1. Foretelling

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Longren had been a sailor on the brig Orion for more than ten years. He was attached to his ship more than a son to his mother, but he finally had to resign. That's how it happened. During one of his rare homecomings, he didn't see his wife Mary, clasping her hands and running breathlessly towards him. Instead, his agitated neighbor stood beside a cradle, a new object in Longren's small house.

"I've cared for her for three months, old man," she said. "Look at your daughter."

Numb, Longren glanced at the eight-months-old creature who gazed at his long beard in concentration. Then he sat down, hanging his head and twirling the long mustache, wet from rain, around his finger.

"When did Mary die?" he asked.

The woman told him the sad story, interrupting herself by crooning to the girl and assuring him that Mary had gone straight to heaven. When Longren learned the details, he considered that heaven not much brighter than a woodshed.

Three months before, the young mother's financial situation had crumbled. Having spent most of the money left by Longren on her medical bills after the complicated birth, and the rest on her newborn daughter, Mary had been forced to ask for a loan.

At six in the afternoon, she went to see Menners, the owner of the local alehouse and the richest person in the village. At seven, the woman neighbor met Mary on the road to Liss. Her cheeks tear-stained, Mary said she was going to the city to pawn her wedding band. Menners had agreed to loan her the money only in exchange for her love, so she didn't get anything.

"We don't have a crumb of food left at home," she said. "I'll go to the city now, and then my daughter and I will manage till my husband's return."

The weather was cold and windy that night. "Don't go," the neighbor tried to convince Mary. "You need at least three hours to get to Liss and back. It's drizzling already, and heavy rain threatens. You'll get soaked."

Mary didn't heed the advice. "I have been a thorn in everyone's side for too long," she said. "There is no family here that hasn't lent me some tea, bread, or flour. I'll pawn the ring."

She returned late, chilled by the cold rain and wind, and the next day fell ill with pneumonia. The city doctor, invited by the kind-hearted neighbor, couldn't help. A week later, Longren's double bed became empty, and the neighbor, a lonely widow, moved into his house to care for the girl.

"It's a boring life without such a munchkin," she said.

Longren retired from his ship, bade farewell to his sailor-friends, and settled in his house to raise little Assol. Until the girl learned to walk, the widow lived with them as a surrogate mother for the girl, but as soon as Assol stopped falling over the threshold, Longren declared that he would do everything himself, thanked the widow, and assumed the role of a single father, concentrating all his thoughts, hopes, love, and memories on the child.

Ten years of vagabond life hadn't left him much money, so he started working. Soon, the city shops began selling his model ships: small yachts, two-masted brigs, war cruisers, and steamboats—everything he knew by heart.

Always lonesome and taciturn, after his wife's death, he had completely withdrawn from the village life. Occasionally, he would hastily down a glass of vodka at the local tavern and hurry away, blocking all his neighbors' attempts at conversation with one-syllable words: yes, no, fine, hello, and goodbye. Disliking guests, he always offered them such hints and imaginary circumstances that his visitors had no choice but to leave him alone. He didn't visit anyone either, not minding the cold alienation that had settled between him and his neighbors. If his work—the toy making—wasn't that independent from the village affairs, he would've suffered the consequences of this estrangement.

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