by Rebecca LuElla Miller
The following first appeared in the 2007 Writer's Digest anthology of the top twenty-five short stories from their annual Short, Short Story Competition.
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Is Haj a fool? It’s not my place to say, so I’ll lay out the facts and let you draw your own conclusion.
Bear in mind, even those who insist he is nothing but a sadly demented soul nevertheless acknowledge he has good intentions. Best be warned, so you aren’t swayed by appearances.
Haj arrived in Glesha last month, when the daytime temperature was so balmy icicles hanging from roof tops melted into little puddles. Delinda was the first to talk with him. Seems he stopped in at her eatery for breakfast. She reported the encounter to Tave Sern our esteemed information mogul.
Of course, you know just how reliable Delinda’s “facts” are. Anyway, what she told Tave was, this frail little salesman had just relocated to Glesha from “down south.” My wife believes to this day Haj does what he does because he comes from where he comes. But you be the judge.
Shortly after Tave published the official welcome to our newest resident in the Daily Report, Haj started showing up at people’s doors. Knowing he was a salesman—Tave had included that fact in the welcome—most folks, assuming he was employing some new vending techniques, invited him inside to satisfy their curiosity.
No, Haj says. He’s not selling anything. He has something he’s giving away. Many somethings, actually. “As many as there are people living under your roof,” he says, or so Dade, two houses down, told me, as did Jamin across the way, and Sem next to him.
Of course, we were all curious, except by the time he arrived at my door, I knew what to expect. I met him at the entry and did not invite him into my common room.
From out of the black trunk Haj hauled behind him, he produced a fine brown leather jacket, the kind with suede patches on the elbows.
“So you’re selling outer wear,” I said, though I knew he would deny it.
He cocked his head and lifted an eyebrow but smiled an ironic smile, as if he knew that I knew. “I’m not selling. I’m giving.”
It was my turn to smile, though I had to work hard not to let it become a smirk. “Summer is here, warmer than usual, so I don’t have use for a jacket just now. That’s not to say this isn’t a fine one.” I ran my hand up and down the pliant material, creamy as butter. “But this would sit in storage until winter. By then this cut will be out of fashion. Then what will I do with it?”
Haj acted as if he hadn’t heard me. “I’ll leave it with you in case you change your mind, Honorable Mayor.” He extended the jacket toward me.
I pushed the bundle back at him. “It will take up space and eventually rot from disuse. I won’t even be able to sell it.”
“Surely you know summer will end.” His gaze danced from the jacket to my eyes and back again, as if to entice me to look closer.
“When the weather turns, I’ll shop for a fashionable coat.” I retreated a step and reached for the door.
“Honorable Mayor …” His voice shook, and he shuffled his feet.
I glanced down, not meaning to stare, but his old-fashioned galoshes, mud splatters staining the sun bleached gray rubber, clashed so with his brown corduroy trousers, I was caught off guard. I’m certain my shock registered in my expression though I averted my gaze as soon as I recovered my wits. After all, I had no wish to embarrass the poor man.
He started again, as if he hadn’t noticed my reaction. “Honorable Mayor, it was my thought that you, being Glesha’s most respected citizen … well, others may follow your example.”
I smiled into his serious eyes, hoping my countenance was suitably benevolent. “Salesman, you are an astute observer, and your tactic is sound. I’ll buy the jacket from you.” I reached into the inner pocket of my tunic and withdrew my money pouch. I pinched open the end and sprinkled a few coins into my palm. “Will this do?”
Haj stared at me as if I’d dealt him a blow across the mouth. Tears glistened in his eyes. Tears! The man was about to cry because I said I would buy his jacket! I could only imagine he hadn’t expected to find me so benevolent or to convince me so easily
Instead of reaching for the coins, however, or passing me the jacket, he held it close to his chest. “The jacket isn’t for sale. It’s a gift. I have a coat for your wife, too, and cloaks for each of your servants.”
I tapped my gold ring against the edge of the door. “As you say, salesman, Glesha looks to me as an example. What would the citizens think of a man in my position accepting charity?”
“Not charity. A gift!”
“You must look at this from my point of view. People will talk. Someone is sure to think I will repay your … uh, generosity with favors of my own.”
Haj shook his head, his eyes closed as if he couldn’t bear to hear what I was saying. “A true gift requires no return of any kind.”
I jingled the coins in my hand. “But people will talk. The perception alone could destroy my good standing in the community. Instead of you giving me a gift, how about if I give one to you? Here.” I laid the coins on top of the supple leather.
He brushed them off, and they clattered onto the patterned stonework outside my door.
“Here, now, there’s no call for ill treatment.” I pulled myself to my full height and stepped toward him.
Without backing away, he met my gaze. “I do not need your money, but you need my coats. I have warmer ones if you prefer.” He hauled the trunk closer, bent over it, and pulled up the lid.
I lifted my foot and banged it shut. “Enough. I’ve been courteous, even generous, but I’ve reached the end of my patience. I do not want your coats and can only suggest you leave Glesha since you have outlasted your welcome.” I stepped back and closed the door, gently, I hoped, in order to mask the agitation I felt.
Haj stayed the month, giving coats to the few citizens who opened their homes to him. Delinda reported to Tave who published in the Daily Report that more than one family was actually wearing their new coats out in public. In this warm weather, no less.
As it was to be expected, I received complaints from any number of sources. The merchants worried that fewer Gleshans would buy coats when the cold weather set in. The treasurer worried that the citizenry would expect other free provisions and become lazy or careless. The council complained that those wearing the coats considered themselves superior to the rest of us and were creating a division in the town.
Finally, with the full backing of the most influential residents, I corner Haj at Delinda’s eatery in the gray dawn.
“Honorable Mayor, have you come for your coat?” he asks.
I fold my arms over my chest and with my foot push in the chair he pulled out for me. “No, Haj, I’ve come to ask you to leave Glesha.”
I thought he might tear up again like he did that first day, or maybe refuse to go. Instead, he smiles—a sad smile, like he feels sorry for me—and stands up from the table.
“You—you can finish your meal,” I say, caught off guard.
Still with the pitying smile, he shakes his head, dons his own coat, and retrieves his trunk.
When he pushes open the door, a blast of cold air sweeps into the room. I glance at the blustery sky, and a snowflake lodges on my eyelash, turning to water with one blink. “The weather has taken a cold turn. We can accommodate you until this summer storm passes.”
This time he doesn’t smile or shake his head, but the sadness in his eyes makes me want to weep. He turns up his collar, buttons the last button on his coat, and with his trunk in tow, marches into the street away from town.
So I ask you, isn’t Haj a fool? I suspect, with the onset of this early storm, he could have become a rich merchant if only he had stayed to sell his wares. After all, we thought that’s why he came.
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Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Rebecca LuElla Miller has been working as a freelance writer and editor since 2004. She has covered high school sports for a Los Angeles area newspaper group, published articles and short stories in several print and online magazines, and placed in the top twenty-five in the 2006 Writer’s Digest Short, Short Story contest. Most recently she is the author of Power Elements of Story Structure. She currently blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction.
Her editing credits include non-fiction and fiction alike, most notably four titles in the Dragons in Our Midst and Oracle of Fire series by Bryan Davis and two novellas in the Mission League series by Jill Williamson. You can learn more about her editing services and read her weekly writing tips at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.