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Birthday by Katie Whelan from Vantage

Gold Man

I turned on the radio once and heard a song. The artist sang that in Japan, cracks in bowls are filled with gold. I went to the mirror, saw all my cracks, and called up the goldsmith. On Sunday, he will fill those cracks and make me whole again. I’ll be like the Rainbow Fish, shining as I walk down the street. I strolled into the musty storefront. It smelled of dust and something metal. Burning, melting gold.

“Can I help you?” asked the man behind the counter in a grandfatherly voice.

“I don't know, maybe.”

He looked at me briefly and scribbled something into a black bound book on his desk with the stub of a pencil. “Ahh, let me fetch the measuring tape, you can come stand here by the mirror.”

I stood. I waited, and watched his shadow moving about in the backroom.

“All set,” he said, coming out with a thin, torn, papery measuring tape marked in ounces.

This could get expensive. He started measuring, wrote things down silently, and then left, coming back with a towel spattered with gold. He wrapped it around my feet. “Make a T, dear.”

And I did, stretching my arms out like wings, waiting.

He poured burning hot gold, like lava, into the cracks, but I barely felt the pain. I barely felt anything. It was like a dream, I saw the memories of those times leaving, often waving as they disappeared into a drawer that the old man had left open on the back wall of his shop. There were tons of drawers on the wall. They reached from the floor to the ceiling; simple and terrifying.

He shuffled over to the door my memories had disappeared through and pushed it shut. “No more of that,” he stated, leaning on the closed doors.

“Thank you,” I said, relieved and uplifted. Then I walked out of his shop.

When the girl left, the old man walked to the front door and flipped the old “Open” sign to “Sorry, we’re closed.” The chain jingled in the silence of the empty shop. He dimmed the lights and strolled over to the wall of drawers. The girl intrigued him. Why she had come to him he longed to find out. He slipped off his apron, stepped out of his worn out oxfords, loosened his tie and placed his glasses on the counter; he wouldn’t need them to see what was inside.

The store keeper reached out his wrinkled, calloused hand and pulled on the drawer. As it opened, it grew and shifted so that he was able to walk in comfortably with a few inches between his head and the doorframe. He had walked into a cavernous room. The ceiling rocketed skyward, ending in a glass dome where hundreds of planes flew parallel to one another in a night sky filled with stars. He lowered his gaze and looked ahead of him; there were dozens of statues, beautiful with human imperfections one would’ve seen in the faces of the people they depicted. There were books, too, along with cassette tapes and discs lining the walls of the room. He walked on through columns of books and CDs, marveling at the covers and the stories stored within. He picked up a book with a gilded spine and skimmed its pages, delighted at pictures of soaring mountains and pebbled beaches, the like of which he had never seen in his lifetime.

Then he felt it, a horrible bone chilling cold. He wept before he saw the deep pool that covered hundreds of crosses, and even before he heard the music, before he heard the gunshots. He glanced up as he ran back the way he had come; the sky was now filled with bombers and jet planes. The door seemed to rush at him as he turned and ran to escape. The old man jumped through the door and landed back in his shop. Safe.

“Stupid war,” he fumed, as a crack opened across the palm of his hand.

 

The girl walked through the streets of her picturesque town, sun shining down on her skin. The gold caught the sun, making her laugh. She didn’t remember the bad days. She was walking towards the gold man’s shop with the sun to her back and the river running alongside her. She turned left up a side street and right into an alley. The sun shone down between the townhouses in the alley, making shadows on the pavement. The wooden sign to the gold man’s shop swung on old metal hinges with a slight breeze that ruffled the hem of the girl’s skirt. The door was blue, faded and chipped from all the years it had stood there, battered by the wind and the frequent rains that watered the city. The sign on the door was flipped to “Sorry we’re closed”, hanging slightly off-center. The girl knocked confidently on the door.

No answer.

She knocked again, a little less sure this time. She heard movement behind the door and it opened a few inches, stopped by a chain lock. The old man’s eyes peered out the door, scared and nervous, but they seemed relieved when he realized who was at the door. He closed the door slowly, unhooked the chain lock and opened the door wider. The girl stepped in. It was dark inside the shop. Only a few rays of light came through the windows, which had been partially boarded up. The girl looked at the shopkeeper whose face she could barely see. “I came to thank you-”

The old man cut her off. “There’s something you should know.”

The door opened and a young man stepped in, he had long brown hair and tan skin, dressed in a leather jacket and jeans. He looked like an outsider trying hard to blend in. The old man looked at him once and he felt another crack open, across his shoulders this time. The girl stared in wonder at the stranger.

“You need to leave,” said the old man in a cold voice that gave the girl goosebumps. “I told you before never to come back.”

The young man didn’t say a word; he just walked up to the old man, hugged him and left. Another crack opened over the old man’s hand. The girl stared and started when she saw the crack.

 

“Who was that?” she asked, concerned, but the old man didn’t answer. He turned around and went behind the counter of his shop. “You had better leave.”

The girl left, distressed and shocked at what had just occurred. She was turning out of the alley when she ran right into the young man. He steadied her and smiled. She felt something inside her warm up, and a sliver of gold fell off her bare shoulders. She was curious why he and the old man had had such a strange encounter. “How do you know the shopkeeper?"

 

The young man just smiled, not answering the question, and signaled for the girl to follow him. They went out of the alley and over Main Street, past the shops toward a café. He held out a seat for her, she sat, and he ran inside and returned with a cake.

“This is my favorite. How did you know?” But the young man did not say a word; he just smiled and gave her a piece of cake. When she was done, he took her hand and they walked away, and on the seat at the café there were slivers of gold.

The two walked up to the castle and past the long lines of tourists as if the whole world was blind to their existence. They walked through the ancient oak doors and past all the marvels tourists gawked at until they came to the gardens. He pulled her to a bench and they sat. When they left, a breeze picked up some gold flakes and blew them away in the wind. That night, he walked her to her door and gave her a kiss goodnight. The girl smiled in her dreams, and a few streets away, more cracks broke the old man.

 

The smile on the girl’s face was as bright as the sun that summer afternoon a few days after she and the young man met. He was standing at her door, silent as always, but holding a bouquet of lilies in his hands. She couldn’t remember a more perfect person. The world was now light and full of promise. The girl ran down the steps and into the arms of the young man. She jumped onto the back of his motorcycle and they sped off, leaving behind them a dusting of gold on the street. He’d never say where they were going– he never said anything– but the suspense was new and exciting for the girl who had been like a caged bird for far too long.

They drove up a steep narrow mountain road into a forest. Suddenly she was scared. It was cold here, and dark. She heard no songbirds, and there were no warm breezes or rays of sun coming through the evergreens. She felt like she had before the gold had filled the cracks. The girl’s arms wrapped tighter around her silent companion. He went faster and deeper into the forest; the trees seemed to be getting taller. They must’ve been ancient. Their memories seeped out of their thick bark bombarding the girl. Her grip on the young man tightened, but he didn’t seem to feel her fear. His hands went to the throttle again, blind to the forest around him that was engulfing the girl sitting behind him.

The girl looked down and realized that no gold glimmered on her arms or legs. She felt even more alone.

The old man was sitting in his shop when the door flew open, hitting the wall and leaving a small dent in it. In the door stood the girl. She looked thin, tired, and terrified.

“What did he do?” the old man immediately asked, angry and full of sorrow. He should have warned this one about what the young man did to people.

“Nothing. He just disappeared,” she said in a high pitched whisper. She wished the old man would comfort her, but he didn’t move. He sat in a chair in the dark; she could barely see him.

“Tell me what happened,” he said, sounding so much like another old man she had once known, his voice so familiar and friendly, she obliged. She told him of the cakes, coffees, dances, and days they had shared over the last week, all wonderful, all perfect and so much like every dream she had had when she was young. She told him how her heart had sped ahead, making her think of all the possibilities and the great future they could have had together. When she was done the church bells were ringing, signaling one o’clock in the afternoon. Her stomach rumbled. The old man shifted in his seat.

“Go upstairs. There’s some soup on the stove,” the gold man said in an exhausted voice, and so she climbed the stairs into the gold man’s world. There were books and maps up on the walls, and pictures were everywhere. Pictures of the old man and friends, perhaps family, always smiling, always happy, always in the same room. She looked away; he wouldn’t want her to see this. He hadn’t seen her secrets…

She ran away from the wall of memories he probably missed; the soup was warm sitting on the one working hotplate of an old stove. The pot itself was half full of vegetable soup. The girl ladled soup into two bowls and found some mismatched spoons and brought them back downstairs. She handed one to the shopkeeper whose face she still could not see and sat with her bowl by the counter.

“Have you ever traveled, sir?”  she asked nonchalantly, trying not to indicate that she had looked at his pictures.

“You could say that,” he replied.

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve seen everything you have seen…” There was a deafening silence.

“What?”

“Never mind." He leaned forward to take a sip of soup and as he leaned into a ray of light, the girl gasped. He was covered with cracks, like a map leading closer and closer to his heart. Those had not been there before, the first day she had come to him. He shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny of her eyes.

“What happened? What’s wrong?” she yelled, terrified of the answer.

He looked up and a tear rolled down his face. “I have to say goodbye.”

“But why?”

He just stared straight ahead in silence. “Finish your soup.”

“You can’t do this to me.”

“I beg your pardon? I freed you of your misery, a horrible state you were in, and you never wondered what the consequences would be, did you?”

“I guess I didn’t.”

They sat in silence, then the door swung open and the young man appeared. The girl looked between the two men. A gust of wind blew in through the door, whipping at the young man’s leather jacket and playing with the girl’s hair. She looked back to the old man, but he wasn’t there. Under the chair was a pile of dust.

A scream burst out of the girl’s mouth. She ran to the chair, crouching over it like a mother lion over her young. “Get away from us!” she yelled at the young man, who still stood silent in the doorway.

   “He was broken,” said the young man, and turned on his heel and left. Life had been so strange since she first walked into the shop and chose to forget everything.

“You were my hope,” she whispered to the empty room. She looked around the empty shop. There was no one to do the job now, and the shopkeeper’s tools would sit there for years, untouched. She found a broom and swept up the pile of dust the old man left.

The girl walked to a door on the wall and opened it. She tipped the dust in and closed it. She pulled the chord to the naked light bulb that hung above the drawers, extinguishing it. The girl walked out of the goldsmith’s shop for the last time, stepping into a rainstorm, and remembered everything as the last flake of gold fell onto the pavement.

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