by Jos Burns
The shop was carefully arranged, a dimly lit, fragile ecology in the damp evening air. Handwritten price tags dangled from thick cotton string, a casual denial of barcode technology. A few candles burned on a desk in the back, shedding almost as much light as the heavily shaded incandescent lamps. The shop was full of curiosities that were only interesting to the right person—globes spun backward in time to be centuries out of date, pungent soaps crafted from goat’s milk and nightshade, guaranteed to smooth and stimulate your tired skin, and large stacks of crystal inkwells, hoarded as though they were a commodity likely to be depleted from downtown office buildings so that an army of secretaries might dash in at any moment to replenish their supply. He had shopped here before; he had been here several times. Each time, he bought the same thing.
The proprietor looked up when he entered. She nodded cursorily, then again more animated, with recognition. He smiled and nodded in return, vaguely, although his recollection of the shop and its proprietor was clear. He turned toward a pyramid display of treacle, trying to look like he was browsing. The tins were shiny and free of corrosion, but at the bottom of the pyramid, one tin was tipped on its side, and was leaking brown ooze onto a delicate white saucer. It wasn’t obvious whether the display of the tins’ contents was intentional or an accident, unnoticed in the stale air.
He made his way around the store, weaving among the assorted wares, and looking for his intended purchase. With uncharacteristic embarrassment, he hoped to find something else he could buy at the same time, to distract from the fact that this was the third time he had returned to this shop, each time for the same transaction. He had wandered into the shop over a year ago, curious that such an anachronism would exist on the dirty strip of oil-change garages and fast food emporiums. He had initially thought that the store sold antiques, but after browsing for a few minutes, he had realized that all of the merchandise was new, only it looked old, or in some cases, it belonged functionally to another era. As he had turned to leave the store, a shelf of knick-knacks had caught his attention. In the center of the display, there stood a small harp, only a few inches tall, compact and incongruously elegant. The body of the harp was sculpted in the shape of a gargoyle, the strings spitting from its mouth and folded wings. Curious, he had reached out and touched the gargoyle’s spine. The body was smooth and cold, a dense gray wood, or perhaps a piece of finely polished stone. The gargoyle had a look on its face that was neither horrific nor beastly, but rather sly. He half expected it to purr as he stroked its tiny spine. Brushing his fingertips across the tiny strings, he had been surprised by the rich timbre of the notes. Impulsively, he had picked up the small harp and carried it to the back of the store. The proprietor had sold it to him, wordless but smiling.
Over the following year, events had conspired to bring him back to the store again, and again. The first harp had merely broken, shattered after he knocked it from the bookshelf where he had displayed it. The second harp had been hastily wrapped as a gift for his niece when he realized he’d forgotten to otherwise fulfill an obligation. The third harp he had ceded, exasperated, to his neighbor’s children to get them out of his hair one afternoon. They had run off clutching their strange prize and calling for their mother in a way that had made it sound like he had hurt them. And now he found himself wanting another one, but flustered by the depth of his desire. He felt a peculiar shame for being so attached to the little gargoyle. He wanted it there on his bookshelf, available, so he could walk by and strum a few gentle notes whenever he pleased. Yet, it wasn’t clear to him how the harp had insinuated itself so deeply into his life, so that each calamity compelled him back to the store, a recurring demonstration of fidelity to a precarious muse.
With these thoughts in his breast, he wandered haplessly around the store, looking for the little gargoyle. As he surveyed each display, he felt a mild panic rising in his throat. It occurred to him for the first time that the gargoyle harp might have fallen out of production. He clenched his jaw dismally, chastening himself for giving up the last one having so carelessly traded it for a few minutes of peace. He felt depressed, and then moments later, tricked, although he wasn’t sure by whom. He hoped he wasn’t showing all this on his face as he perused the store’s wares. It was bad enough to have returned for yet another harp. At least he could keep his surging emotions under wraps while he squirmed beneath the surreptitious gaze of the proprietor.
Regardless, the harp was not to be found during his circumnavigation of the store. He sighed and selected an inoffensive greeting card from the rack near the poisonous soaps. With the card in hand, he made his way to the back of the store, where the proprietor perched on an austere wooden stool, reading while she waited fatalistically for a transaction.
“Hi…” he began awkwardly, laying the card on the counter. “I was wondering…”
The woman looked up deliberately from her book. Her gaze was level and clear. “About the gargoyle harps?” she cut him off. “They’re back here. I’ll get you one.” She jumped up from her chair, her heavy velvet dress swishing noisily, and headed into a back room he hadn’t noticed before. She paused on the threshold, turning back archly. “Just one?”
“Yes,“ he answered, feeling a blush rise in his cheeks. “Just one.”
She came back into the room, cradling one of the harps in her hands, cooing softly at it. “They’re so beautiful, “ she commented, unbidden. “I have one at home too.”
He smiled awkwardly, not sure whether he should try to explain the saga of how he didn’t actually have one of his own.
“Of course, they’re not in the front window anymore, but we’ll keep stocking them,” she continued cheerfully. “You’ll probably be needing another one sometime.” She paused, whistling softly to herself as she carefully wrapped the small gray parcel in tissue paper. Standing behind the counter, her frizzy hair caught the light and created a halo that made it difficult to focus on her face. “You’ll need one for a birthday present, or a wedding, or because the cleaning lady steals it. After all, who wouldn’t need a gargoyle harp?” She regarded him warily from beneath arched eyebrows. It occurred to him that this was his opportunity to laugh off her assertion, to contradict her.
“It works out on average to about one gargoyle harp every two years,” the proprietor continued in a matter-of-fact tone. “Eventually, you and I will become old friends. You’ll watch my children grow up. I’ll complain to you about my aches and pains. Finally we’ll be the only thing left in each others’ lives, the only thing we can both depend on. Just you and me, and the gargoyle harps, another year goes by.” She dropped the wrapped bundle into a paper bag, and held the purchase out to him. She looked directly at him, smiling disarmingly. It was all he could do to raise his arm and take the bag from her.
“I exaggerate, of course,” she said, doing a little curtsey as she relinquished the bag. She did not blink; she did not stop smiling.
“Yes,” he said. “Good day, then,” he squealed, and turned, as calmly as he could, and fled the store. The bell chimed a welcoming sound as he passed over the threshold.
Math of Life
by Tomislav Silipetar
Jos is an emerging writer with recent publications in the Baobab Press anthology, This Side of the Divide: New Lore of the American West, as well as in several micro-press anthologies. She butters her bread with Geographic Information Systems and remote sensing expertise, when she’s not dabbling in entomology. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with three daughters, two cats, and a piebald curiosity. She is a graduate of USF’s MSEM program.
In 2014, Silipetar graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb in the class of Igor Rončević- Painting Department. In 2015 he became a member of HDLU. In addition to many group exhibitions, he had a number of solo exhibitions in Croatia as well as in the other countries. He is the winner of the rector’s award for excellence in 2013. His paintings are mostly made in acrylic, and the themes vary from solitude and isolation to human existence in the society that condemns. It favors the simple colors, and the line that goes perfectly with the total preoccupation of getting out of the ‘boxes’ of academy.