Authors: David Hoffman
“For real this time,” she said, planting her hands again on her hips and staring him down.
“Yes, for real.” He hoisted his sack up again and met her eyes. The edge of his lip twitched and Ellie knew in that moment she could, if she chose, send him back down to the ground again, howling like a loon.
“On three,” she said. He agreed. They counted, and when they came to three, miracle of miracles, both of them turned.
And turned back.
“You’re impossible,” she said.
“I was only looking to ensure you
“As was I.”
She harrumphed. Her papa had a truly grand harrumph, which was what Ellie aimed for. In her estimation, she came quite close.
“Joshua Phineas Bullock, if you do not leave this instant, then . . . then I am going to. I will turn and march away and I promise you, you foolish, foolish boy, I will not look back, not even if you follow me flicking my ear as if we were in our first year of school together.”
“Such a cute thing,” he said. “Whatever happened to your golden hair?”
“I grew out of it,” Ellie said, tossing her braid of nut-brown hair back over one shoulder. “Are you going?”
“Fine, fine,” he said. Joshua walked three steps before turning, only partially, and speaking over his unburdened shoulder. “You’re going to watch me the whole way?”
“Until you are the tiniest speck on the horizon, sir. Now go.”
He raised his foot to walk and held it in midair. Then, in a flurry of movement, he dropped the sack and raced back to peck once more at Ellie’s cheek.
“For good luck,” he said. Joshua scooped up the flour and commenced running from Ellie as if fleeing for his life. He paused only once, a tiny figure she could only make out by shielding her eyes from the sun and squinting. He turned, her faraway man, lifted a hand, and waved.
And then he was gone.
Ellie stood in place a while longer, convinced he was going to reappear in the distance, running with his head down, sprinting to catch up to her before she could spot him, starting the whole ridiculous game all over again. Part of her wished he would but the day was beginning to stride away on long legs and she was well past due home. She adjusted the strap of her shopping bag and started walking, only checking occasionally to make sure he wasn’t sneaking up on her from behind.
She walked, and as she was approaching the borders of her family’s land, Ellie became aware of something approaching.
Her first thought was that Joshua had somehow gotten past her by cutting across the open land and was now coming upon her from the wrong direction. This made her smile and feel quite warm inside. As the object grew closer she was able to make out details, and hear noises, and she observed that it was not Joshua coming to surprise her.
It was a wagon.
Iron wheels rattled and groaned as they turned over the uneven road. Ellie could hear the tinkling of bottles brushing against one another and the clatter of what she guessed to be pots and pans whenever a wheel found a divot to fall into or a large rock to crash over. Whoever loaded the wagon, she thought, had done a poor job.
It moved faster than it looked, closing the distance between them with haste. When it was near enough she could hail the driver, Ellie stopped. She raised her hand and called out.
“Hail,” the driver said, easing to a stop before her. “Is this the village of Oberton?”
“It is, sir,” Ellie said. “Where are you bound from?”
“Oh far, quite far, my lady. May I ask you, is it Midsummer yet?”
Ellie told the man, who was short and stout with a great, red beard, that Midsummer was yet two days distant.
“Bugger,” he said. “One day, I tell you, one day.”
He shook his head, and Ellie could see the shape of a smile forming beneath his nest of facial hair.
“I’m early, of course. Always early, or late, but never on time. I swear, I don’t know what it is with me. You, you live here, don’t you?”
“Yessir,” Ellie said.
“Has word come yet of the Market?”
“Yesterday,” she said. “Three days’ warning, just like in the stories.”
He snorted. It was almost a laugh.
“In the stories. Of course ‘just like in the stories.’ Why wouldn’t it be? Where d’you think the stories is from, after all? That’s jolly, it is.”
He shook his head again, as if trying to force all the contents into their proper locations. “Apologies, my lady, it’s been a long journey. Your village is lovely, I’m sure, but hardly convenient for traveling. Probably for best my flubbing the dates, now that I reflect upon it. Better late than never, they say. I say early beats them all.”
She couldn’t think of anything to say better than “yessir,” so she nodded, hoping that would be sufficient.
“Can I ask you,” he said, tying off the mules’ reins and stretching, first his arms and then, standing, his legs. He twisted his back and cracked his neck and leapt down to join her on the ground.
Standing fully upright, the bearded man barely came to Ellie’s waist.
“Always a bit pesky, sorting out what’s appropriate, what I can show and what needs be held back. Don’t suppose I could enlist your aid for the briefest of moments, could I? Make it worth your while, I will.”
“It would be my pleasure,” Ellie said, glad for something different to say, unsure of what she’d just agreed to.
He rounded the wagon, opened several latches, and threw up a panel on the side so they could peer inside. As Ellie watched, he dove in and rummaged around. He came up with a long-handled shovel with a dark iron face.
“Y’got these, do you?” he said.
“These, er, shovels, eh? Y’got ’em?”
“Do we have . . . shovels?” Ellie said, considering. “Yes, we have shovels.”
“About this size? All done up like?”
She reached for the shovel and turned it over in her hand. Papa and Tom Johnson, the hired man, did most of the manual labor around the farm. Ellie had handled a shovel before. For all she could tell, this was a match to their own. She told him so.
“Fine, fine,” he said, tossing it back into his mess. “You’ve shovels, how marvelous. Stands to reason then . . . and here . . . very well. How about, d’you have these?”
He produced what was recognizably a lantern and held it aloft for Ellie to see. She began to tell him that, yes, they had lanterns in Oberton, when he touched a spot on the top of the lantern and it suddenly lit up brighter than any lantern she’d ever seen.
“Ah, I see,” he said. “Lanterns but not ’lectricity, is that it? Is it candles? No. Oil, surely. You’ve oil, don’t you? Pour a bit in and lower the taper and there we are, good and bright, eh?”
He made as if to return the lantern back into the wagon when Ellie told him to stop. “May I see it?” she said.
“Oooh no, can’t do that,” he said, ducking it down away from her. “Truth be told, I could get into frightful trouble just for the glance I gave you there.”
“Just a moment,” she said. “I won’t tell.”
“It’s not the telling,” he said. “It’s more, well, there’s rules, y’see?”
“Whose rules?” She stood up on her toes to peer inside the wagon. There were a great many unfamiliar items amid the general clutter, but she had no way to make sense of them all.
“Just rules,” he said, tucking the lantern away. He rummaged a bit more, muttering under his breath about photons and terabytes and several other words Ellie was unfamiliar with. From what she could tell, he was separating his goods into two piles: those he could sell and those he would need to keep hidden.
“How about this?” he’d say, holding a thing up for Ellie to look at. “Y’got these?”
“Earrings?” she’d say. Or, “Pocket watches?”
Whenever he held up something she didn’t recognize, no matter how she tried to conceal her curiosity, he was too quick.
“What does that do?” she asked, after he held up a round, silver box scarcely wide enough to fill her palm, only to hide it again just as quickly.
“Plays music. How about this?”
“Yes, we have eyeglasses.”
“We have books as well, though none so fine as that. May I see?”
Ellie recognized a pair of dice when she saw them. She began telling him so when she saw the way they sparkled in the day’s light.
“Are those glass?” she said.
“Up—right. No ’lectricity, no CD players,
no plastic. Sloppy that. Apologies.”
It was becoming late and the light was failing. After her time in town and then her time with Joshua, she’d already been on track to arrive home quite late. With this latest distraction, Ellie would likely come in after Mama had dinner on the table.
“Pardon me, sir?”
He looked up, his hands empty.
“Ah, growing dark, is it? Here you go.”
He reached over to a flat, silver panel Ellie could see inside the wagon. A heartbeat later it became as bright as midday. She cried out in surprise, protecting her eyes with her hands. The little man, realizing his mistake, swore loudly and extinguished the wagon’s lights.
“Rules, rules, rules,” he said, shaking his head. “So easy to forget. Just like dates, there and gone in the blink of an eye.
Ellie rubbed her eyes, blinking away the fading embers of light imprinted on the undersides of her eyelids. “Was that the same as your lantern?”
“Do it again.”
“Do it,” Ellie said. “I’m ready now. I won’t be blinded. Do it.”
He made to protest, and then saw he was beaten. Shoulders slumped with resignation, the little man tapped the same silver plate again and the light returned.
Ellie had shielded her eyes from the sudden brightness. After giving herself time to acclimate, she was able to see into the wagon.
“How does it work?” she said, unable to help herself.
“All right, that’s about enough of that,” he said, switching the light back off.
“But it’s wonderful. And you seem so nonchalant. Do it one more time, won’t you?”
His face spoke his feelings plainly enough:
I’ve created a monster.
“No no,” he said. “Hadn’t you best be off for home?” He sniffed the air, nostrils flaring, the great bushy mustache inflating as he did so. “Dinner’s almost ready. You’d best be off.”
Ellie started to argue—she wanted to remain out here on the road with him all night and all day tomorrow—but she saw an easier path than arguing.
“Do you still need help?”
He mused and told her he had it pretty well sorted out. “Once you factor out ’lectricity it’s a relatively easy line to draw.”
“I could come in the morning,” she said, undeterred. “I could help you sort out what stays and what goes. You don’t even have to pay me. I’d be happy to help out, honestly.”
She saw him perk up at the idea of enlisting her services at no cost to himself and knew he would agree.
“Very well. But—stop bouncing like that—I like to sleep in after a long journey and I like my morning tea. So I don’t want to see hide nor hair of you until I’m good and settled in.”
“Perfect,” Ellie said.
“Now away home with you.”
“Yessir,” Ellie said. “But I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Not until after tea.”
“Not until after tea, yessir.”
He grumbled some, clanking away inside his wagon. Ellie understood that was his way of ending the conversation. She thanked him, bid him good night, and hurried away home, hoping to arrive before dinner became cold.
She arrived home in time to help with dinner—it was earlier than it felt. Ellie expected her parents to have a score of questions relating to the late hour and how she had occupied her afternoon, but they surprised her by almost doggedly avoiding the subject. Papa bragged about how much work he’d gotten done that day, talking like he’d been alone out in the fields and not with Tom Johnson and three other men he’d hired for the season.
“Will you have much work tomorrow, Papa?”
“Enough,” he said. “But we’re ahead, and will get further ahead, and when the Market arrives, we’ll be ready.” He scooped a forkful of food into his mouth and looked down to find his plate very nearly empty. Ellie watched as he filled it with heaping portions of meat and vegetables and broke off a thick hunk of the bread she’d brought from town the day before.
He continued describing his busy day, lingering on an especially harrowing adventure he’d had clearing a rock from a stubborn patch of soil. Ellie was ashamed to find her attention wandering. She was mindful of her Papa and did not find his story uninteresting, but whenever she let her focus waver the slightest bit, she returned to that spot of road and the short man’s wagon and all the wonders he carried within.
“I met a man today bound for the Market,” she said, unable to contain herself any longer.
“A traveler?” Mama said, looking up from her plate.
“Was he . . . ?”
“I don’t know, Mama,” Ellie said. “He barely rose above my waist, but his manner was strange.”
“Did you give him your name?”
“No, Mama. You know I know better.”
Mama nodded, satisfied, and returned to her meal.
Papa spoke between mouthfuls. “What’d you speak about, this odd little man and you?”
“He had questions,” Ellie said. “He seemed unsure of his location—he had the day wrong and was fussing greatly—and had questions about several items up for sale.”
“Some of his own items?”
“How odd. Wouldn’t you think a merchant should know his own inventory?”
“What sorts of items?” Mama said.
Ellie shook her head. “I don’t know exactly. One was a lantern that required neither oil nor taper. Another was a rounded, silver box about this large”—she indicated the size with her hands—“which he claimed made music. He called it an
Papa raised a single eyebrow in disbelief. “Indeed?”
“Yes,” she said. And suddenly Ellie wished she had said nothing at all.
What did you do this afternoon, dear heart? Why, nothing, Papa. Though I did cross paths with Joshua Bullock and he was gentlemanly enough to walk me home, all while carrying a
heavy sack of flour.
Why had she told them about the short man?