. Her hair was golden and the morning sun glistened off it in a halo. She wore a crinoline dress of lavender that was accentuated with an embroidery of white flowers so fine that Colm was sure no human hand could have stitched them.
He was hesitant to touch her–as if someone above his station had placed a sign warning him not to do so–but after a few minutes more he lifted the doll slowly and studied it more closely. It was the doll he had begun, of that he was sure, but it was no doll he remembered completing, of this he was just as certain. All the more befuddled, he returned it to the desk. He sat back and rubbed his chin in contemplation. He’d no recollection of making this doll. He’d made most of it, yes, but not this masterpiece that he suddenly couldn’t help but notice bore his name.
He was nearly on the verge of recalling the night’s odd occurrences, but just then there came a resounding rap at the shop front door.
Colm Tuttleby had forgotten his morning’s appointment once more. Tup, who stood proudly on the top shelf, almost seeming to want to be seen, had not. The little creature was bubbling with the excitement of seeing Simon Lassiter’s expression when the most exquisite doll ever made was presented to him. How little Tup’s feet pattered as it danced with anticipation.
The rapping at the front door grew angrier as Colm shook himself from his reverie and rushed downstairs to answer.
“Yes, yes! I hear you. I hear you!” he bellowed rudely before noticing who’d come calling. “Oh, Mr. Lassiter, many apologies,” he offered as he threw open the door to discover that the man had not returned unaccompanied. At Simon Lassiter’s side stood all four feet of his pride and joy. “Charlotte, my dear, welcome!” the doll maker said, taking the child’s hand so that now she stood anchored between the two men.
Simon spoke, “Might we come in, Tuttleby? Or shall we spend the morning here on your stoop?”
“Yes, no, yes. Come in, come in.”
Tuttleby resumed his dumbstruck posture once they were all three inside.
“Well?” Simon Lassiter impatiently prompted as his daughter broke free of them and began to peruse the merchandise.
She’d been to Tuttleby’s before, but even if she hadn’t she was well-mannered and knew better than to let little fingers wander. Besides, she wasn’t interested in any of the dolls or other things on display; she was seeking her doll, Marie.
Tup, who’d followed Tuttleby downstairs, watched from a favorite downstairs hiding place, seated in an overstuffed doll chair in the parlor of a display dollhouse. The little creature immediately liked Charlotte and was pleased that she would be receiving Tuttleby’s finest work. As it watched her more closely, Tup discovered that there was something quiet and sad about the girl, however, as though she’d forgotten the words to a rhyme that used to make her smile. Tup was happy to know that very soon all would be put right.
“Mr. Lassiter, I’m so glad that you’ve brought Charlotte. I’ve something so very special, you see.”
“You don’t say? Well I knew of course that I could count on you, Tuttleby, old chip. Did you hear that, sweetheart? Mr. Tuttleby has something very special for you. Isn’t that just grand?”
The child paused and then asked with hope, “Is it Marie?”
“What?” Tuttleby asked, confused.
“Marie. She’s my best friend. She lost her leg. I can’t find her.”
Neither man spoke as they looked to one another. Simon Lassiter cocked an eyebrow as well as his head as if to say, see what a mess this is?
“No, my child, I’m sorry. I don’t have…ah…Marie. But I do have someone very special who I think you’ll like just as much.”
“I love Marie,” the little girl said in a breathy whisper. She turned back to the shelves of countless dolls and continued her search.
Tup’s heart tightened into a lump.
“So where is this surprise, eh?” Simon Lassiter asked Colm, who seemed even more distracted than usual.
“Oh, ah…just up in the workshop. One moment, if you please.”
“But of course. Take all the morning, Tuttleby. We’ve nowhere to be this fine day, do we, sweetheart?” Lassiter’s sarcasm normally would have irritated the doll maker, but this morning he simply bobbed his dizzy head and rushed off to fetch the most incredible doll ever to grace his shop.
Tup sat back in the plush little chair and considered the girl some more as they awaited Colm’s return. The curious thing that had struck Tup upon first seeing her was how much she looked like the doll she was to receive. They shared the same head of hair, golden blonde and shoulder length, curling in soft waves and kept back in ribbons, and her skin was the same flawless peach and pink that needed no paints or foundations to make grown women envious. Charlotte’s eyes were green, and so were the dolls, but that detail wasn’t such a surprising coincidence, since it was Tup’s favorite hue after all. But more than any of those physical aspects, the girl and the doll shared something else that Tup just realized as Tuttleby was returning down the stairs.
There was something–subtle in the comparison of their features–something about each of them that made them kindred in their demeanors. If Tup had to explain it, the creature would’ve said it could be seen mostly in their eyes, which glimmered with life but were heavy with sorrow all at once. Also, their lips–the girl’s and the doll’s– seemed on the verge of revealing a smile, but at the same time gave the impression that they never would. Tup was sure that if the doll had ever breathed, it would have made the same heavy sigh that came to Charlotte from time to time, flaring little nostrils and pursing tight lips. Remarkable, Tup thought as Tuttleby broke the spell.
“Here we go!” Tuttleby uncharacteristically trumpeted. He held the doll at arm’s length to Simon Lassiter as he crossed the shop floor to him.
For his part, Simon Lassiter said not a word but gave an emphatic nod toward his daughter, redirecting the doll maker’s attention.
“Ah, many apologies. Of course.” Tuttleby blushed a bit and checked his enthusiasm.
“Charlotte, my dear,” he said, taking a knee and calling her to him with a curling index finger. “This is for you.”
The child had been faced away from the doll maker, and when she turned her expression was suddenly filled with joy.
“Marie?” she squealed in anticipation.
But as quickly as the joy had come to her face it was washed away. The man didn’t have her prized Marie as she’d mistakenly expected.
In the doll house parlor, first Tup leapt to its feet and then dropped to its knees. As the little girl became sad once more Tup pulled out one of its yarn-like of hairs and gnashed its teeth in frustration for its failure.
Charlotte slowly crossed to Tuttleby and took the doll from him.
“She’s the finest doll I’ve ever made,” he offered, hoping to tease something more from the girl.
“Yes, she’s lovely,” Charlotte agreed. That she was disappointed that this doll was not Marie needn’t be said.
“What do you say, Charlotte?” Simon Lassiter said.
“Thank you, Mr. Tuttleby,” she said.
All three, Tup, Tuttleby, and Lassiter, couldn’t help but notice the tears welling in the little girl’s eyes. As the first and last one tumbled down her cheek her father took her by the hand and led her to the door.
“You are a credit to your craft, Tuttleby, my boy,” he said to the doll maker before looking down to his daughter and adding, “I think this new dolly will be in need of some friends and perhaps her own little house, don’t you Charlotte?”
“Why certainly. What do you say, Mr. Tuttleby?”
“Yes. Yes. Of course,” he blundered. “I’ll get started on some things as soon as possible.”
“Wonderful. Good day then,” Simon said.
And with that the father and daughter were gone.
Back upstairs, Tup grew to its full height and heaved Huntley Mann’s The Fine Art of Miniatures and Doll Craft down off the shelf. Colm heard the great book crash onto the floor over his head, but the doll maker was too depressed to do anything other than mutter.
Tup flipped to a page in the back of the book and once it found what it was looking for Tup flitted up to the little hole in the back of the bookshelf and disappeared within, swearing that it would never come out again. With one last “pop” leaving a trace of soap and sulfur in the air, the hole shut fast and disappeared as though it’d never been at all.
The store was closed and the sky had gone gray once more by the time Colm Tuttleby found his way back up to his workshop later that night. He puttered about, doing much of nothing really before he finally noticed Huntley Mann’s text on the floor at the foot of the bookshelf.
At the middle of the page was a single sentence, one of Mann’s final maxims, printed in red. Colm recognized the line, but didn’t recall it being any color but black, the same as the accompanying text. But even odder than that change was the appropriateness of its message:
“In the art of doll craft there is no work grander, of more worth, or greater in accomplishment, regardless of all its other numerous merits, than the doll which fills a child’s heart with joy.”
As he closed the book and considered what he’d read, Colm noticed the small piece of varnished yarn that marked the page. Outside 37 Sunning Lane, the first snow, early for the season that would be both long and harsh, began to fall.
The Ephemeral Man by Heikki Hietala
The old man was dying. For a long time he had sounded like the sandstorm around an oasis, when the sand attacks the palms and the loose bark of the trees is torn away by the dry, howling wind. There were better nights, especially after it had rained and the air was more humid, but they were becoming rare.
I tried to make his last days as comfortable as I could, but the thing he needed most, rest, he would not have. He wanted to talk all the time, remembering scenes from his eighty-three years on Earth, forty of which I had spent with him. He wanted me to prop him up in his divan, sit down next to him, and talk, talk all through the day and into the night.
“Mashood, remember when I found you at the fruit market? You were twelve. You had just pinched a… what was it? A grapefruit? A peach?…” he’d start, and I would gently correct him.
“It was a pear, Master.”
“That’s what I thought, a peach… and then you ran into me, and I blocked your escape. The fruit dealer wasn’t very happy with you, was he? He lifted you right off the ground by the ears.”
The memory still burned my earlobes. “He did, Master, and he would have done much worse, had it not been for you.”
“Yes, it is funny, isn’t it… I was there right at the moment that I could help you, and you ran into me, and not someone else. And even then, I wasn’t looking for a little boy to become a servant, I had servants aplenty. But there was something-”
I had heard this story a million times already, but I asked him, “What was it, Master, that made you take pity on me?”
The light from the single oil lamp in the room glittered in his eye. He looked at me and smiled. “You had an intelligent look in your feisty eyes. I could see you were clever, just like that, at a glance. And intelligent servants are a rare breed indeed.” He burst into another fit of coughs that shook his desiccated little body.
I tried to offer him some wine blended with water, but he only watered his lips with the liquid, then pushed it away. “I wasn’t expecting to find someone I could train to be my assistant, but as you know, Life has a way of finding things and letting things be found,” he said and closed his eyes.
As I started back from him, to go and prepare his meagre supper, he surprised me by moving his hand and grabbing me. “Did I act right that day? Did I do what I was supposed to when I paid the grocer, and calmed him down so he wouldn’t sell you off for a slave to the Syrians? Or did I interrupt the flow of your life, causing it to be derailed and thwarted, and not what it was to have been?”
I took his hand and placed it back in his lap. “Master, you know my life has been the best possible after you rescued me.” I wasn’t lying. The streets of Nishapur were not an easy place for orphans. We all dreamed of better lives, but I was the only one of the ragged gang of snot-nosed rascals who lived past twenty years.
“Oh well. The lives that we live and the ones that we could have lived are all just reflections of sunlight in the River Oxus. There is no life that should have been picked from all the possible ones.” He lay back and breathed in, sounding like a broken reed flute. “We just act out one of them, on a whim, like the wind picks up leaves from the ground and drops them on the ground again.”
Having delivered this, he lay silent for a while, and I thought he dozed. I went to pick up the fruits and ground millet he liked to have with some goat milk, but when I returned, he was looking at me with a twinkling eye. I served him his meal, and he ate with more purpose than on many an evening. He ate all I brought him, and thanked me. I put the bowl away and sat next to him.
“You have served me well, Mashood. I took a gamble when I picked you from the dust and installed you in school. Only three years after that you were able to help me in my calculations, and I would not have completed the Ephemeris so soon had it not been for you, my friend. And without the Ephemeris… no calendar, and without calendar, no reputation, fame, and all this. The Sultan would have thought me just another useless mathematician.” The old man lifted his hand and waved across the room. “And now I will leave all this, for naught.”
My heart was crying because of the truth in his words. “Master, you will be remembered for all eternity for your work. I am just angry because it is called the Jalali calendar, and not the Khayyamite calendar.”
He closed his eyes again, weary and worn. “Sultans come and go, caliphs arrive only to depart, and mathematicians leave the Earth behind. Only the Sun and the Moon and the planets will see us all out, and names will matter even less when no one is here to use them. The Calendar itself will work until the end of days, regardless of whether anyone uses it. It will follow the laws of the heavens.” Another spasm of coughs. The few leaves left in his tree would soon flutter to the ground. “The only laws there really are, you see.”
“I will remember you, and my sons after me, and their sons. Your memory will not die.”
“That’s kind of you, Mashood. Really. But the thing is, all will end someday, your line, the state, the caliphate. And I don’t mind that one bit.” I fluffed the pillows behind his back and stood to leave him alone for a while.
He sensed I was going away. “Mashood? I want you to do something. You must go to doctor Abdul-Hakim and tell him to read the letter I sent him. He will know what to do. Go now, he will not mind you arriving this late.”
I promised I’d go there right after having my supper, but he insisted I go straight away. So, I picked up my robe and stick, and made my way to the doctor’s house. As soon as he saw me at the door, he said, “Right. Tell your master I will be ready. Thank you,” and he closed the door in my face. I was not really clear on what was happening, but it was not for me to ask such questions. I went home and had my supper.
Later that night, some time before the sunrise, I could hear Master calling for me with a weak voice. I scrambled to him and asked, “What is it, Master?”
He said, “What time is it, Mashood? Has the Sun appeared already?”
“No, Master, but it will rise soon. The eastern horizon is red.”
“Do you remember the daybreak we watched in the great Tower of Isfahan?”
“How could I forget, Master? It was a glorious Vernal Equinox morning, and your Eternal Calendar was launched that day.”
He smiled, and it was the Master of bygone days for a second before me. “The only eternal thing about the calendar was the Universe it measures. Besides, you must remember how they tore down the Observatory when they deemed it was not necessary anymore. That will happen to every institution in this world – someone will come and say, who built this? And why is it not torn down already? But now, my friend, I ask you to take me to the roof. I want to see the sunrise.”
“It is cold outside, Master, and the wind will not do you any good. It is better to lie here and be warm.” But he was adamant, and began to rise from his bed. I had to help him up, and I more or less carried him upstairs to the roof after I had dressed him up in warm clothes. I took with me some pillows so I could prop him up against the wall, and he could see the sunrise as it meant so much to him.
He smiled his thanks, and said, pointing at the Sun: “Mashood, look – that is the only thing in our world that will not decay with time. My time is exhausted now, and all that remains for you is to bury me. Abdul-Hakim will help you, so right after I die, go see him again. Oh! see the Sun! Isn’t it beautiful?”
I looked through squinted eyelids, and it was truly a magnificent display of colours and brightness, with all imaginable shades of red on the Eastern horizon. Omar watched with open eyes, as if he wanted the Sun to burn him out of his body and make him free. When he didn’t blink after a minute, I knew he had left his body and was now among the stars. I closed his eyes and said a short prayer, although I am quite sure he could not have cared less for one. Then I picked him up and carried him downstairs. My wife and sons came to say goodbye to him, and then I covered him in a sheet and carried him in my arms across the waking town to doctor Abdul-Hakim.
“Ah… he is gone. Please put him on this table, and then you must go and tell the Sultan of the passing of this great man. I will have him ready for you to bury him by early afternoon. Go now.” And Abdul-Hakim ushered me out of the door. I watched for a moment as the sunlight crept down the whitewashed walls of his house, illuminating the dark recesses of the houses on the narrow street.
Then I went to the Palace, told the gatekeeper what had happened, and watched as he sent a runner to notify the Sultan. Of course they would not wake him up at this hour, but as soon as he was ready for the day, he’d be told so he could attend the funeral.
I walked home and allowed my wife to serve me breakfast, but I could not eat too much. I just thought of the end of an era, and how everyone would now come by and praise him, not to accord him the elevated status that belonged to him, but to elevate themselves in the eyes of the Sultan and the elite. It made me sick to think how they would use him to advance their own status; then I remembered his words and they soothed me. He did not care what had happened, or what would happen – only this moment was something to consider.
The day passed in a daze, but then I remembered I had to go and collect the body from Dr Abdul-Hakim. When I got there, I was surprised there was not one, but two bodies. Both were wrapped in a similar, unadorned but clearly expensive sheet of white muslin. “Mashood, this was his last wish. You are to take Omar’s body to the cemetery, and let the Sultan and the high society bury him. I know there’s a plot ready for him among the dignitaries. Wait until all have left, then return here, making sure no one follows you. I will then tell you what to do next.”
I was really confused by now, but as it was not my business to ask what my superiors meant, I merely bowed and carried the light burden of my former Master to the cart. When I pushed the cart out to the bright sunlight, the crowd of mourners was already waiting for me, complete with the Sultan and his court. I took my place at the head of the procession and walked up and down the streets to the Palace cemetery. With all due rituals, we buried him on his right side, facing Mecca.
As instructed, I went to the good doctor’s house again after I was left alone at the cemetery. He told me what to do next.
“Mashood, there will be a second burial today. In this sheet lies a body, which you must take to the hills and bury there. I have a map for you with which you will find a cave which has been chiselled into the hillside, for the purpose of receiving this body.”
“Who is this?”
“It is the body of a nameless beggarman who died this morning.”
“What is this all about?”
“Mashood, when Omar was still in good health, but his years began to advance, he came to me and arranged thus: when he died, I was to find the body of a pauper, lay them side by side, and then take his heart and put it in the other body. The beggar’s heart is now in Omar’s body, buried with all the respect of the society.”
“I still don’t understand!”
“Simple: this is Omar’s last act of charity. You see, he wanted the man, who had nothing on Earth, to have a respected burial for his heart at least. And for his own heart, he wants nothing; he told us time and time again how we are but drops of water in the river, on our way back to the sea, and then to rain again back to Earth for another life. He wants you to take this body, and his heart, to the hills so he can see the Sun rise every morning through the eyes of a poor man.”
The doctor rubbed his eyes. “Now, the cave is small – the body will only fit in a sitting posture. The Syrian stoneworkers have cut a covering slab. Cover the grave and try to make it inconspicuous. The workmen assured me the grave will not be visible from thirty feet away.”
I took the body from the table. It weighed about the same as Omar’s and I knew it was not at all hard to find dead paupers in Nishapur. Dr Abdul-Hakim provided me with a donkey and a map, and as I was quite familiar with the mountains, I was sure I would find the place. The doctor bade me farewell and closed the door to his house, and I set out towards the hills. The map gave me a few points along the trail, but distances were schematic. I was glad the doctor had supplied me with food, fruit and water. Out of the town and at the foothills, I had a rest and a snack, and then took the little-used path that led up the hills.
Three hours or so was all it took for me to find the curious stone which had been marked out in my map. It was a natural rock, but someone had used a chisel on it and carved an arrow on it, but such an arrow that would only be seen by someone in the know. I glanced left and right, and seeing no one, took the body on my shoulder and clambered up the gradually steepening hillside.
I found the marker stones and turned right as instructed, and found the shallow grave just where the map said I would. I lay down my light burden and looked around. It was a perfect place for burial, high above the hustle and bustle of the world, where caravans would be seen as ants and the only birds to be seen were eagles circling in the rising air.
The hole in the ancient mountain was just big enough to take the little body I put in it. The covering slab was a feat of stonework; it was perfectly formed to fit the hole snug and tight. I took some dust from the ground and mixed it into a paste on my plate with some water from my waterbag; then I applied it to the seam. It masked the remaining lines from the opening and the grave would indeed be invisible from ten feet away.
It was late in the day now, and I decided to stay there for the night. It wasn’t the most comfortable of nights, what with no firewood, and only a saddle blanket for warmth. Still, I felt I had to stay there and see the sunrise.
And when the sun rose the next morning, I said my morning prayers as I had been taught to, but after that, I said one of my Master’s poems:
Another Voice, when I am sleeping, cries,
“The Flower should open with the Morning skies.”
And a retreating Whisper, as I wake–
“The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.”
I said goodbye to my Master’s eternal heart, collected my kit, took the rope of the donkey, and started down the hill, to go and live the rest of my own life.