by Phil Geusz
©2000 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
I shivered under my long overcoat. It was a miserable day, the climax of a miserable week. Cold rain fell in a continual drizzle from a sky of gray so featureless and forlorn that the sun might as well have been a distant memory, a legend made up long ago by men who had almost forgotten how to hope. It was Tuesday, a day when I should have been at work. But instead here I was, out in bad weather chasing after dancing bears. It was totally out of character for me, completely contrary to my usual conservative habits. I was considered sane, sober, hard working, even perhaps a bit dull by my co-workers. They would have been amazed to know what I was up to. All the same though, there I was.
The toy store was supposedly located just off the town square of the quaint little village. But the nearest parking area was several blocks distant. I was tired; my pilgrimage was a spur-of-the-moment thing and I'd not really gotten enough rest the night before. But I had to keep moving quickly regardless of how I felt. The rain had slowed my progress more than expected, and it was getting late. Even as I looked up to check my bearings, I caught a glimpse of one of the little storefront business owners turning her window sign from "Open" to "Closed". What a shame it would be if I arrived just seconds too late! Briskly I strode down the sidewalk, trying to ignore the rain. If the newspaper article was accurate, the toy store should be just around the next corner...
And there it was, bigger than life and twice as bold. Contrasting sharply with the run-down thrift store to its right and the drab legal office to its left, Kobold's Clockwork Toys was richly painted in bright crayon colors. The door was blue, the window sashes orange, the shutters green. And in each big display window mechanical soldiers marched and saluted, wooden biplanes soared in fixed circles, and fierce lions and tigers roared mechanically over and over. I stood for a moment with a silly smile fixed firmly on my face normally unexpressive; suddenly I felt twenty years younger. Maybe even thirty!
The door had a little bell on it that jingled as I entered. "Come on in!" the man behind the counter exclaimed from behind antique-looking wire-framed spectacles. He was of late-middle age, and wore a slightly ridiculous looking suit that looked as perhaps it had come straight out of Dickens. "It's terribly cold and wet outside. Here, let me take your coat."
Wordlessly, I surrendered the dripping overcoat and looked around in wonder. The interior of Kobold's was simply a marvel! Everywhere mechanical toys seemed to hop, wriggle, roll and pop out of boxes in a marvelous moving display of wondrous color and shape. There was not a single electronic gadget to be seen anywhere. The store seemed almost to have been lifted bodily and transplanted from another time. "Wow!" I exclaimed. This is... Special."
"Very special," the storekeeper agreed. "Very special indeed. I don't believe we've met. I'm Mr. Kobold."
I grinned and extended a hand. "And I'm Todd Kemplin. Pleased to meet you. I read about your dancing bears in the paper last week, and I've come to see them."
"Really?" Kobold replied, shaking my hand firmly. "How long was your drive?"
"Seven hours!" Kobold echoed. "Seven hours journey through rain and cold, just to see my bears? I'm honored, Mr. Kemplin. Honored indeed." He paused and looked thoughtful for a moment, then spoke again. "I'll tell you what. I was just about to close up shop for the day. How about if I go ahead and lock up, then give you the same sort of grand tour I put on for the newspaper? It's the least I can do, after you've come so far. And I've no pressing business."
Part of me wanted to turn him down, felt obligated to tell Mr. Kobold that I had no desire to impose upon his hospitality. It was the same part of me that had been silently chiding me about missing work, about taking wild trips without making plans, about letting my boss down over a childish impulse. But somehow, the words wouldn't come. Not today, not after I'd already come so far. "Nothing would make me happier, sir. I am in your debt."
"Excellent, then." The toymaker smiled wistfully. "The honor is mine, I assure you."
Closing up shop for the day proved to be a far more complicated business than I would have imagined. There were dozens of jacks to placed firmly back into their boxes for the night's rest, squadrons of airplanes to be brought safe and sound back to earth, a veritable Noah's Ark of windup animals to be rounded up and herded back into their boxes. Each item was hand-made, and Kobold seemed to have a story to share about each and every one of them. This tiger, he'd explain, had been the special favorite of his niece. The third toy soldier from the left, it was rumored, once belonged to a Royal Prince of England. And each and every time he handled one of the mechanical toys, it went still in his grasp though he operated no switch, threw no lever that I could see.
"It's amazing," I said after watching the performance repeated dozens of times. "Simply amazing. According to the article I read, no one can explain exactly how you animate your inventory, though a dozen engineers and even a few stage magicians have tried. The toys behave in quite an ordinary fashion once they leave the shop. No wonder some call it a miracle."
Kobold blushed. "There's really nothing to it. The trick is quite simple, once it is learned. A man in Vienna showed it to me just before he died, and I too will someday pass it on to the next generation."
We didn't speak for a long time after that as the toymaker continued his rounds, quieting plaything after plaything. And then the store was silent. Or nearly so. For, now that the more ordinary toys were still I could hear faint music. "The bears," I whispered. "The bears!"
"Yes," replied Kobold, smiling warmly. "We have yet to see the bears. I keep them in a special room of their own. Would you care to accompany me?"
"Please," I whispered. "Oh, please!"
The doorway to the bear-room was very plain and ordinary; in fact I'd noticed the opening earlier and dismissed it in my mind as the entrance to a closet. With a flourish Kobold threw the portal open and, gaping, I stepped through into a place far more magical than anything I'd ever dreamed. There were dancing teddy bears everywhere! Rows of them sat on shelves kicking their feet and rocking back and forth, dozens formed a merry dancing circle on the floor, while another group dressed in circus garb pirouetted acrobatically in mid-air, suspended from delicate wires. Each and every one of them kept perfect time to the most compelling music-box melody I'd ever heard. The effect was simply incredible; Where Kobold's other toys simply moved, these danced in marvelous synchronization. Where the others made mechanical bows and showed only limited ranges of motion, these smiled, gestured to each other, seemingly actually lived. And the whole large room was bathed in a warm, rich golden light that somehow managed to be so perfectly everywhere that not a single shadow was cast.
It was, in a word, heavenly. "Good God!" I whispered. "The pictures, they..."
"Mere pictures never do this place justice, Mr. Kemplin. It is one of those things that you simply must experience firsthand in order to understand."
"Yes," I whispered breathlessly, watching two matching white-furred bears in kilts doing a perfectly synchronized Highland fling. "Yes."
"This is a place," Kobold continued, "where a man can forget for a time about his lost dreams. Where he can be free of his haunting might-have-beens and simply live in the here-and-now."
"Yes," I repeated, caught up in the magic of the place and the moment. "It is all of that."
"There are those who believe I waste my talents making mere toys, Mr. Kemplin. They whisper behind my back that I turned away from great things in order to come here and run my little store, that my life has been frittered away. But this room gives lie to their words."
"I agree. No life is wasted which created... this."
"Here I have created peace, Mr. Kemplin. Here I have crafted a place where time stands still and waits until a man is ready to move on. Here souls may be healed."
"Many, many men have found their way here before you, Mr. Kemplin. Men whose life stories were filled with pain and mundane burdens their wretched souls could bear no more. Mostly they come to watch the dancing for a time, then move on with souls nourished and hearts refilled. They come stumbling through my door with nothing to guide them but a vague feeling of unease, memories of their brightly-colored childhoods pulling at their hearts, a distant longing guiding their footsteps. Then they spend a few moments amidst this beauty and wonder, and leave with Spring growing once more new and fresh in their souls."
His words rang true for me in ways I hadn't known the utterings of a mere mortal man possibly could. "Yes. I understand fully."
"But a few come here thirsting for something more, Mr. Kobold. For them life has been too hard, dreary for too long. Too much pain has come their way, too much sadness and far, far too little joy." He paused. "Is there any shame in wanting to put down life's burdens, Mr. Kemplin?"
"No. Not that I can see."
"Is there anything harmful about a man about wishing that he did not have to fight and struggle to survive any more, anything evil about lusting for happiness and dreaming of warmth?"
"No. There is never any harm in pleasant dreams."
"Could there be anything wrong with simply wanting to stop where one is, wanting to get up from the table and accept one's losses, trying to cash out while there are still a few last precious chips left to bargain with, a few last dreams still unsullied?"
"Why should there be?"
"Does any great malignancy lie in wishing to be free to dance in the sun, now and ever after? To lay down forever the soul-killing burdens of productivity, of duty, of achievement? To be emancipated from the heart-rending millstones of manhood, of maturity, of greed and hate and lust and all the rest of the pantheon of human depravity? Is it a sin to envy the bears, dancing together here in perfect harmony?"
"No. It is natural to envy them."
"Why did you come here today then, Mr. Kemplin? To visit, or to stay?"
"You followed your heart all the way into my door, didn't you? You, a supposedly mature and responsible adult, made a long journey in the rain on a working day when you should have been busily engaged in all the businesses of the mundane world. Even as we speak you should be out and about with the rest of your kind, working at turning wheels, making deals, cooking meals. It was sheer madness! But you chose to follow your heart. Didn't you?"
"And do you regret it?"
"Well, then! Will you be staying with us, Mr. Kemplin? I offer you my hospitality, if you choose to accept it."
My heart hammered in my chest, my fingers curled up into fists, my breathing grew rapid. "I... I..."
"What does your heart tell you, Mr. Kemplin? Will you listen to its wisdom? Or will you choose to ignore it and go on dying a little bit every day forevermore, knowing that instead you might have had" -- he waved an expressive arm -- "all of this?"
With eyes as wide as a schoolboy's I surveyed the room once more. Before my eyes, the circle-dancers broke up into hypnotic pinwheels and then formed a joyous conga line weaving through a perfect little toy village. The Highlanders pirouetted and whirled, the dangling acrobats together wove an elegant invisible web. "I... I..."
"These toys are never put to bed, Mr. Kemplin. I could not stand to ever shut them off. Night never falls here, the blessed moment never ends. Playtime goes on forever."
A ballerina bear caught my eye then, satin-slippered feet locked eternally en pointé as she arabesqued and spun, kicked and gracefully dipped. "Yes," I heard my mouth saying, though my rational mind had willed it not. But my heart had. And at the last, the heart always speaks loudest. "Oh, yes. Please."
"Good," Kobold replied. "Very, very good. From the moment you stepped through my door, I knew that you belonged here, that you would thrive best in a softer and more pleasant world." Seemingly out of the air, he produced a neckerchief and proffered it to me. "Put this on."
Again, my hands moved as if in a dream. The neckerchief was made of silk, bright yellow in color. It reminded me strongly of my boyhood, though with the world spinning so many different ways a once I could not quite grasp why. Fingers trembling, I threw it over my shoulders and tried to tie it into place. But I was too excited, and Kobold had to help me.
"Here, now" he said kindly, pushing my blundering hands gently out of the way. "Don't worry, old Mr. Kobold can take care of it." I felt myself bouncing up and down in excitement as the toymaker formed the knot, then firmly slid it up tight to my neck. "A fine bear you're going to make. Now just stand easy there, and let the magic of this place do the rest."
The neckerchief was tied very tightly; I had a little trouble breathing. For what seemed a very long time nothing at all happened, and I began to wonder if this were some kind of elaborate joke, if deep down inside Kobold was laughing himself silly at my complete naiveté and puerile dreams. But then I felt a distinct tugging sensation deep inside my stomach, followed immediately by a second. It was not unpleasant, merely unsettling. I looked worriedly over at the toymaker, but he smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry. All is well. And from now on, all is always going to be well."
I sat down rather suddenly then amidst an untidy pile of the ugly oversized clothes that I'd never really cared for, not in my heart. I did not sit down because I wanted to but rather because my legs flowed and changed and suddenly would support my weight no longer. I felt my feet soften into little toeless furry cushions, my calves become chubby, my thighs round and soft and smooth, my genitals recede into a now featureless crotch.
"No more lust in the cards for you, teddy bear." Kobold said with genuine kindness in his voice. "No more restless nights worrying about whether or not you've performed well as a man. Something much purer is awaiting you!"
I reached down to feel my new self, a wave of panic breaking over me at the loss of my manhood. But by the time my hands reached my groin, terror had left me forever and already I was wondering exactly what it could possibly have been that had so frightened me. "It feels so good," I whispered to Kobold in a voice now high and childlike. "I'm so very warm and soft."
"Yes," Kobold agreed. "You certainly are."
My stomach bulged out then into a fat little pot-belly; I would waddle a bit when I walked. But that was all right. Everything in the whole wide world was all right. I felt an intense tickling, even as my arms and hands began their own changes. "Oh!" I giggled. "It is so very wonderful! I'm going to be blue!"
"Yes, Blue Bear. You look very nice already."
My head was next. In a single wave of change my face became furred cloth, my nose became black vinyl, my eyes hard plastic. Then I felt one last sparkle of magic as the ears I'd known for so long went soft and floppy and moved to the top of my head. And with that the thing was done. I wriggled and squiggled and writhed in wondrous joy; suddenly I was very happy and the all the whole world, as a result, had become a happy place as well.
Then for the first time I truly heard the music. I'd listened to the music box tune all along, of course. But now I felt it in my heart, knew the majestic fullness of the melody, sank my soul into its joyful and perfect totality until every fiber of stuffing inside me begged, beseeched, demanded to move in total exquisite eternal harmony with the incredibly beautiful sound.
But for one last second I resisted the siren call, for one last interlude I chose to willingly shoulder the terrible burdens of choice, of freedom, of individuality. Awkwardly I stood up on my stumpy legs and, already twitching slightly to the most perfect of tunes, gleefully waved up at the suddenly huge figure of Mr. Kobold.
"I know," he whispered back. "And you are very, very welcome." Then he bent down over me and smiled. "Someday, I will be able to join in myself."
I bounced up and down in happiness at having my meaning so clearly understood. But then my bouncing became the dance and I was sucked in, in, into the irresistible sea until the music was everything for me, everything I would want or be or need. And then I was merely a toy swaying rapturously amidst a sea of other toys, no future ahead of me and no past behind me, happily trapped in the here and the now and the forevermore to come eternally after.