Here's my longest short story. I wrote it last year during the holidays, and of course it's Christmas-themed.
With a crash that echoed across the streets of London, the ball shattered the lower-level window of the toy maker’s house. Shards of ancient glass burst into the house like a flurry of snow. Then all was silent, save for the steady howl of the winter wind.
Luke stood stiffly, immobilized on the ground. Peter and Duncan stood silently behind him, their faces white from the chill weather. The window belonged to the house of a toymaker, but not just any toymaker—this toymaker was a disfigured cripple who was a regular villain in the wild tales of the local children.
Duncan was the first to speak.
“Well, you did it this time, Luke. Wait till I tell the gang about this one.”
Luke remained motionless, his thirteen year-old frame frozen like a statue.
“We don’t have all day.” Duncan said sarcastically, “I mean, you’re not scared, right?”
Luke’s eyes were still focused on the shattered window.
“I’m not scared.” He muttered.
“Don’t sound too sure.” Duncan teased.
Luke turned to face him.
“Oh, come on, leave a chap alone.”
Duncan remained persistent.
“Well, that ball is your birthday present. Can’t really just leave something like that, can you?”
Luke rolled his eyes at Duncan’s determined prodding.
“Fine.” He said. “I’ll get it. Watch.”
The cautious Peter—who had remained silent up to this time—began to speak.
“I’m telling you Luke, the fellow in there is all wrong up here.” He tapped his head. “He probably wouldn’t hesitate to hang you alive. No one with one leg and a face like a bloodthirsty Hun is going to let you get off easy for something like that.”
Luke shuddered. “He can’t be that bad.”
Peter continued. “My brother tells me he’s a convict or something. I heard he threatened to skin Bobby Garth alive!”
“Bobby Garth is nothing but a lying fool, and you know it!”
Duncan interrupted. “Just go in there, Luke. Nothing to be frightened of but an old man who looks more like the hunchback of Notre Dame than a regular person.”
Luke clenched his teeth and cautiously approached the window frame. His friends remained rooted to the ground behind him. He knew they were scared—but he wasn’t.
The basement of the toyshop was musty. Puddles of water had gathered on the sloppy mud floor, and massive cobwebs hung from the ceiling like snares. A badly damaged dollhouse lay in a puddle on the floor. Luke shivered at the thought of all the foul creatures that probably made their homes in it. Off to one side was a rotted table with several mangled chairs sitting around it—probably where the madman eats his meals, Luke thought to himself.
The ball was nowhere in sight. Glass crunched under Luke’s shoes as he walked further into the gloom. Then he saw it—the ball was sandwiched between two broken nutcracker men. Luke breathed a sigh of relief and stooped to pick it up. He turned about and began to make a fast exit.
Luke whirled about. The unseemly form of the toymaker was outlined in the far doorway.
“It haven’t had a visitor in long, long time.” The toymaker mused.
Luke imagined the evil intent in those words. Sweat broke out on his forehead. His hands began to shake and in his anxiety he dropped the ball.
“Why don’t you come in and have some tea?” The toymaker asked pleasantly. That’s how they do it in all the books. Luke thought. Tempt you in with sweet words and then pounce on you. Luke knew he had no choice. He swallowed and inched along the muddy floor toward the toymaker.
The room the toymaker led Luke into was quite breathtaking. Dozens upon dozens of brightly painted toys adorned its shelves—the place seemed to be alive, full of joy and merriment. Rows of cars, soldiers, dolls, horses, trains, and houses stretched in seemingly endless numbers. Luke was dumbfounded. This was definitely not the gloomy lair he had thought the toymaker kept.
“I…didn’t know you made these…”
The toymaker chuckled. “Well, what did you think I made?”
“I—I don’t know.”
“Here,” the toymaker said, holding a teacup, “have a bit of this. Warms you up like nothing else.”
Luke carefully put out his hands and took the teacup.
The toymaker was badly misshapen. His left eye was half-shut, and his mouth was twisted upwards on one side in a bizarre grin. His hands were yellow, and one of his legs was missing from the knee upward, causing him to hobble with an awkward limp. Luke saw that the toymaker was probably in his thirties, though with his deformities he looked much older. Luke knew why—it was the Great War. His own father had gone off to fight four years ago, and Luke had never seen him since. They had received the occasional message, but nothing else.
Luke sipped the tea.
“Like it?” The toymaker asked.
The toymaker coughed violently and continued.
“My name’s Stephen. I’m a toymaker, as you can see, though some of the other little folk around the neighborhood seem to think otherwise.” His eyes twinkled. “And who might you be?”
“I’m Luke—Luke Northrop,” Luke said carefully, “I’m thirteen. I live across from here.”
Stephen grunted in comprehension and began to idly examine his toys.
“What do you think of these?” He asked, still staring at the shelves.
Stephen lifted an exquisitely detailed fire engine and fondly stroked its shiny black wheels.
“So…you like them?”
“Of course.” Luke said. Now that he was able to look at them more thoroughly, he saw that they weren’t just good—they were excellent, each soldier and animal carved and painted with a loving and careful hand.
Stephen broke into a wide grin that twisted his unsightly face even more.
“Good, good.” He said. “It’s been a very long time since anyone has said a thing like that to me. It makes me happy.”
Luke watched Stephen place the fire engine back onto the shelf. He ventured a question.
“What do you do with these—these toys?”
Stephen began to chuckle and instantly broke into a new coughing fit. After he had recovered he answered Luke.
“Why, I sell them. There are many boys and girls in London who want toys. I sometimes have people come to pick up whole boxes of them. And now that Christmas is only five days away, I’m even more busy than usual.”
Luke reached over and touched one of the toy figures. It was a small mailman, complete with his brown bag.
“Oh, that,” Stephen said, “You can keep him if you want.”
Luke could hear the calls of his friends from outside.
“I’d best be going. My mum will be wondering where I’ve gone to.”
“So soon?” Stephen looked crestfallen. “Well, whatever. Stop in here whenever you want. I might need some help, now that Christmas is coming. Besides,” he stared at his shelves of toys, “I have nothing to keep me company save these.”
As Luke left the humble abode of Stephen and faced the cold elements once more, he looked at the small postman he still clutched in his hand. The little plump man stared up at him, as if he was trying to say something but couldn’t. Luke shoved him into his coat pocket and turned toward his home.
Maybe he would visit Stephen again.
* * *
The next day, directly after school, Luke trekked down the narrow streets of his dirty neighborhood, back to see Stephen. His friends were persistent in their teasing.
“Are you seriously going back there?” Asked Duncan. “I mean, are you out of your mind? That fellow is strange, I tell you. Better leave him to himself.”
“He doesn’t have any friends.” Luke retorted.
“Well, I’m not surprised. If you looked like you’d come right out of a horror tale you might not either.”
Luke drew in a deep breath of cold air. It helped to stifle his angry feelings.
“Listen.” He said. “I just want to get to know the fellow—there’s no harm in that, is there?”
“I suppose not.” Peter chimed in. “But you wouldn’t catch me hanging around that house.”
Luke abruptly left them and hurried down the thin strip of muddy pavement that served as the road to the toymaker’s. The snobbish gibes of his friends were swallowed up in the cold mist of December.
Luke entered Stephen’s shop through the correct entrance this time. Stephen was bent over a table in the colorful toy room, busy at something Luke couldn’t see. He turned when Luke entered.
“Ah, I see you’ve come back. Bored of the mailman? I have a new Doctor if you want him.”
Luke was still taking in the grandiose array of playthings—it was still almost too much for a boy to imagine.
“It’s fine, you can keep him.” Luke mumbled.
“Would you like to learn a few tricks of the trade?”
Luke didn’t particularly care to—he would have preferred to stay at the shelves—but there was no harm in trying.
“Sure.” He said.
Walking over toward the hunchbacked form of the toymaker, Luke saw he was busily at work on a small toy manger. It wasn’t a particularly attractive toy. The framework was carved rather roughly, and the only accessories were a small ladder and a feed trough. Miniature shepherds and animals were scattered about. Luke noticed that the one thing that didn’t appear twisted on Stephen were his hands. Other than their pale yellow color, they seemed surprisingly lithe and strong, well built for their delicate task.
“Do you know what this is?” Stephen asked. He held out a small tool that looked like a screwdriver.
“Very good. Have you ever used one before?”
“No.” Luke said. “But I’ve seen people use them.”
“Well after today you can say that you’ve used one.”
He handed the tool to Luke.
“What do you think it’s used for?”
“To shape the edges of the wood, I guess?”
“Right again. Watch.”
Stephen grabbed another nearby chisel and began to coax it on the corners of a board. Shavings of wood were pushed and bent, and finally fluttered to the floor like feathers.
“Now you try it. Push your whole weight into it.”
It was slow going at first. Try hard as he might, all Luke was rewarded with was a bruised finger. But with Stephen’s careful instruction, he began to make progress. After a half and hour, Luke had managed to carve the edges of an entire board.
“Excellent. I can already see you becoming a master.”
“Now what can I learn?”
Stephen looked at him, smiling. In spite of his deformed face, Luke could detect a hint of humor.
“One cannot master the chisel in a half of an hour. You must practice. Practice. Practice. That is the key to making good toys.”
So while Stephen went back to work on his manger, Luke was stuck at a table chiseling old wood. He watched the first flakes of snow fall on the streets outside, and saw the puddles splash as boys ran by. He longed to be out in the city again, playing with friends. Several times he was tempted to put down the difficult chisel and leave, but each time he remembered Stephen’s word, practice. Luke grimaced as the edge of the sharp chisel sliced his finger just below the nail. He sucked at the wound and continued to carve. After he had completed the edges of three more boards he took a deep breath and stepped back. Stephen walked over to inspect Luke’s handiwork.
“Very good, very good.” Stephen said. “But these edges—they are too rough, see? Children would get splinters. Go over them again. Then they will be smooth.”
Luke sighed in disappointment. All along he had thought he had been doing well. This crippled man was trying to drive him insane.
Nevertheless, Luke continued to carve. He went over every place he had missed, smoothing the rough edges of the boards. Try as he might, he could not handle the chisel with the same light ease as Stephen. He could hear the laughter of people coming from outside. As the afternoon grew into evening, the shadows grew longer. The bells of a nearby church struck five.
“I need to go.”
Stephen walked over to see Luke’s boards.
“See, now they’re smooth, the way they should be.” He coughed. “You can go now. Good job. Maybe tomorrow you can learn more, eh?”
Luke left the toymaker’s shack. He wondered why Stephen coughed. It was probably the War. He had heard they used gas in the frontlines, and that if it was inhaled one could get very sick and even die. He wished he could ask Stephen what the War was like, but he knew better than to ask such a question. Some things were better left silent.
* * *
The next day Luke returned to Stephen’s house. Stephen was still working with careful precision on the manger.
“There you are. Ready for more?” He coughed several times, his entire crooked frame shaking with the exertion.
Stephen instructed him on more of the uses of the chisel. Luke learned to twist the tool to form more complex grooves and notches, round the edges of any piece of wood. Stephen was impressed with his progress, and Luke eventually learned the art of cutting with a saw. It looked deceptively simple, but it took a great amount of concentration and dexterity to make a clean cut. The toymaker held the edge of the saw at first, but after a few tries Luke decided he could do it on his own. It took a good half hour, but by four o’clock Luke had cut a half a dozen boards in two.
“You learn fast, Lad.” Stephen said. “Just like my son.”
“You have a son?” Luke asked.
Stephen’s eyes wandered to the window where a shaft of sunlight was streaming in.
“Yes. I did, anyways. But he doesn’t live with me anymore.”
The toymaker looked very sad, and very old. Much older than he really was. Luke felt a pang of pity for him.
“Now you will learn to paint.” Said Stephen resolutely.
Painting seemed refreshing after the tedious work with the chisels and the saws. But Luke soon found out differently—it was even more difficult to paint than to handle tools. Between judging the thickness of a coat of paint, avoiding making handprints on the painted object, and catching the dozens of runs and drips that criss-crossed a painted surface like a million mischievous rivers, Luke was hard-pressed to finish. He managed to apply a shaky coat of red and blue to a roughly-hewn boat Stephen had given him, but at the end the red was barely distinguishable from the blue because of the thick, sagging coat. Stephen examined it with his usual meticulous eye.
“It’s good for a first, but you need to learn to avoid drips. Tomorrow we will go over drips.”
* * *
That night at the dinner table Luke sat around the table with his three brothers and his mother as she read a letter from their Dad. It had something to do with a new offensive against the Germans. As long as Dad was safe, Luke didn’t pay much attention to the War, though he never went a day without hearing something about it. After his mother read the letter she folded it back into the envelope and placed it in a pile with all the other letters.
“When do you think they’ll defeat the Huns?” Asked Geoffrey, the oldest of the family.
“When they bloody beat ‘em all back into the mud where they came from.” Exclaimed Harry, the second oldest. “That’s how I see it, anyway.”
His mother turned on Harry.
“Oh Harry, you and you’re nonsense.”
“Well, it’s true, mum. That’s the only way this crazy thing will end.”
Andrew, who was closest in age to Luke, abruptly turned on him like a rabid beast.
“What do you think, Luke? Don’t tell me you’re a pacifist.”
Luke shrugged. “I don’t really care. If Dad’s alright, I don’t worry about it.”
Andrew shook his head and laughed. He suddenly grew serious again.
“I say, Luke, I remember hearing from Duncan today that you were friends with the old decrepit man across the street. Is it true?”
Luke stared down at his plate.
“Oh, come on Luke. I mean, are you really making friends with that ugly old bloke?”
Without a word Luke excused himself from the table and went into his bedroom. He curled into his small bed, and before his head had hit the pillow he was dreaming of chisels and toys….
* * *
As Luke was on his usual route to Stephen’s house he ran into Duncan and Peter.
“I say,” said the disagreeable Duncan quite loudly, “are you going to see that old man again, Luke?”
Luke decided to answer without dodging the issue.
“Because Pete and I here are starting to think you’ve gone off the deep end, that’s why. No one in their right mind would visit him.”
“Listen,” Luke said, “that man is all bent and crippled because he was fighting for you.”
“You mean the war?” Peter asked.
“Yes I mean the War! What did you think I meant?” Luke threw his arms out in exasperation.
“Fine.” Duncan said. “You don’t need to get so touchy about it.”
Luke walked away from his friends.
“Hey, listen Luke.” Duncan called. “It’s almost Christmas. Why don’t you do what every other sane chap around here does and have some fun?”
Luke considered the question. Duncan sounded convincing. Why was he ruining a good time of year by visiting a crippled veteran who made toys? Besides, Stephen probably didn’t want a bumbling thirteen-year-old boy hanging around his shop.
Luke ran in the opposite direction to catch up with his friends.
* * *
It was the day before Christmas Eve. Luke felt sick. He was regretting every moment he hadn’t spent the day before with Stephen. Instead of keeping the poor man company, he had gone off to play games with friends.
He bit his lip and entered the toymaker’s shop.
The first thing he noticed was that Stephen wasn’t working at the tables. That was odd. Then Luke heard a muffled cough come from one of the rear rooms.
Stephen was in the room. He was resting on a dingy cot, a bloody handkerchief lying on the floor beside him.
“Luke,” he said in a raspy voice, “I—didn’t think you’d come back. I thought—you might have grown bored of the toys…”
Luke felt miserable. He had deserted his sickly friend and now the crippled toymaker was horribly ill. Stephen’s deformed face looked ghastly in the light of the window.
“You can keep working, if you want to. The manger. It’s almost finished…”
Luke left the room. He tried to work, but with each stroke of a brush or strike of a hammer he felt more and more dreadful. The workshop was a cold prison. He was being suffocated. He couldn’t stand it any longer.
He went straight home.
* * *
It was noontime when Luke decided to go back to the toyshop. The joyful melodies of carolers and the warm jingle of bells filled the crisp air. Everything was remarkably cheery, enraptured with the merrymaking and laughter of Christmas Eve. Everything, that is, except for him. He trudged along slowly toward Stephen’s shop.
He knew something was wrong when he saw a gentleman in a black coat nailing a dirty sign to the toymaker’s front door.
“Excuse me,” Luke said to the man, “What are you doing?”
The man turned around. The folds of his great black coat swirled in the winter air like a dark phantom.
“What am I doing? I am closing this wretched place up, that’s what I’m doing.”
The words rang in Luke’s ears like a thunderbolt. He hazarded another question.
“What happened to Stephen—the toymaker.”
“You mean the fellow who lived here? Dead. Most likely the gas from the War, I heard. Now get going. No sense spoiling a good holiday with rotten news.”
Luke couldn’t believe it. Stephen was dead. On Christmas Eve of all days.
Bitter tears fell down Luke’s cheeks. He wrapped his cloak about him and stalked off. This was going to be the worst Christmas of his life.
Then he saw it. A curious parcel lying near the window he had shattered just a few days ago. Upon examining it, he found a note written on the top. It read:
For Luke. Take care of this. Bring it to my son. It was intended for him. Have a merry Christmas. –Stephen
Below the note was a London address, obviously where Stephen’s son lived. Luke lifted the parcel. It felt very solid, not brittle or frail. Wiping the cold tears from his eyes, he walked home.
* * *
Luke had been too heartbroken to bother opening the package. It had sat in a corner of his room all day long while he half-heartedly engaged in games with friends.
“Not at the toymaker’s today?” Duncan asked.
“No.” Luke replied sourly.
When he had come home later that evening, his mother was knitting near their humble Christmas tree and his brothers were playing cards. Luke went up to his room.
He immediately noticed the parcel from the toymaker’s. It had slipped his mind as he was playing during the day.
With a tired sigh he opened it up. He gasped as he saw what was inside. The little manger Stephen had been so busy with. It was complete. Each individual figure had been painstakingly carved and painted. The animals had a rough texture, just as one pictured them. The people—Mary and Joseph, the Shepherds and the Wise Men—appeared lifelike with their detail. And the Christ Baby. It was wrapped in carefully formed swaddling clothes, humble yet somehow more magnificent than any of the other carvings.
As Luke stared in awe at an object of such singular beauty, he remembered his task. He must bring this to Stephen’s son. It would be his final task for the Toymaker.
* * *
Luke left the parcel at the front doorstep of the house, then rapped lightly on the door. He made his way back, carefully avoiding puddles of mud sitting in the road, waiting to spatter unwary wanderers with specks of London mud. When he reached the far side of the street he turned back. The house was rather bedraggled, as befitted most homes in the area. It was unlit. He sighed. His icy breath was carried in the December wind, like fog in a storm. With a shrug he turned away.
Then he heard it. A door being timidly opened. With quiet reluctance Luke turned to look. On the doorstep stood a small boy. He had a bright shock of red hair, and was of a slight build. The boy stopped to glance about. He looked confused. He was confused. Luke was tempted to say something, but decided against it. The boy then noticed the parcel. After a moment’s hesitation, he lifted it up. He stared at it in surprise.
Then he went in.
Luke continued to stare. This must have been the toymaker’s son. He began to trudge home. A listless carriage rolled past, like a worn out reindeer, too old to continue it’s work. The sun was almost gone. Luke breathed deeply. A warmth stole over him. He thought of Stephen. The manger. The shop. The boy. The warm fire that was waiting for him. The sound of bells from a distant church could be heard. Carols echoed along the streets. A small bird twittered above him, as if it also was sharing his warmth.
Maybe it would be good Christmas, after all.
Redeeming the time
2 years ago