A Song for Huddlestone
A Fairy Tale
by Barbara Stoner
There was once a hard-working student named Calvin who lived in an attic above a grocery store, and he had nothing in the world of his own. There was also a hard-working grocer named Mr. Palmer who lived and worked on the first floor, and he had the whole house for his own. Huddlestone was an old man of the streets, and he had nothing in the world of his own either, not even an attic. But Mr. Palmer was a kindly grocer, and in bad weather allowed Huddlestone to sit inside, guarding the back door to his shop.
Early one rainy evening, Calvin clumped wearily down the stairs and knocked on the shop door.
"Who goes there?" It was suspected that Huddlestone had learned to talk from old movies, although where he would have seen them, no one knew.
"It's me. Calvin. Still open?"
There was a sound of wheezing and clattering, a muffled curse or two, and fumbling with locks. The door inched open and Huddlestone appeared in the narrow crack, one bloodshot eye above a gnarl of nose and matted beard all bunched together under a broken-down porkpie hat. "Oh, that Calvin," he grumbled. "Why didn'ja say so? Well, don't just stand there. Come on, now. Ol' man Palmer, he's up front." The door swung open as the old man slumped back into an ancient, rusty lawn chair held together with torn strips of plaid plastic and a couple of dingy bungy cords. "Best get moving. Ten minutes, I'm lockin' 'er down."
"Thanks, Huddlestone," Calvin wheezed back. He thought he might be catching a cold. "This won't take a minute." Calvin hurried through the back passageway into the little grocery. "Mr. Palmer? I’m afraid I need another light bulb.”
"Your light out again? You should get one of those new eco-lights," Mr. Palmer told him. "It'd last longer.'
Calvin's one desk lamp seemed to blink out at the most inopportune times. Right now, he had a paper due in Medieval Literature and he had just picked a topic, "Was Romantic Love Invented by the Troubadours?" – he didn't think it was – when the light blinked out. He could still see by the overhead, of course, but it wasn't the same. The pool of direct light cast by the lamp seemed to draw his eyes into the work. With it gone, his concentration had shattered.
"Can't afford it," he said. He didn't really like the new bulbs anyway. He liked the bright circle of light that his old desk lamp cast. Calvin pulled a single light bulb out of the two-pack and brought it to the counter. "OK if I just buy this one? You can save the other one for me for next time." Calvin dug his wallet out of his jeans pocket and checked his available funds. "Hold on a minute, I want to grab a couple more things."
"Take your time. I'm closing, but you can always go out the back."
Calvin trudged to the cooler at the rear of the store, grabbing a loaf of cheap white bread on the way. He picked out a small chunk of cheddar and pawed through the salami ends that Mr. Palmer sold cheaply when he had cut the longer links into identical lengths. He paid no attention to the tinkle of the bell above the front door, nor to the conversation of muffled voices before the bell sounded once again.
"Calvin? You ready? I'm locking up."
Calvin brought his bounty to the counter and added a small packet of tissues to the pile.
"Need some aspirin?" Mr. Palmer asked, when Calvin politely stifled a sneeze.
"Got some up in my room. I'll take it later. What's this?"
An old, slim book lay on the counter next to the cash register. Its cover was an indistinguishable shade of dirty, frayed at the edges, with a tiny tear at the top of the spine.
"I don't know. Maybe old Mrs. Murchent left it. She came by for some soup while you were back by the cooler." Mr. Palmer glanced at the clock over the door. "Well, time to lock up. You can go out the back way." And he went to lock the front door.
Calvin picked up the book. It felt damp, smelled musty. He could feel the imprint of something printed, probably its title, on the back and the spine, but whatever it was remained opaque beneath the years. Calvin opened the front cover. "Poems of Provence," he read. Carefully, he turned over a few more pages. The paper was thin, brittle, browning at the edges.
"You ready to settle up?" Mr. Palmer asked. He was back behind the counter with his cash drawer open.
"Oh, yes." Calvin put the book down and fished in a pocket for his wallet. "Do you mind if I borrow this for the night?" He handed Mr. Palmer a few bills.
Palmer counted out his change, handed it to him, and nodded at the book. “What’s it about?”
"Actually, it's a book of poetry. I was looking for this very book today in the library, but I couldn't find it. You said Mrs. Murchent left it?"
"Must have. It was here after she left, wasn't before she came."
"Do you mind if I borrow it for a couple of days? If she comes looking for it, I'll return it to her."
"Go right ahead. I know where you live." Palmer laughed, and Calvin laughed with him.
"You folks gonna stand here all night?" Huddlestone appeared in the further recesses of the shop, looking more like a garden gnome than a human being. "I gotta get going, I'm gonna get my spot." No one knew just where Huddlestone's "spot" was, but he was very protective of it, always worried that someone was going to "get it."
"Whatcha got there?" the old man asked, pointing to the book in Calvin’s hand.
"Just an old book someone left here. Palmer said I could look at it for a couple of days."
"What's it about?" They were at the door. Huddlestone held it open for Calvin and stood aside, ready to lock it behind him.
"Just some poetry I'm studying right now. You probably wouldn't be too interested."
"Try me." There was a hint of truculence in the old man's voice, as if he felt insulted that someone presumed what would or would not interest him.
Calvin opened the book to a random page.
"For I love you so much, truly,
that one could sooner dry up
the deep sea and hold back its waves
than I could constrain myself
from loving you, without falsehood;
for my thoughts, my memories, my pleasures
are perpetually of you,
whom I cannot leave or even briefly forget."
"See? Just some silly love poetry." Calvin actually loved it, but didn't expect others to feel the same way, especially not Huddlestone. He closed the book and turned to say good night. To his surprise, the old man stood before him, still as the garden gnome he resembled so closely. Calvin swore there was a hint of a tear in one eye.
Then the moment was over.
"Get along upstairs with you then. I gotta get out of here." And with no more ado, Huddlestone closed the door. Calvin heard the click of the lock on the inside, shrugged his shoulders, and climbed the stairs to his own little room.
The next night when Calvin opened the outside door, he found Huddlestone sprawled in his lawn chair in front of the stairs that led to his attic. The door to the store was open.
"You're late," the old man grumbled. "What took you so long?"
"I was at the library," Calvin told him. "Aren't you supposed to be watching the door?" There was something different about Huddlestone. Calvin couldn't quite put his finger on it. But ... was that soap he smelled? Then, feeling a sneeze coming on, he fished a tissue from his pocket and blew his nose.
"I can see it from here. Say, still got that old book? I don't suppose you'd mind reading me another one of those pomes like the one you read me yesterday. I sorta liked that one."
Huddlestone didn't look as if he was going to move unless he complied, so Calvin set down his backpack, drew the old book out, and carefully opened it at a place he had saved with a piece of paper torn from a notebook.
"Ok. Here goes. I was thinking about using this one in my latest paper. It's called, "The Mirror of Narcissus."
"Sweet noble heart, I am forbidden to ever see again
your fair sweet face which put me on the path of love;
but truly I do not know how I can expect not to have to die soon.
And if I must abstain to give you pleasure, or else be untrue to you,
then I would rather keep my loyalty and according to your will die,
if your heart wishes it, than against your will to receive complete joy
by looking on your beauty."
Achoo! At least this sneeze had waited politely for the recitation to finish. "Sorry, Huddlestone. Could you move your chair? I've been fighting off a cold, but I’m afraid it’s going to win."
The old man was smiling as he got up and maneuvered the lawn chair back inside the shop. "Thank you. That was nice. Made my day."
For the rest of that week, when Calvin struggled back from school, Huddlestone was waiting for him, requesting another poem. Calvin's cold had gotten worse, and it was harder and harder for him to get through one without coughing – at least his nose was no longer running so much – but he did it anyway, grateful to have any kind of an audience. And every day it seemed that Huddlestone grew a little bit cleaner, a little bit neater. One day his hair appeared to have been trimmed, the next he wore a jacket that looked a little newer, a little nattier.
Calvin had read to him from Dante, from Christine de Pisan, and the Dawn Song by one "Anonymous." On Friday, Huddlestone appeared in his usual place, this time with trimmed beard and nails and – was that a clean shirt? – but Calvin did not come. At last, hurt and angry at being forgotten, he stumped into the store and confronted Mr. Palmer.
"What's that young scamp up to now, skipping school like that. He drinking? Drugs?" Huddlestone might look like a before and after picture, but his voice still sounded like an old floorboard.
Palmer looked up from where he was restocking a shelf of canned goods. "How the hell would I know? Long as his rent's paid, he can do what he wants. You knocked on his door yet?"
"Nah, you think I should?"
Mr. Palmer straightened up, stretching his back into an adjustment arch as he did so. There was a hesitancy to Huddlestone's voice that seemed peculiar to his ears. And he looked ... Palmer peered closely at his old friend.
"What's got into you? You're ... different."
"What's it to you. Can't a man clean up once in a while?"
Cleaned up seemed too mild a term. Transformed was a better description.
Nevertheless, Palmer shrugged. They had not gotten along all these years by poking into each other's business too closely.
"You know he had that cold. Maybe he's sick."
Huddlestone pursed his lips in what Palmer could only suppose was deep consideration, then growled, more to himself than to anyone else, "All right, then. I'm going. I'm just going to go up there and knock. Can't hurt anything, I suppose." And he turned and stalked away.
Mr. Palmer shook his head in bemusement and returned to his boxes of cans.
Huddlestone carefully locked the back door and climbed the stairs. No one answered to his first soft three knocks. At his second set, this time crisp raps, he thought he heard something within. Finally, he gave three loud bangs on the door and shouted, "Whatsa matter with you? Deaf or something?"
This time he heard the faint voice from inside.
"That you, Huddlestone? Come in. The door's unlocked."
Huddlestone opened the door. Calvin lay huddled under quilts in a single bed pushed against the side wall. He looked pasty but for a red nose and two bright fever spots on his cheeks. Brown hair was plastered in lank strands across his forehead. A wastebasket overflowing with used tissue stood at the side of his bed.
"Christ! You look awful! Want I should have Mr. Palmer call a doctor?"
"No, no. Nothing they can do. It's just the flu. I'll be fine in a couple of days," he said, his voice soft, thick, and almost as gravelly as Huddlestone's. "If you could just..." he began, when a cough started. It came out as a short choke, and then, gathering power in a need that would not be denied, began again at the base of Calvin's diaphragm, bending him nearly double and forcing him upright by the time it reached his throat. He bent over and spat into the overflowing basket.
In the doorway, Huddlestone winced. "I guess you can't read to me today," he said.
A gargled chuckle sounded from the bed as Calvin sank back once again onto his pillow. "The book is right there on the desk, under the lamp. If you want to read one to me, you can. But could you get me a glass of water first?" He waved weakly at an empty glass that stood on the bedside table.
Huddlestone stalked across the room and got the glass, averting his eyes from the wastebasket as he did so, and filled it from the tiny kitchenette sink. Calvin sipped a little of the water, then asked, "Would you like to read? Pick out any one you like."
The old man glanced at the little desk and the book sitting in the circle of bright light, then shook his head.
"I'd need glasses to do that. Lost 'em a long time ago."
"I'm sorry," Calvin whispered. His body trembled somewhat with the paroxysm of an impending cough.
Huddlestone took the water glass from Calvin’s shaking hand and put it on the table. "I'll look in on ya tomorra, ok? Can I bring you something from the store?"
Calvin, eyes closed once more, shook his head slightly. One hand traced a dismissive wave. Huddlestone hurried toward the door as the sound of the next racking cough rose behind him.
No one knew just when or how the fire started, but later, convalescing in Mr. Palmer’s spare bedroom, Calvin thought it could have been due to his old lamp and the bulbs he insisted on burning in it. That last one, he thought, might have been more powerful than the lamp had been designed for. He remembered the sound of the fire engines, the acrid smell of smoke, and the horrifying sight of flames climbing the far wall above his desk. No one knew how Huddlestone knew about the fire either. He was just there, staring mad-eyed over Mr. Palmer's head as the store-keeper watched the fire engines arrive, watched yellow flames shooting through a hole in the roof, saw the flicker of red and yellow through the dingy window of Calvin's room.
"Where's Calvin?" Huddlestone demanded.
Palmer glanced around. "Oh, no. I don't see him. You don't suppose?"
"He's sick. Think it might be worse than he said it was. I'm going up there."
"No, you can't." Mr. Palmer caught at his arm as Huddlestone went by him. "Wait for the firemen."
But Huddlestone shook him off and charged at the building. It took only a couple of body slams to break open the old wooden street door, and then he disappeared. Everyone - the neighbors gathered in the streets, the firemen busy with their hoses - stopped in their tracks to stare. Two of the firemen took off after the old man and soon they disappeared inside the burning building as well. Up above, flames licked the sky.
Huddlestone ran up the stairs and pushed open the door to Calvin's room. Smoke swallowed him and billowed into the hallway.
"Calvin!" The word came out as more cough than speech. There was no response. Huddlestone stumbled in the direction of the bed, barked his shin on the frame and nearly fell.
"Calvin, Calvin, boy." The smoke was getting thicker and the flames, which had spread to the ceiling, were closing in.
There was the sound of a muffled cough. Huddlestone groped until he encountered Calvin's body. He lifted it, bedclothes and all and, with his eyes squeezed shut to bar the smoke, lurched back through the door. He could hear the sound of falling debris behind him. The firefighters met him at the top of the stairs. One took Calvin from his arms while the other tried to take hold of Huddlestone to help him to safety. But ...
"The book!" Huddlestone wrenched himself free and dashed back through the door. "Where is the book?" The fire had made its way across the outer wall. He could see, through slitted eyes, flames licking at the bedclothes. The desk, where he had last seen the book of medieval poetry, was aflame. Was it gone? He took off his hat and tried to wave a window through the smoke, to no avail. He felt a tug at his coat and heard a voice telling him they had to leave, but he wrenched away and dropped to his knees. The firefighter came up beside him and tried to haul him to his feet by one arm, shouting into his ear that the ceiling could collapse, but Huddlestone shuffled forward again, on his knees, through the smoke and the heat like a man possessed.
"The book," he sobbed. "I've got to find the book." He sank lower, burying his head between his knees in despair. And as he did so, he felt something hard beneath him. It was the spine of a book, its wings spread open on the floor. Huddlestone dropped his hat and grabbed it as the firefighter finally managed to haul him to his feet. Together, they staggered to the doorway as flames enveloped the room behind them and blew them toward the stairs. A cheer went up when they burst through the street door into a shower of water from the hoses aimed at the roof. Huddlestone hunched protectively over something in his arms and then, overcome at last from his great effort, collapsed in a heap in the street. Paramedics rushed over, but before they could reach him, someone else sank to her knees beside him.
"Billy? Billy? Is that you?" Mrs. Murchent reached a tentative hand to caress his cheek.
"It's Huddlestone!" Mr. Palmer had hurried over as well. "He went up to get Calvin out."
"Yes. Billy Huddlestone. We were ... young people together. Before my father died."
Palmer gave her a hand up as the paramedics hovered over the old man, checked his vitals, and lifted him onto a gurney. As they did so, the book slipped from his grasp and fell to the ground. Mrs. Murchent bent and plucked it from the pavement.
"My old book! I wondered where it went. Where did he find it?"
"You left it in the store. I loaned it to Calvin. He wanted it for some paper he's doing. I was going to ask for it back and give it to you when you came in again."
"Oh, thank you. I thought I had lost it. It was my father's. He used to read to us – Billy and me - from it. Billy was our gardener's son. We played together as children and when we were older, well ... For a while I thought ..." She trailed off for a moment, then collected herself. "But then my father died, and I was sent to live with relatives across the country. I only came back here last year after my husband passed."
"Mr. Palmer? Sir?" A firefighter approached them. "Looks like we've put it out. The fire didn't reach your store, but there could be smoke and water damage. I'm afraid the second story and the roof have taken quite a bit of damage, though." Palmer made his excuses to Mrs. Murchent and went to see about his property. Mrs. Murchent cast about her as if searching for something, then hurried in the direction of the ambulances.
"Kid has pneumonia," she overheard one of the paramedics tell another as one ambulance pulled away. "Hadn't been for the fire, he mighta died up there by hisself."
A paramedic was pulling the back doors of the second ambulance closed as she approached.
"Oh, please, let me ride along," she begged. "He is an old friend, and he has no one else."
The paramedic hesitated for a moment, then reached a hand down to help her up the little step and closed the door.
Huddlestone lay there, a pile of rumpled clothes, his face obscured by an oxygen mask.
Mrs. Murchent took the seat the paramedic offered her, across from his own. She took one of Huddlestone's limp, soot-blackened hands.
"Billy, Billy, it's me, Lavinia. Do you remember? Do you remember our garden?"
The old man's breathing was shallow, interrupted now and then with a hiccup, as if gasping for air. The paramedic adjusted the oxygen flow and held a stethoscope to Huddlestone's chest.
"Is he going to live?" she asked anxiously.
"It depends on how much smoke he inhaled. But we'll do our best." The paramedic tried to look cheerful.
Lavinia edged closer and squeezed the old man's hand.
"Billy, Billy. Don't die on me now. Remember.
'You are the emerald which brings rejoicing,
The ruby to brighten and comfort the heart.'"
She felt rough fingers move against her own, and slowly the old, grizzled head turned toward her. Heavy eyelids raised no more than enough to reveal eyes that gleamed like a sliver of moonlight on water. His lips moved, and she thought she heard a whisper of her name. She leaned in closer. The lips moved again, and the words came out, soft but clear and clean.
"You are the true sapphire
That can heal and end all my sufferings."