THE SINGING CHAIR
Jafar was sitting on a work bench in the furniture factory.
Not sitting, exactly. Perching, like a little bird on the edge of a trash can, ready to take flight at the first sign of danger from a cat or a truck.
Or from the boss storming through looking for slackers.
As he rested his bony little body, Jafar stared into a sunbeam. It was only a second-hand sunbeam, one that bounced off the window of the coffin shop across the lane, but Jafar looked forward to it every day. It meant his workday, which began in Jakarta’s pre-dawn gray, was heading toward the end.
The second-hand sunbeam pushed through the factory gloom. It made the men and boys glow like angels as they bent over their work. The dust particles danced and sparkled in the air.
I’m in a gold factory, Jafar thought.
In the haze, the rows and rows of chairs looked like thrones meant for gods and goddesses, not just kings and queens. No wonder the workers were not allowed to sit on them.
“Don’t sit on the chairs!” Boss was always yelling at them. “The chairs are not for you and your filth.”
Jafar had to agree with Boss about that. All the boys and men in the factory were filthy. Even Boss, although he was not nearly as dirty as the rest of them.
One of Jafar’s jobs was to sweep. He swept the whole factory floor several times a day, but the dirt kept coming. Wood dust, wood shavings, grime from the sooty car and bus engines that blew in through the open wall that faced the street. The factory refused to stay clean while work was going on.
The dirt stuck to him, too. No matter how careful Jafar was with the glue and lacquer, drops always landed on his skin and clothes, and everything stuck to these drops. At the end of an especially busy day, when they rushed around to get their work done, sawing and sanding to fill orders, Jafar looked like some new kind of animal, with wood shavings for fur and soot-dust for skin. When he scratched his head with his glue-hands, the glue and wood dust made his hair stand up on the top of his head like many small ears.
“Quit daydreaming!” Boss yelled. He slapped the back of the boy’s head as he moved through the factory.
Jafar jumped. He felt a little guilty because he had been daydreaming. He was working, though, and quickly. He could work with his hands and still daydream in his head.
Jafar was sanding chairs today, the final sanding before the chairs would be loaded on a truck and taken away. His chairs would go on a journey and he would be left behind.
Who would sit on his chairs? Would it be a happy person or an angry person? Would someone sit on one of his chairs and give up on life? Would his chair be a place where a child learned arithmetic or where an old man sat to eat a meal? Would someone sit on one of his chairs to watch a sunbeam and keep watching as shadows grew and turned into night?
Jafar wanted to know, and he knew that he would never know.
These were not chairs that would be painted or polished. These were cheap chairs. They would be sold to people who still had to work hard and save long to buy them. The fancier chairs Jafar’s factory made were beyond those people, and the real carpenters worked on those. Boys like him worked on the cheaper ones.
Jafar didn’t care about not working on the fancy chairs. Work was work. Each day he worked brought him closer to paying off his family’s debt, closer to being able to keep the money he earned, closer to having a life where his belly was always full and he could take the time to find work in a place where the boss would not hit him.
“We would make perfect murderers,” said Sanu, who was a year older than Jafar but had only been at the factory for one year. Jafar had been there for three.
“What are you talking about?” Jafar asked.
Sanu held up his hands and wiggled his fingers.
“No fingerprints!” he said, laughing.
They could laugh now, but when Jafar first started sanding, his fingers got so sore and bloody!
“Get one more drop of blood on one of my chairs, you little cockroach, and I’ll send you back to your family in a garbage sack!” Boss had yelled at him.
One of the older boys had slipped Jafar a blood-stained rag.
“My fingers have healed,” he said. “You can have this now.”
“How much do I pay you?” Jafar asked.
The older boy shrugged. “Someone gave it to me. Pass it on to someone else when you’re done with it.”
The blood stayed off the chairs, Jafar was not sent home as garbage, and his fingertips grew tough and strong.
“No fingerprints. That’s a good one,” Jafar said to Sanu. “You should go tell the others. We could all be murderers!”
He laughed again, but he really needed Sanu to go to another part of the factory and leave him alone for a moment.
There was something he had to do, and he could not have any witnesses.
Sanu looked pleased with himself but made no effort to move.
“I’ll tell them later,” he said. “If I go over there now and tell them, they’ll think it came from you. They think all clever things come from you.”
Jafar looked at the rows of completed chairs. There were only a few left for him to sand. Then the whole lot would be loaded into a truck and driven away.
He could not miss his chance today! There would be other chairs and other chances, but he was ready today! Another day, he might not have the nerve.
Jafar decided to use an old trick. He started sanding viciously, really putting his muscles into making the chair leg smooth like milk, going at the bumps and slivers with all the strength of his bird-thin arms.
“What are you doing?” Sanu whispered. “The fellas have just got the boss used to the slower pace. You want the old quotas back? You want to keep working until midnight again?”
“I just feel like finishing up,” Jafar said, not slowing down one smidgen.
“Sweat by yourself, then,” Sanu said. He picked up the chair he was sanding and moved away to sit and sand more slowly with the others.
Jafar kept up his speed for a few minutes more until he heard the voice and stomp of Boss returning to the factory floor. He slowed his pace then, but kept the boss in his peripheral vision. He kept watch on everyone.
No one must guess his secret.
No one must guess that he went to school.
Boss had not told him he couldn’t go, but Jafar suspected he would if he knew about it. Boss said nasty things to workers who were smarter than he was. The other boys would make fun of him, too, if they knew. They would poke him and trip him and tell him he thought he was too good for them.
They gave him a hard enough time the day they caught him writing on a piece of scrap paper with a tiny stub of a pencil.
They grabbed his pencil and would not give it back. They tried to get his piece of paper, too, but he would not let them see what he was writing. He popped the paper in his mouth and chewed it and swallowed it. They did not get to see what he thought about the beggar on the corner, how her face looked like sunshine when she smiled. They did not get to know his private thoughts.
Anyway, he had written it clumsily. The words scrawled on the paper did not at all match the thoughts and feelings in his head.
His teacher at the school for working children read them poems. Poems told him feelings he didn’t know he had. Poems made his heart dance and his mind fly above the smoke and stench and sweat of the city.
How do writers do it? Jafar wondered for the millionth time.
Today, he had a whisper of an answer.
Today, he had completed his first poem.
He had worked on it for days, trying to find the words, the words that would say exactly what he wanted to say.
Today, the poem was done.
Six words that told the story of him.
Six words. Today, he had to grab the time and the privacy to write down his six words and send them off into the world.
Maybe someone would discover them. Maybe someone would discover them years from now when the smooth yellow-wood chairs were gray with age and dust, the smoothness battered with dents and scratches.
Jafar kept watch for his chance.
He saw his moment.
He took a nail from his pocket. He lowered himself to the floor, tipped over the chair he was sanding and scratched his six words into the underside of the seat.
With this chair
I am there.
Boss would not like the poem on the chair. He would see it as damage. He would certainly hit Jafar if he found it, and make him pay for the damage with months and months of labor.
But Jafar needed his poem to leave his head. He needed to see it written down, and when he did, it was more beautiful than all the stars and all the flowers and all the kittens that ever were.
Quickly he pocketed the nail again and stood the chair up on its legs. He placed it in the row with the others.
Astonished at his boldness, adrenaline dashing through him, he finished sanding his last chair and put it with the others, too.
“What are you standing around for?” Boss yelled at him. “You think those chairs are going to load themselves? Move!”
Jafar carried chair after chair into the truck. The chair with his poem on it looked like all the others. But to Jafar’s touch, it hummed and buzzed with life. His life.
The driver got into the truck and started the motor.
There was clean-up to do, sweeping and more sweeping. But Jafar leaned on his broom and watched.
He watched the truck with his chair and his poem move off down the street, passing the coffin shop the sunbeam had abandoned, merging with the motorbikes, taxis and people.
Somehow, amidst the honking horns, revving engines, hawking merchants and crying babies, Jafar heard something else. Something wonderful.
He heard his chair. It was singing.
With this chair
I am there.
It was the happiest day of his life.
By Deborah Ellis
The seated child. With a single powerful image, Deborah Ellis draws our attention to nine children and the situations they find themselves in, often through no fault of their own. In each story, a child makes a decision and takes action, be that a tiny gesture or a life-altering choice.