Once upon a time a strong and healthy young man went off to a war. He went because he felt it was his duty, leaving behind the farm that he loved and the orchards of trees he had cultivated with care since he was a little boy. He was gone a very long time. Very, very long. Many things happened in the war, stories of terror and courage, stories of boredom and cowardice, stories of pain and loss and love, but those stories, though lived, were never told, at least not in full. After many, many stories, the man came home, but he was no longer strong, no longer healthy, no longer young. Now his legs were crooked so that walking was difficult, his back was bent so that pain was a constant companion, and his face was scarred so that friends and family alike looked upon him as a stranger. Only his hands were still whole and unblemished, so he left the farm he still loved but could no longer care for and moved into a little house in the village, where he set about making toys to sell for his supper.
Once upon a time four dolls sat on a wooden shelf in a shabby little toy shop. Each one had a lovely face, for they had been carefully carved by the toymaker; and each one had a colorful dress, created from the toymaker’s memories of the fashionable gowns of far off cities; and each one had beautiful golden curls, lovingly glued into place by the toymaker’s own hand.
Each one also had two crooked legs that wouldn’t allow them to stand up properly, but they did not realize this yet as they had been sitting on the same wooden shelf their entire lives.
Life was comfortable inside the toy shop. A fire on the hearth kept things cozy in winter, and breezes through the open windows brought cool air in summer. The roof never leaked on the dolls’ heads and the sun never shone too brightly in their beautiful painted eyes. Often there were lovely smells of cooking foods and pleasant sounds of laughter and chat from visiting children. Indeed, the only unpleasant thing in the entire shop was the toymaker himself.
The four beautiful dolls were all quite afraid of the toymaker. He was old and hunchbacked and made a dreadful amount of noise shuffling around on his malformed legs. His voice was rough and his face was horribly ugly. Anytime he came near their shelf, the dolls shuddered, hoping that he would not take them down. Being held by the toymaker was too terrifying to think about. But he did not take them down. Indeed he hardly looked at them at all.
The day came, of course, when the dolls were sold. It was, after all, a toy shop, and dolls were not made to stay on a shelf forever.
The first doll was purchased by a fancy Buyer from the big city. He thought the doll’s face was exquisite and her dress simply charming, and though he noticed her crooked legs, he thought they could easily be overlooked since she had such lovely golden hair. He bought the doll at a bargain price and put her into his bag, dreaming of the large profit she would bring.
In the big city, however, though her face was still lovely and her hair was still golden and her dress was still glittering bright, her crooked legs seemed much harder to overlook. The Buyer placed the doll on a new shelf, made of glass this time, and hoped she would sell, if not for the price he originally planned. Many days went by and many girls came into the shop looking for dolls. Each one looked at the golden-haired doll and exclaimed at her beauty, but each one recoiled from her two crooked legs. They bought other dolls, less beautiful but more perfect, and the first doll was left sitting on her glass shelf gathering dust.
Over time the doll became quite cynical. Each time a new child came into the shop, she would roll her eyes and watch them pick out shiny new things without any flaws. “Of course they wouldn’t buy a toy that is broken,” she said, and her face, which had been lovely enough to distract from her legs became set in a smirk of disgust that made it quite unappealing. In her heart she was angry, angry at the children for not wanting her, angry at the Buyer for bringing her here, but most of all, angry at the toymaker for making her with crooked legs. “Surely someone who could carve such a lovely face and design such a beautiful dress could have made two straight legs,” she said to herself. “He was just a cruel old man to make me like this.”
Meanwhile, the second doll had been bought by a father to give to his little girl who was sick at home. He noticed her crooked legs and thought perhaps his daughter would like a sick dolly to nurse, as she herself was so often nursed by her mother. So he bought her and carried her home in his arms, thinking of the smile she would bring to his daughter’s face.
The little girl did smile when she saw the lovely doll, and though her smile faded upon seeing her poor crooked legs, she cradled her closer and promised to care for her each and every day. From then on, the second doll was waited on hand and foot. She was brought tea and toast. She was bathed every evening, and her lovely dress was washed and hung out to dry. She was wrapped tightly in blankets and placed on a soft pillow and given hugs and kisses beyond count.
At first, of course, all this was very wonderful for the doll. She loved the little girl with all her toy heart, and she felt so much love in return. After a while, however, the little girl got better, and though she still kept her doll wrapped tightly, she came less and less often to play with her “poor darling.” Once a friend asked to hold her, and the little girl answered that her doll was too crippled for ordinary play. The doll watched sadly as the two girls ran off, wishing with all her heart that she had two whole legs. She sighed to herself, thinking what a lonely lot it was to be a cripple, doomed forever to wait until the little girl returned to bed each night. “If only the toymaker had a little more skill and could have made my legs straight, how different my life would be!” she thought.
Meanwhile, the third doll was sold to a careless young girl with a great deal of money who saw her golden hair through the window and bought her instantly. She was delighted by the doll’s beautiful face and her shimmering dress, and she never even noticed her two crooked legs. She threw down her money, tucked the doll under her arm, and flounced out of the store as proud as could be of her new possession.
The girl and her doll were only halfway home when some other girls met them in the street. The girl showed off her doll, bragging of her painted face and hand-sewn gown, until the other girls, driven by jealousy, pointed out her crooked legs. They laughed unkindly and ran away, and the girl was filled with petulant rage. “What good are you?” she said, and she threw the doll into the gutter at the side of the road. The doll lay, with her face half in the mud and her dress torn and stained, day after day. The rain came and soaked her, turning her once golden hair into a matted brown mess. The cold came and froze her, and the paint on her face began to crack.
The third doll’s misery was complete. No one seemed to notice her there, half-buried in the mud, and there was no hope of her ever escaping the horrible weather as it changed day by day. She knew she belonged here. Where else should a crippled doll be but in the gutter? But still it was hard to bear the endless days. She wished the toymaker had never made her, for he must have known she was destined for this horrible life. “He made an awful mistake with me,” she said, “but I’m the only one who has to pay for it. It really isn’t fair.”
Meanwhile, the fourth doll was bought by a fresh-faced young nurse who worked in the hospital with children who had been injured. She saw the doll’s beauty and her two crooked legs and thought what a perfect friend she would be for her patients. The nurse quickly paid, put the doll in her bag, and hurried to the hospital with her new prize.
The doll proved to be wonderful medicine. Children who had broken their legs could trace the bend of the doll’s crookedness and take courage from her beautiful smile. Children who needed to have shots of medicine could bury their faces in her colorful dress while the needle went in. Children who awoke in the night from the pain of their injuries could whisper in her tiny ear all of their fears and be comforted by her loveliness.
The doll was as happy as she could be. The children came and went. She loved them all, and each one loved her in their way. Her days were long and she saw much pain and sadness, but she knew she was useful, and that filled up her heart. “I am so glad the toymaker gave me crooked legs,” she thought often, “for otherwise I would not have ended up here in this place where I clearly belong.”
One day the toymaker went to the door of his shop. “It’s time, I think,” he said. He put on his hat and his coat and he locked the door behind him.
Down the street he went without hesitation and around the corner to just the spot where something purple gleamed in the mud. He reached into the gutter and pulled out a doll. He put her in his pocket and went on down the road.
When he reached a house with a young woman working in the kitchen, he stepped up to the door and knocked politely. He exchanged a few words with the woman, who nodded and disappeared into the back. A moment later, she appeared and handed him an old doll wrapped tightly in a handkerchief. He thanked her and put the doll in another pocket.
It was a long journey to the big city, but the toymaker arrived just as the sun was setting. He went straight to the brightly lit store full of toys and bought one dusty doll from the highest glass shelf. The store owner gave him an excellent deal, and the toymaker put the doll into yet another pocket and turned toward home.
He was nearly at home when he passed by the hospital. For a few moments he paused and looked in the window at where a young boy was hugging a well-worn doll as the nurses lifted his crippled legs. “Not yet,” said the toymaker. “Not just yet.”
Back at the toy shop, the toymaker set the first doll on a wooden shelf where she sat glaring down at him. She was very, very angry, too angry to be afraid of him anymore. The toymaker smiled.
He unwrapped the second doll and put her on a table,where she stood leaning against the wall. She looked quite relieved to be free of her kerchief, but she sighed as she looked at her legs. “Soon,” said the toymaker.
Then he carried the third doll over to his workbench and set her in the circle of light cast by his lamp. Her poor chipped paint and torn dress and dirty hair and crooked legs brought tears to his eyes. So he sat on his bench and brought out his best tools, and the toymaker set to work.