The Finer Things

The Finer Things

October, 2012

Albert leaned the shovel against the shed wall and sighed as he peeled his filth-encrusted work gloves from his hands. The work day was finally over, and thank Gogmagog for that. He was tired and sore – everything hurt, even his bones – and he wanted nothing more than to be home with a day off on the horizon.

Not that he was going to get the latter.

He glared at the broken, ox-driven mixer, thinking hateful thoughts at it. The twice-damned bitch of a thing had jammed and broken down only two hours into his day. He’d been able to fix it before – it was usually just a really fibrous bit of root caught in the blades – but this time the thing was well and truly broken. One blade had bent so forcefully that it interfered with one of the other blades and had mangled that one too, rendering the machine useless. There was no hope of fixing it under warranty – that had run out the week before. He’d been hoping to use his meagre savings to buy Sarah a little extravagant something for their third wedding anniversary, but now he’d have to spend it on having the machine repaired instead. He knew Sarah would rather see the fungus farm have what was necessary to keep it running but, personally, he’d rather see his wife have something nice, something a little frivolous, like other women who’d married more successful men had in abundance.

To add insult to injury, he’d have to come back again tomorrow, his one day off a week, to spread around the mixture of peat moss and hellhound shit he’d spent all damn day mixing by hand.

He looked down at his hands; they were typical for an ogre, large and powerful, yet a whole day of shovel-wielding hadn’t done them any favours. They were as red and blistered as though he’d never done a day’s labour in his life, and they were discoloured by the peat moss and hellhound poop.

What a life, he thought as he stretched, the muscles in his back and arms protesting painfully, his joints popping with a sound like far-off gunshots. He looked around for his hellhound, a big slobbery beast called Boris who usually spent the day napping nearby to keep him company as he worked. Boris was nowhere to be found, so Albert, now feeling especially annoyed and sorry for himself, began the long trudge home alone.

He scrubbed the dirt from his hands and from under his nails as best he could with the harsh lye soap Sarah had left out for him, and then sank down gratefully into his worn easy chair by the fireplace, letting his whole body relax into it as he wrapped his hands around the warm mug of spiced ale Sarah had put on the little end table for him.

Albert smiled when Boris padded into the room and snuffled and slobbered on his pant leg by way of apology for not accompanying him home, and then lay on the floor beside his chair.

“Tough day for you too, eh?” he asked.

Boris gave a drawn out and dramatic sigh in response. Albert leaned down and scratched Boris behind the ears in the spirit of sympathy and commiseration, and snuck him a little drink of his ale. Sarah didn’t approve of him giving Boris ale, but Albert was sure that a little bit was good for his health.

The thought of Sarah had him settling back into his chair again and staring into the flames, wishing for the umpteenth time that the fungus farm was doing better. He and Sarah did OK, they weren’t starving, or begging for handouts on the unemployment line, but it seemed they were never far away from the possibility of needing to. He tried telling himself, as he often did, that the blisters and aches were the rewards of hard work, a sign that he was capable and strong, able to keep a roof over their heads with no need to borrow. Usually that was enough to get him through the hard days, but today he had to swallow the uncomfortable lump building in his throat; nothing he told himself was of any comfort today. He had promised Sarah on their wedding day that he’d make sure she was well provided for, and so far he’d only been able to supply the necessities and precious little else, and that made him feel small and useless – a poor husband and provider to a woman who deserved so much more.

He could hear her now, bustling around in the kitchen in her efficient and cheerful manner. She had taken readily to their married life, and had made his small house a home for both of them with nary a complaint. If anything, she seemed happy – and if she felt the lack of pretty and frivolous things in her life, she never once complained or reproached him in any way. It was enough to make even the toughest ogre cry with frustration and guilt. She could have had any one that caught her eye; she was beautiful, and there had certainly been plenty of eligible suitors that her father, the redoubtable Mr. Pennypinch – owner of the largest sluggery in thirteen counties – had found more suitable than a mere fungus farmer. But she’d chosen him; of all the young and rich men who’d wanted to marry her, or at least her sizable inheritance, she’d singled him out.

Her choice of husband had got her disinherited the moment she said “I do” in the crumbling mausoleum they’d been married in, and Mr. Pennypinch had made his feelings clear:

“I will not be hornswoggled by some poor, back-woods failure of a fungus-farmer!” he’d shouted, his face turning an even darker shade of puce than normal. “I am sorry to lose a daughter, but I’ll be damned to all the hells there are before I acknowledge such a son-in-law. Neither of you will ever see a penny – not a single copper! – of my money. Not ever!”

Sarah had nodded calmly, as though being disinherited from a large fortune were nothing to cry about, and then packed her things and left her childhood home to live with her new husband.

Albert watched her quietly as she went about setting their second-hand table for dinner, laying the old dishware, and cloudy glasses out neatly. She’d even hand stitched some napkins so they could “eat like civilized beings”.

Sarah had never been like the other pampered little ogresses that Albert had sometimes run into. Sure, she’d had the best things money could buy – expensive finishing schools, fine clothes, fancy parties, and even fancier people with whom she was encouraged to socialize – and she lived in the most magnificently dilapidated house in all of Surly Moon township, but none of these things had gone to her head the way it would have – and did – with other young women from wealthy families.

She carried herself well – like a queen, in Albert’s opinion – but she didn’t act like a queen. She was kind, and she never looked down her nose at anyone, or made herself out to be above everything and everyone else. This was very much unlike the other young ladies in her set; they put on such airs you would have thought they had slid into the world on a rush of gold-speckled slime, with silver and gem encrusted spoons crammed into their wide open mouths, but Sarah was just Sarah: an open and friendly soul who happened to be born to into wealth.

In the normal course of things, Albert reflected, they would never even have met one another. He might have seen her out and about, getting into or out of some fancy carriage as she was on her way to or from some fancy party, but he would never have had the chance to even talk to someone like her, let alone marry her. He would have married a young lady of his own class, while Sarah married one of the wealthy men her father paraded her before. However, it seemed that Clotho and her creepy sisters had other plans for them. Albert could explain it no other way; it had to be fate.

Nearly three years ago, Albert, fresh out of agricultural college (with a specialization in fungus), and a gift of land from his father – himself a farmer and able to offer his son space sufficient for a fungus farm and a modest house – looked for and took nearly every job he could get in order to build up the capital needed to start his own farm. One of those jobs had been as security detail for a debutante ball for Miss Sarah Pennypinch.

Mr. Pennypinch, who prided himself on being a particularly intimidating specimen of over-protective ogre father, had advertised for and interviewed nearly every young and able-bodied male in the whole township – several ogres, a handful of vampires, two werewolves, and a half dozen redcaps among the rest; in short, all those not deemed worthy of attending his daughter’s ball were seen as fit enough for a night of sore feet and unbelievable boredom as they patrolled the Pennypinch grounds to keep out other riff-raff such as themselves.

Albert had stood in the Pennypinch stable yard after dark with the rest of the applicants, their nervous faces lit only by torchlight, and looking as grave and scared as though they were about to be hung for some serious crime. Mr. Pennypinch walked down the line, looking them over, staring them down, and barking questions at them. Those who did not faint or wet themselves were hired, those who disgraced themselves were tossed out on their ear. Nearby, a young goblin woman, her sour lemon mouth pursed in distaste, had handed out the uniforms they were to wear as part of their duties.

Albert hadn’t quailed under Mr. Pennypinch’s gaze or questioning – not outwardly anyway – but had almost not got the job because the roster was full. But, fate intervened and one of the chosen few, another ogre, had not been able to contain his nervousness after all and had vomited spectacularly down the front of his own shirt. The goblin woman had taken the uniform from the vomiter and thrust the bundle of clothes into Albert’s hands at Mr. Pennypinch’s instructions.

“You look strong enough.” Mr. Pennypinch had growled at him. “You’ll take Boris and patrol the orchards.”

Albert followed the man’s gaze across the yard to where Boris, a slavering hellhound, was chained up in the kennel. The hound growled at him, baring his teeth just enough to show a jagged and blood-stained canine, while thick drool dripped from his mouth. Albert suddenly felt a lot of sympathy for the vomiter – he wanted to throw up down the front of his own shirt at the idea of being alone in a dark orchard, the furthest you could get from the house and still be on the grounds, with that beast.

He steeled himself against fear. He needed the money, and it was fairly generous pay coming from someone known to be a tightfisted old miser, and the thought of having his own farm strengthened his resolve: scary hellhound or not, he was going to do the job.

When the night of the party came, Albert, feeling ridiculous in the slightly too-small uniform he’d been provided with, showed up a full thirty minutes early for his evening of patrolling the Pennypinch orchards to get acquainted with Boris.

“Just feed ‘im and treat ‘im right, boy, and you won’t have no problems with ‘im.” his father had advised when Albert asked for tips on patrolling with the dog.

Albert had taken the advice to heart and shown up at the kennel with his pockets bulging with food. After doling out a few strips of raw meat, and a half dozen treats filled with congealed blood, Boris had flopped down on the ground with a thump and rolled over to have his belly scratched, his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth.

Albert scrubbed his hands over the proffered belly enthusiastically, praising Boris as a “good hound” and “an ogre’s best friend”. Boris had licked his face in response, leaving a pinkish trail of bloody spit on his skin. Albert refrained from wiping it off as he wasn’t confident yet that he wouldn’t offend the creature, and his father’s pithy advice of “Better safe than sorry, m’boy” and “Why borrow trouble?” was still ringing in his ears.

Albert led Boris out past the stable and kennels to the orchard as the sky darkened, and began to walk the furthest edge of the orchard. The orchard itself was mostly dead and neglected, and the few apples that grew in it were hard as stone, sour, and unfit for anything but the small animals and birds brave or stupid enough to eat them.

The trees were almost done shedding their leaves for the year, and with the marshy ground underfoot, and the occasional squawk of ravens calling out rudely from the tree tops, it was a peaceful place to walk.

“Not so bad, eh Boris?” Albert said.

Boris looked up at him, his fire-red eyes hopeful, as he smeared dog snot on Albert’s uniform looking for more treats.

“Not now, you glutton, you have to pace yourself.” Albert said.

Boris looked back at the ground, a sulky and disappointed look on his hound face, and Albert gave in, slipping him another blood-filled treat.

“If you get sick on all this stuff, “ Albert warned, “I’m…well, I’m only completely to blame.”

But, Albert soon discovered he needn’t have worried himself. Two hours later, as they walked between the rows of trees for a change of pace, Boris had snuffled out three mice from under the dead wet leaves – and two them had been dead for quite some time.

“Don’t you even think about licking my face.” Albert said to him once Boris had gulped down the last of his disgusting finds. Boris seemed to almost shrug at that in a houndish way – he was clearly immensely pleased with himself.

A few moments later, Albert heard two voices, one male, and one female. He figured two young party-goers had snuck off for a romantic tryst in the orchard. Albert had to admit, it was a perfect night for walking out with a young lady: the moon was new, which showed the distant stars to their best advantage, and there was barely a breeze to stir the sometimes foul smell of the things that had died in the orchard.

Albert’s eyes widened in surprise when he saw that the young lady was none other than Miss Sarah Pennypinch herself. She was picking her way slowly across the squishy ground, a look of profound distaste and regret on her face. Albert didn’t want to eavesdrop or intrude, but he wasn’t going to leave his employer’s daughter alone with a young man either – especially as Sarah seemed to be only politely enduring his company.

Albert didn’t really believe that any ogre in a powder blue velvet suit – one that he’d apparently stolen from a corpse about two sizes smaller than him – could cause much in the way of trouble, but he wasn’t willing to lay any bets. Sarah, of course, looked radiant in a pale silk dress that showed off her fair green skin to perfection, and unlike most ogres who were rather indifferent to mud and filth, she kept twitching the bottom of her skirts upward just enough to keep the hem of her dress from sitting in the muck. Her boots, however, were already hopelessly dirty, and she glanced at those in dismay as the young twit babbled on, oblivious to her discomfort. Even so, he kept a respectable distance and decided to wait them out. They’d go back to the house before too long, he figured, and he’d follow them there to be sure that Sarah was safe.

Soon, with Sarah seated on a low branch of an apple tree, the young dandy began to recite a poem out loud. It was terrible:

Oh, my dearest Sarah,

With whom no one can compare-a.

Your eyes are like slippery black mud,

Your nose like a cute little potato spud…

Albert rolled his eyes, and even Boris looked bored and whined quietly at the laughable poem. The young windbag continued:

Your hair is like the legs of crisped up spiders,

A lock of which would be a treasure greater than Midas-ers.

Your hands are the most delicate of bricks,

And your dainty feet deliver the gentlest of kicks…

Albert nearly laughed aloud that, wishing he could kick the little twit himself with his decidedly un-dainty foot squarely where it would do him the most good.

Your lips are the shade of a tumorous mass,

Your skin is the colour of freshly trampled spring grass,

But all of these here, Oh, Sarah, my dear,

Are eclipsed by the shape of your most perfect…

Albert had a pretty good idea of where these lines were headed as the boy began the last line, and so he’d released Boris’s chain whispering, “Chase the little twit down, there’s a good dog.” Boris, happy to be of service and run free, had dashed toward the couple. The young man never had time to get out that last word of his poem before Boris was bearing down on him, eyes glowing like the fires of hell, sending the boy screaming through the orchard – in the wrong direction, away from the house.

Albert had gone to Sarah, offering her his jacket to keep her warm, and his arm to see her back to the house safely. He’d have done the same for any of the young ladies – even one of the snooty ones – but he felt especially protective toward Sarah. She was a proper lady in his opinion, and he wouldn’t stand by and hear her insulted and then left to find her own way back alone. He really hoped Boris had bitten the velvet seat out of the little dandy’s pants once the hound had run him down.

Sarah had smiled at him as he placed his coat over her shoulders, grateful to be saved from having to hear any more of the rude poetry, and especially glad of the escort home as the orchard grounds were slick with half rotted apples, and the gentle decay of small animals who’d got drunk on the fermented fruit and then been caught and half-disemboweled by vicious owls looking for an easy snack.

The long walk back, under the dark of the new moon, to the dimly lit terraces of Mr. Pennypinch’s house had been both a wonderful eternity, and far too short for both of them. Albert was completely enamoured with Sarah; her looks, her intelligent and sensible conversation, her gentle humour. She wasn’t a bit like the other girls he’d sometimes walked with, and he was quickly tumbling head over heels in love with her for it.

Sarah’s was thrilled to finally meet a young man who could talk about more than just what a catch every other young lady claimed him to be, and was doing more with himself than waiting for his elderly parents to die so he could spend his inheritance on nonsense. She felt that Albert was a good ogre; straightforward, honest, kind, hard-working and intelligent – and she made a point of telling him so in those exact terms. Albert had grinned, smiling down at Sarah with unabashed delight, and Sarah made her choice then and there; she would have Albert, or no one.

They exchanged promises and endearments under the dark sky, everything clicking into place as though it were a puzzle where the picture only made sense once the last piece was fitted in. The both knew these feelings were sudden, and possibly a little crazy, but both of them were sure that it was right.

Mr. Pennypinch had been furious, especially as Sarah – head-strong and sure of her own mind – had told her father her intentions and wishes that very night with a rather surprised and bewildered Albert at her side in his uniform. He had assumed they’d wait, that he would court her and then ask her father for her hand properly, not announce their intentions here and now, dressed in a silly and too-short uniform with the pockets reeking of bloody treats, the pant legs and jacket pockets of which were covered in hellhound slobber and snot, and his boots covered in orchard muck and what appeared to be bits of mouse fur.

“You want to marry him?” Her father was outraged, and though Albert was near to shaking in his boots, another part of him watched with interest as the phrase ‘choked on his own choler’, was acted out before his very eyes.

Sarah nodded. “Yes, Father. It’s all decided.”

This was news to Albert, but he kept his mouth shut – better safe than sorry, indeed.

“It is most certainly not decided.” Mr. Pennypinch turned to Albert. “How do you intend to support my daughter, boy?”

“I’m building a house on my own land, and I’m going to be a fungus farmer. The region could use a well run fungus farm.”

Mr. Pennypinch snorted in disgust and turned back to his daughter, “A fungus farmer. A fungus farmer! This is what you want to marry and spend your days with?”

“Yes.”

No amount of cajoling, pleading, begging, shouting or threats would dissuade her, and Mr. Pennypinch finally washed his hands of the whole thing after Boris came bounding in and promptly coughed up half-digested mouse bones, and a sizable chunk of pale blue velvet at Mr. Pennypinch’s feet. He stepped back from the mess, shaking his head at the sight of Boris sitting at Albert’s side, leaning into his legs and panting happily.

“You marry your little… mushroom man,” he said, “but don’t you ever, for even a moment, think that you’ll have one cent of my money to support you in this foolishness. And you take that damned useless and disgusting hound with you when you go.”

“As you wish, Father.”

 

Sarah took those things which were hers into her new married life – gifts from her mother who’d died when she was a child, and the dowry money that her mother had prudently laid by when Sarah was born. She and Albert had stood together in the small crumbling crypt one county over, a necromancer and his newly risen wife as their witnesses, and exchanged vows with Albert – while wearing the very dress she’d worn the night she met him. Albert had carried her over the threshold, both of them laughing, and into the house he had built that they would now share.

Sarah had quickly turned their little house into a proper home – a comfortable and comforting place to come back to at the end of the day. She insisted that he use her dowry money to help start his farm, too.

“Sarah, I can’t take your money. It was meant to be used to make yourself comfortable.”

“And you having gainful employment and following your dreams will make us very comfortable. I have no doubt of that. Now take the gold, and hush. Dinner is nearly ready.” she said.

 

Looking at her now, in a twice-turned gown, with her hands – which were actually rather fine for an ogre – red from washing up and cooking, he felt guilty. They were not comfortable, not the way either of them had thought they would be. Yet, she seemed happy and content, and it seemed that he alone felt the lack of the finer things in life for the both of them.

He sat the at the small table as she served up the simple meal: slugs floured with spices and fried in squirrel fat, a generous side of steamed graveweed, and savoury sautéed purple fungus, with a cup of mulled ale each. She’d even made two small lemon rind tarts for dessert. Albert smiled when he saw the small pastry skull and crossbones she’d fashioned on his; her small way of saying, “I love you.”

If only the fungus farm were doing better, if only he could sell more of what he produced! But there were few vendors here who dared to buy from him knowing how much Mr. Pennypinch despised him for taking away his daughter. Most of the fungus ended up rotting in heaps at the back of the farm. And what was he to do with rotted fungus besides watch it rot?

Sarah was the very soul of economy in running the household, but he wanted more for her, and for the family he’d one day like to have and support in moderate comfort. He didn’t want to have to watch every penny so closely. He wondered if he might take an extra job, but running the farm left him so tired, he wasn’t sure he had the energy. The only other solution was to give up the farm and go to Sarah’s father and see about getting a job in the sluggery. He knew he’d end up taking the worst job in the place, and probably at an insultingly low rate of pay, but it would be steady income and regular hours – and Sarah’s happiness and their future together was worth swallowing his pride and shoveling some dead slugs into a furnace.

It took two weeks, but Albert had finally made up his mind to talk to his father-in-law the following day. It wasn’t going to be an ideal arrangement by any means, but anything was better than the constant worry about finances – and Albert felt sure that Mr. Pennypinch, for all his angry words, would hear him out if the end result was a better life for Sarah.

However, that night, before he could tell Sarah what he intended to do, she shared her own interesting news: her father’s sluggery was in the early stages of what could turn into some serious financial trouble. The slugs raised and canned at the factory were dying in droves because their usual food supplies and hibernation grounds were no longer available. Recent expansions of the factory had diminished the amount of space available for breeding grounds. Attempts to buy up more farm land near the factory had proved fruitless as the current owners were not willing to sell their land. The few spaces left for the breeding and raising of the tiny gastropods had become too acidic for the delicate creatures and they were dying before they matured enough to be canned. Mr. Pennypinch was keeping a brave face on for the public and shareholders, but had confided his worry to a few trusted colleagues and word eventually had got around to Sarah.

By the time Sarah had finished telling him, Albert was grinning broadly. Sarah was offended by his apparent happiness.

“Albert! This is nothing to grin about. I know my father has been unkind, but he’s still my father.”

“I wasn’t smiling about that, Sarah,” he assured her, “I’m smiling because I think I can help him and us both! Listen, and tell me what you think of this idea.”

He told her his plan, and at the end Sarah was grinning too.

“We’ll go together first thing in the morning,” she said eagerly, “He might be more inclined to listen if I’m there.”

“You’re probably right about that. I think we had better write up a proper proposal as well – just to be professional about it.”

Sarah nodded and fetched the ink pot, pen, and paper.

 

They stayed up all night to write the proposal, working together through a few little squabbles over wording and costs, but as the sun rose over the fungus heap outside, he and Sarah smiled at each other, tired and euphoric. The proposal was written, the services and prices carefully and fairly laid out. If her father accepted, they would have to learn to work together – a feat which seemed huge and nearly impossible – but Albert would finally be able to provide a good and comfortable life for Sarah, and maybe they could finally get serious about starting a family. He could picture it all in his head so perfectly: he would fix up the house further, add a new room or two for the little sprogs – or sproglettes, he wouldn’t be fussy about that as long as they were healthy. He would build them a little playroom where they could be as messy and noisy as they pleased, maybe with a little mudbox for general wallowing and making mud pies, and a rickety tree house. He and Sarah could redo the kitchen, and she could finally get those spider silk drapes for the living room he’d seen her eyeing in the Scares Inc. catalogue.

All it would take was one word; a simple ‘yes’ from her father could change everything.

However, when they arrived at Mr. Pennypinch’s office, Albert wondered if he’d been too quick to dream of the future last night because, true to form, Mr. Pennypinch tried to have them thrown out by security.

Albert and Sarah, with Sarah leading the way, had walked straight past the lemon-mouthed secretary and directly into the big office at the end of the hall. The little goblin woman ran after them, her face grim as she tried to keep up with their much longer strides.

“Sir!” the woman squeaked indignantly, “They went right by the front desk – I tried to tell them. They didn’t even sign in!” Brownish coloured spittle flew from her thin lips as she spoke in her harsh little voice.

Mr. Pennypinch looked up from a stack of papers, his eyes touching on Albert and Sarah only briefly before looking back down at his desk.

“Call security. Have them tossed out the usual door.” He sounded almost bored when he said, as if he gave this order several times a day.

At those words, Albert watched all his dreams shrivel up into nothing – a little stain where there used to be hope. Sarah, however, turned quickly and marched the goblin woman to the door so fast that the bony little creature barely knew what had happened to her. Then, Sarah locked the office door and turned to her father.

“We have a proposal. We’ve worked very hard on this, and you will listen.”

Albert tried not to grin at the look on Mr. Pennypinch’s face – a comical mixture of intense irritation tinged with admiration.

“Very well,” he said, sitting back in his chair. “Speak. You have five minutes.”

They spoke quickly as Mr. Pennypinch’s secretary pounded on the door, shouting through her nose about the rudeness of certain ogres who didn’t follow protocol by announcing themselves properly and signing the visitors log book.

The change in Mr. Pennypinch was remarkable as they spoke. His face relaxed into something that almost looked like happiness. He looked nearly friendly by the end as he took the written proposal in his hands carefully, as though they’d just handed him something immensely precious and fragile, and read through the whole thing himself.

When he was done reading, he went to the door and unlocked and opened it. The goblin woman fell into the office, her scrunchy little face the colour of rotten plums from shouting.

“Get my lawyer in here.” he said. “And for Gogmagog’s sake, no more of that awful racket from you. It makes my head ache.”

The lawyer was found and, with a few modifications and a great deal of discussion and negotiating, the contract was settled. Mr. Pennypinch would not only buy the currently decaying heaps of Albert’s fungus for his slugs so that they would prosper, he would also pay to build some new breeding grounds on Albert’s land and pay Albert a portion of the earnings once the slugs were matured, canned, and sold. In future, those slugs that were not good enough for canning would be ground up and used to grow more fungus on the rest of Albert’s lands. The best fungus that Albert grew would be sold, the rest would be mulched up with hellhound manure and peat moss for use in the new breeding and hibernation grounds.

Mr. Pennypinch looked long and hard at Albert and Sarah as the lawyer handed him the pen and ink pot to make the deal official.

“You know,” Mr. Pennypinch said, “It’s not very often that I’m wrong about someone…”

“And not often that you’ll admit it, either.” Sarah said.

Mr. Pennypinch suppressed a smile. “Perhaps that’s true. Still, I’m impressed with this plan. It shows a maturity and forethought I was convinced you didn’t have.”

“Thank you, sir.” Albert said, unsure of whether to feel complimented or offended.

“And you obviously make my little girl happy, and despite everything, that was really all I wanted. For her to be happy.”

“I am Father,” Sarah said, putting her hand over Albert’s and smiling at him. ‘I really and truly am.”

“Well then,” Mr. Pennypinch said gruffly.

 

Weeks later, the new plan well under way, Albert had snuck away from work early to buy Sarah the little something frivolous for their anniversary that he’d wanted to buy her: a silver pendant of a raven with a small, black diamond eye that glittered darkly. Sarah had been thrilled with it, and insisted on wearing it right away. Albert fastened the chain, pausing to kiss the back of her neck as he did so.

“It’s beautiful, Albert.” she said. “I love it and I’ll wear it always.”

The look of happiness on her face, and the delightful feeling of having spoiled her a little was all the gift he could have asked for, but Sarah had her own gift for him.

She placed a paper bag, one that had been rolled closed at the top, before him on the table. Albert pulled it toward him slowly. The bag was light, so light that it felt empty. Albert opened it, and drew out two tiny leather shoes – so small that each one could be enclosed in the palm of his hand. Albert looked up at Sarah, his mouth open with surprise as the meaning of the little shoes dawned on him.

“You mean…”

Sarah nodded, smiling and laughing as tears rolled down her cheeks.

“Yes. I mean.”