The Christmas Violin
By Jack Darnell
Alice Shoved open the sagging old door of Muller's corner grocer. She was a strong little girl for her eleven years, but it took all her strength to close the door against the December wind.
"Mr. Muller," she called to the old man behind the counter, "Mother wants a gallon of milk." "She wants it on credit I suppose," the old man growled. "Yes, Dad's not found a job yet, but he's looking every day." Alice walked down by the counter feeling the oranges in the open cardboard boxes. With beat, gnarled fingers that could hardly hold a pencil, Mr. Muller looked up from his account book where he labored to enter her purchases. Alice held up one of the oranges. "Oh, I'm just picking out the bad ones for you. See, this one's got a soft spot." "O.K., take that one with you and run along. I'm busy."
Alice paused outside the store, peeled the orange and took a generous bite. She made a wry face and whizzed the orange down the street. Picking up her milk from the sidewalk, she hurried home. Late that afternoon Alice was back pushing though the door, carrying a bowl covered with a paper towel. "Mom, sent you some cookies," she said as she glanced around the store where the lights from the Christmas tree in the town square shone dimly through the grimy windows. "Why you've not got up any decorations at all," she said as she set the cookies on the counter. "No, and I don't want any. I don't want to hear about cookies, gifts, decorations or Christmas. Now if you want anything, say so. I'm busy." "How about helping you in the store during Christmas vacation. I'll work cheap." Not waiting for an answer she kept talking. "Know what! Dad's going to get a job in the city managing a department store, and I'm going to get a violin for Christmas."
She picked up one of Mr. Muller's brooms. Pretending it was a violin; she lifted it to her chin and began making imaginary music on it. Mr. Muller looked at her in helpless amazement. "How old are you, Alice?" "Eleven almost twelve." "And you think you can play a violin?" "Sure, I can, and when I get it, I'll come every day and make music for you." "Heaven help me," Mr. Muller muttered.
That night Mr. Muller thought of violins and music and times long ago. He tried to sleep and could not. At last he fell asleep and dreamed of a little brown haired girl holding a broom and looking wishfully at him and saying, "There's no music."
Morning came with the sky gray and the wind ice cold to old bones. Mr. Muller busied himself with his customers, then about mid morning Alice was back. She had a paper bag in her hand. "I made you some Christmas decorations to paste on your windows." She announced. "Have you got any Scotch tape? We used all ours and Aunt Jane's too." Without waiting for an answer, she took a new roll off the counter and began taping paper reindeers. Santa Claus, snowmen and other decorations on the windows. "I don't want that stuff on my windows," Mr. Muller growled, "and you are wasting all my tape." Alice turned from her work and said patiently, "You have to have your store decorated." Mr. Muller gave up and went back behind his counter. From across the street came the sound of "Silent Night" played on a new stereo in the hardware store. Alice stopped; the string of paper reindeer fell to the floor. She stood transfixed. A glow came over her pinched little face.
Mr. Muller looked at her and for a moment he was in a great music hall of long ago; then the music stopped and the little girl was plain Alice again. "Can you really play a violin?" Mr. Muller asked. "Oh, yes! My father taught me. He had one until about a year ago. He had to sell it." Mr. Muller looked at her with new interest. "Well, you run along now. I have to finish my accounts."
The old man sat down and began scrawling in his account book with his crippled fingers, but he kept seeing Alice's face as the music played across the street that afternoon. The next day Mr. Muller was kept pretty busy with his customers. Some of the older people wanted to stay and talk, but they had learned that the sour grocer would have little to say beyond what was needful to carry on his work.
Just after Mrs. Hestor, one of his most harassing customers, had left, he saw Alice walking slowly up the street, her head bowed, staring at the sidewalk. She opened the door in a listless manner and sat down on a sack of potatoes. "Mommy wants a dozen eggs, the small ones," she said. Mr. Muller reached into the cooler for the eggs. "Won't be long till you have your violin." Alice stared at him with tears in her eyes. Suddenly she buried her face in her arms and sobbed, "Daddy didn't get the job he was promised. There won't be any violin " Her thin shoulders shook and she began to cry in earnest... Mr. Muller looked around helplessly, "Oh, say now, this won't do." He grabbed a bag of chocolate candy and thrust it at her. Alice pushed the candy away. "I'm not hungry. I'm so unhappy. Give me the eggs now. I need to go home." Mr. Muller watched her go out the door wiping away tears with her coat sleeve. He had not been so upset in many years. He started to call after her, changed his mind, came back in and sat down. His mind was in a state of confusion. Absently he patted old Midnight, the cat, on the head. Not used to such attention, it got up and moved. The old man got up and paced the floor. "Yes," he thought, "if I had the money I'd buy that child a violin." A look of both sadness and anger came over his face as he looked at his hands. "If I still had the use of these hands, she would have her violin." He laid a hand on the counter and closed his eyes in agony. His mind drifted back half a lifetime ago to a small city in Europe. Hans Muller was at his best. He had attained fame and fortune. The musicians of all Europe sought after his exquisite violins.
Then the war came and the night the secret police came for him... He was taken to a grim, two storied building. Inside he was led to an insignia of a captain gleamed from his uniform.
"Herr Muller," he said, "we have reasonable information that you are hiding a family of Jews. We are all proud of the fame you have brought this town and all Germany, but we cannot go along with this mistaken notion of yours concerning the Jews. We must ask you to tell us where you have hidden them." "You are mistaken, Captain, I know nothing of any Jews."
"I am sorry you are going to be difficult, Herr Muller," the captain said angrily. "Please come with me." The captain led him to an adjoining room where a small vice was securely mounted on a table. "Herr Muller, either you tell us where you have hidden the Jews, or we break your fingers one by one in that vice. You have till morning to make up your mind; your fingers or the Jews. Sergeant, take him to a cell."
He was taken to a small basement cell dimly lit by a dirty bulb. A steel cot was swung from the wall. The cell door clanged shut behind him, and he was alone. How had they found out about the frightened family he had hidden at his place in the country? Mr. Muller looked down at his long, supple fingers that had created so many fine violins. Would they really break them? Would he be able to stand the pain? He could not betray the man, his frail wife and two little girls. What did he owe the Jews? He wondered how long he had been in the cell; they had taken his watch. Well, he must decide soon. How long was it till morning, thirty minutes or thirty pieces of silver?
Then he heard the tramp of boots echoing on the stone floor. The door of the cell was flung open, and he was escorted outside into the bright sunlight. He never knew why they let him go. From that terrible night, Mr. Muller's fingers began to grow stiff and ridged. As time passed, he could no longer make a violin. Doctors called it arthritis brought on by extreme stress. None of their treatments did any good. The rest of the war years he spent growing vegetables on his small farm. Because of his hands, he was never called to the army. After the war he sold his small holdings and came to America.
At last he ceased to think about the past and shut up the store for the night. He looked down at his hands with sadness and loathing. Would it be possible to make one more violin with these claw-like hands of his? The poor kid had probably never played on a good instrument anyway.
On that night, with fumbling hands and what materials he could find, he began the work of creating a violin. He carefully tore apart the ancient desk he had brought from the old country. Made of wood from the Black Forest of Germany, it would furnish what was needed for the violin. He had violin strings packed away, which were well oiled against rust.
The making of a good violin took weeks. He was attempting to create one in three days.
The first night he cut his hand badly. Some of the blood dripped on the wood with which he worked. He tried to sand it away but had to give up. The wood was too thin to risk taking away another layer. Great drops of sweat gathered on his brow at the effort of making his clumsy hands do his bidding; He worked till almost dawn and was aghast at the small amount of work he had accomplished. He did not open the store that day.
Towards noon he was back at work in a small room in the back of the store well hidden from passers by. It was on the second night that he noticed his hands seemed to grasp the wood more firmly and to hold his tools more easily, but he paid it little attention. He had lost so much sleep, half the time he was dreaming and nodding over his work, but the master craftsman's hands did not fail him even when his mind was filled with dreams of things long past.
On the third night after a brief sleep, he awoke and climbed from his bed. He was aware at once that something was different. He clenched and unclenched his hands. He looked at his fingers in disbelief. They were straight! Tears came to the old man's eyes and a chill ran up his spine.
He bent and picked up a tiny wood shaving from the floor. His chin trembled. This could not have happened, but it had! He dropped to his knees, "My God, I don't know why this happened, but I thank you." He arose from his knees and hurried to the violin. His hands seemed to have a will of their own. When the violin was finished, he knew it was his best.
What day was this? Oh, yes, it was Christmas Eve.
He had not paused since awakening this morning; now the violin was finished, the day was done, and lights were coming on all over town. He tucked the violin under his arm and briskly walked up the street to a small, white house where a young girl was spending Christmas Eve without hope of a violin. Carefully, he laid the violin on the porch, leaned the bow against it, and knocked on the door, then hurried away into the still night.
The next morning he awoke to the sound of "Silent Night" being played softly by his window. He glanced out; Alice waved and began another song.
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