The cobblestones were cool against her bare feet. She anxiously awaited, amidst a throng of other youths, for the travelling pawnbroker to open up shop and display his wares.
It was a gypsy-styled wagon, made from aged oak and carved yew. Silent windchimes and florid dreamcatchers hung lightly from the rafters, framing the closed casements. A sturdy mule stood stoicly to the side, tied down with a thick harness. From time to time, he would whinny, give a kick, or bend down to munch up the oats hanging in a basket on the side of the wagon. Other than that, no sound or movement came from the pawnbroker's stall, and the children gathered round were growing impatient, thinking maybe he wasn't going to come out tonight.
The girl, almost thirteen years old, fiddled with a small copper coin in her pocket. She was a petite girl, a little shorter than average, yet delicately slim. Her blond hair was nor long nor short, hanging loose and just barely brushing her shoulders. She wore a thick cotton skirt and a yellow blouse.
When she'd heard news of a pawnbroker, she'd come as quick as she could, carrying her single coin. She'd already searched across the whole town, looking for the perfect gift, and now she hoped only to find one from elsewhere.
Suddenly, the wagon's door flung open, and the pawnbroker walked out. He was a lanky man, with long arms and a flamboyant, lumbering gait. He had dry, ratty black hair trailing out from beneath a patched-up top-hat. A long grey coat stretched down to his knees, worn and torn well past his prime, and he carried a sturdy cane—topped in bronze—in the crook of his left arm as he waved with his right.
"Greeting, childrens, youths, and what-have-you!" he pronounced, grinning mockingly. "Come forth and rob me silly!" With that, he knocked out a couple panels from the side of his wagon, suddenly displaying a dazzling assortment of toys, trinkets, jewellery and oddities.
The children, some as young as four and others now adolescent, swarmed forward. Whenever a child reached out to snatch something from its silken cushion, the pawnbroker swiftly swung out his cane and tapped them on the fingers. From time to time, he would let out a foolish, mocking cry, like "Back ye boggarts!" Then a kid would come up, point out something, hand over some money, and the old man would hand it over. After a good quarter hour, the crowd began to dissipate, leaving only one or two stragglers to gawk and trade.
The girl had not moved from her spot since the man had come out, instead standing a good yard back and swaying lightly from side to side as she fiddled with her coin and peered over at the items.
The old man, seeing her standing uncertainly from the side, came up to her.
"'Ello, there, lassie. See something you like?" he asked, kindly.
"I… I… I dunno," she responded, dejected.
He considered her wryly. "Perhaps I should ask something a little clearer. Looking for something?"
She paused, nervous, then let loose a sigh. "I'm here for ma brother's birthday, see. He's pretty ill, see, and he lost this old pocketwatch my Da gave him. It didn' work, o'course, but it meant a lot to him, and I wanted to get him somethin' real nice this year, to, y'know, make him feel better." She broke off for a moment, then continued hastily. "I looked in every store in town, and now here, but I just can't find somethin' that fits, an' all I've got is one lousy copper. I—" She choked off a sob, wiping a tear from her eye and turning to the side. "I just want to make him happy."
The old man stood there for a moment, watching her, then grinned. "Wait here, I got just the thing." He rushed into his wagon, cuffing a boy on the way. Some frantic moving of objects and the scrape of opening drawers could be heard from outside, and he hustled right back out, holding something at his side.
He showed it to her. It was a small box, delicately carved with images of clouds, fairies, and leaves, made from what seemed to be maple wood. "This here box is magic." At her disbelieving glance, he shoved it in her arms. "I'm serious, lassie. If you don't like the word, call it lucky. Y'see, this box helps you find what you really
want. Carry it around for a little while, and soon enough, you'll have something for your brother, trust me." He scratched his head. "Look, I'll make you a deal. If you lend me that copper coin, I'll lend you the box. Give me back the box, I give you back the coin. What've you got to lose?"
The girl looked at him for a moment, trying to gage his sincerity, then looked at the box. Reluctantly, she accepted.
"Good, good," he muttered, taking the coin. "Trust me, you'll have it in no time."
As she turned to walk away, he called out again. "Hey! Girl! Wha's your name? In case I need ta find ya or somethin'."
She shouted back "Monica!" and then ran off.
— ~ <> ~ —
Walking by the northside river, Monica stared at the box. How was a box supposed to help her find something for her brother? She'd already searched the whole market. Where else could she go?
She began to think that perhaps the old man was toying with her, manipulating her gullibility. If so, she should go right on back there and give him back this damned useless box.
Just as she turned to retrace her steps, a large man pushed her aside as he ran past. She stumbled to the ground, flinging out her arms to dampen her fall. The box flew out and tumbled right off the edge and into the river below.
With a cry of despair, she saw it float quickly away with current.
Leaping to her feet, she sprinted in the same direction, dodging through the thick mass of merchants and peasants. If she lost that box, not only would she not be able to get her copper coin back, but she'd have nothing to give her brother.
Monica stayed level with the floating box for a while, but soon it passed too far ahead of her and she lost sight of it. Stumbling to a stop, she panted heavily with her hands on her knees.
There was no use, of course. The river went on for miles, passing out of the bounds of the city and out to sea. Even had she managed to keep up with her, how would she retrieve the box from the surging waters?
With all energy torn from her, she sluggishly meandered home.
— ~ <> ~ —
The soft blades of grass beneath her light form gentle pricked the back of her neck as she lay face up to the sky. Her breaths came slow, shallow. Tomorrow was her brother's birthday, and she had nothing to show for it. Despite her efforts, the only thing she'd accomplished was the loss of the only money she had left.
She thought dimly of the old man, who'd told her this box would help her. But it had not—it only worsened the situation. Not that she could blame him. After all, it was she who dropped it in the river.
She let loose a puff of air. She'd better go ahead and tell the man of what happened. He'd probably have expected her to return earlier this afternoon.
Pushing herself to her feet, she brushed off her skirt and began walking.
It did not take long. It was not a rather large town, and she lived fairly close to the marketplace, where the pawnbroker had parked his wagon earlier that day. After only a dozen minutes or so, she came upon the wagon with its donkey, in the same spot she'd seen it before.
Mentally preparing herself, she was about to knock on the door when a voice called out from inside. "Monica! Come in."
She opened the door and entered.
It was a small space, with a bed taking up one wall and shelves full of random trinkets and antiques filling the other. The old man was sitting in the back, fluffing his pillow and humming a low tune. When Monica stepped in, he turned an gazed at her for a moment, then with a wide grin, motioned her to sit.
"Back rather late I see. Have any difficulty?"
"I—" she started, then taking a firmer hold of herself, continued. "I lost the box. It fell in the river."
His grin did not waver for an instant. "That's fine. Not a problem."
She was puzzled. "What?"
"I don't care about the box, really. I was lying of course. It isn't magical. It just gave me an excuse to get you to leave for a little while. You see, I was never the type to leave a customer unsatisfied."
Out of his pocket, he pulled out a weathered copper pocket watch.
"I just needed a little time to make the real
merchandise." He handed it to her.
"It's beautiful!" she exclaimed. Like the box, it bore images of clouds, fairies and leaves, etched in miniature scale onto the old copper.
"Why thank you. Glad you liked it. I made it for you." He reassessed that thought, and said, "Or rather, for your brother."
"How can I repay you?" she asked, suddenly worried again.
"You can't. That's not the point
." He pushed her to the door. "Get out and go to bed, now, young girl." She staggered out the door. "Goodbye, Monica," he said, before closing the door.
Monica stood there in awe, for a moment, then rushed home, eager for the next morn to come. Two days later, when she returned to thank the old man for his generosity, he, his wagon, and his donkey were gone. All that was left was a small maple wood box, sitting on the ground in a small pool of water.