Heartsmith

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They say the best shops are the easiest to find.

I don’t agree with that. I’ve known many good shops in my time, shops that were hidden away, that took me all day to find. Sometimes the hunt is half the fun. But these days, people prefer main streets and wide roads, and convenience is more important than quality.

To some people. Not to everyone.

My workshop is an example. It’s not so easy to find me. I work where I’ve always worked: a little corner shop in a back alley, with a sign on the door that says, quite simply, Heartsmith. Inquire within.

Really, unless you know just where to look, I’m very difficult to find. I like it better that way. Heartsmithing is a complicated kind of work, and it’s harder to have done than most people think. If someone is determined enough to find me, they’re usually patient enough to last through the process.

Most of the time, anyway.

The shop is empty when I come down in the morning, and the workbench is cluttered with the tools I was using last night. I don’t close my shop after six o’clock. I’m always open, even in the middle of the night. Actually, I get a good portion of my work after midnight. People get a little desperate when the world is at its quietest. Sometimes they’re braver then too, brave enough to bring their troubles to me.

I let them in, of course. I live upstairs, over my shop, and I always hear the bell. Sometimes I’m up late anyway, working on a tough project. Either way, it doesn’t matter. I never turn anyone away.

No one is here now. I sweep the floor, tossing wood shavings and coal dust into the stove, then open the shutters and let the morning in. The village is waking up now, and I can hear the sounds of shops opening, roosters crowing in back gardens, and the milkman making his rounds. It’s a lazy, peaceful kind of morning, and I leave the door open and set out a plate of scraps for the cats that like to wander through.

I’m upstairs when the bell rings. A woman is waiting in the workshop, crouched down and petting one of the cats. She stands up when I come in, trying to smile at me, and I know what the trouble is before she says a word. But I don’t tell her so. People need to talk about these things themselves.

So I sit her down on one of my stools and ask her what the trouble is. She’s nervous and fidgety, and I can tell she’d like to leave, but she doesn’t. She takes a small, battered heart from her bag and puts it on my workbench.

Can you fix it?

It’s the question they always ask. Every time, as if they really expect me to say no. They’ve tried to fix it themselves, that’s the trouble, and when they can’t—well. Too many people give up hope.

I look the heart over while she talks. Most of the hearts come to me with a single crack, a sharp blow that nearly broke them in half. A few have a half a dozen cracks, blows that have happened over a series of months or years. Those are harder to fix, but not impossible.

This one is different. It isn’t cracked, not the way hearts that have been broken usually are. It’s been worn down, dented several times in several places. The exterior is brittle, as if she’d tried to harden it herself to keep it from cracking under the strain, and it’s light in my hands. As if it were nearly hollow.

I listen while she tells me about herself, about everything the heart’s been through. About the husband who doesn’t meet her eyes, and the son who hasn’t called. About the empty life and the dreams she set aside and the hope she’s forgotten how to feel. She can’t remember a single blow or a moment that started the damage, but I can see that already. For a heart to dent and wear like this, it needs a subtle kind of pain, one that rubs and chafes but doesn’t crack. That kind of damage is harder to repair.

Unfortunately, it’s also easier to miss. I see it often enough when I go out walking or meet someone new on the beach, but it isn’t one I see in my shop very much. People ignore it. It’s not cracked, they say, not broken. So why fix it?

They don’t realize just how much damage has been done.

She’s waiting for me to tell her that it can’t be fixed. I can see that. Instead, I set the heart down on the table and ask her if she’s brought a case with her. Any clothes? She tells me she has a few things. I nod and tell her about a house that I own a few streets away. Next to the sea. It’s got a garden, and flowers growing in the windowsills, and a kitchen. The job will take a while, I tell her, and she’ll have to stay nearby. Is she willing?

Her yes is all the answer I need, and I set to work immediately.

She’ll like my house. I bought it for people like her, who need a bit of time to let me work. Heartsmithing is a complicated kind of business, and hearts aren’t fixed in a day.

I Knew

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The house had a basketball hoop in the driveway.

I remember that most of all. That day, the day we had a house, is too fragmented to remember perfectly. But I remember a few things. The real estate agent’s dusty car. The cracked pavement. The weeds. The peeling paint on the front door. And the basketball hoop.

I’ll get you a ball, you promised us, and I knew you would. You’d promised us a house too, and we had that now, although grandpa said we’d never keep it. You’ll be back begging at our doorstep in a week, he told you before we left, and I didn’t tell him goodbye.

I don’t think you did either.

The real estate agent had you sign some papers before he left. I remember how your hands were shaking. I was too small to read what they said, but whatever it was, it made you cry when he left. We all cried together, on the floor in that empty house. I think it was a happy kind of crying.

You made me a nest that night. I had a whole room to myself in that big, empty house, and I felt like a princess in my palace. You tucked my blanket and my sheet together on the floor and told me stories about the mice who made nests just like mine. I’ll get you a bed soon, you told me, and I knew you would. You tucked me in tight, and I used my teddy as a pillow.

We had a picnics in the kitchen. I remember that too. You spread out a sheet on the floor, and we had breakfast and lunch and dinner there. We used to pretend that we were eating breakfast at the beach, and lunch in the mountains. Cade used to complain that there were ants in his food, so we’d think the picnic was real. You always laughed when he said it.

The first thing you bought us was a basketball. I remember when you brought it home. We didn’t have a table, or beds in our rooms, or pictures for the walls, or even a couch to sit on, but we had a basketball. I remember you sitting on the front steps after dinner, watching Cade teach me how to play. I couldn’t reach the hoop, even when he lowered it all the way down, and he’d lift me up so I could score. You clapped for us. I don’t remember who won, but we played until the fireflies came out and the moon was peeping in to watch through that old oak in the front yard.

Don’t worry, you told me when we inside that night. You’ll grow into it.

I knew I would.

We didn’t go back to grandpa’s that week. Or the next one. You said we never would, and I knew you were right. We had a house now, and a picnic blanket, and a basketball.

We didn’t need anything else.

When school started, you made Cade and I go. You’d walk us to the bus stop every morning, and when we left, you’d walk to work. You said you didn’t need a car, that walking made you happy. I knew it did.

You were never home when school was over, but we played basketball every night until you came. You were right. I did grow into that hoop, and so did Cade. He grew into it so much that he could raise it right to the top and still score, and I had to learn to jump high enough to block him. I still don’t remember who won those games, just that we played them.

We all used to do our homework together. Cade and I used to laugh about Mama having homework too, and you’d just laugh with us and keep right on working. I think you got better grades than we did. I know you stayed up later than we did. I remember you shooing us to bed, but the light never switched off before I went to sleep in my nest.

You graduated the same day Cade did. You bought us a table, and Cade came home wearing a uniform that made him look ten feet tall. You cried, but it was a happy kind of cry, and you sat on the steps to watch us play basketball before he left.

I played basketball by myself after that, and rode the school bus alone. You brought work home with you, and we sat at our table while I did my homework and you graded papers. I didn’t tell you I was proud of you, but I thought it every night. I was proud of you for your new job, and for the homework you did after I fell asleep, and for the house you didn’t lose. I was proud you didn’t have to go begging to grandpa anymore, and that you had a car, even if you still liked walking.

You never told me how scared you were, but I remember that too. You never told me you were brave, but I knew you were.

Ranger’s Apprentice

Do you want to know the strangest thing?

I have the hardest time reviewing my most absolute favorite books.

Is that weird? They should be the ones I rave about right? The ones I yell about in the mall and the library and shove in people’s mailboxes so that they’ll read them.

Right?

But, with my favorite books, I have a hard time talking about them.

Strange, right? In some ways, I’m afraid that I won’t do them justice. They’ve meant so much to me over the years that it seems impossible to tell people just how important they are. They’re a part of my childhood, my teen years, and even now I continue to treasure them, and it’s hard to come up with a way to explain to you or anyone else how much these stories have meant to me.

Ranger’s Apprentice, The Ruins Of Gorlan, is one of those books for me.

I started reading this series when I was thirteen or fourteen, and I wasn’t the only one. At least five of my siblings became obsessed with the books at the same time I did. If you’ve never lived in the same home with multiple readers, you will never understand the struggle of taking turns with a book that just arrived in the mail.

It was rough.

But, at the same time, it was also wonderful. Having people to share the magic of an ongoing book series with is a very special thing, and helps to conquer some of the impatience of waiting for the next book to be released.

And, with The Ranger’s Apprentice, that couldn’t happen fast enough for us.

The Ruins Of Gorlan, Flanagan’s first book in his dynamic series, introduces us to Will, an orphan under the guardianship of Baron Arald. But, at fifteen, he’s now too old to be a ward any longer, and he is set to be apprenticed to one of the fief’s Craftmasters.

That is, if any of them are willing to take him.

When Will is placed with Halt, a member of the elusive Ranger Corps, he isn’t sure what to expect. Rangers are renowned as black magicians and sorcerers, men who guard the kingdom and keep law and order within the fiefs, but not people to cross or mingle with.

As Halt’s apprentice, Will finds a very different reality than he expected. Soon he is embroiled in a world that fascinates and entrances him, a world where he finds himself far more accepted than he ever was as a ward in the Baron’s castle. But war is brewing in the kingdom, and as an apprentice Ranger, Will has a far greater role in the impending conflict than he ever would have expected.

“People will think what they want to,” he said quietly. “Never take too much notice of it.”

Soul Colors

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I have a secret. I see colors.

I don’t mean that I see the leaves turning red and orange and yellow in the fall or the glitzy flashing neon signs blinking over the supermarkets and restaurants after dark. Everyone sees those colors, and frankly, they’re not very impressive, as far as colors go. They’re faded. Washed out, like paint in dishwater. I barely notice them anymore.

No, I see people. Their soul colors. The ones they hide from everyone else.

I don’t think they’d like it if they knew I could see. Colors are private things. People hide them underneath bulky jackets and floppy hats, behind newspapers and smartphones. They like to believe their disguises are enough to mask their colors from the world, and they are, mostly.

Just . . . not from me.

The colors are the first thing I see when I wake up on my park bench, or behind whatever dumpster happened to be handy when I finished hawking my wares. People are everywhere in the city, in every alley, packed into every street and every building. It’s why I came here in the first place. I came for the colors.

Mostly, I came to see if I could change them.

If I was a better businessman, I would find one place to sell, maybe right outside the subway station or in the park, where people are more likely to browse through my wares instead of hurrying by.

I can’t do it. I’ve tried. But I like to move around. To see different places. People who live uptown have different colors from the ones that live in the slums across the canal. Different, and yet, strangely, very much the same too. It’s all the same, no matter what city I’m sleeping in. It’s only rarely that I catch a glimpse of a color that startles me.

In the springtime, I sell lilacs and lilies on my corner, or paper tigers and cranes and frogs, or kites painted with stars and snakes and dancing women. I’ve sold perfume a few times, in the fall, and when Christmas rolls around, I sell holly and snowflakes.

Today, I’ve got balloons.

Balloons are really my favorite to sell. People don’t know, but I always try to give them a color that matches their own. It’s usually the one they ask for anyway, and I like to see them walking away, tracking green or blue or lemon-yellow on the sidewalks and carrying a balloon of the same color.

That’s really the funny thing about colors. They mean different things for different people. Blue might mean contentment for one person and sadness for another. Red can mean a thousand different things. I’ve gotten pretty good at reading the colors over the years, and I can usually guess. But sometimes, even now, I’m dead wrong.

The first sale I make is to a couple. They’re holding hands, and he’s getting his red all over her. Bright, cheerful, infatuated red. It’s dusted on her hands like pollen, on her cheek where he’s kissed her, in her hair. I try not to laugh.

She’s happy too. Powder blue. A little less passionate, a little softer, but very, very much in love. I sell them the right colored balloons and watch them wander off.

The next is an old woman with a walker and white hair. She smells like cinnamon, and everything about her glows coral pink, with a few gold flecks here and there and some silver in her eyes. I sit and talk with her for an hour or so, listening to her stories and admiring the colors. When she leaves, at last, I send a pink balloon with her and refuse the dollar she tries to press on me. I should be paying her.

Three rich colors in one morning means a good day, but the next customer is flat gray. A man with a suit. I think his tie might have been red when he bought it. He buys the balloon without looking at me, mumbling something about his daughter, and walks away. I give him a green one because it’s my strongest color, but before he’s gone ten steps it’s as gray as he is. He won’t notice, of course, but I do.

It takes me an hour to get over that one. I’m hoping for a better color next, but the woman who appears is gray too. Soft, ashen gray, with a little knot of painful black beneath her left shoulder. She’s got a toddler with her, a little boy who is clinging to her hand and sucking his thumb.

I love seeing children’s colors. They’re confused, because children aren’t one thing or another quite yet. He’s got orange and yellow and silver and green and a grumpy, tantrum red blotched all over him, like he got into the paint box and made a mess.

I’d laugh, but he’s holding her hand. His little fingers and his wrist—all the way down to his shoulder, really—is as gray as she is. And I don’t feel like laughing.

She seems to know, somehow, what her color is doing to his. She won’t meet my eyes, and she fumbles in her purse looking for a coin to buy his balloon with. I let the man with the fading tie go, but this time I’m more prepared, and she isn’t in a hurry. I get her talking, first about her son, about preschool and peanut butter in his hair and sleepless nights. Then about herself. About the man who abused her and the leaky faucet that her landlord won’t fix and the job that hasn’t paid her bills in two months. Her son plays with his balloon while we talk. He gets purple on his fingers.

When she’s finally run out of words, I give her a balloon too, a sea green one, and the money I made selling roasted chestnuts the week before Christmas. I’ve been saving it since. I wasn’t sure for what until just now.

When she cries, her tears leave splotches of color on her hands and cheeks. Sea green. She tries to protest, but there’s a reason I sleep on park benches and behind dumpsters. The money is definitely for her.

She’s still gray when she walks away, and that black knot doesn’t disappear. It’ll take more than a little extra cash and some kindness to dig that out. But the balloon doesn’t lose its color, and there’s a little sea green nestled around the black where her heart should be.

I’ve always liked sea green. Everyone is different, of course, but I’ve found that sea green usually has a bit of hope about it. If I look hard enough.

Mattimeo

I love reading aloud.

Not reading aloud like in school, while everyone is looking at you and the teacher is waiting to pounce if you have the audacity to mispronounce a hard word like ‘anxiety’ or ‘quinoa’. (Hint: neither of those words sound the way they are spelled. You have been warned.)

No, I mean reading aloud at night next to a wood fire, with candles burning and a few select people listening. There’s something magical about an evening like that.

 

Once or twice a week, I invite my younger siblings to my house for just this sort of night. They bring drawing supplies, sewing materials, or letters they are writing, and we curl up in my living room while I read aloud one of my favorite books to them.

Mattimeo, picture by A.R. Geiger

Right now, we are reading Mattimeo, one of Brian Jacques’s many, many brilliant novels. This English author has been one of my absolute favorites since I was in my preteens. He was one of the first authors I dreamed of meeting, and when I found out that he died in 2011, I was devastated.

His books all revolve around Redwall, a mythic abbey buried deep in Mossflower woods. Its inhabitants—squirrels, mice, moles, badgers, and otters—live within its dusky, sandstone walls, farming the orchards and grounds and keeping their peace with the trackless forest that surrounds them. The characters change book to book, but the feel of peace in the abbey and the promise of an action-packed, thrilling storyline is always the same.

In Mattimeo, the summer feasts are upon Redwall, and the excitement of the celebration is high. But when their young ones are stolen away by a slave band from the south, the air of celebration turns to one of grief and thoughts of vengeance. Matthias, the warrior of Redwall and the father of one of the missing young ones, leads an expedition to return their missing children to Redwall.

Meanwhile, Mattimeo, the son of Redwall’s warrior, finds that the leader of the slaver’s band, a disfigured fox known as Slagar the Cruel, has a long, very bitter, past with his father. His desire for revenge on his hated enemy incites a string of cruelty against the young mouse, and he quickly finds himself fighting for survival on the long journey toward an unknown, and very dangerous, destination.

Book Picture A.R. Geiger

Brian Jacques writing is beautiful, descriptive, and fast-paced, a difficult combination to find. My younger siblings are already enthralled by the story we are experiencing together, and whenever I pause for breath or to rest my voice, they are always impatient for me to continue.

Reading aloud together is one of my favorite ways to maintain relationships. I still associate several books with my father, because he read them aloud to us when I was small. They continue to be some of my favorite books, because of the many memories packed away inside them.

“Weapons may be carried by creatures who are evil, dishonest, violent or lazy. The true warrior is good, gentle, and honest. His bravery comes from within himself; he learns to conquer his own fears and misdeeds.”

How I Will Probably Die

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I find the bookshop on 47th and Willow, sandwiched between a pawn shop with a broken lamp in the window and a jewelry store selling fake pearls. The windows are shuttered, and a black cat is lying on the doorstep. She arches against my hand when I reach down and pet her, and when I step over her and go inside, I half expect her to follow me.

She doesn’t, even when I hold the door for her. I guess she likes it outside better.

A silver bell rings when I come inside, but there’s no one at the counter. A dusty book is lying open beside the register, and there’s a kitten asleep in a basket under one of the tables, but no people. No customers, no employees.

But there are books. The walls are lined with shelves that reach right up to the cracked ceiling, and the books that don’t fit on the shelves are stacked neatly in the corners, or arranged in rows on the creaky reading desks in the center of the room. I browse through, finding a few titles I know and some I’ve been looking for. I can’t find any price tags, but since some of the books are pretty battered, I figure they’re mostly second-hand, and the owner has a standard price that she—or he—keeps by the cash register.

The kitten is following me. I clump down a few steps into another room, this a little more messy, a little more scattered than the last. Big, sprawling plants are growing in pots in the corners, and the books are double-lining the shelves. Some of them have real leather covers, their pages so old that they crack when I open them. The writing is nearly illegible, faded by dust and years, and I’m tempted to buy a few to keep in my library, maybe on display. I’ve always liked old books.

Another cat is sleeping on the books, a big orange tabby. He yawns as I pass by, and I scratch him on the ears and under the chin. The kitten is rubbing against my ankles, purring as loud as if he hasn’t had any kind of attention for years. I pick him up, letting him rub his face against my cheek and chin as I venture into the next room.

It’s bigger than the last. I didn’t think the shop was so big. From the street, it looks like a one-room corner store, with maybe an upstairs room for extra stock. But I can’t find any stairs, and the rooms keep getting bigger as I go along. Several ferns and a few leafy vines are growing on the tables, and one of the shelves has Venus Flytraps growing next to the books. They’re bigger than I thought they would be, although I’ve never really grown any. Maybe they feed on book moths, or something.

The books are all leather now. I pull one off the shelves, and it’s so heavy that I have to set it down on a table before I can open it.

I can’t read the writing inside. It’s hand-lettered and smeared, and definitely not written in English. I put it back on the shelf, feeling a little funny, and go back through the door to the room with the orange tabby.

At least, that’s what I meant to do. The door was the same, or looked the same, but the orange tabby is gone, and this room has a bare wall with hand-drawn maps pinned to it and an old writing desk, with quill pens and an ink bottle with dust on it in the corner. The kitten is gone, and the books are chained to the shelves, like they were in the Middle Ages. I pull one off and open it up, and the pages are lined by painted illustrations that make my stomach turn.

I go back through the door I just left, thinking I’ll find the kitten and the right door, and go home without buying anything, at least today.

But the Venus Flytraps aren’t there, and the room isn’t the one I left. Three or four more doors, and I begin to realize that I’m very, very lost.

Either that, or this bookshop is playing games with me. A few hours, and the way it toys with me starts to feel very alive. As if it’s confusing me on purpose. The kitten appears a few more times, but I always lose it again.

It’s weeks before I give up. The bookshop seems intent on keeping me alive, whatever else it has in mind, like one of its cats. I find plates of stale cookies and lemonade set out for me, or sometimes a sandwich and a cup of milk. At night we have tea in the room with the squashy armchairs and the fireplace, and the kitten finds me.

It’s not so bad, once the panic wears off. Who knows? Maybe the last owner got eaten by the Venus Flytraps or made it outside, and the shop got lonely without them. I don’t think it likes to be alone, and someone has to take care of the books and give the cats the attention they need.

So why not me?

Miss Honey

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Today’s post is not a book review.

Well . . . it is, but it’s not.

If you take my meaning.

You see, I’ve already written a review about Matilda, by Roald Dahl. Quite a long time ago, in fact. And it would be very odd to review the same book twice on the same blog. After all, there are so many brilliant, wonderful books that I haven’t even mentioned to you yet.

So please, don’t take this as a sign that I have run out of books.

I haven’t.

Still, today’s post is not a book review. It’s a character review. Because I think this particular character is worth raving about, despite the fact that in my previous review I didn’t have time to praise her at all.

I am talking, of course, about Miss Honey.

Miss Honey, for those of you that are not familiar with Roald Dahl’s classic, is Matilda’s teacher. She is the second person to recognize what an extraordinary child Matilda is, and the only one to do anything about it. Upon realizing that Matilda is much too advanced for her regular class, she immediately appeals to the school’s headmistress to have her bumped up to another level.

When the school’s headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, refuses to listen, Miss Honey immediately marches on to Matilda’s parents to open their eyes to the wonder that is their daughter.

Naturally, they also fail to listen.

What follows is an example of how powerful teachers can be in the lives of their students. Miss Honey, despite being told repeatedly to treat Matilda just the same as all of the other children, allows her the space and the resources she needs to continue growing. Books, time to herself, and, eventually, a positive, nurturing friendship that is unlike anything Matilda has experienced anywhere else. In short, she becomes Matilda’s saving grace, because no matter how smart a child is or how many books they have read, they cannot get along without someone to champion them.

Matilda is, of course, the heroine of this story, but I believe that Jennifer Honey doesn’t get enough recognition or acknowledgment, and I am going to tell you why. Besides being an exemplary teacher, Miss Honey has her own set of problems. A dead father, a legacy—and a paycheck—that is stolen week by week, and an abusive aunt that doubles as her immediate boss. She has been trampled on and hurt and, as of the moment when Matilda appears, she has no way out of the situation.

And yet, for all her trouble, Miss Honey continues to weather her storm with an amazing amount of quiet strength. She doesn’t lash out at her abuser as today’s heroines are wont to do in fits of anger. She is kind and patient with everyone that she meets, from her bitter and constantly angry aunt to the smallest child in her class. Instead of folding to her situation and allowing the abuse, she seeks out her own solution—despite having to live on an almost nonexistent paycheck—and removes herself from it, establishing what boundaries she is capable of. (A very, very hard thing to do for someone who has been consistently battered from childhood.) She scrimps and goes without, living mostly on the school lunches so that she has the freedom to make her own choices. And yet, in the midst of all of this, she is still able to see past her own problems and be a comfort and support for Matilda.

Amazing.

Roald Dahl’s masterpiece is very much a children’s book, with a child’s heart behind it, but looking at it through the eyes of an adult, I found the character of Miss Honey to be incredibly true-to-life and inspiring. Her sacrifices and immense strength took this beautiful book from an interesting and lasting read to a classic for me. If you haven’t picked it up, I would absolutely recommend it to you, no matter your age.

“There is little point in teaching anything backwards. The whole object of life, Headmistress, is to go forwards.”