The Voyage of the Minotaur – Chapter 1 Excerpt

She had to wait several minutes for Carlo to notice her.  He was busy delivering sandwiches to the two soldiers who sat with the woman in the white pinstriped dress.  Not cucumber sandwiches on white bread.  Their sandwiches were thick slices of dark bread, piled high with slab after slab of ham. This was no surprise to Senta. Soldiers were always hungry.  She had seen them eating many times: the officers here at Café Carlo, and the common soldiers purchasing food from vendors near the park, or at the beanery in her own neighborhood.  At last, Carlo noticed her and held out his hand to her, dropping her fourteen copper pfennigs for the week into her callused palm. They were small coins, with the profile of the King on the obverse side, and the front of a stately building, Senta didn’t know which building, on the reverse side.  She stuffed the coins, a few fairly bright, but most well worn, into her pocket.

“See Gyula,” said Carlo.

A surprised Senta nodded and scurried back to the kitchen.  This was an unexpected boon.  Gyula was the junior of the two line cooks, which meant that he was the lowest ranked of the four people who prepared the food in the café.  An order to see him was an indication that she was being rewarded with foodstuffs of some kind.  When she entered the kitchen, Gyula looked up from his chopping and smiled. He was a young man, in his mid twenties, with a friendly round face, blond hair, and laughing eyes.  He was chopping a very large pile of onions, and the fact that he had only his left hand to do it, seemed to hinder him not at all. When Gyula was a child, about the same age as Senta was now, he had worked in a textile mill, where his job was to stick his tiny arm into the gaps in the great machines and remove wads of lint that had gummed up the works.  In his case, as in many others, the restarting machine proved quicker than his reflexes, and snipped off his arm just below the elbow.

“Hey Senta!” said Gyula, setting down his knife and wiping his left hand on his white apron.

“Carlo sent me back.”

“Excellent,” said Gyula.

He became a one-handed whirlwind, as he carved several pieces of dark bread from a big loaf, and piled an inch of sliced ham, slathered with dark brown mustard between them. He wrapped the great sandwich, which Senta happily noted was even bigger than those the soldiers had received, in wax paper.  He likewise wrapped a monstrous dill pickle, and placed both in the center of a large clean red plaid cloth; folding in the four corners, and tying them in a bow, to make a bindle.  Gyula handed the package to Senta, smiling.  When he had the opportunity, the young line cook favored Senta with great, heaping bounties of food, but he dared not do it without Carlo’s permission. It wouldn’t be easy for a one-armed man to find a job this good, and no one in his right mind, however kind-hearted and happy-go-lucky he was, would endanger it for a child he didn’t really even know.

“Thank you, Gyula,” said Senta, and grabbing the red plaid bundle, scurried out the door and down the sidewalk.

It was a beautiful day—though Senta didn’t know it, it was the first day of spring.  She made her way along, dodging between the many other pedestrians.  It was warm enough that she felt quite comfortable in her brown linen dress, worn over her full-length bloomers, and her brown wool sweater.  The weather was very predictable here in the Brech.  The early spring was always like this.  Late in the afternoon, the sky would become overcast, and light showers would sprinkle here and there around the city. Most days, they were so light that a person would scarcely realize that he had been made wet before he was dried off by the kindly rays of the sun.  Still, the ladies would raise their parasols to protect their carefully crafted coiffures from the rain, just as they now used them to protect their ivory complexions from the sun.

Summers here were warm and dry, but not so hot that people wouldn’t still want to eat in the outdoor portion of Café Carlo.  Not so in the fall or winter, however.  The fall was the rainy season.   It would become overcast, and stay that way for months, and it would rain buckets every day.  The streets would stay slick and shiny.  Then winter would come and dump several feet of snow across the city.  The River Thiss would freeze over and they would hold the winter carnival on the ice.  And the smoke from all of the coal-fired and gas-fired stoves, and the smoke from all of the wood-filled fireplaces would hang low to the ground, and it would seem like some smoky frozen hell.  The steam carriages would be scarcer, as the price of coal became dearer, but the horse-drawn trolley would still make its way through the grey snow and make its stops every three minutes.

Senta skipped and walked and skipped again east from the plaza down the Avenue Phoenix, which was just as busy as the plaza itself.  Travelers hurried up and down the street, making their way on foot, or reaching to grab hold of the trolley and hoist themselves into the standing-room-only cab.  Quite a number of couples could be seen strolling along together, arm in arm; the men usually walking on the side closest to the street, in case a steam carriage should splash up some sooty water.  Others on the street were shopping, because both sides of the Avenue Phoenix were lined with shops.  There were quite a few stores which sold women’s clothing and a few that sold men’s, a millinery shop, a haberdasher, a bookseller, a store which sold fine glassware, a clockmaker, a tobacconist, a jeweler, a store which sold lamps, a florist, and at the very end of the avenue, where it reached Prince Tybalt Boulevard, just across the street from the edge of the park, on the right hand side, a toy store.

Stopping to press her face against the glass, right below the printed sign that said “Humboldt’s Fine Toys”, Senta stared at the wonders in the store.  She had never been inside, but had stopped to look in the window many times.  The centerpiece of the store display was a mechanical bird.  It worked with gears and sprockets and springs and was made of metal, but it was covered in real bird feathers in a rainbow of hues, and would sit and peck and chirp and sing as though it were alive, until it finally wound down, and the toy maker would walk to the window and say the word to reactivate the bird’s magic spell.  Senta knew that the bird would remain in the window for a long, long time, until some young prince or princess needed a new birthday gift, because that bird would have cost as much as the entire Café Carlo.  Arranged around it were various mechanical toy vehicles—ships, trains, and steam carriages.  Some were magical and some worked with a wind-up key, but they all imitated the real life conveyances from which they were patterned.

None of these wonderful toys held as much fascination for Senta though, as the doll that sat in the corner of the window.  It wasn’t magical.  It wasn’t even animated by a wind-up mechanism.  It was a simple doll with a rag body and porcelain hands, feet, and face.  It wore a simple black dress.  Its blond hair had been cut in a short little bob, and looked like real human hair.  It had a painted face with grey eyes and pink lips.  It may well have been one of the lesser-priced toys in the shop.  It was definitely the least expensive item in the window, but Senta would never be able to purchase it.  Had she been able to save every pfennig she earned, it still would have taken her more than thirty weeks to purchase the doll.  And she could not save every pfennig she earned. Most weeks, she could not even save one.

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