One quiet night in PyongChang this February, I typed up a little story set in a world I’ve loved for years. Like Mylan, I had taken a train to an unfamiliar place too. I spoke with new people who spoke English in a new way. I never thought anyone would really see Mylan’s story.
Yet here we are.
I submitted this little story to the One Year Adventure Novel 18+ contest, and the Asbury Review. It was accepted in both.
World on a String
By Catherine Haws
Mylan Drake lived like a coo coo clock: predictable yet surprising. He jumped trains, pinched bread, and played violin in the street.
Not by the street.
In the street. At the corner of 5thand Summer from ten until noon on Mondays.
At first, officers would whistle and curse at him to move out of the way, but after a while they grew to like him. Mylan waved the scroll of his violin and tapped his foot signaling the pedal cars when to proceed.
He became a novelty. A landmark.
“You know the street with the little violinist?”
Some threw Prems out the window and if they could land in his hat, he jigged a dance and played a special rift.
On Tuesdays he bellhopped the elevator for the Dwindelan Sun Newspaper. Many a reporter exchanged tips for tip-offs in the space from floor to floor.
On Wednesdays Drake manned a newsstand hawking headlines and peanuts. What he didn’t sell, he boiled, and I don’t mean the papers.
On Thursdays he delivered telegrams, and although the code was not to peek, most didn’t mind striking up a conversation with the violinist who seemed to know so much.
On Fridays he mixed drinks in a ritzy club. They laughed and pitied him, asking why he’d work on a night like this, as they slipped him one too many bills with clumsy thumbs.
On Saturdays he slept until he felt like waking, and when he woke he’d journey away, with an overnight bag in one hand and his violin case in the other, to return on Sunday night.
But one Saturday he woke early, much earlier than he’d wanted. He decided to journey farther than he had before, to a place he’d only dreamed of: the sea. He hitched on a train headed North and leaned against empty barrels. The rocking car lulled him asleep, and he woke with a jolt hours later as the screaming brakes steamed to a halt in Brinkhaven.
Emerging from the car, he held his bags close and flashed his best smile.
The first sight to meet him was a barefoot young woman with tousled hair tied up on top of her head with a long piece of twine. She smiled holding a basket of folded, red-checker napkins.
“Have you come for the clambake?” She said as if it were the only holiday of the year.
“Wouldn’t miss it!” Said Mylan offering to take the basket.
She spun around, holding the basket close.
“It’s my job to bring the napkins.”
“Give me a job then,” Mylan said keeping stride beside her.
She eyed his back.
“What are you carrying?”
“Then that will be your job.”
They passed through town, a sandy, wooden place where the wind blew through the empty buildings as if they were trees. Other people walked on ahead carrying crates, baskets, kegs, and miniature barrels.
They crested a hill and the path paved way to a boardwalk. The houses stood on stilts as if wading through the marshes.
Stark, liquid light dazzled Mylan’s eyes.
The Shimmering Sea.
Far, far ahead, something black sliced across the horizon line.
“Is that…The Rim?” He said.
“Yes,” she said, un-phased. “The ‘Shrouding Cloud’ as used to be called.”
“Is…are we all right?”
She laughed, a hearty laugh, and looked up at Mylan as if he thought that cheese could fly.
“You are a city boy, no?” She laughed again. “The clams will do you good.”
She skipped across the boards, her hair bobbing up and down. The long string leaned in the wind. Like a schoolboy, Mylan felt an urge to grab it, but instead he eyed it wafting aside in time with the marsh grass. He hung back for a moment, etching a picture in his mind.
The girl glanced over her shoulder and smiled shaking her head.
The moment hung thereafter like a picture on the wall of his memory.
When they reached the shore, fishermen with strong, callused hands clapped Mylan’s shoulders and welcomed him to Brinkhaven. They handed him loads to carry and old newspapers to set on the long, make-shift table made of crates. Soot-faced women laughed over fires giving orders to the men.
At sunset, the oldest woman with the largest lungs hollered out for everyone to take their seat. In the bustle, a small hand wrapped around Mylan’s fingertips and guided him to a middle seat. The girl sat beside him, her hair fully tangled and sagging to the side.
Everyone took hands around the table as they sat cross-legged in the sand. The old woman closed her eyes as did everyone else, except Mylan. She hummed a note and the others joined in. Then, in broken and beautiful harmony, they sang a song of thanksgiving.
Mylan gazed at the singers in the fading sunlight with the unceasing waves caressing the shore.
He decided then, he would never leave.
After the song, they tucked the checkered napkins in their shirts and ate and drank in merry company. They asked him about life in the city, but seemed more interested in his violin. When he’d eaten his fill, he sprang to his feet and jigged some songs in the sand. The people cheered and danced and splashed until the stars shone bright in the sky. As he pealed a last note and breathed hard, the old woman called for everyone to clean up. No one complained, in fact they seemed more cheerful.
Mylan sat on his heels putting his violin to rest. The basket of rumpled, dirty napkins sank down in the sand beside him. A small hand, pale in the moonlight, extended to him. He closed the violin case, and ran hand-in-hand to the shore. As the water encircled their feet, the girl pulled out the string from her hair letting go of Mylan’s hand. He watched as she shook her head, smiling in the wind.
“What is your name?” He said.
“May I see you tomorrow, Edwina?”
She smiled looking straight at the moon.
“Not tomorrow.” She said, as if he should have known. “Tomorrow is washing day.”
With that, she bent straight over and dipped her hair in a rising wave. She twirled it, wrung it out, and wrapped the string around it. She stood up and the stubby tail of the string flung water behind her. She looked at the moon again.
“You may see me the day after tomorrow.”
She turned away from the sea.
“And the day after that?” Mylan said, following her.
“You can tell me about music, and I can tell you about asters.”
Some people in Dwindelan wondered what became of him. Disappointed hands re-pocketed un-tossed coins. Men with cigars cursed his absence once or twice, and some could never taste their most favorite drink quite the same, but the city soon forgot him.
The violin string calluses soon gained company as he learned to tie fisherman’s knots. He forgot about Mondays and Tuesdays and set his weeks by Washingdays.
At the next clambake, he insisted on carrying the napkin basket. It was heavier than he expected, and when they reached the shore, Edwina ripped the basket from him in glee. As he stood surprised, she unearthed something buried under the napkins, and everyone cheered congratulations.
Edwina held high a deep blue, hand-knighted fisherman’s sweater. It fit him loosely, but the men assured him he’d grown into it in time.
That night, as the moon glistened in a dance across the surface of the sea, they sat side-by-side in the sand. The string in her hair tickled his neck. He reached up and slowly pulled it out. Her hair fell to her shoulders in curly knots.
She smiled at the sound of her name. He coiled the string around his fingers and pulled it loose again.
“If all I had to give you was this piece of string, would you marry me?”
She smiled at the moon and leaned on his shoulder.
“I’d marry you without the string.”
So they did.
And on the day of the wedding, Mylan waited at the door in his best clothes. He toyed with his pocket watch chain checking the time without registering the hour. At the thirteenth glance, he realized the hands idled unwound.
The door opened and he looked up.
Edwina stood in white with her hair down wearing a crown of aster flowers.
He never wound the pocket watch again.