The boy came every day to the shop. Every day, he would make the same circle around the room, stopping at the harps, one by one. He always held his hands tight behind his back, as if afraid that if he didn’t he might be unable to stop himself from running his fingers over the smooth wood, or plucking the shiny brass strings. He knew every harp in the shop, for if one was sold, the next day he would stand and stare at the empty spot with a sadness in the slump of his shoulders. Then he would move on to look at the next harp.
After he had circled the room he would come and stand by the work bench. Not too close, for if the harp maker noticed him, then the old man would shoo him out of the shop. At least that’s what would happen at first. After a few weeks the boy seemed to have become invisible, and he could stand for hours and watch the slow movement of the tools as they shaped plain wooden blocks and boards into something magical. Something that could sing sweeter than a bird or roar louder than a thunderstorm.
What the boy liked best was when someone would come into the shop, looking to buy, and take a harp from the shelf or sit down beside one of the larger ones on the floor and play. Then his eyes would grow wide, and sometimes even shine with tears. He would hold his breath, lean forward, as if his ears were hungry for the sound. And then, if the harp was sold and taken away, the boy would stand at the shop door in a sort of farewell.
The harp maker had grown to regard the boy as something that was always there, like the mice, or the shadows, not causing enough harm to be worth driving away when there was work to do. So it surprised him one day when the boy came into the shop and instead of drifting around the room like always, stepped right up to the counter.
The boy placed a few coins on the counter and said, “What sort of a harp would this buy?”
The harp maker studied the boy as if for the first time. He was eleven, perhaps twelve. His clothes were plain but clean. There was some craft to them, just enough that the harp maker could tell his mother knew her sewing.
Without a word, the harp maker turned and went to his stock of wood. He selected a few boards and pieces, then set them on the counter.
The boy frowned at the pieces, confused at first, but then he seemed to realize what the harp maker meant. He stuck his chin out stiffly, his eyes shining again, and started to collect his coins.
“You’ll have to earn the strings by tidying up the shop,” the harp maker said. “Have you worked with wood before?”
Confused again, the boy shook his head. “Only a bit of whittling, sir.”
“Then you’ve got a lot to learn. Come around here and let me show you how to hold the plane.”
The boy sucked in a quick gasp of surprise, then bobbed his head with a breathless, “Oh, thank-you sir! Yes, please.”
The harp maker smiled.