Behind the one-room schoolhouse you could find a little shack. Small hay bales served as benches and there were small windows for “look out”. A long nail stuck into the wall by the entrance served as a membership height measuring tool. For indeed, this was a clubhouse. It was an Elf hut. Not just any club mind you. It was The Elves Of All Seasons. A name Stella had come up with.
She was the oldest one in the group. Although her blond curls bounced above the membership height limit of four feet, it was never mentioned. For she was the leader, and always had the queerest and dreamiest ideas. She dubbed herself the title of Ella, The Eldest Elf, though most of the children forgot to call her that. Ricky was next. At first his black hair made Stella hesitant to allow him to be an Elf, but she had come to admit that he often had a good idea or two as well. June slipped into the little shelter puffing from the run. Her brown hair was not as curly as Stella’s but her nose was, to put it in her own words, “Elfish enough”.
This half of the little gang was settled and warming their hands when Freddy tumbled in. He had in his hand a small bun, which he was munching on. Freddy was always eating. You would probably think he was the least “Elfish” of all, but they wouldn’t think of doing things without him. He settled his round little body on a bale and kicked his boots together. “Thelma was right behind me,” he told the others before taking another bite of his roll.
There she was, stepping carefully through the snow. Her little braids sticking out of her hat like two blond blossoms. There was only one person missing. The smallest Elf.
Toby was always late. Not from carelessness, for this group was dear to his unproportionately large heart. He was slow because of the childish wonder that he had for everything around him. It accompanied him wherever he went and consumed much of his time. He was usually the first to find the newest buds in March. He loved to catch snowflakes on his dark gloves and look closely at them, holding his breath so it wouldn’t melt the delicate wonder he held.
The children heard his soft footsteps as he patted around the schoolhouse to the small shelter. Thelma tried to straighten her thick dress over her lap like the two older girls did in anticipation for the meeting to begin. “Hi Toby,” she smiled sweetly. He waved to her as he sat down and looked towards Stella. You could tell he knew he was late again.
Stella gave him a wink. “I call the Elves to order.” Her voice was clear and cheerful. “Who knows that our own beloved teacher has a birthday in two days?” Five mittened hands were raised. “Good. Now, what is to be done?”
Ricky’s voice immediately piped up, “Could we could get her a puppy?”
June wrinkled her little “elvish” nose, “I think she’d rather have a kitten.”
Thelma rolled her blue eyes, “Ricky said that because he wants a puppy.”
Stella nodded wisely, “Miss Daily deserves more.”
Ricky looked hurt, “More than a puppy??..... TWO puppies!!”
Freddy liked his lips, “Something she’ll like. Maybe...chocolate!”
June thought for a moment and then sat up taller, “How much does chocolate cost?”
They were all quiet.
Stella stood up. “Do The Elves Of All Seasons agree that chocolate is the very best gift for our teacher?” All the children nodded their red and white capped heads. Stella smiled and pulled a quarter of a dollar from her pocket. The other children followed suit. Pulling out the little change they had brought along for just this moment. Toby slowly pulled out three pennies. All the money he had in the world.
Five hopeful faces were turned on the eldest Elf as she slowly counted it out.
“Eighty-seven cents,” she announced.
Thelma and Toby’s eyes were wide with wonder and even Ricky smiled in satisfaction. Only Stella looked worried, “I don’t know how much it will cost.” They all thought for a moment before June suggested that they meet up the next day after one of them had checked just how expensive the chocolate would be.
Toby lived almost directly across the street from the little candy shop, so it was decided that he would be the one to go ask. They made their way to their separate homes after again taking the Elf pledge. They agreed they would speak to no one of the gift and ask no one for money. It needed to be completely from them.
After dinner Toby slowly made his way to the nearby shop. He stepped through the door and looked up to watch the small bells tinkle together in greeting. The man behind the counter looked up from his book as another customer came to the counter.
Toby stomped his brown boots on the rug and let the warmth of the shop thaw his cold fingers and nose. He smelled the caramel, mint, and cocoa that deliciously filled the room. Toby looked around the shop while waiting for the other customers to be finished with their orders, but he didn’t only see the candy. The windows were decorated with little wooden snowmen and hearts. Up in the top corner of the frosty window was a single wooden star. It had been well carved and was a deep red chestnut color.
The little bell on the door jingled again as an old man and a little girl left. Her cheeks were stuffed like a squirrel’s, with goodies. Toby turned and started towards the counter.
“What can I get for you littl’ one?” the candy man asked in a jolly way, making it sound to Toby’s young ears like all he had to do was ask and the whole shop might be his.
“I jes had a question,” Toby said trying to look over the high counter at the sacks of delicious treats. His mouth watered. “How much is chocolate?”
“Well, what kind of chocolate?” The man twirled one side of his old fashioned mustache. “We have white chocolate, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, chocolate with nuts, chocolate with fruit…”
Toby’s small mind spun with all the options. “What’s the one for eighty-seven cents?”
“Hm, a specific amount, let me think,” the tall man straightened his white apron. “Well son, we have peppermint sticks, caramels, and licorice for ten cents, twenty cents, and fifty cents, but I’m afraid the cheapest chocolate we have is one dollar.”
Toby listened closely and thanked the candy man politely before leaving the shop. He looked up at the window from the outside, and again found the red-wood star. He waved at it and then crossed the little street to his home. He had some thinking to do.
The next day the wind blew in its deep apologies for the untruth it had hinted at the day before about an early spring. The clouds rolled in and the farmers frowned disappointedly, before going back inside to read.
The Elves Of All Seasons bundled up tighter and hurried to their hut. Freddy’s ears stuck out of his red hat as he settled down on the hay with a raisin cookie. Stella, of course, had arrived first, and greeted him cheerfully. Ricky and Thelma hurried in with June right behind them. As always, Toby was last. The children didn’t mind. It was expected and accepted. It was the way of the youngest member.
Stella called them to order, “What’d you find Toby?”
He looked up thoughtfully and cleared his throat, “It’s too much money.”
Freddy gave a disappointed sigh, “Too bad.”
June leaned back on the hay rubbing her hands together, “What should we do Stella?”
Stella rubbed her chin.
Ricky piped up quickly, “We could get her a….puppy?”
Freddy rolled his eyes.
Thelma looked like she was near tears, “We have to get her something!”
June leaned on the hay and bit her finger.
Toby looked down at his boots. You could tell he felt like it was his fault that they couldn’t afford the gift. He’d had to be the bearer of bad news. Ricky sighed and sank off his seat to the ground. They were quiet. Freddy sniffed sadly, almost like a sob.
Stella’s head jerked up again, “It’s alright Freddy. We’ll think of something.” There was another long pause as they all listened to the wind. “Okay,” she began. Snapping her fingers, “We have until...the day after tomorrow.”
“I have an idea,” June said slowly. “I know how to knit socks! Mama just taught me this winter. I could make that for her!”
Instantly Freddy piped up, “We all want to give her something!”
Ricky and Thelma nodded hard. Toby looked out the little doorway at the falling flakes of wonder. Stella jumped up, “That’s it June! Let’s all get her something small and then put all the gifts in a...a basket or something!”
The children cheered with relief. It was determined that they would meet the next night just to be sure that everything went according to plan.
“Are we still leaving it on her doorstep in the morning, and knocking before we run away?” Ricky asked, finally eager again. That had been his idea in the first place and he hoped it hadn’t been forgotten.
The vote on that was unanimous. They loved the idea. It was a wonderful plan, and most Elf like!
The children called their goodbyes to each other and hurried home - all but Toby. Darkness fell and still he sat in the hut for a while longer, thinking. He had no idea what to get his teacher.
As he walked home the clouds broke momentarily and he could see a few bright stars suspended magically in the darkness. “If only I could get her one of those,” he whispered.
“What’s the matter Toe?” That sentence alone made him feel a little better. He dearly loved his mother. Her voice was sure and sweet as she asked the question. He came away from the window, and crawled up on the couch where she was bundled up. The book she’d been been reading, rested on the floor beside the fireplace.
“Mama?” he began, “I don’ know what to get Miss Daily fer her birthday. And it’s real impor’ant.”
Mama had listened with attentive eyes, “Well Toby, it doesn’t matter so much what you get her, as long as it’s from your heart.” She smiled at him, “I know you’ll come up with something good.”
The little boy tried to feel better. The encouragement helped.
“Now, my little one,” Mama said kissing the hair on his forehead, “it’s time for bed. Run tell Papa goodnight.”
The next morning, he rose early and bundled up. He looked out the front window for a long time watching the few people stroll here and there. Then he quietly opened the door and stepped outside. Only a few stray flakes were falling in the cold morning air. He pushed his foot into the snow, and decided to go see what gift Ricky was getting.
Ricky was stumbling down his front steps. His unbuttoned coat flapped at his sides as he ran.
“Hi Ricky! Where ya goin’?”
“Don’t you know Toby? I’m getting Miss Daily’s present!”
“What are you getting?”
“I’m getting some beeswax so mama can help me make a fresh new candle!” Ricky dashed off towards the general store. His few coins jingling in his pants pocket.
Toby watched him go with a little sigh. He wanted to have something for Teacher too! After thinking, walking, and more thinking, Toby decided to visit Freddy.
Soon, he was running his fingers over Freddy’s gift - six fat, bright oranges. “Good job Freddy,” he told him, still not getting any ideas. He shoved his hands deep into his pockets and wandered back onto the little street.
A few hours later he found himself at Thelma’s house. He peeked in the door to see what she was getting.
“She just headed out dear,” Thelma’s mother said kindly, in response to Toby’s question.
He followed the path she had pointed out towards the woods and soon found her. “Hi Thelma. What are you getting for teacher?”
“Shh. I’m looking.”
Toby watched her curiously, but she continued to search the snow covered ground under the pines. She pushed aside dead branches and then suddenly jumped forward. As she stood back up, Toby saw what she held gently in her hands. It was a pinecone. A perfect pinecone. The brown points fanned out beautifully and were dusted with a soft coating of snow.
“The snow looks pretty on there,” Toby said touching it carefully. “Hey! Thanks Thelma!” and he bounced away. Thelma stared after him in confusion, then shrugged.
Toby had found a gift. Who didn’t love snow? He looked around for a perfect patch of untouched snow. It took a few minutes until he found one that he condescended to use. “It has to be perfect,” the trees heard him whisper.
He looked at the spot for a long time watching the sun glint off the white flakes. Then he knelt down and carefully scooped the best of the snow into a ball. He worked the sides and made it as round as he could. If he held it right it sparkled in the sun! If he squinted, it almost seemed like it was twinkling. It was the closest thing he could get to a star. Smiling in satisfaction he stood and hurried to find Stella.
“Toby dear!” Stella laughed sweetly, pausing in her work and pulling off the thick oven mitts. “You can’t give her a snowball.”
His face fell.
“It’ll melt Toby,” she said more quietly. “Try an’ find something she can keep.”
He looked closely at the pure white ball that he’d thought was perfect. In the warm kitchen, it was already beginning to melt. Softer and softer, until it began to drip. One tear followed its example and fell silently onto his coat. He quickly wiped it away. “Okay, I’ll find some’tin else.”
“Here, maybe this will cheer you up.” Stella handed him a big fresh cookie. “That’s what I’m making for Teacher.”
“Thanks Stella,” he smiled, taking his snowball back outside before it made a puddle on the floor.
He buried it mournfully outside, under a small rise of snow. Munching on the cookie, he decided to make his way to June’s, even though he already knew what she was going to make. The sun was setting by the time Toby was headed back home from an unsuccessful visit with June. This time of day there were often funny shadows on the streets and walls from the light steaming low over the town. Toby’s Papa would often lift him high onto his shoulders to see the pink and purple lights that painted the blue sky, just before night fell.
Toby kicked at the snow in frustration. They would deliver the basket early in the morning and he still had nothing. He passed the tailor, the general store, and the candy shop. He looked up into the window. The candy man was closing up for the night. He waved, and as Toby waved back, he suddenly had an idea. He stopped before the window and thought for a long time. He gathered up his courage and straightened his hat, before stepping slowly into the shop.
“Hey Mister,” he began nervously. “Can I earn that wooden star in the window?”
The man laughed good naturedly, “That one? Well, I suppose you can! If you want it.”
“Oh! I do!”
The man twirled his mustache around his finger. “I'll make you a deal. How about you help me out here in the shop for a day, and the star can be yours.”
Toby thought hard and then proposed an amendment. “How ‘bout I work for two days. If‘n I can have the star right now.”
The man nodded his head, his eyes twinkling. “I'd say you got yourself a deal young man.” He reached over the counter and shook Toby’s hand solemnly. The little boy was uncharacteristically giddy with excitement as the man reached up and gently removed the star from the high corner of the window. Toby clutched it tightly to his chest, the whole way to Stella’s.
The basket was ready. On a fresh red cloth there were a pair of soft new socks, a small sack of fresh cookies, a tall, white candle, a few shiny oranges, and a sturdy yet beautiful pinecone, tied with a red bow. Toby sighed happily as he nestled his cherry wood star in on the bright yarn socks. He had gotten Teacher a gift! It was completely from him and it had all his love in it.
“It’s perfect Toby!” Stella breathed happily.
Toby agreed. “Who doesn’t love stars?”