Once, long ago in an antique land, a toymaker, by nature a practical man, took it upon himself to fashion a doll, for his beloved daughter Anna.
But not just any doll; for this was to be special, a gift for his daughter, whom the toymaker loved more than all the stars in heaven.
You see, the toymaker, being a practical man, knew that he had sacrificed much to build a life in the small village where he and his daughter resided. He believed, moreover, that the years he spent building toys for the other children in the village had caused him, regretfully, to neglect his own. In truth however, the toymaker needn’t have worried, for Anna loved her Papa dearly, and wouldn’t have traded her life with him for all the gold in the land.
So the toymaker began his work, at night under the starry sky, so that Anna wouldn’t suspect her gift, and the toymaker wouldn’t interrupt his business, building toys for the merchants and princes, and for the travelers who occasionally visited his tiny shop.
Long he labored and carefully he crafted, setting the carvings just so, until at last he finished, and was able to cast a critical eye upon his creation.
“This won’t do at all,” thought the toymaker, turning the doll over in his hand. “The set of her jaw is slightly off, and I wish now I had chosen a lighter color, for her dress is entirely too dark.”
“I shall have to begin again,” he thought, “But I am too tired tonight. Perhaps in the morning, after I have rested, I will regain the clarity of purpose I require, for my gift to Anna must be perfect.”
And so the toymaker slept, scarcely noticing the cooling air, and gathering wind, so unusual in his village at this time of year.
When the toymaker awoke, a visitor was already waiting, next to the benches and tools in his tiny shop.
“Good morning,” said the visitor. “I am a traveler to your village, and could not help but notice this beautiful doll, lying near your window, with her delicate features and colorful dress. I don’t believe I’ve seen craftsmanship quite like this before.”
Surprised, the toymaker realized that, in his disappointment last night, he had forgotten to remove the doll to her usual drawer, to be placed under lock and key. Fortunately, Anna had not yet awoken, and thus had not the opportunity to discover her father’s plan.
“I am sorry,” replied the toymaker. “But this doll won’t do at all. It was to be a gift for my daughter, whom I love dearly, but who deserves better. It is not for sale. I intend to destroy it this evening.”
“Why should that be so?” asked the visitor, puzzled. “I can see that you are an honorable man, and also a devoted father. And it is true, as I look closer, that I perceive some slight imperfections, some subtle marks that, although almost imperceptible, would otherwise mar its near flawless finish. But is your doll truly beyond repair?”
“I may be able to offer some assistance,” continued the visitor. “It would be a shame, I think, for so much of your effort to have gone for naught.”
Being a practical man, the toymaker paused to consider this. It was true that he had expended much effort to create his doll, however imperfect, and it was also true, he realized, that he would be required to expend even more so besides.
What he did not know, however, was that the visitor knew all this, and more. For the visitor was no mere traveler; rather, he was a great magician, who had arrived on the winds the previous evening, having heard the toymaker’s sad lament.
“I can help make your doll perfect, and you’d not be required to spend much more time to make it so. All I require from you, my dear toymaker, is just one evening, and one promise.”
And the toymaker knew then with whom he spoke.
Now the toymaker was no fool, and although he had not dealt with magicians before, his kind was not unheard of, and he knew from experience the oftentimes high cost of knowledge cheaply earned.
“What is it, exactly, that you’d require of me?”
“Just this,” replied the magician, all magnanimity. “After you complete your creation, and after your daughter has delighted in her gift, you must give the doll away, to a complete stranger, within one year exactly, to the week.”
“And why should I do that?” inquired the toymaker.
“And why not?” replied the magician. “Ask not the ways of magic, or my own interests in this matter. Know only that I offer you my aid, and can help you fulfill your promise to Anna, who even now, I perceive, is beginning to wake, and will soon make her way to your shop, to greet you.”
And so, after a moment’s thought, the toymaker, being a practical man, accepted.
Later that evening, long after Anna had retired to her room, and longer still after the magician had left his shop, the toymaker crept to his workspace, and retrieved the doll. Next to the toy he found a small lidded jar, and a note, which read:
“My dear toymaker. The promise you have already paid. The evening, which you still owe, shall be paid thus: open the jar, and pour its contents on the doll, which shall be placed on the ground next to a ribbon, borrowed from your daughter and worn not more than three days past.” It was signed, simply, the magician.
“Well,” thought the toymaker, as he took the doll, and the ribbon, and the jar, outside, “There’s nothing more to it, I suppose.” And with that, the toymaker opened the jar, and seeing nothing within it that he could perceive, proceeded thereby to complete his part of the bargain.
Morning came early to the village, as was its custom, and the toymaker was anxious to see his handiwork.
He could scarcely believe his eyes.
The doll was a wonder. Where there was once imperfection, he now saw purpose. Where there was once hesitation, he now saw beauty. The doll, in fact, seemingly was possessed of an inner light, and the toymaker could do nothing but marvel.
“What is this, Papa?” Anna had woken from her slumber, and had made her way to the shop, to greet her father.
“It is a gift, my dear. For you.” The toymaker reached for the doll and, with just the merest hesitation, presented it to her.
“Oh, dear Papa! Thank you! Just look at her expression; she is so happy! And her dress; it is so beautiful! Truly, she is perfect.”
And she was perfect, thought the toymaker.
But time waits for no man, and the toymaker knew that he had much work to do, for the customers of his shop would soon be calling. So the days slowly passed, and the toymaker continued to labor.
And if he wished to have the doll near him, as he continued his work? Then what of it? The doll was his masterpiece. His customers knew it too, and offered him much praise for his skill and insight.
In fact, as word of his talent spread, so did his fame, and thus his business began to prosper. Soon his tiny shop was filled with toys and playthings, all fashioned for the merchants and princes, and of course, for the occasional traveler.
But alas, as with all good fortune, an ending was in sight. For a year had passed since the magician had visited, and the toymaker grew restless.
“I’d not want to part with my doll,” thought the toymaker. “It is true I made a bargain, and it is also true that the bargain was kept, but is it fair that my good fortune must also be forfeit?”
“And although I have of late kept the doll close to me, surely Anna must understand, for the doll is a wonder, and I’d not wish to leave its side for long.”
And just then, almost in response, the toymaker felt a cooling air, wafting through his shop. Turning around, he noticed an elderly woman, gingerly examining the wares on his shelf.
“I must not have seen her,” thought the toymaker, “when she crossed my doorway.”
“Pardon me, kind sir,” croaked the elderly woman, “I could not help but notice this lovely doll, as I looked through your window. I know that I am old, and am not so foolish to believe that such a toy was meant for me. But still. Something about her smile, and her bright dress, reminds me of something I once had. Of younger days, perhaps, when I laughed and played, and not yet had the cares that I now carry with me. Is it for sale?”
And the toymaker looked at the elderly woman, and decided that such a doll was indeed not for her, for she was too old, and too careworn, and would not appreciate its careful craftsmanship and subtle beauty.
“I am sorry,” replied the toymaker. And then he closed his shop, and retired for the evening.
The next morning, when the toymaker awoke, he found himself visited by yet another stranger, waiting for him in the early morning light. He perceived his visitor to be prosperous, for his coat was made of a fine linen, and his hat contained a shiny buckle.
“May I help you?” asked the toymaker.
“Indeed you can, my fine sir. I have always believed myself a good judge of quality, and I pride myself on fair dealing. I own many exquisite objects, from lands faraway and times long ago. But never have I seen a doll as delicately made as yours. I would buy it, and am prepared to pay handsomely for the privilege.”
“It is not for sale,” said the toymaker, with finality. “Not for all the gold in the land.”
And with that, the toymaker closed his shop for the day, and shuttered his window.
The next morning, the toymaker, with some trepidation, made his way to the front of his shop. He had slept fitfully the night before, for his dreams the previous evening had assailed him mercilessly. He dreamt of gold and loss and sorrow, and now, upon waking, found that his mood had suffered considerably. He had even forgotten to prepare the morning meal for his daughter, Anna, which if he had been bothered, would have disturbed him profoundly, for in all their years together he had never neglected her in this way, even when he had been building toys for the other children in the village.
He was also concerned that he might be accosted by yet another visitor, who would be interested in taking his doll from him.
What should have concerned him, however, was the day itself. For today was the day, one year exactly to the week, when he was last visited by the magician, and whose bargain was the source of both his happiness and current misery.
But no such customer was there. Instead, he spied a small street urchin, raggedly dressed, waiting patiently on his front doorstep.
“Are you lost, dear?” The toymaker appraised the girl, not uncritically. He sighed; such street children, although unfortunate, were not his business. And worse still, their presence hindered his commerce, by keeping customers from his shop.
“No, I am not lost. I know exactly where I am. You are the toymaker with the wondrous doll, whose fame has spread throughout the village. I know I am but a poor child, but I have no parents, and would love dearly just to hold your creation, if but for a moment. It would mean worlds to me.”
And thus did the toymaker finally arrive at a decision.
As the young girl left his doorstep, the toymaker paused a moment, and regarded his doll, now fastened with a child’s ribbon about its bright dress.
And then, after another moment, the toymaker returned to his workspace, sparing nary a thought for his beloved daughter Anna, who, if he had been bothered, was to be found not in her room, nor in his shop, nor even, under the starry sky and cooling air.