The peddler of tales comes just before nighttime. Right before children are put to bed, surrounded by their toys, covered by their quilts, their glasses of milk just gone dry leaving a thin white mustache above their wee lips, the lamplight dim and sleep-inducing, the curtains rustling in response to the wind’s provocation.

Nighttime.

And before it, the peddler of tales: that man with the billion dollar smile, albeit one with crooked teeth and parched lips, a cart pushing in front of him, creakity creak, squeakity squeak—a cart with dreams and stories.

The peddler comes and sells his wares. Parents creep out just after putting their children to bed, saying “Peddler, peddler, give me a tale, those ones by the corner, no, not the ones that’ve gone stale” and the peddler obliges. Children have to go to sleep, after all, and they can’t quite do so without bedtime stories, now, can they? He sells them cheap, a cent a word, he sells them by the dozens, and before the clock strikes 10, he’s rich in his pockets and his cart of dreams and tales is all empty.

Wicks balance flame, a dark dew falls
In the street of the fruit stalls
Melon, guava, mandarin,
Pyramid-piled like cannon balls,
Glow red-hot, gold-hot, from within.

Dark children with a coin to spend
Enter the lantern’s orbit; find
Melon, guava, mandarin—-
The moon compacted to a rind,
The sun in a pitted skin.

They take it, break it open, let
A gold or silver fountain wet
Mouth, fingers, cheek , nose chin:
Radiant as lanterns, they forget
The dark street I am standing in.

Jan Stallworthy

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