The following is a short story prequel to Yesterday’s Demons I wrote in December 2014 as a “holiday story” exercise with my writing group.
The First Lenerstelen Without You
Siv touched his finger to the drawing at the bottom of the catalog page. After an hour of searching, he’d found it.
He guessed half the residents of Gorman had come in and out of the general store during that time. Some were buying last minute presents, others were buying ingredients needed for their feasts or baking, but everyone was in a hurry. He got lucky, though; no one else had wanted to view the catalog, so he’d been able to sit undisturbed at the end of the counter and browse through it until he found the item that was just right.
“What did you find?” Cameron asked him from behind the counter. Cam must have realized he’d stopped flipping pages. His brother’s boss in Cleburne Hill had been kind enough to let him work back home for the holiday. The Howards were happy to have the help at one of the busiest times of the year, and Siv and the rest of the family were happy to have Cam home, especially this year.
“This,” Siv said, tapping the text describing the item he’d found. Cam leaned over the counter to take a peek. Siv waited for his reaction with a look of triumph, but it disappeared when he saw Cam’s raised eyebrows.
“A telescope?” Cam said.
“Can you think of anything more perfect for Daddy?”
“No,” Cam said. “Also can’t think of anything more costly.”
Oh, right. Siv hadn’t bothered to look at prices. He blinked at the number underneath the description of the telescope, certain he wasn’t reading it right. “Fifty-seven golds?”
“More than you’ve earned your entire young life.”
Siv gave him a look. He might be fourteen, but Cam was only six years older. That didn’t exactly make him an honored elder.
“Maybe you could float me a loan?”
Cam smiled and lowered his voice. “Unfortunately that is also more than I’ve made in the last two years.” He stood up and nodded to Mr. Dery, who had just stepped up to the counter. “The life of an apprentice merchant is not very glamorous. And you do know that anything you order out of the catalog will take at least two weeks to get here, right? And more likely four? So why don’t you pick something that’s here in the store now? Something a lot less expensive.”
Cam walked away to tend to his customer. Siv slammed the catalog shut and spun around on his stool, folding his arms across his chest as he glared around the general store. He’d spent almost all his free time for the last week here. He probably knew its inventory better than Cam did. Sure, there were plenty of things here that Daddy would like, plenty that he could afford. But none of them were perfect.
And this year, he needed the perfect gift.
Before he left the store, he paid for the block of ice that he pushed in their wheelbarrow up Gorman’s main street. It was far busier than usual; even the horses pulling the carriages seemed to be in a hurry. The inn actually had its “no vacancy” sign up and the saloon was full of folks that seemed ready to start celebrating Lenerstelen early. Wynnie Cloyd and Paula Strand were on a ladder putting green candles into the lamp posts and wrapping them with roses, daisies, and other fresh flowers. Mr. Bramlett at the assay office had painted his windows with green soap. Sheriff Jensen had hung an evergreen wreath from the jail sign.
It didn’t matter that the telescope wouldn’t be here for two to four weeks. He’d tell Daddy about it tomorrow, and it would arrive when it arrived. The real problem was the money. He needed a job. Glancing up and down main street, Siv wondered if whoever hired him would be willing to advance him the fifty-seven golds. Then he could return to the general store, enjoy the amazed look on Cameron’s face, and return home for Lenerstelen with the perfect gift.
Like the inn, the livery had its “no vacancy” sign up. He was good with horses, he didn’t mind mucking out stables, and Mr. Harb liked him. That might be a good first choice. Of course if he took a job at the post office, he could actually ride while earning his coin. That might be even better. And the revelers in the saloon must be using up a lot of mugs and silverware, so if the first two options didn’t work out for some reason, he could always wash dishes. He’d only have to wash fifty-seven golds worth, then he could quit.
He heard the pounding of hammer on iron and caught the metallic smell in the air several yards before he reached the cabin at the end of the street. With a push on the wheelbarrow’s handles, he lifted it up the steps and into the breezeway, guiding it away from the shop side of his house and towards the residence side.
“I got the ice,” he said as he walked into the front room. Samantha was standing before the brick oven, peering at the two loaves of bread inside before stoking the fire underneath them. Siv kept a healthy distance, and not because of the ice he carried.
“Gratitude,” she said, reaching for another log to add to the fire. “Swap out the tray for me, will you?”
Siv placed the block of ice on the floor, brushed some more sawdust off of it, and pulled a deep dish out from underneath the ice box. It was full of water, which he dumped into a wooden bucket. After he filled the tray with the ice, he slid it back in place.
“Daddy’s still working?” he asked.
“The militia needs those rifles before the end of the year,” she said. “A horse belonging to some folks in town to visit the Davises threw a shoe, and Daddy fixed that for them. And Mr. Shimmerman wants those three new tables for the saloon’s Lenerstelen feast tomorrow.”
Siv performed mental math based on estimates of his father’s work speed. He was the best and fastest blacksmith around, despite the fact that he had only one arm, but the work and the time just didn’t add up. “He can’t take tomorrow off then,” Siv said. “All he’ll be able to do is come to worship with us and eat dinner.”
Sammy placed herself on a stool before the churn and started working on the butter. “Well, he has to eat,” she said. “But he told me he probably won’t make it to worship.”
“He can’t miss Lenerstelen worship!”
“He can’t turn down these jobs, Siv,” she said. “I’m not going to the university, but you might someday.”
Siv grunted. His time to go was still four years off, but he did not see himself becoming a college boy.
“Even if you don’t, we still gotta eat. And…” Sammy’s eyes glanced to the doorway, and Siv knew it was to make sure Daddy wasn’t standing there. “We still have bills to pay from Mama’s care, and her funeral.”
It was about the only thing that had been on his mind for the last two weeks, but when Sammy vocalized it, his stomach fell away and he had to sit down. The funeral was the first time in his life he’d ever seen Daddy cry. “I can’t imagine how he feels,” Siv said. “Here we are, celebrating the creation of life in the universe, and all he’ll be thinking about is how Mama’s gone.”
Sammy nodded and kept churning butter. After an uncomfortable moment, Siv said, “I found the perfect gift for Daddy at the store.”
“Yeah, a telescope.”
“Why didn’t I think of that? How much more of the sky will you two be able to see with a telescope?”
“A lot more,” Siv said, pleased that she saw the perfection of the idea. “It costs fifty-seven golds though, so now that I brought you the ice, I’m going to go get a job.”
She stopped churning and covered her mouth with her hand, but she wasn’t able to hold back the laughter. “Fifty-seven golds? Do you know how long it will take you to earn that much money?”
Siv sat up straight in his chair. He wasn’t stupid. “I figure my new employer — Mr. Harb, probably — will float me a loan.”
“It doesn’t work that way,” Sammy said. “No employer is going to float you three years’ worth of wages before you’ve even worked a day.”
“Are you serious?”
“Couldn’t be more.”
Well… crud. So much for that plan.
“I haven’t gotten you anything yet, either,” he said. “Is there anything you want for” — he pulled his coins out of his pocket and counted them — “three silvers or less?”
“What I could really use is some help making dinner,” she said. “Would you mind peeling the potatoes? After this butter’s done I need to go grab some prickly pears for the pie.”
Siv had been standing to walk to the potato bin, but her words left him frozen in place. “You’re making the pie? Mama showed you how?”
Sammy smiled but it didn’t reach her eyes. “When I was alone with her that last day, she gave me the recipe. I think she knew it was then or never.” She wiped her eye with her sleeve. “So you better believe I’m making the pie. I’m making the whole feast, Siv, just the way Mama always did, all five courses. If the only Lenerstelen celebration Daddy’s going to have is the feast, then by golly he’s going to get the feast!”
Later that evening, the four of them were in the room at the rear of the residence side of the cabin, just as the five of them had been every night for so many years before Cam left for Cleburne Hill and before Mama left… well, for heaven. Daddy was on his cot in the corner, under the window, and Sammy and Cam were sprawled out on feather-filled bags laid before the fireplace. It wasn’t that cold — it never got that cold in Gorman — so they’d only thrown one log on before sleep.
Siv’s own feather bag was sitting against the wall opposite his father, where he was as far as he could be from the fireplace, the window, and the door. He’d taken his normal nighttime precautions purely out of habit; it was one of the rare nights his mind wasn’t consumed by his fears. He could hear Daddy and Sammy’s steady breathing, and Cam’s snoring, and he knew that he was the only one still awake and still planning his Lenerstelen gift-giving.
For the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, he’d helped Sammy prepare the feast. He’d never gone out and gotten a job and more importantly, he still hadn’t bought his father the perfect present. His only choice now was to go to the general store on the way home from worship. Like everything else in the village except the inn and the livery, it would be closed, but Cam surely had a key and could ring up a purchase for him, if he could figure out what to get.
The store’s book section had a guide to the constellations, but Daddy could have written that one himself. There were some hard candies that looked good to him, and he knew they’d appeal to Daddy’s sweet tooth, but candy did not make the perfect present. In the moonlight that came in past the thin curtains, he saw that Daddy’s blanket was getting a bit frayed around the edges. Maybe he could buy him a new one.
Thinking about the blanket, and what Sammy had told him about her time with Mama on her last day, brought Siv back three months. He’d also been alone with Mama for a short time that day while Sammy made lunch and while Cam and Daddy took a walk. He sat right next to her, on the chair that now sat at the foot of the bed, and she held his hand on top of that same frayed blanket. And they said almost nothing. They didn’t have to. They just sat together, both of them knowing it was possibly for the last time.
The only thing she had said to him, in a moment when her eyes looked strong, even if nothing else of her body did, was, “Help Daddy.”
He had nodded and said, “I will, Mama.” He knew how hard it was going to be for Daddy after she was gone. And a few hours later, with Daddy sitting in the chair and the rest of them standing next to her, gone she was. Gone home.
He wondered if Daddy was going to miss worship tomorrow by choice. He really did have two large orders due, and while they really did need the gold, it also seemed a convenient excuse. And he couldn’t blame him. Preacher Geary would no doubt give a heartfelt sermon on the beauty of life, and on God’s selfless act of giving that created it, and on eternity in heaven. But every word would be a reminder of what he’d lost, of the last words she’d said to him, the last time he held her hand, the last Lenerstelen they’d–
The torrent of thought disappeared from Siv’s mind like dust blown by a gust of wind, leaving behind perfect clarity. He stared at his father’s frayed blanket but instead saw his hand grasping his mother’s.
It would mean unlatching the bedroom door. It would mean stepping outside at night. It would mean… well… there would be fire. That last one especially gave Siv pause. But after only a moment’s hesitation, he resolved himself to it. He stood up, stepped out of the bedroom, and closed the door behind him.
The first rays of Lenerstelen morning sun were poking through the workshop windows when Siv heard the door open behind him. He stopped sweeping and spun on his heels to face the sound, holding the broom before him like a shield. Daddy was in the doorway, still wearing his white t-shirt and pajama pants.
“Good morning, son. Joyful Lenerstelen.” The words were pleasant enough, but Siv knew the look on Daddy’s face well. He was working through a puzzle. What on Verde was his son doing in the workshop at the crack of dawn?
“Joyful Lenerstelen, Daddy. I… I know we’re supposed to wait until after worship, but I kind of have to give you your present now.”
Daddy’s eyes scanned the work bench and saw the tools lined across it. He gazed at the slab of iron that sat atop the anvil. For a much longer moment, his eyes held put on the forging furnace in the corner and on the fire that raged inside it.
“You lit the furnace?” he asked.
“Yeah. Don’t worry — I didn’t try to make anything. I didn’t ruin any of your work, promise. I just got everything ready. I have all the metal working tools lined up here in just the order you like them. I figure you want to get a gun barrel or two started first, right? Before moving on to the tables? That iron on the anvil, that’s the thickness you like to use for gun barrels. There’s three quenching buckets ready for you down below, and I have another two filled from the well on the back porch.
“Now on the woodworking bench,” he said, walking towards it, “I only took out the vises, your hammer, straight edge, ruler, and the big saws. And a chisel. But I didn’t bother with the tools you’ll need for detail work. I reckon Mr. Shimmerman needs those tables straight away, he’ll take them this afternoon plain as vanilla, and you can head over and work in the saloon a few afternoons after the holidays to make them fancy. Am I right?”
He turned to his father. Daddy still stood in the doorway, and was still watching the fire. “You lit the furnace?”
“Yeah,” Siv said.
At last his father looked away from the furnace and met his eyes. In a soft voice, he said, “Sivrin, you’re terrified of fire.”
Siv swallowed hard. “Sammy said you were too busy to come to worship with us this morning. So I thought if I got everything ready, I could save you enough time that you’d be able to come. If you want to. I mean, I can understand if you don’t want to.”
The corners of his father’s mouth turned up in a smile. “Why would I not want to attend Lenerstelen morning worship with my children?”
Siv shrugged. “I just figured that the whole thing would be one big… reminder…”
The sob burst from his mouth, cutting off the rest of the sentence. Siv clamped his hands over his face, pressing hard, doing all he could to stem the tears, but he couldn’t. The ache felt like it came from deep in his belly, but it really came from deep in his heart.
He felt flesh as thick as a tree trunk across his back. Daddy wrapped his lone arm around him and pressed him tight against his chest.
“Don’t need a reminder, son. Not a moment goes by that I don’t recall with crystal clarity that she’s gone. I reckon you know what I mean.”
Siv shook. He missed her so, so much.
“Never thought I’d see the day you’d come near that furnace,” he said. “Mama always swore that you were meant to… And I never believed her…”
He held Siv out at arm’s length. “This will be an odd question, and I know it’s still a good four years off, but when time comes, do you want to go to the university?”
Siv wiped his hand across his eyes. “No,” he said.
“Do you think you’d want to, you know…” He shrugged his shoulder at the tools and work benches around them. “Help?”
His father grinned. “Here’s what we’ll do. You keep going to school in the mornings. But in the afternoons, you work here. You know a lot, that’s for sure, but there’s a lot more still to learn. But you’ll learn it as an apprentice blacksmith.”
Siv remembered something important. “Does it pay fifty-seven golds in advance?”
His father just laughed. “Go clean up,” he said, “so we can make it to Lenerstelen worship on time.”
“Gratitude to you, too, son.”
As he headed towards the wash basin on the back porch, he realized he had someone else to thank. He wouldn’t have found the perfect present without her.
Gratitude, Mama, he prayed. Joyful Lenerstelen to you.