Once, there was a man, named Mr. Harding, who made a business of working with light.
He placed electric twinkling bulbs in old raspberry jam jars with tiny brass cranks and sold them to his customers – the township’s children.
Every morning, Mr. Harding drove his cart to the corner of Second and Main, where various shopkeepers sold their goods, parked it next to a flower vendor, hung a sign that read “Mr. Harding’s Hopefuls,” and opened for business. The children always came, and they bought the lamps for 12 pence apiece.
It was winter, long after Christmas, and Kara was pushing her way through a grey evening down Second Avenue. She was young, but the February sky felt old and heavy against her back. She did not often stop for anything when she was pushing her way down Second Avenue, but on this particular evening, she caught sight of Mr. Harding’s sign – and she stopped.
“Sir?” she asked, stepping out of the crowd. “Why do you call them ‘hopefuls’?”
Mr. Harding came out from behind his sign. “What a fine question,” he said. He took a jar from one of the shelves on his cart and held it out for Kara to see. When Mr. Harding turned the little brass crank on the right side, the lamp flickered to life. “I call them ‘hopefuls’ because light keeps hope alive through clouded nights, when the stars aren’t to be seen. You know this, yes?” Mr. Harding stopped the crank, and the lamp fell dim for a moment, then went out.
Kara took the lamp from Mr. Harding and turned the crank herself. The flicker returned. “Yes. Yes, I do.” And she handed Mr. Harding 12 pence, and she took the lamp home.
There are many clouded nights in February, when the stars aren’t to be seen. You know this. So did Mr. Harding, and so did Kara. But perhaps, more than any of us, did Kara’s mother. Kara’s father was a merchant sailor, and he was often away. Sailing can be a dangerous business, of course. There are many storms, and Kara’s mother would hear of the storms long before she would hear from her husband. So she sat up, long nights in February – clouded nights, you know, when storms came – praying for him, concerned for him.
Kara knew about the storms, and she knew her mother worried, and she knew she often stayed up in the dark on nights when there were no stars to be seen. So the next week, when her mother was worrying again, Kara didn’t go to bed after dinner. Instead, she curled up on her mother’s lap with the lamp from Mr. Harding, and she turned the crank, and she kept the light on. And while her mother prayed, she kept the light on, and she brought the hopeful.
And so began a new way of living for Kara and her mother. For on those worrisome, cloudy, stormy nights, Kara’s mother didn’t sit up alone. She sat with Kara’s light, and by the light she prayed, and by the light she read, and by the light she wrote to her husband. Sometimes, she and Kara would just sit with her light and talk, Kara turning the little brass crank on the right side all the while. The light stayed on as long as Kara stayed awake.
The lamp also brought a new way of living in another way, for Mr. Harding and Kara were now friends. Kara passed by his cart on Second Avenue almost every day, and Mr. Harding always asked how her mother was, and how her father was, and how the light was. They became, over time, very good friends. And so it went, through the end of winter, through spring and summer, and then to the fall and winter again.
Until one day, when Mr. Harding was not at the corner of Second and Main. There was no cart, no sign reading “Mr. Harding’s Hopefuls” – just a grey evening and a now November sky.
“Sir?” Kara asked the flower vendor on the street, “Where is Mr. Harding?”
“Not coming today, I’m afraid.”
“Not coming?” Kara asked. “But he always comes.”
The gentleman pulled a small dahlia from a vase and handed it to Kara. “Sick, I’m afraid, my dear. At home, resting, where he ought to be.”
And so it happened that the next few evenings, Kara did not sit up with her mother. There are many clouded nights in November, especially when you are sick, you know, so she sat on a little stool beside Mr. Harding’s bed and held her little lamp and kept the light on. When Mr. Harding was awake, they would talk. Kara would bring him water and tea and soup, and she made cool rags for his forehead, and she stayed awake, and she brought the hopeful.
Until, three nights later, when the lamp went out. Kara was sitting at the bedside, turning the crank, when the jar quite glowing. Kara rattled the crank and tried again, but still, nothing happened.
“Mr. Harding, it’s out. What do I do? The light – it’s gone out.”
“Hmm?” Mr. Harding ever so slightly opened his eyes, then sank back into the pillow again. “No, no. Don’t you worry. The light is still here.”
“Mr. Harding, you must be sick with fever. Can’t you see? The light is gone. I can’t bring it back.”
Mr. Harding turned to Kara.
“Oh my dear, the flickering in the jar was never the light. It’s not real light – it’s just electricity, wires, cranks, and tiny bulbs. Those are not light. They only help to keep the light. For the jar to flicker, you must stay awake and turn the little crank, first through the clouded nights with your mother and now with me.”
“I don’t understand,” Kara said. She turned the lamp upside-down and knocked on the bottom. Still no glow. “It was supposed to be a hopeful.”
“Oh no. It is not a hopeful. There is no hope to be found in a raspberry jam jar and electric lights, but there is a world of hope found in the soul of a girl who stays awake though the stars aren’t to be seen. Hopefuls are not things I sell; they are the customers I sell to – the rare sorts of souls who keep the light on through dark nights for the people they love. My dear, don’t you see? This little lamp is not one of Mr. Harding’s Hopefuls. You are.”
Someday she hopes you will find her in England, where she will be drinking tea.