Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Huckelby’s Hat Shop ( A Bedtime Story)

[This is dedicated to my best friend Candice, who gave me the character name and asked me to entertain her for an evening.]

For the last forty years of his life Bernard Huckleby had made hats. Ever since he could remember he had dreamed about hats; he thought about making them, designing them, and wearing them. He worked as a Hatmaker’s apprentice, went to haberdasher college, and did nothing but mull over his dream until he had saved up enough money to build his very own hat shop: "The Dashing Haberdashery".

And for forty years, everything had been relatively predictable. Every morning he woke up in his little apartment over the shop, made himself a fried egg, put some fish out for the cat, and percolated a pot of fresh coffee. Every morning he shuffled downstairs and set the coffee on a little tray for his customers. And every morning he pulled the shades up to greet the rising sun, unlocked the door, and flipped the sign from closed to open. When everything was set he would open the door a crack and smile to himself at the bright tintinnabulation of the little bells on the lintel. And like clockwork, people came into the shop to buy hats.
This was the way it was. The sun rose and set, days turned into weeks, which turned into months. Snow ushered in winter which melted into spring, and forty years seemed to drift by in a blur of routine.
Except for one day.
Except for the day that the relatively average life of Bernard Huckleby, haberdasher, was changed forever.
He woke up, cracked his usual fried egg into the pan and put the usual tuna out for the cat... but the cat was nowhere to be seen. He puzzled over this for a moment, but continued downstairs with the coffee. He shuffled over to the front door of his little hat shop and reached up to pull open the shades.
    “That is odd.” he thought. I was still fairly dark outside. He unlocked the door, flipped the sign to open, and tried the bells. They seemed to jingle out of tune. Something was off. Bernard shrugged and turned back to the counter to begin counting his drawer, when he heard the bells over the door yet chime again.
A stiff winter breeze blew through the open door, sending a shiver down his spine.
    "Good morning can I interest you in a new..." said Bernard turning around, he stopped in mid sentence by what he saw. He swallowed.
"h...h...h...h.....", He stammered nervously.
"A new h...h...h...", He couldn't seem to get the word out.
"Hat." finished his customer with a voice that could crack ice.
Bernard stared, silently quivering, words fumbled around in his brain like the lights were out, unable to make it to his mouth. This was a perfectly normal reaction however, because Bernard Huckleby was standing face to face with the death personified, the grim reaper.
The reaper was easily two heads taller than any man Bernard had ever seen. He must have been at least seven feet tall. His slender frame was clad with a long flowing black robe that reached all the way to the floor. Bernard couldn't see his feet... If he even had feet.
Death had to move around somehow because he seemed to glide over the floor rather than walk, which gave Bernard a very unsettling feeling. He stared still shaking in fear. The reaper’s bony hands were covered in black leather gloves. His face, if he had one, was hidden behind a silver skeleton mask which seemed to simply float in the dark space inside his hood. Instead of a scythe he carried a walking stick; a gnarled twisted thing made of black carved wood, which spiraled like a frozen wisp of smoke.
Bernard nervously ran his hands across the brim of a bowler hat, holding it in front of him like a tiny round shield.
"Wha - Wha - Wha- What do you want?", He stammered still trying to find his voice, which had tried to hide further down his throat.
"Why else would I come here?” said Death slowly. His voice creaking like an old rusted bridge. “I would like to buy a hat."
"You... but...” Bernard was confused. “What do you need a hat for? Aren’t you here to kill me?"
Death chuckled, if you could call it a chuckle. It was an uncanny sound that caused all the hair on the back of Bernard’s neck to stand on end. "If I was here for your soul, we would not be standing here having such a...lively conversation." rattled Death from beneath his mask.
Bernard was not very comforted by this statement, but his forty years of selling hats seemed to take over.
"So...um...Mr...What do I call you? Death?"
"Yeah, that's fine."
"Very well...Mr. Death, what kind of hat do you need?"
Death reached into his robes, pulled out a folded piece of parchment and slide it silently across the counter. Bernard timidly opened it as if it was about to explode in his face. He looked inside and breathed an instant sigh of relief. It was nothing more than a drawing of a simple silk top-hat with a black velvet band, decorated with a flower.
"These exact dimensions?"
Death nodded slowly.
"Normally I would measure your head..." Bernard looked up trying to see past the mask, but there was only blackness. "...but...yeah..."
He made a note of the dimensions listed on the paper. "I think I may have this one in the back. Just a second. Help yourself to some coffee if you'd like...No charge."
Death gave him a look, and even though he did not have eyes or a face, his posture seemed to convey an extreme sense of "What would I do with a cup of coffee?" Bernard hustled into the back behind a curtain, frantically measuring hats and muttering to himself.
"No no, wrong style."
"Too big."
"Too small" He said picking up various hats and casually tossing them aside.
"Wait." He paused as his eye fell upon a very old hatbox.
“I’d almost forgotten about you...” It was the hat that had marked his last day as an apprentice, and there it was on the shelf; how curious that it should surface now. He stood on a little step stool and coaxed the box down from its perch on the shelf. The years had accumulated quite the layer of dust on the lid, Bernard blew it aside, opened the box, and measured the inside of the hatband. Exactly the size he needed.
He took soft cloth to the old fabric and the silk gleamed in the dim light of the storeroom.
He remembered how proud he had been the day he finished that hat. When his teacher had seen it, he knew there was nothing left to teach Bernard, and sent him out into the world. That was the day when he knew...
The “DING” from the bell Barnard kept on the counter jarred him back to the present.
"Oh right... coming!", He yelled towards the front. He grabbed a fake flower from a small basket near the door, a pink daisy with a blue center, tucked it into the hatband, and hurried through the curtain.
Death was impatiently sipping his coffee.
"I believe this is the hat you are looking for."
Death put his cup down in haste and quickly examined the hat. He turned it this way and that, holding it up to the light, flexing the brim. Finally after much scrutiny he seemed satisfied.
"I... I don't mean to sound insistent, but there is the matter of payment." said Bernard nervously.
Death silently understood and took a weathered envelope out of his robes and slid it across the counter. Before he read it an interesting thought popped into Bernard's head.
"What are you going to use it for?" He asked, the same way a child would ask what happened to his pet dog.
"Excuse me?" replied death, icily.
"What are you going to use it for?" repeated Bernard with a bit more confidence.
Death paused silently, as if debating whether or not any explanation was necessary and finally he spoke. "I require this hat because it is the perfect size and material to hold a very powerful spell... one that brings people back from the dead."
Bernard raised an eyebrow. "But you're Death? Why would you want to bring people back?"
That seemed to strike a nerve. "You pathetic mortals are so fragile." croaked Death, his voice half whisper half snarl. "You die so quickly that you don't have time to suffer. You are all extinguished  like the flame of a candle when you should be tormented for wasting your precious lives.” Death let out a low cackle; which would have ruined a souffle, had there been any fresh out of the oven.
"You have your payment." said the spectre, carefully placing the hat in the hatbox and turning for the door. "Farewell."
With an unsettling jingle of bells, he was gone.
Bernard shivered. He stared for a moment at the envelope sitting face down on his counter. He hesitated to touch it. It sat there, taunting him. He stared back. After several grueling minutes, curiosity got the better of him. Carefully he grabbed a corner and with the same care that someone might use to disarm a landmine, raised it up to see the other side.
Scrawled across the face of the envelope in an elaborate calligraphy were two simple words that read: "ONE WISH". Underneath, in a very delicate loopy handwriting, was some fine print.
"Inside this envelope is a piece of paper that allows you one limitless wish. Simply write your wish on it, fold it in half, and burn it; then watch as your wildest dreams come true. Be careful what you wish for."
Bernard stared at this message for a while. His mind reeled with the hundreds of possibilities. The slightest sentence could change his whole life, his options were limitless. He could bring his relatives back to life. He could be a king and live in a golden palace. He could wish to erase all the regrets of his past.
...But Bernard Huckleby had no interest in these things. He muddled and mulled for a bit, and then did what any good hat-shop owner would do. He thought of his customers. With a flourish he grabbed a pen and ink from a nearby drawer and carefully opened the envelope. Inside was indeed a blank piece of paper. It was simple, slightly yellowed, and folded over once. It smelled like it had been a page of a book used to press a sweaty gym sock. He unfolded it, cracked a clever smile, and began to write:
"I wish the hat that I just sold Death..." He wrote very carefully, being sure not to make any mistakes. "...only works on Snowmen."
With a smile he folded it over once, and tossed it into the briskly burning fireplace. It blazed bright red and yellow before turning to bits of ash that drifted up the chimney. Bernard listened, and just for a moment he swore he heard the disappointed wail of death, so faint that it could have almost been the remnant of a fleeting dream which slowly faded into nothingness as the bright morning sun flooded through the shop windows.

And that's how Frosty the Snowman was created.

The End.

Now shut up and go to sleep.

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