Tuesday, March 4, 2014

China Hearts

A short story that it took me nearly 30 years to get around to finishing:

Most anyone who was familiar with this street would have recognized the weathered man standing outside the little shop of curios, though it was doubtful any of them knew his name. He could often be seen standing uncomfortably in front of a little curio shop, gazing at the items displayed in the window when he thought nobody was paying any attention to him. He appeared somewhat old but sturdy, as though the demanding work he had done his whole life had both aged him yet kept him healthy and free from the vices that idleness often attracts. His clothing was of the coarse and sturdy variety, typical of a man who earns his living by the sweat of his brow and the toil of his body. His face was weathered like a tree trunk, adding texture and lines to a face that had already been good at hiding whatever thoughts or emotions were occurring behind it. But it was perhaps in his hands that the tale of his life could best be read. They were thick tools for heavy work, looking almost more like work gloves than hands. So much did they bear the mark of his toils that they almost looked like root vegetable fresh-dug from the earth. He appeared out of place in this neighborhood of sophisticated city dwellers, but not enough so to call attention to himself. Although rough, there was nothing threatening about him; indeed, he emanated a gentleness that belied his tough exterior. There was a meekness in the way he kept to himself, a self-consciousness in the way he avoided bumping into any of the constant flow of people who walked past this busy street.

His existence had been one of hard work, struggling with nature for his meager wages. The work was brutish, leaving his body covered in dirt and dust and his mind numb from drudgery. But when he had a day off, he would often walk into town to drive the numbness from his mind, making sure that he was well washed and wearing his finest clothes, which really weren’t very fine. He had contemplated buying the type of clothes he saw those in the city wear, but he had no idea how to go about choosing such items. And besides, he knew that such clothing would only accentuate his other differences, the browned skin, the calloused hands and the dirt under his nails and in the grooves of his skin that could never be completely removed.

Here in the city, people lived differently than the others who shared his life. There words were fairer, flowed more smoothly. Their clothing was more for show than for work, and their manners more refined. He would often be content to sit on a bench and watch the people in their day to day business, moving effortlessly and knowingly through complicated social interactions. They possessed an understanding of society and how to gracefully move within it that he had never had a way of learning. But for him the heart of the city was the little shop that displayed intricate and delicate items for purchase. They spoke to him of lives lived without hardship, where things were made not merely for their usefulness but because they were beautiful. Most of the items there were made to be displayed, to be placed upon a mantel or in a curio cabinet, only to be looked at. Things made of crystal and intricately crafted fine metals, gold gilded porcelain and statuettes made of marble, jade, pearl and rarer material still from all parts of the globe. These items represented to him places that he could never hope to visit, experiences he would never have, people he would never be or even know. Such things would be quite out of place in his humble little cabin. Everything he possessed had been made of rough-hewn wood, blackened iron and unadorned pottery.

And yet. To own just one of these items, to possess something that stood apart from the base tools and utensils of his existence. Such a thing would be worth coming home to at night, worth the effort and struggle that was his life. He needed something in his life that could be adored, that spoke to him of something beyond need, something that existed without regard for mere function.

So he stared through the window, with each visit seeing something new displayed along with items he had wondered at before. When someone appeared to be walking towards the shop, he would start slowly in motion, walking a short while only to stop and stare again from a distance. He was afraid of what people might think of him if they caught him staring into the window, afraid they would mock the unsophisticated man who thought he was something he was not.

He would watch those who strolled so un-self-consciously into the store as if they were born for such things, as if it never occurred to them that such things might be too lofty or unobtainable for them. It must be admitted that the man felt a trace of jealousy when watching such people enter the shop and make purchases so casually, leaving the store with precious items that he had gazed at so lovingly through the shop’s window.

And then on one of his trips to the little shop he beheld an item more beautiful than any he had seen before: a heart-shaped crystal hung from a fine lace in the upper corner of the window. Though unadorned with gold or silver, its simple radiance caught the light of the noon-day sun and sparkled it back at him from its many finely cut facets. As it twirled ever so slowly upon the lace that held it, its myriad details would throw off various colors of the spectra, eclipsing the beauty of the other items around it. Upon seeing this crystal heart, he came to cherish it more than anything he had ever seen.  His trips into town became more frequent, his time spent gazing in the window of the little shop less spent concerned with what passerby might think. The idea came into his mind like a flash, that this precious item would be his. It horrified him to think that he might one day come to stare into this window only to find that some other person had taken it for their own. He had little money on him that day, but walked back that evening to the little shack he called home with the intent of returning the next day.

The pay he received for his labor was meager, but his needs had been more meager still. With little needed to satisfy his wants, he had managed to save what he believed to be a considerable amount over the many years. He would take it, all of it, and go back into town tomorrow. It would be enough, he was sure. Pretty sure, at least. All that evening his mind vacillated between thoughts of the crystal heart, of how happy he would be to bring it back home with him, how horrible it would be if someone else had bought it in the meantime. Perhaps they would not sell it to him, perhaps his life savings would not be enough for such an embodiment of beauty. And so one moment he would be thinking of where he would put the crystal heart in his small home, and the next moment he would be contemplating life if he should never see it again. He slept little that night.

He was up early the next morning, even for him. It was far too early to wander into town, far earlier than the little store opened. But he spent the time preparing  himself, wanting to make himself as presentable as he knew how to be. He scrubbed his fingernails with an old brush until his fingers nearly bled, trying to get the last of the darkness out from under them.

When he could stand it no longer, he made his way into town, trying to walk slowly so that he would not be there too early. But when he arrived, the store was not yet open. He rushed to the window as quickly as he could without appearing obvious to the few people that were on the street at such an early hour. The heart was still there. The knowledge lifted his heart even as it did nothing to calm him. He stood staring into the window until he became aware of the shopkeeper who walked to the door and opened it, glancing at him as she passed. The sudden recognition that he had been caught looking in the window made him flush with embarrassment that bordered on terror. He had been caught looking in the window of the shop, caught believing that he was worthy of such items. He walked away, his desire for the heart frustrated by his fear of not being worthy. He walked on, cursing himself, cursing life, cursing the fact that he was not one of those who could effortlessly walk into such a place of beauty.  He walked on until he realized the shop would soon be opening, and that the heart may reach the attentions of others who might also wish to have it for their own. He forced himself to walk around the block so that he would not call undue attention to himself, but he walked so quickly that people looked at him wonderingly. He reached the shop window and stared in the upper corner, thrilled at the sight of the crystal heart once again. And once again, he felt the utter inability to force himself into the shop, felt the complete lack of knowledge regarding how to go about such a transaction. He glanced about him in his practiced manner, making sure he was not standing out. As he did so, he noticed someone walk into the shop. Dread filled him again, at the thought that he had waited too long and might forever miss his opportunity. But if he had been afraid to walk into the store before, he was terrified at the idea of going in there when others were inside. He waited for the person who had entered to come back out, only to see two more people enter. The two exited shortly, but in the meantime, still another person had entered to look at what lay inside. It seemed an eternity of people walking in and out of the store until he was sure that it was now empty. And the heart was still there.

He could delay no longer. It was a greater act of courage than any he had performed in his life, but he forced himself to walk to the door and pull it open. He had never experienced such agony in his life, terrified that he would not have enough, or that they would simply refuse to sell it to such as him.

Inside the store, he found the shelving to be entirely too close together, the aisles insufficiently  wide. He walked slowly, cautiously, terrified that he might knock one of the items off the shelves. His shoulders seemed to him to be impossibly wide, his gait unsteady like a drunk’s. The shopkeeper stood at the counter near the door, but he avoided looking at her. She was a shape at the edge of his vision upon which he placed an imagined look of scorn. He concentrated on navigating the too-small aisle, ignoring whatever finery lay on them except to make sure not to knock into any of them.

Turning left, he now walked back up another aisle, approached the window. There was the crystal heart, slowly, barely, turning on the delicate lace that held it suspended. He looked at it and through his fear it lured him on. The sun shone through it, the first rays of the morning sun as mere playthings that it tossed about playfully.  He approached it as though it were a holy relic, hardly daring to raise his eyes to gaze upon it.

He knew he must now claim it as his own, knew that if he backed away in fear today that he would never have the courage, it would be lost to him forever. Rather than ask the shopkeeper to take it down for him, he decided to do it himself. His self consciousness around people had only intensified now that he carried within him his secret desire. Reaching up, he slid the lace from the hook it was suspended by with more care than he had ever given to any task he had ever done. He felt the weight of the crystal heart hanging from the lace now, discovered it to be lighter than he could have imagined.  Feeling its lightness, he imagined that it must also be more fragile than he had believed. He became terrified of the idea of it hanging loosely from the lace lest it sway and smash into something as he walked his way towards the counter. Holding the lace with one hand, he cupped the heart with the other. Feeling it to be reasonably secure, he released the lace and with that hand also protected the delicate ornament from any conceivable harm. Holding it now in both hands, he gazed at the heart that was now all but his. So great was his fear of letting it fall from his hands, he began to imagine that the sweat that now appeared upon his palms would cause it to slide from his grasp. With an involuntary reaction to an imagined movement of the heart, he gripped it more tightly than he intended. In that moment, he could feel the heart shatter from the pressure he applied on it. He looked in agony as the precious object of his affection broke apart into tiny splinters that sunk like teeth deep into his skin. Tears of pain welled up in his eyes, but it was not the cuts in his hands that were to blame. He let loose an uncontrollable sob, which caused the shopkeeper to become aware of him, which in turn led him to remember her presence. He managed to put aside his grief, set the pieces of crystal down as delicately as he could upon the shelving that stood behind the window. He walked as quickly as he could toward the exit without causing further damage. He stuffed his bleeding hand deep into the front pocket of his work pants, pulled out his money, his life savings. Without daring to look at the shopkeeper, he placed the money on the counter, left the shop, and never came near the little store again.

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