February 13, 2016

The Heartless Haberdasher, By C. Z. Wright, EC Valentine Issue

Once upon a time, there was a wooden man who owned a haberdashery. Every day, he measured and fit fine accessories to the people of his town. The local barrister sent his beautiful daughter, Gavenia, to the haberdashery every month to make purchases. Month after month, Gavenia gazed longingly at the wooden man, who not once noticed or returned her attention.

One day, an old woman, bent and gnarled, entered his shop and requested he fit her with something that shone.

As he worked, the woman noticed the haberdasher wore a beautiful coat with hearts embroidered in silver thread. "You wear your heart on your sleeve," the woman said. "Are you not afraid it will be stolen?"

The haberdasher shook his head. "No, my lady. Being made of wood, I do not have a heart and so, I do not fear."

When he was finished, the woman wore a bright band of silver ribbons in her white hair. "It is quite beautiful," the woman said. "I would like to repay you for your excellent work. If you are willing to perform a task for me, I will reward you with a heart."

The haberdasher considered the offer. He had lived his entire life without a heart. His business was good, but he often believed it could improve, could he only join his customers in their delight at his work. The woman added, "I have seen how the barrister's daughter looks at you, haberdasher." Her black eyes glittered. "How will you respond when she offers her heart to you if you possess none to return to her?" At last, he agreed.

The woman told him of a dark wood far from the haberdashery, in which sat a small, deep lake. If he approached the lake when the water was quite still and looked at its surface into the eyes of his reflection, the dweller of the lake would come forth for battle. She instructed him to train vigorously, for if the creature approached and the haberdasher had no training, he would surely die. Defeat the dweller of the lake, the woman said, and the heart would be his.

"But where shall I store this heart?" the haberdasher asked. "I am hollow." The woman peered about the shop and her gaze alighted on a small sewing box. She whispered to it and the haberdasher was sure he saw the box glow for a moment. She held out the box to him and he accepted it, setting it in the front of his chest.

"Do not forget: put the heart in this box as soon as you have it." With that, the woman stepped out of the shop and into the street, rose into the air and flew away with haste.

The haberdasher closed his shop and gathered what he needed for his journey. He ventured out of the town and onto the well-travelled road.

The wood lay three days' walk from the haberdashery, and he took the opportunity to train himself. He improved his agility by running, his senses by testing himself on what he could see and hear, and his strength with exercises every few miles on the road. He was unsure of but did not fear what would be required when he faced the dweller of the lake.

When he reached his destination, the wood soaked up the light in its leaves high above its trunks, leaving the ground below dim and dusky. The haberdasher walked deeper into the forest, fearing neither the dim light before him nor the looming blackness above him. Presently he arrived at the lake. Its surface mirrored the mottled darkness of the canopy above. The haberdasher knelt before the lake and slowly bent to peer in. The still, smooth glass of the surface reflected the haberdasher's face perfectly. There was his wooden skin, his dull eyes, his expressionless countenance.

He gazed into his own eyes and watched as his reflection lifted from the water's surface. It shifted. Now his reflection was the haberdasher; now it wore a horse's face and rose up and out of the lake to stand upon its surface. Now it was a shaggy man, with eyes black and wild, and it lunged for the haberdasher with a howl. The haberdasher's training stood up to the onslaught. He dodged the dweller's attacks, noticed it was stuck fast to the lake, and struck at it with such strength that before long, the shapeshifter lay dead.

An enormous raven glided into the clearing and landed upon a branch. It held a shiny thing in its beak. The haberdasher approached with caution. Once he stood beneath the branch, the raven dropped a gold heart into his outstretched hand. The raven fixed him with a black eye before it flew away.

The haberdasher placed the heart inside his coat pocket, having forgotten about the sewing box, and retraced his steps toward town. In the back of his mind, he feared to lose his prize, even though he did not recognize the sensation as fear.

By now, the sun hung on the horizon and the sky had darkened. Upon exiting the woods, the haberdasher gasped. He gazed at the sky, with its swathes of orange, rose, and red sunset opposed by dark blue and purple twilight on the other horizon. Tears stung his eyes as he felt a strange sensation wash over him. He placed his hand over his throat, feeling it constrict with the pressure of the feeling.

The pain he felt from observing the sunset did not ebb until halfway through his second day of travel. He did not recognize the sensation and it alarmed him. He hoped he would have the opportunity to confer with the old woman. The haberdasher approached a bridge and a sound interrupted his thoughts. A small dog sat upon the bridge yelping pitifully: its paw was caught in a broken board and the dog could not move. Upon seeing the state of the dog, the haberdasher raced toward the creature, tears again stinging his eyes at the thought of this creature alone and frightened for so long, and carefully freed the dog's paw. The dog covered the haberdasher's face in grateful licks and the haberdasher's face crumpled into sobs of joy.

By the third day of travel, the haberdasher’s concern at his behavior had grown. On the outskirts of the haberdasher's hometown on the third day, the strains of evening mass drifted on the wind, stopping the haberdasher in the road. He closed his eyes, curious and fearful of new sensations. As the voices of the choir rang out in majestic song, tears fell for the third time from the haberdasher's eyes and he felt a warming sensation throughout his body. He stood upon the street, weeping openly for the joyous beauty of the song until he could no longer bear it. Wracked, he hobbled home to his shop, his hands clenched into fists over the aching he could feel but not locate.

"Take it back," he pleaded to the empty shop, "for I cannot stand it!"

He fell forward on his counter, sobbing with grief and joy at once, and his attention fell upon the small pile of sewing implements. He remembered the sewing box and the old woman’s warning. With haste, he opened the box on his chest, which had grown warm. He retrieved the golden heart from his pocket and placed it inside the sewing box. He closed the box and was nearly overcome with a wave of heat that washed over his body.

The haberdasher breathed in, something he had never done. He hurried to a mirror and what he saw astonished him: his skin had bloomed into a warm color and no longer had the appearance of wood. His eyes were a rich brown, and in those eyes shone a light that had not been present before his journey. And although he could still hear the choir, although their song lifted his heart, he was no longer overwhelmed by its beauty.

It was at this moment that the door to his shop swung open, and the barrister's daughter entered the shop. She had not changed, but when the haberdasher's gaze fell upon her beauty and grace, he felt his heart leap for the first time.

Gavenia smiled shyly at the haberdasher. It took him a moment to recall the order she had placed but three days before, so struck was he by her beauty. He fetched her father's order and when he returned, she said, "I notice you wear your heart on your sleeve. Are you not afraid it will be stolen?"

The haberdasher lost himself in her eyes a moment before replying. "It cannot be stolen from me if I should offer it to you."

Gavenia's face broke into a radiant smile that set the haberdasher's heart afire. She accepted, they wed, and lived happily ever after.

CZ Wright is a podcaster with the Arcology Podcast and a freelance writer whose work has been published by Catalyst Game Labs. She lives in Wisconsin


Unknown said...

I love this! This is the kind of story I like to memorize and then tell to my nephews at bedtime!

Lissa Sloan said...

Charming story!