Winter was well underway and Agostino felt it all too keenly. His blanket was no longer adequate and with another thrown over it just about prevented him from freezing to death at nights. On evenings a warm fireplace with logs crackling in a blazing fire made him stare away from goblins of boredom. It became a constant struggle to attend to his daily needful things. He knew his age had finally caught up with him. He was old and worn out.
To be old and with so many hurts still unattended to took their toll: it made him perpetually sour and angry.
The more he glanced at his past, all those little hurts became more insolent and seemed to outstare him. When he was rough and ready he was relieved off his trusty axe. Why? He thought it made mock of his muscular strength.
“Oh I was young and strong of nerves to swing an axe”, his mind was ready with an excuse. ”But did you get a woman, a helpmate for all that fire in your blood?” No why? He was slowly building a cage about him and creepers with thorns were blocking the quietness of his existence. The Cloud Peak was beoming drab and dry!
No more he could bear to look at his dolls. It brought up his old annoyances again. Now and then he saw some children taking a peek into the house and scurry away in fright. They were still frightened of him. Even when he would have made peace it was not possible. The dolls were now ruined beyond repair.
Whenever weather permitted him he would cautiously step out and meet other folks to catch up with news; he took time out to attend a few funerals and visit the houses of mourning. From casual talks it was apparent those children who were once regular visitors to his house had gone each in his own way. Some were away in the fields, or in the mines; some had joined up in vessels or as apprentices to some tradesmen. A few like Polybus and Ciprian had joined with their fathers. Well Agostino could understand they were past the age of playing with the dolls. He had nothing to do with their going away. Yet whenever he looked at his dolls with this new understanding he didn’t feel at ease.
His dolls remained still ruined.
Being old his sleep was light; and one night he heard scratching sounds that a cat would make on wood while filing its claws. He lit a candle and walked to the door.
To his amazement a little boy stood outside his head flaked still with soft snow. It had just began falling. He hurriedly opened the door wide urging him to to come in. The boy, hardly thirteen and shivering a little stumbled in. His clothes were spotted with slush; and his knuckles, the old man could see, were almost blue from cold. Agostino felt pity that he had not reckoned for guests lodging for the night. It was such nights as these his solitary existence showed its nothingness. He revived the fire, which blazed new with a whimper. Thereafter he was on the run to fetch his best blanket to wrap over him. The boy still held on to his valise which was light and he smiled weakly to say his name. ‘Immanuel’, he said. Agostino nodded even as he put some water to boil. Next he handed over his own shirt that was too large for the child. It was at least dry and its coarse weave could keep the cold out. Agostino breathlessly attended to his comfort as best as he could.
Soon a warm broth revived the boy who would have spoken but the old man shushed him and showed the alcove where a bed was fitted. The child weak as he was slumped and let the host tuck him for the night. Immediately he fell asleep. Agostino was not surprised: the boy was faint with cold and harshness of his travel.
He walked across and knocked at the door of the weaver whom among other neighbours had shown him proof of friendliness more often. Though unaccustomed to ask favours he flew to him. It was emergency. So much the weaver could well gather as Agostino mumbled his want. Instantly he fetched a loaf of bread and gave it to him. Silently he took off.
Agostino went tiptoe and hearing his steady breath he
let out a sigh of satisfaction. He knew the boy was none the worse for hazarding out in such a cold night. Silently he placed the coarse bread near his head.
“What is the mystery?” he asked himself as he went to lie in his bed. He just lay still unable to sleep.
When he had woken up he saw the soft morning sun swept half across the rush mat that lay in front of his bed. He had overslept! Quickly he went over to the next room. Immanuel had eaten off half his loaf of bread and he had arrayed the dolls on the bed and he was lost in thoughts with same expression he had often seen in those kids from the neighbourhood.
The doll-maker winced as the child squealed in pleasure. “This is marvellous!” The host was apologetic and in the face of such innocent expression his words trailed in despair. As far as he had seen they were a sorry lot callously reminding of a sorry episode.
The news had meanwhile reached into every nook and corner of that village. The folks had something to chew about. A strange boy had come in search of his father. They had heard from children of some dark secret that made the odd jobs man a queer body. What Ambrose, the imbecile had once bandied about revived. So the dark secret of the doll-maker was true after all!
A few children who had never been inside went to the cottage. To their astonishment a total stranger now had those dolls. He played as natural as though he owned them! They stood there mystified.
Immanuel broke off in the middle of his game and looked up to the children. He with a nod invited them over and soon they were into the swim of things as though their fantasies were one, made evenly matched by their innocence. Even when the host came in they simply continued with their ‘doll watching.’
Agostino made peace with children most of them he had never seen them before. And they, were under his roof as though they rightly belonged there, and accepted what was proffered and ate. They continued with their play.
The old man quickly made himself scarce in order to encourage children a clear field. On the fourth day Immanuel stopped as he made for the door and said,” We are among friends. Aren’t we?” He looked at those children who nodded in agreement. They never before had seen dolls so close. They looked at their host as though scales were dropped from their eyes. In their eyes they knew he was a harmless old man who were possessed with some uncommon gifts. In the presence of a child who sweetly played with the dolls the children knew the doll-maker was a wizard who could make his dolls so endearing. Did Immanuel by his sweet disposition clear the air as it were, or they were natural to believe only what their eyes had seen?
Agostino was going through some turmoil and he excused himself to prepare for the supper. Later in the evening, after the table was cleared the boy sat down waiting. He instinctively seemed to guess at something: What troubled the old man? He asked and Agostino in a tremulous voice that betrayed his troubled mind admitted he was sorry for his life spent foolishly creating some dolls. Ashamed he broke off to ask instead what made him set out through that rough terrain at such time of the year. By the candlelight, the face of the boy had something of an angel surrounded by the aura of innocence.
He replied, ”I came to see you.”
Agostino took a double take. His expression remained clear and sweet as he explained, ”I heard your name while I was in the fields; and during my voyage I heard some boys speak of you with the same affection. Glaucus and Felix are from these parts. You know the children of the stone mason?” Agostino shook his head.
“Of course Ambrose you know,?” Immanuel persisted,”- and he was the cabin boy who attended me and we got around to talk. At one point he said how happy he was once. He was evidently homesick. And you know what he said next? ‘How those dolls made me feel whole and complete!’ The way he said it, he has some strange way of expressing himself,- nevertheless it was convincing, and it made me curious. So many others, why they look back to some dolls with longing and regrets? In all of them, without any exception, your dolls were so impacted. Why I wanted to know?”
Agostino could not believe. He never had thought his handiwork meant to another as much as it was for him. Neither could he imagine those dolls would have rounded off the childhood of any to perfection. In him what loomed large was his quarrel. Whereas his dolls meant something far more than he had imagined.
In short he and the boy seemed to be talking of altogether two different things!
Immanuel with a hand on his arm restrained him.
“You are a good man. So I wanted to come and tell you myself,” After turning towards the dolls, ”and of course see them myself.”
“These dolls are ruined!” Agostino shook up in sobs. He cried and he didn’t try to stop. The presence of the boy made it all seem so natural.
Before turning in for the night Immanuel set each doll on the work bench and setting Safiah against Deborah side by side he said casually, ”See these two have kissed and made up!” He made each doll kiss one another as though those dolls had a life of their own! Agostino looked on with ‘a wild surmise’ as the poet would say.
Some strange thought seemed to rake up the turmoil within and smoothen it once more. He felt joy welling, something new. It was truly felt.
These dolls were no more ruined than he was! In the presence of the boy his handiwork had broken the lie and showed things in their true order: What he did for those children was beyond himself and beyond every lie. He had
given to their drab childhood, a shine that no dark cloud ever massing over their lives could quite erase. A silver lining.
He felt elated.
That night he slept soundly as if nothing ever troubled his mind.