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A Bittersweet Lullaby

child's bed with nightstand

Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.

The click, click, click of a winding key as the moment meanders among past, present, and future. The soft yawn of a leather chair relaxing under the intimate rest of its partner.  

Shuffling and a heavy sigh. 

Well my little sprite, are you ready for bed yet? No!? Oh but you don’t want to stay up all night do you? Oh no… that’s no good at all! A story? Oh I don’t know, dziadzia is awfully tired. He needs his sleep too. Fine, I’ll make you a deal. One more story before bed

Well my little sprite, are you ready for bed yet? No!? Oh but you don’t want to stay up all night do you? Oh no… that’s no good at all! A story? Oh I don’t know, dziadzia is awfully tired. He needs his sleep too. Fine, I’ll make you a deal. One more story before bed… 

Hmm. How about this one? This story is about your family. No I’m not talking about your parents or your siblings. I mean your old family. Older than me, old, if you can believe that. 

Long before you moved to your new house and long before my dziadzia moved to America, our family lived in Poland, in a humble little town. It was a tiny village to the  West tucked away where most of the world would forget to find it. This town didn’t have a real name, so the townsfolk gave it all sorts of names; Drywood, Dobry Kamień. But most of the townsfolk settled on calling it Endale. 

Now even though Endale was a small town it still had what you would call a  mayor, Mayor Wolkow. He was also called Wolkow Wielki or “Wolkow The Grand”.  Wolkow had close ties to the szlachta, very powerful people in Poland. He earned his interesting name because of the grand parties he would so often host. At every one of these parties there was always fine wine, wonderful music, and exotic entertainment.  Some guests would say a single night at one of Wolkow’s parties was worth a year in  the luxury of a king. 

You were considered lucky to be invited to one of his parties. And although very few knew of the town itself, the Wolkow manor was something of a sensation. Many high nobles would travel long ways just to spend an evening marveling at its interior design. And where the house stood, with its balcony perfectly positioned, it never failed to capture the sunset in a stunning sight.

And Endale? Endale was humble and happy. The town never had a reason for worry. And that’s mostly thanks to Mayor Wolkow. Whenever the Mayor prepared for one of his parties, the town markets flourished to supply. The farmer sold a healthy and bountiful harvest, the tailor sold rare and stylish costumes, and the florist sold beautiful bouquets. Everyone prospered from the Mayor’s wealth, but none more than our great, great ancestor, Zygfryd Kraszewski.  

You see, what Zygfryd sold was invaluable to Mayor Wolkow. And that’s because what he sold could not be bought by anyone anywhere else in the world. What Zygfryd sold was pure wonder.  

Zygfryd Kraszewski was what you could call a majsterkowicz , a tinkerer. He made all sorts of wonderful devices; a clock with many bells, whistles, and strings that would play a symphony on the hour. A mechanical horse the size of a dog that would trot along in dancing circles. And even a strange instrument, tuned to the inventor’s own voice, that would greet guests with a perfect “Dobry Wieczór”. 

All of these marvels and more were on full display at the Mayor’s manor. They were the highlight of every party, stirring guests to both wonder and terror. Some more frightened made claims the tinkerer was a warlock; that he had bargained with the devil and trapped his own soul inside the talking box. It took the Mayor’s trust and much more convincing to assure them that the strange objects were nothing more than mechanical wonders.  

Even still, some high nobles vowed never to return to Endale. For them, they could not see the spectacles as anything less than sorcery. But for those that did return,  they were invited to view whatever new curiosity the tinkerer had crafted. 

Such was the way of Endale for many years. A happy community that thrived at the call of their mayor’s festivity. But that’s not to say the townsfolk of Endale never rejoiced. In fact they often celebrated their good fortune in merry ways. On the eve of every party, the whole town would gather in great joy. There was free food to be had and songs to be sung. Many of the children looked forward to those days when Zygfryd would craft them their own little marvels. Simple toys, less advanced than those designed for the Mayor, were gifted to all of the young children. There were toys that bounced and sprung, toys that rolled and ran, and toys that chimed a sweet melody. All for the children to enjoy. 

And all their days were good…

But then something happened… The people of Endale weren’t sure why but the tinkerer had changed.  

He was seen less around town and had avoided all company. This odd habit continued for weeks as the townsfolk began to worry. Several times, friends and family knocked on Zygfryd’s door to see if he was well. And from the other side of the door, they would hear him reply, “Yes. I am well. But I am working and too busy to see  anyone.” And they would ask why he has been hidden for weeks without company and  he would reply, “I am working and too busy to see anyone.” And they would ask what he was working on… and Zygfryf Kraszewski would give no reply… 

Weeks without seeing the tinkerer turned into a month. And a month turned into two. For a time, it was a mystery how he had gone so long without visiting the market.  But then it was discovered that he had hired the help of a young boy to gather his groceries. Many wondered if the tinkerer was secretly sick. Some guessed he was working on the Mayor’s next marvel. This rumor spread faster than others and soon the whole town was convinced Zygfryd was preparing to unveil his greatest invention yet! 

With this thought in mind, the town retired their worry and looked forward to  Mayor Wolkow’s next party. Another month passed and news broke that a party was indeed to happen. All through Endale the townsfolk prepared. The farmer pulled his best crop, the tailor their best costumes, and the florist her most beautiful bouquets.  

And the tinkerer worked in his shop… 

When Wolkow Wielki arrived at Zygfryd’s door he had expectations as grand as himself. But when he announced himself, the door would not open. “Perhaps the tinkerer was going deaf?” the Mayor thought. So again, he announced himself but louder. This time there was an answer.  

From behind the door, the tinkerer replied, “I am working and too busy to see  anyone.” 

Mayor Wolkow was set aback. “Surely he does not recognize my voice?” he thought, amazed at Zygfryd’s cold rejection. “Kraszewski, my friend, it is I, Mayor  Wolkow! And I have come to purchase some of your finest curiosities! You wouldn’t  send me away, would you?” 

There was a long pause, leaving the Mayor’s brow to furrow. Then came the tinkerer’s reply, “I’m sorry. I am working and too busy to see anyone.” 

With this Wolkow Wielki was stunned! What he paid the tinkerer for one marvel was close to a small fortune! He wondered what could be so demanding that Zygfryd would refuse his business. Then he thought, “What if the rumors around town were true? And that this was Zygfryd’s greatest creation yet? Surely that would explain the  delay.” 

And so, the Mayor asked patiently, “Kraszewski, is this new creation of yours for sale? If it is as great as everyone claims it to be, I would very much like it. I can give you  more time if that’s what you need?”  

Then came a pause even longer than the last and from the other side of the door came the tinkerer’s reply, “Yes. I just need more time.” Satisfied with this answer the  Mayor left. 

On the eve of the Wolkow’s party, all of the townsfolk gathered in celebration. All  of the townsfolk, save for Zygfryd Kraszewski. Much to their disappointment, there were no toys for the children. In place of much song and merriment was eager speculation to the tinkerer’s secret creation. Friendly wagers were placed on whether the device would sing or dance or whether it was two feet tall or six. 

The next day, Wolkow sent one of his stewards to check on the tinkerer’s progress. The servant was quickly turned away, told only by the tinkerer that he needed  “more time”. The party carried on with all of its usual splendor. When it came time to entertain his guests, Wolkow showed off a number of Zygfryd’s older creations. Only a  few guests seemed to complain about the lack of new inventions. But their disappointment was erased by evening drinks on the Wolkow balcony. And in all, the party was wonderful. 

More months would pass without any news of the tinkerer or his creation. Many more times the Mayor would send one of his servants to report on Zygfryd’s progress.  And many more times Zygfryd would send them away saying only that he needed “more  time.” Slowly, the curiosity that drove much of the town to speculation dwindled and died. Any attempts to raise the inventor from his shop were in vain. Eventually the townsfolk gave up altogether.

Another party arrived at the Wolkow manor without any new invention to show.  Again, Wolkow Wielki was forced to entertain with only his old collection. This time several guests had become tired with the recycled show of a mechanical horse and talking box. “When will we see something new?” they demanded. The Mayor offered his regrets, confessing the inventor had been confined to a secret project. But he promised with weary confidence that it would be a spectacle worth the wait.  

Come another party with no spectacle, the nobles were inflamed. “We have traveled far to see this new invention, but you have nothing to show!” they said. Wolkow  Wielki could tolerate the tinkerer’s lateness no more. The very next day he stormed  Zygfryd’s door with fury. 

“Zygfryd Kraszewski!” he shouted, “I have been patient with you, but you have wasted my good faith! You have promised me your greatest creation! If I do not see it by tomorrow night, I will have my guards seize every item from your shop without pay! You  are out of time!” From the other side of the door, the tinkerer gave no reply and Mayor  Wolkow returned to his manor.  

Much of the town wondered if Zygfryd would heed Wolkow’s warning. Many feared if he did not there would be an outburst more fierce than the last. But the tinkerer would make do on his promise. 

The next night, as most of Endale retired to a restless sleep, a few waking townsfolk reported something unusual. In the late hours of darkness, they claimed to have seen a hooded figure step out from the tinkerer’s shop. They say this person was carrying a small package as they creeped through town in the direction of Wolkow  Manor. Many hours later, the skulking figure returned to the shop, with no package in  hand. 

Most of Endale was left to assume this dreadful stranger was Zygfryd himself.  But only Mayor Wolkow and his attending servants could confirm the tinkerer’s identity and the contents of his parcel.  

Zygfryf Kraszewski had arrived at Wolkow Manor where a grumbly Mayor drowned his temper in wine. As he brooded before a hearth that crackled with spite,  there came a knock on the front door. Opening the door, the steward met the ghoulish form of Zygfryd. Beneath his hood was a face pale and sunken with hunger. From his cloak he revealed the precious parcel, and he was swiftly brought inside. 

The Mayor, suddenly bounding with enthusiasm, welcomed the tinkerer, arms outstretched to receive his prize. The object, wrapped in simple market paper, was no larger than a flowerpot and slightly round in shape. It was much smaller than the Mayor had predicted and left him to question the undue time devoted to its construction.  Patiently, the tinkerer unwrapped the package to reveal something quite extraordinary.  The device was like a great silver pisanka. The metal egg, five inches tall, gleamed the color of moonlight. Delicate golden wires curled and curled around its shell like a  thousand copper snakes, thin as thread. Between them, smooth gems of hundred shades floated their colors over the polished silver. 

Even with only the dying hearth to show its splendor, the crafted egg was more alluring than all the wealth in Poland. As the heavenly artifact was carefully set upon the  Mayor’s table, all of Wolkow’s grievances had fluttered away. But before he could even compliment the tinkerer’s expert craftsmanship, Zygfryd produced an odd key from his pocket. It was a key unlike any other with several sophisticated sides. It was truly something to stumble even the most talented locksmith. 

Zygfryd inserted the unique key into a hidden hole on the side of the egg and gave it three wide turns. 

One. Two. Three. 

When he released the key the device began to move. Sections of the silver egg rotated as the golden cage expanded and twirled. Suddenly, all those in the room heard a song dancing in their ears. The instrument before them transformed their humble room into a concert hall, playing a masterful melody that was both sweet and sorrowful,  like an empty crib. Hearts were moved in its grace. Then the hundred colors that now swirled its twisted body rose like a ballerina to meet every eye. In that contortion of wondrous light, impossible shades took form. 

At that moment, all of those enchanted by the singing spectacle were transported to their fondest memory. For the steward, he was there at the birth of his late daughter, holding her in his arms. For the Mayor, he was at his grandest party. The food was never better, the wine was never finer, and the sunset upon his balcony was never more captivating. And the tinkerer? No one knows what Zygfryd saw… but it forced him to childish tears. 

When the song reached its finale and the device was unmoving, several hours had passed. None were wise to the passage of time. Those hours lost in the egg’s reflection felt as mere minutes in thought. The tinkerer was praised by the Mayor. Truly this was his greatest creation yet!  

The fortune offered to Zygfryd was enough for him to retire several times over, but he would not accept it. Instead, as payment for the rare marvel, Zygfryd only asked that the Mayor keep a promise.  

“Anything!” exclaimed the Mayor, “Name your promise and I shall abide. Should I  invite you to all my parties henceforth? Should I remove all your taxes? And all your family’s taxes? Or shall I bestow my manor to you upon my last will? Anything Zygfryd!  Anything for this most wonderful creation!” 

With a voice as drained as his ghoulish features, Zygfryd asked Mayor Wolkow to promise, except for a rare party, never to use the device. “Once a year,” instructed the tinkerer. “Once a year, you may show off my device and turn its key. But only for that one party. Then you shall not use it for another year since.” 

Wolkow Wielki was confused. Never before had the tinkerer made such a  demand. This was his finest marvel and yet the tinkerer wanted it hidden away. What was the point in owning such a thing if only to spend so little time with it? 

Almost instinctively, Mayor Wolkow refused. But then, as Zygfryd started to reclaim his device, the Mayor quickly changed his tone. He pleaded with the tinkerer,  begging him to be more reasonable. But Zygfryd would not waiver. Seeing the cold determination in the tinkerer’s eyes, Mayor Wolkow finally agreed to Zygfryd’s terms. 

With a heavy heart, Zygfryd laid the marvel upon the Mayor’s table and left… For the rest of the night, the Mayor’s gaze did not leave the brilliant device. 

Following rumors of Zygfryd’s invention, the townsfolk eagerly awaited its unveiling at Wolkow Wielki’s next party. But Endale would be left waiting. Many months passed without a party, leaving the town frozen in anticipation.  

Much did not change at first. The farmer continued to grow his crop, the tailor continued to fashion their costumes, and the florist continued to tend to her garden.  And even though his work was done, the tinkerer remained in his shop. Upon chance, a  passerby might have caught sight of Zygfryd at his window, staring longingly towards  Wolkow Manor.

All the while, the townsfolk could only assume Mayor Wolkow was planning for his next and greatest party. The day where he would unveil the silver egg coiled in gold and turn its key. That day which would only come for once a year… had Wolkow Wielki stayed true to his promise… 

Mayor Wolkow may not have been an impatient man but a certain hunger in his heart grew too great to handle. In his private hours, the Mayor snuck the silver egg to his personal quarters. There, he ignored the tinkerer’s demands and stowed away to dreamy memory.  

What was a single trespass, became a sinful occasion. And what was an occasion, became a habit. And what was a habit, became an obsession. 

In the siren glow of the silver egg, Mayor Wolkow relived each of his finest memories. The wine, the music, even the guests, all selected from their greatest moments. “Why,” thought Mayor Wolkow, “would I entertain another party when the best  of them are at my fingertips.” 

His servants were the first to notice a change. Whereas their master had been boastful and loud, he was now quiet and mostly reserved to his quarters. He had also lost his appetite. Nothing quite satisfied his tongue anymore. Even though his stewards expressed concern over his wasting form, he dismissed them, blaming only his  “sensitive stomach”.  

Soon it became tradition that after every unfinished meal the Mayor would excuse himself for some private “rest”. Yet no matter how many hours he spent in his bedroom, he always seemed to emerge looking ever more exhausted. 

Eventually, the townsfolk noticed it as well. For nearly a year there were no parties. Wealth did not flow through Endale as it once had, and the markets grew poor.  More and more, the people suffered as many could not afford food or fire. Many grew sick to a plague that had swept the town. Those who could not afford good care were taken by the sickness, leaving more graves then there were people to mourn. 

And by it all, Wolkow Wielki was locked away with his precious marvel. All through the day he turned its key. Turn and turn and turn until… it snapped! Mayor  Wolkow had used the device so many times that he had worn the key to break. He panicked and pried at the silver egg, trying to force out its song. But it would not move.  Quickly he had his stewards fetch the tinkerer.  

Zygfryd was still retired to his shop and as he often gazed out of his window, he could not avoid the sight of Endale’s suffering. Already suspicious of the Mayor’s seclusion, he dreaded Wolkow’s summoning.  

Mayor Wokow was a babble of insanity. Between his lies and broken thoughts,  Zygfryd saw the truth; the Mayor broke his promise and broke the key. The ragged corpse requested, begged, then demanded that the tinkerer repair it… but Zygfryd refused. He would not allow for his device to cause any more suffering. 

But the Mayor was made rabid by the cursed device and so he had the tinkerer arrested. Mayor Wolkow decried that he would not be freed until the silver egg sang once again. When Zygfryd remained defiant, Wolkow summoned the town’s locksmith.  But the locksmith had fallen to the plague so instead he summoned his son. The boy,  barely a man, was not as skilled as his late father but still assigned the difficult task.  When the boy could not copy such expert craftsmanship, he too was arrested. 

The summons and arrests grew many and frequent. As the people of Endale were ruined with tragedy, their grief swiftly turned to revolt. Upon one night, while the  Mayor sat miserably with his broken marvel, the people marched upon Wolkow Manor.  Even in the marvel’s silence, the Mayor was deaf to Endale’s screams, their anger, their sorrow. At last, their suffering erupted through the front doors.  

They tore the manor apart. The fine wine was tossed and spilt. The art was thrashed and stolen. And the beautiful halls torched aflame. Even all of Zygfryd’s inventions were smashed or left to ruin in the fire. The prisoners, including Zygfryd, were released and watched as the great manor crumbled to ashes. 

As for the Mayor, his fate is unknown. Some say he burned in the fire, desperately clinging to his precious marvel. Others claim to have seen a figure standing on the  Wolkow balcony… jumping into the flames below. In any case, they all agreed that  Wolkow Wielki went down with his manor. 

But not everything was destroyed by the fire. Be it chance or something else,  unharmed and among the ashes was the silver egg coiled in gold. Somehow the infamous device survived and found its way back to its creator, Zygfryd Kraszewski. 

Of course, the key was still broken and so it would remain while under the tinkerer’s safe keeping. Endale was abandoned and though its story was forgotten by most every word is true. 

How do I know this? Well, my little sprite, that’s because I’ve seen it! The curious marvel. The silver egg coiled in gold and wrapped in a hundred colors. 

I saw it once when I was younger than you, stowed away in my dziadzia’s trunk.  The strange device was passed down our family through generations until it came into the hands of my dziadzia. But then it was stolen by a slithery cheat named Oswald  Vancouver. He ran off with the marvel and was never seen by our family again. He likely sold it for cash or maybe he buried it where no one would find. 

Will the world ever see it again? Will its key finally be fixed? Perhaps not. But maybe that’s for the best. Afterall Zygfryd never wanted to repair the key. And that’s because he knew. He knew all songs must come to an end. As must all stories.  

And now, little sprite, this story is done, and you must go to bed. But do not worry,  you will awake tomorrow to a great new day… 

Goodnight… I love you… 

The click, click, click of a winding key as the moment meanders among past, present, and future. The soft yawn of a leather chair relaxing under the intimate rest of its partner.  

Shuffling and a heavy sigh. 

Well my little sprite, are you ready for bed yet? No!? Fine, I’ll make you a deal. One more story before bed