“Magic for Sale”
Five coopers and a two dimes couldn’t buy a bread loaf let alone the medicine needed to fight off the flu spreading through the tenements in the lower wards.
Charlie stared at the seven measly coins in his hand and wrapped his fingers tightly around the meager earnings Gentleman Sokolov paid him for selling a stack of dailies at the cafe corner. Busy as the spot was.
A defeated sigh struggled from Charlie’s lips. He shoved the coins back in his pocket and looked up to the staff and twisting snake that adorned the apothecary sign.
Perhaps tomorrow Charlie’d have enough scratch to get Beckann medicine to keep her from coughing up blood each night and that prevented her from eating and drink more than a few sips of water when she managed to sit up each day.
The physician had turned out Charlie upon seeing the boy’s rags, his unwashed face and hands smudged with ink and gutter filth. Even when the boy presented his earning for the day, the man had laughed from behind his counter and warned the boy to never return.
Thinking of his sister’s face twisted in pain, Charlie couldn’t bring himself to shuffled home. Not yet.
So he began to walk with no particular destination in mind. Just the aim to gather his courage and the words to say he’d failed today. Even though Beckann would smile, pat his hand, and say, “You did your best. Whatelse would make me more proud of my baby brother, huh?”
Then she would begin to cough. Her throat tightening. Her eyes puffy and red with irritation. Stomach folding over to abate the pain.
A gust of wind breezed by as Charlie’s scuffed boot toes ate up the walkway outside the stores readying to close for the night. Overhead a sign knocked against the door. The insistent sound drew Charlie’s attention. He looked up and saw a sprouting tree with an open book laying open among the roots.
Whatever could that sign mean?
The store below the sign was a place crammed between two other establishments. Barely more than a narrow door and a window off to the side. Within could be nothing more than a hallway made for a single man, not even a broad-shouldered man.
Curious, Charlie went to push the door inward. To peek inside. Perhaps the door led to a stairwell leading up. That’s when he noticed another sign in the shop’s tiny, little window. CLOSED the sign proclaimed.
Charlie looked around.
The day was growing short. The sky darker. The shadows longer. Far down the dusty street, the lanterns had not yet been lit. Adults came in and out of stores on this street, hurrying to beat the sun’s final descent.
Someone bumped into Charlie. An elderly woman.
With a genial smile that rolled up the wrinkles in her leathery face, she excused herself with a, “Pardon me young man.”
“No, mum,” Charlie said after a stammer. “My fault. My mind, it were… er… elsewhere.”
The elderly woman, crocked back hunched, grey hair tucked back in a shawl, continued to grin, adding a chuckle. “You’re a boy. Young. These things happen.”
From a pocket in the faded black dress that covered each inch of her plump body except her shriveled hands and creased face, she pulled a brass key. She then unlocked the shop with the sign overhead of a tree growing out from a book.
Her entrance was tolled by a tiny tinkling of a bell.
“Good day to you, boy,” the elderly woman said happily. “Mind and eyes up.”
The door shot behind her. But no lock clicked home.
The book and tree store remained open.
To confirm its new state in life, the sign in the window now proclaimed the store OPEN.
Possessed of eager, youthful curiosity, the boy entered the shop.
Surprise swept the breath from Charlie’s lungs and forced from him a gasp of wonder. Past the narrow door was neither a hallway nor a stairwell made for a skinny man. Inside was a cavernous shop.
Charlie’s legs walked him dreamily down a short flight of stairs and leafs brushed his cheek.
To his left a tree grew bursting from the shop’s floorboards, the roots slipping in and out of holes in the boards across the shop floor. Candles in the space where the tree’s trunk separated and branched out with a canopy of leafs lit the entry stairs with a buttery glow. Inviting. Warm. The candles’ wax ran into the furrows of the trunk’s dark bark, like milky sap. The light allowed Charlie to see that the roots led to various glass counters filled with the strangest things he’d ever seen. To freestanding bookcases stuffed with tomes thicker than Charlie’s thumb.
Charlie stepped over a thick root lounging across the third to bottom step, his mind distracted and yearning to see what other oddities the shop held.
Suddenly, something screeched eagerly.
Charlie spun about, nearly tripping down the last two steps. He found a monkey scaling the tree, a lit candle held by its curling tail, which he used to light the wicks of the others still dark among pockets in the tree’s trunk.
The monkey spied Charlie watching. As surprised as Charlie by the little helper’s presence, the monkey fumbled the candle held by his tail, knocking another he’d meant to light. That other candle, its wick now lit with a flame of its own, nearly tipped and set the entire tree on fire. But the little helper caught the candle at the last second, clutched it close, and seemed to breath an easy sigh of thanks.
After replacing the candle, the monkey turned to Charlie and screeched with accusing fury. Likely demanding what business Charlie had inside the store. As if Charlie needed an appointment.
Tiny flickers of light darted about the monkey, who swatted at specs, jabbed at the lights with his candle like the stick of wax were a steel sword.
One of the specs of light shot toward Charlie, stopping in front of his face. Within the nimbus he saw a girl, wings on her back humming with furious speed. She smiled at Charlie and beckoned him forward, allowing him entry to the shop contrary to the monkey’s protests.
Eventually the monkey gave into the other specs of light and swung about the entry tree’s branches to a dangling swing. Sullen and defeated, the monkey began to swing, kicking his long legs, the candle still hooked about the tail, the flame swaying.
Sheppard by the fairy, Charlie wandered about the shop stuffed magically between two other stores.
On shelves sat jars filled with glowing liquid, colors Charlie knew not how to name. Some crackled inside. Others contained lightning. Tendrils of mist moved in others. Others contained pickled fingers, eyeballs that followed Charlie about the room, and two had tentacles. Charlie thought of stories in which people drank potions that made them grow to the sky, shrink down to the size of a mice, belch fire, potions that turned them into animals, potions that healed. Magic miracles. Although tempted, Charlie kept his hands to himself.
Inside the glass cases were skulls, human and otherwise. Some too big to be anything but giants, some small enough for the shop’s fairies to wear as hats. He also saw lamps and bottles of varying sizes and shapes.
Rows of cubbies contained fraying scrolls.
The bookcases required long latters to reach the tops, which were lit by pulsing fruits that hung from the boughs of the tree’s ever-reaching limbs.
Dolls sat on a couple shelves, dolls Charlie’s sister might have enjoyed. Except the mouths were sawn shut. The eyes crossed out. Maybe not for Beckann.
One part of a wall with no bookcase stretching high and no shelves, there were brooms on display. Odd to display tools to sweep the floor. Odder still that the brooms had stirrups just above the bunched bristles.
Gathered in barrels by the checkout counter were canes with carved animal heads and swords that when touched hummed a tone. Charlie smiled and laughed as a song vibrated up his finger and jittered his bones.
As one song moved its way up to Charlie’s shoulder and tickled his nose, he felt a tapping on his arm.
As Charlie spun about, the song cut off, leaving a fading whisper.
Standing there was a young woman. Slight and whip thin. Behind her thin-rimmed spectacles were playful robin’s egg blue eyes. Wheat golden hair curled atop her head. She wore colorful petticoats to revival a rainbow, a bright blue blouse, and an apron with many clever pockets. She must be the old woman’s daughter or niece. They shared the same genial smile. Welcoming. Easy.
“Hello there, boy,” the woman said cheerily, her voice resonating with deep knowing.
His fairy greeter danced about the woman’s hair of spun golden wheat and settled atop as if the curls were a nest.
“Ma’am,” the boy replied, shining her his widest grin. “Sorry I ventured in. The door was open and the sign outside said… well… it said you’re open.”
“So it’s good you came in,” she assured him with a titter. “Everyone is always looking for something. Even if they don’t know it.” She paused to let Charlie reflect on this wisdom. “What are you looking for, boy?”
The meager earnings that were not enough to purchase medicine for his sister suddenly dragged down Charlie’s pocket. Hand shoved inside his pocket, Charlie counted the fiver coopers and two dimes.
Dejected he admitted, “I don’t have much, ma’am.”
On the counter next to where Charlie stood with the woman, a puppet sat between a jar marked TIPS and another filled with knobby and gnarled cut branches. This puppet had no strings. It was dressed like a little boy. Its wooden form slumped forward with little hope, with sadness deeper than termites might burrow. Eyes dull and lifeless.
The woman’s smile spread wider, impishly. Her deep voice stole Charlie’s attention back. “I’m sure we can find away for you to pay.”
Charlie glanced back to the TIPS jar and the puppet. He swore the puppet’s eyes shifted to look at him, no longer seeming so lifeless.