An Evening Market
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Look at this wretch, draped in rags behind his rickety stall counter, trembling with cold or fright as he wonders to himself just what went wrong. He's practically pleading with anyone passing to look in his direction, to give him a chance, but even with the day winding towards close he doesn't have the guts to look a customer in the eyes, and mumbles greetings too softly to be heard. He knows these people haven't come to the market for him. He knew it before the day even opened, as he was setting up his tent and saw the lines already forming for the fortune teller, the brewer, the charm-maker.

Instead of the crowd he's staring at his table. Everything is laid out exactly as it was at the beginning of the day. On one side the statuettes, made of wood he chopped himself and spent so many evenings carving down, on the other, sheets of poems, words composed to the rhythm of a scythe and transcribed in long-saved ink. All that has changed since he placed them there is the price. Three times he has erased the easel and written in a number lower than the last.

The last person to examine the wares had been a tall young man in fine purple cut, trailed by three women more beautiful than any the merchant had ever seen. The lordling approached with one hand in the pocket of his coat and a sly grin.

"You're a new one, it seems," he said to the merchant, who had hesitated to speak first.

"Yes, lord."

"Rare to see someone here selling trinkets." The lordling picked up a statuette and nodded as he felt its weight. "Good wood."

"The groves here are some of the finest, lord."

"So I've been told." He turned horse and rider, somewhat crudely carved, over in his hands, running his fingers across the chips and crevices left by the knife. "Yet the craftsmanship…" Replacing the carving on the table, he picked up a pamphlet and skimmed through the pages. "A curious ear for meter you've got." The booklet went back on the table. "Perhaps when you bring something a bit more refined I'll consider a purchase. It might be amusing to display such a thing." With that, the group departed, the lordling's arm wrapped around one of his women.

The merchant bowed low as the man departed, less out of respect than to hide the fire these words had sparked in his eyes. Even a timid man can have his pride wounded and feebly wish to avenge it, unattainable as vengeance may be. As the sun sets and the merchant strips down his stall, replaces his wares in his knapsack, the words of the lordling repeat themselves in his mind. Refinement, he wants! It must be the same with all the others, all the passersby who glanced and looked away, who whispered to their friends as they laughed behind their hands, dressed in fine robes and jewels.

His hands shake as he puts away the carvings. Yes, he thinks, looking at the last of them before it goes into the sack, they certainly are unrefined. The faces are crude shapes, the clothes misshapen, the cuts angular and obvious. As he gathers up the poems he sees their lurching, halting rhythm, the awkwardness of their rhymes. He grits his teeth and dumps the pages into the bag all at once, snaps it shut. Of course no one bought these wastes of ink and wood.

Walking down the market street, bag slung across his shoulder, he eyes the vendors that remain and curses their good spirits. Look at them, going home with sacks full of coin instead of goods. Making their final sales, laughing with customers, tired from a day well-achieved. He can imagine what they see when they look at him and knows he never should have come to this place. Back in the village, everyone clamored for his work. They sat his carvings on their mantles and asked him to recite his writings as they worked. He's sure they're waiting for him now, eager to see what profit he'll bring home. Unrefined simpletons, and he just as bad.

The street leads to a bridge above a river, and halfway across he stops at the rail to stare down at the flowing water. The setting sun casts rays of orange light across the rippling surface, and in the dark waves he sees the featureless shadow of his reflection. I am only slightly more substantial, he thinks. A blank shape glimpsed out of the corner of their eyes, not important enough to even turn and look at. He takes the bag from his shoulder. It is heavy, and he feels his shoulder tweak as he pulls back his arm and, with an animalistic yell, hurls the satchel over the rail.

The sack comes unlatched as it arcs up, spilling its contents across the surface of the water. The current is strong here, and already the wood and paper are drifting away, the poems already starting to sink, the statuettes bobbing along the surface. He grips the rail tightly, unable to look away. There is still enough light to see them clearly, all of them. The knight he carved at the request of the neighbor's boy, the lion which took him three weeks, the entwined lovers he had been so sure would fetch a high price. They are going. They will soon be gone.

Without thinking he runs off the bridge, shoving his way past the people curious about the noise, and sprints along the side of the river. He does not think about the rocks digging through his thin shoes, or the biting winter wind, or the fact that he has never been in water deeper than his waist before diving in. Cold strikes him like a blow to the chest as he plunges beneath the surface, and suddenly he has lost control of his limbs. All he can do as the current pulls him along is flail blindly, uncertain which way is up, fight to orient himself against a pressure that comes from every direction. Already his lungs are straining for air. He reaches out for something, anything to hold onto, to pull himself up, and wraps his hand around a small object, pulls it in close. But he is still drowning.

He feels his thoughts beginning to fade just as a pair of hands wrap around him and pulls him up. Soon after, he becomes aware that he is lying on his back surrounded by voices. Someone asks him a question that he cannot understand. Still dazed, he rises to his feet, looks around. There is something in his hands, he realizes, something he is clutching tightly to his chest. Ignoring the people around him, he looks down at it. It is a small piece of wood carved into the shape of a man holding. The neck is now cracked, missing its head, and the extended arm has been snapped away. Months ago he carved it, sitting by the fire in the dead of night. Staring at it now, he recognizes every knife-mark, every place where the blade pressed too hard or too soft, every edge he struggled to shave down properly before giving up. It is ugly and broken, he thinks, but at least it is mine. The others too, even though they are gone. Wherever they wash up they will still be his.

Look at this wretch, wet and trembling, clutching his last treasure, surrounded by people who do not understand why he is smiling so close to death, who see only a man in delirium. See him walk away even as they call for him to stop, to at least accept some dry clothes and a hot drink. Try to see what drives him forward, and ask yourself if he will come back.

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