An Older World
by Renee Carter Hall
It was the first snow of the year. Bitterly cold it had been, but dry, and that afternoon, at last, big wet flakes drifted down from of a lambs-wool sky. They fell like cold kisses on children's reddened cheeks, and boys and girls tugged at their parents' coat sleeves, urging them to this shop window or that, to see the train, the dolls, the castle of blocks. Shoppers bought evergreen wreaths and hot chestnuts and greeted each other when they passed in the street. Later, the snow would be trampled gray by hooves and carriage-wheels, stained by the soot filtering from the factory smokestacks. Until then, the snow was magic.
Jakob's shop smelled of sawdust and pine, balsam and beeswax. In its paned windows sat toy trains, dolls, sleds, carts drawn by carved horses, and a Noah's Ark with wooden animals lined up two by two, perfect to the tiny fangs in the lion's roaring mouth.
Jakob was not old, but his eyes looked ancient, and even when he smiled, there was a weariness behind it. His hair had gone gray early, and at the temples it was now brightening to white. Though his hands gripped blades and chisels with as much strength as ever, the skin was crisscrossed with old scars from cuts both shallow and deep.
The afternoon of that first snow, he was sitting at the register tallying the books, a task that never brought him much pleasure. Children wanted tin toys now, bright and flashy, things that wound up, dolls that bleated "mama" when you tipped them back. They were cheaper to make as well, even if they didn't last half as long. He imagined them all stamped out in another factory somewhere, a long row of machines, more black smoke fouling the winter air.
The bell on his door jangled. He looked up, and his breath caught in his throat. There she was, not yet six, her dark curls reaching to the fur-trimmed collar of her coat, with a pink dress showing beneath.
"Emma," he whispered, waiting for her to see him, to run to him and throw her little arms around his neck, so he could lift her into the air and hear her laugh--
The little girl's parents followed her in. Jakob pinched the bridge of his nose, rubbing the corners of his eyes. Of course it wasn't her. It never would be.
She chose a doll, and her parents paid. "This is Arabella," the girl declared.
"Oh, so that is her name," Jakob said. "She would never tell me. I suppose she was waiting to tell you first."
The girl giggled, and Jakob smiled. "And what is your name, then, little one?"
Jakob nodded, then addressed the doll solemnly. "Now then, Arabella, you must mind Gretchen and keep all the secrets she tells you, eh?"
Gretchen put her ear to the doll's mouth and listened a moment. "She promises."
"Very good. And now we must wrap her up before you go, so she stays warm and dry and keeps her dress nice until you get home."
Gretchen reluctantly handed the doll to him. "Not too tight."
"Oh, no, no. Nice and cozy." He wrapped the doll in brown paper and bundled it with twine, leaving its face bare. "There we are."
Gretchen waved goodbye, and the door jangled again as they left. Jakob lowered his gaze to the rows of numbers and tried not to remember.
Day became evening, and streetlamps glowed in the haze of snow. The streets were empty now but for a few hurrying home, hunched against the wind. Jakob shuttered the shop-windows and locked the door, then lit a candle and doused the lamps. He paused at the stairs leading up to his room, with its simple cot, plain wash-stand, and side table bare but for the framed tintype image of his daughter. An empty room, no matter what it contained. He turned instead to the door at the back, the little workshop where the toys were born.
A half-finished top lay on the worktable, waiting for sanding and paint, but he went past it to a massive object draped with cloth. Setting his candle down, he lit the lamps until the shadows were gone, then carefully pulled the cloth away.
It was almost done.
Emma had always wanted a horse, and when she could not have a real one, he promised to carve one for her--not a mere toy, but one big enough to sit upon and imagine it galloping across the fields. She hadn't wanted a rocking horse; oh, no, it must be real, down to the polished hooves.
Of course he had promised it. He would have promised her snow in July or the stars for coat-buttons, just to see her hollow cheeks light in a smile. Promises were all they could give; the doctor's grim face told them that. On the day her eyes closed and did not open again, he locked himself in the workshop and began to carve.
The horse's hooves were rough blocks yet, and he knelt to strip the wood away in tight curls.
"I saw her again today," he said after several minutes. He imagined the horse's delicate ears turning to catch the sound, the nostrils widening a bit, its sides moving in and out as it breathed.
"But she would be older now," he continued, shaping the back hooves. "Or would she? Perhaps she would be the same."
His back ached. He got to his feet slowly, moving to sand the arch of the horse's neck. "How long will it take, eh? How long before every girl-child who walks through that door stops wearing her face?"
The horse had no answer. Jakob swept the sawdust away. "I would have to die myself, I think. What other way could there be."
Wind howled against the shutters, and a chill draft made him shiver. "One more day, I think," he said to the horse, as if making a promise. He covered it with the cloth again and carried his candle to bed.
* * *
In the dream, all was deep blue darkness, and then a single blazing pinprick of light, growing slowly brighter and brighter. He was moving toward it--running, riding, flying, he could not tell, only that the motion was swift and steady. Ahead, he knew, was warmth, safety, welcome.
The light dissolved into a shimmering cascade, and now he saw the golden glow of candles in snow-edged windows. The little village shone amid the endless sweep of snow, and gazing on it, he felt that all who dwelled there were waiting for him, with everything made ready.
Then, as swiftly, he felt the cold all through him, wet snow against his face, and the golden village died away into the vast blue, into the darkness...
Jakob woke in his workshop, lifting his head from the table where his tools lay scattered. He looked about him, trying to remember. He had gone upstairs to bed--what brought him here? Had he dreamt it all, then, dousing the lamps and checking that the shutters were barred? Or was he dreaming yet?
A gust of wind set him shivering, and he looked to the workshop's small, high-set window. The shutters stood open, and snow was blowing in.
The wooden horse stood uncovered.
He made his way to the window, pushing the shutters closed again. The cold, wet wood felt real enough to his touch, but he still had the uneasy feeling of not knowing whether he was asleep or awake.
He turned to the horse. Snow clung to its sides, making it look as if it were lathered after a long run. He found a soft cloth and began to gently wipe the snow away.
Its sides moved under his touch.
He staggered back a step, staring. It happened again, in and out, like a bellows--and then the wooden hide shuddered as if to throw off flies.
He took a step forward again, reached out, and laid a hand on the horse's back. It was warm, as if blood pulsed beneath the grain.
Jakob made no sound, but the horse's ears flicked and swiveled as if he had spoken. It tossed its head, nostrils flaring, and its breath steamed in the cold air.
"But--you aren't finished," he stammered. An absurd thing to say, but he could think of nothing else.
The horse swung its head to him. Though it was all still wood, its hooves still rough-carved, it moved and blinked and breathed just as a real horse would have.
Jakob rested his hand on its neck. "Well," he said at last, "I suppose we'd better find you a name."
I need none.
The voice startled him, its sound half in his ears and half in his mind.
*We must go. The way will shut at dawn, and the journey is long. *
The word was a whisper at the edges of his mind, and it woke the memory of the dream.
"To the place I saw?"
The world's beginning.
Jakob hesitated, mouth dry, then dared. "Emma, and Frieda... Will they be there?"
The horse's head dipped a bit, and its voice was gentle. *No. But there will be others. *
He felt the promise rather than hearing it. There would be others to care for and look after, a job to do well and wholeheartedly, little ones to delight. There would be wonder; there would be warmth. And there could even, perhaps, be joy again.
"Why choose me?" For he knew, now, that he was not the first to make this journey, to be the pure heart of a frozen world. There had been others before, in their time; there would be others after his.
The horse regarded him a moment, as if weighing how to answer. *To be what is asked of him, he must have known great sorrow. The vessel that is to hold such joy must first hold an empty space within it. *
In the shop, a clock chimed, though the sound was too distant to count the hour. The horse tossed the carved curls of its mane and pawed the ground. *We must go. *
"Just a moment. Please." There was only one thing he could not leave behind. He rushed upstairs, took the tintype in its frame, and wrapped it in a cloth to keep it safe. This he tucked into his shirt, and then he returned to the workshop.
A stepstool gave him enough height to mount up. The horse needed no urging; it set off the moment he was seated. Jakob ducked his head as they crossed into the shop. The doors opened for them, and they fit through easily. He did not know how, but he guessed magic, and guessed as well that more would be waiting.
They left the shop, and the horse broke into a trot. Its hooves thocked against the cobblestones, and lamps blazed like stars as they passed. Jakob wished he had something to hold on to, not having ridden since he was a boy, and at the thought, a ribbon of golden light threaded across the horse's withers. He clutched the gleaming reins, grateful for something to steady him--and then the horse gathered itself beneath him and leapt into the air. Its hooves still pounded as if against solid ground, but they were flying now, over chimney and rooftop, through the swirling snow, to the break in the clouds where the stars shone through.
"Away," he whispered, and the horse echoed it to the rhythm of its stride. A promise and hope at the top of the world, a place without time, a place that held love like embers held fire, away from the dark, away from the cold, away from all that was lost, away, away, away.
*This story and all characters (c) 2010 Renee Carter Hall ("Poetigress"). May not be reprinted or redistributed without written permission. *