The Old Man's Whistle
A little girl watched from across the road as a tall man in a dark suit passed by the grubby old fellow who sat begging in a corner.
‘Spare some change, sir?’ the old man had asked.
But the man in the suit kept on walking.
The same thing happened some minutes later, but this time the passerby was an elderly lady, whose cane tapped a strong tattoo as she made her way past the old man. A sound came from her mouth that may have been a *tsk,* although she could have just been breathing.
But the little girl held no judgment. She understood. The suit gentleman and the elderly lady had been feeling exactly as she felt: nervous. And they had not offered any change, for how were they to know if their offering would be accepted? The very thought that her meager quarters would be acceptable to the bedraggled gentleman left the girl questioning whether or not she should just turn tail and run home.
What if the man laughed at her?
Or worse, what if he threw her change back at her, offended at its small proportions? She wasn’t afraid that it would hurt, exactly, on the outside anyway.
It would be easy not to risk the disappointment. But that thought made her stomach sink lower. She wanted to be brave. Braver, even, than a man in a suit and an elderly woman with a cane. They had had a hard time being brave. And she understood that. It was hard all the time. Hard to go to school. Hard to do her chores. Hard to be kind, sometimes, to other people. But today she would risk it. After all, the old man was being brave. Asking for money took courage, and she ought to know. She had asked for money just this morning, and dreaded the thought that her father would turn her down. But he didn’t. And so, she could be brave today.
She took a deep breath, summoned every ounce of courage, and waded across the street. It took even more courage than she knew she had to drop her quarters into the old man’s outstretched hand. When his eyes raised to examine the giver, they grew round, and a slow grin spread over his wrinkled, grizzly features.
‘Well, hello,’ he said kindly. His voice was horse, as though he had a frog in it.
‘Hello,’ said the little girl, glad that the old man was smiling, and hoping the frog didn't hurt too much.
‘Would you like to see a toy that I made?’ the old man asked.
The little girl nodded her head shyly, and leaned her head in closer to the man as he pulled out a beautifully carved wooden toy from a scruffy black bag that sat beside him and placed it in her hand.
The wooden carvings were incredibly intricate, and even a little ornate. There were four parts that stuck out like spokes, and each one was carved differently. The first held the head of a horse, so detailed that its mane seemed to move in a wind that wasn’t there. The second was an elephant, with a trunk covered in small wrinkles that made the whole head seem as though it were alive and about to trumpet. The third showed the head of an eagle with piercing eyes and a great, sharp beak. And the fourth held the carved head of a lion with a thick mane and wide jaws that made it look like it was about to roar.
‘Blow,’ the old man said.
The little girl furrowed her brow and put the top of the horse to her lips.
As she blew, suddenly the wind whipped past her ears, and the ground shook, as though a hundred wild horses ran beside her. So startled was the girl, that she dropped the toy right into the old man’s lap, and as it fell, the sound of horses died away.
‘Go on to the next one,’ said the old man with a conspiratorial grin as he handed her back the toy.
The little girl, wide eyed in amazement, only hesitated a moment before blowing into the top of the elephant. All at once, the sound of trumpeting filled the air, and she could feel water sloshing and whooshing about her as though a herd of elephants splashed about in a cacophony of joyous bathing.
When she had had her fill of elephants, she needed no prompting to turn the toy to the eagle’s head. As her lips released air, all at once she was soaring on a breeze high in the sky, the sound of bird cries moving about her, as they dove and rose and danced about the clouds.
Finally, she came to the lion’s head. And as she blew, the sound of a lion’s roar filled her ears, and suddenly all the magic in all the worlds felt real and warmed her as nothing ever had from the bottoms of her feet to the top of her head. She felt all her fear drift away as though she had never had any.
When at last she put down the toy, she looked about for the old man. But he was gone.