Cornelius Chaff noticed things. He could trace the unusual patterns made by the wind blowing over a great mound of snow; he could point out the differences between two colonies of ants, busy building their neighbouring hills; and he saw in the sunsets each delicate hue, unmatched in brilliance and variety. If anyone had noticed him, they would have said he had eyes as big as dinner plates, or as wide as two full moons, but nobody ever noticed him. Their eyes were open without seeing, their vision clear without the gift of clarity. Cornelius Chaff was special.
He didn’t say much. In fact, he didn’t say anything. He had lived in a house once where he was called the Quiet Boy, and everyone assumed he was unable to speak, so silent a life did he lead.
Speechless, but not thoughtless.
In his mind, Cornelius Chaff was the Poet Laureate of his age, which was eight. He was a composer of magnificent music that marvelled audiences so affectingly that they were left, to turn the phrase, dumbstruck. He was a painter of fine art, a sculptor in the tradition of ancient masters. He was, in sum, a genius.
But outside this safe space inside his own head people bellowed discouraging things. The man who paid him for lighting the lamps always looked angry and called him Sinecure as he dropped candles and matches and one loaf of bread into the boy’s open hands. The young lad didn’t know what the word meant, but the man’s tone said, “A waste of good grain and bad wax.”
He traded some of his matches for potatoes with the grocer’s wife, who said he was “filthy as sin itself” and wouldn’t let him play with the garden boy who was about his size. He was distrusted by everyone in daylight and ignored completely in shadow, as one might ignore an abandoned parcel sat off in a corner, or a bit of rubbish on the side of the road. He did not enter their thoughts.
Every evening at dusk he took to London’s cobbled streets with a mission to light the lamps from one end of the city to the other, replacing the candles, cleaning out ash and trimming wicks as each was in need. In every case he brought light into darkness and heat to the cold. Every small flame brightened his own heart and buoyed his spirits. He could shimmy up a lamppost like a squirrel up a tree and perch at the top without fear of falling. Cornelius Chaff loved those moments dearest, watching the people moving about from high above the street. It was from this perspective that he first saw Anna.
She was beautiful.
She wore a blossom-coloured dress and leaf-coloured gloves and a rather uneasy expression on her face. She was pacing back and forth in the light, a stone’s throw from where he was watching. Every few seconds she would rub her gloved fingers together and make a quiet tisking sound with her lips. She was calling for a cat.
Cornelius Chaff noticed four things all at once. First, he saw that the sun had disappeared over the horizon and night was coming in quickly; second, that no fewer than three kittens were shyly answering the girl’s call; third, this little lady was decidedly alone and would not be safe without a companion much longer; and finally, for all her beautiful clothing and tidy, proper appearance, she wasn’t wearing any shoes.
He dropped gently to the ground, landing just outside the floodlight of the lamp he’d been kindling. The girl and the growing litter at her feet were startled by the noise. “Hello?” she called, melodically as though her voice was the shivering of a chime. “Who is there? Can I trust you?”
The boy pulled a grey candle out of his pocket and held it out in front of him, extended towards the girl. With his other hand he loosed a match from its box and caught the wick aflame. It came off like a magic trick in the young lady’s eyes and without intending to do so she exchanged her apprehension for curiosity and wonder. She drew near.
“I’m Anna,” said Anna with a curtsey that would have put a ballerina to shame. “My father is Yes Sir and my mother is called My Lady, or Lemon, or Sweetheart, or Darling, but I know her name is really Anna too. We live…” and she brought her finger to level, but found she had nothing familiar to point out. She turned all around in circles, eventually letting her arm and her countenance fall in one go. “We live in a tall house between other houses, but not on this street. I’m afraid I’ve become quite jumbled, really. I came out looking for my cat.”
The quizzical look on his face was so clear that she felt compelled elaborate. “It got out the window, you see” said Anna as a crimson blush flooded her features. “Well, I opened the window, really. I was kneeling at my bedside, just as I ought, and then one of my eyes popped open because I heard something make a very loud sound indeed! I simply had to see if Saint Nicholas had come to call, so I opened my window ever so slightly as to listen with greater care, and my cat leapt up to the sill and out to the ground before I could even blink! It wasn’t a long drop, so I followed him this far before I lost sight. I didn’t have time to go fetch my slippers. They are in line by the fire tonight because it’s Christmas Eve. Did you know it is Christmas Eve right now?”
Cornelius Chaff shook his head. When he had lived in the house long ago he’d heard vague whisperings about firesides and presents and a generous man in red, but those blurry ideas had been gathering dust like the rest of his small frame in the years between home and here. It is much more work to remember than observe.
Anna’s cat didn’t take long to rejoin his mistress. The three of them toured the streets together, Cornelius Chaff walking with his candle outstretched like the front man of a parade. The light shimmered and shone off the frosted bricks beneath their feet. When they found her house, he helped Anna climb back in through her open window, cat and all. Soon as the pane of glass slid back into place, the boy ran to the lamppost across the road from Anna’s house, scampered up the pole, put his candle inside, lit the wick and polished the iron with his sleeve until it glowed like the silver moon and the golden sun all at once. Then he waved at her window, dropped down to the street and disappeared into the deepening night.
Every morning after their adventure together, Anna would stare out her window and wonder what had become of the mysterious elf-child she had met in the street on Christmas Eve. She thought she could see him, sometimes, clinging to the top of the streetlight across from her house, and she would wave. But the boy, if he was truly flesh and not phantom, never waved back. “He might be a shadow,” she thought to herself. “A trick of the candlelight.” But her heart couldn’t believe her own logic, because whenever she peered out at that lamppost she found it already shining away and making the whole street merrier for its glow.
Cornelius Chaff used three times as much wax and at least twice as much time tending to his labours at Anna’s house. He had to replace the candle several times a week even though candles were made rather differently in those days and lasted a good long time if the wick was kept trim. The light burned day and night and charmed the entire neightbourhood, not just the little girl who had taken his affections along with the cat. Rain did not stop him, snow failed to give him pause and while summer’s scorching sunshine made climbing the pole a painful chore, the boy, now nine, could not be dissuaded from his task. Every day for a year he walked to Anna’s house, right to Christmas Eve.
On Christmas Eve, when hope and persistence and love and magic all meld, he climbed the lamppost across from Anna’s tall house. He breathed a deep breath of the icy winter air and let it out with a sigh. The now familiar home was decorated once again with twinkling white light. The house looked like heaven, star-filled and beautiful. And then Cornelius Chaff noticed something peculiar… heaven’s door stood open. A small child burst out of it, dancing towards him in leaf-green gloves and a long dress that moved about like a flower in the breeze. As soon as she made it to the light under the lamppost she leapt up with both feet and landed in a sudden stop. She was laughing.
“Hello!” called Anna to the boy perched above. “Come here, I have to give you a gift.” He spiralled down the pole with the grace of a maple key and stood beside her. She looked like an angel. The girl was carrying a large box in brown paper. Cornelius Chaff’s full-moon eyes grew wider than ever as she held it out towards him. “It’s for you,” she said, encouraging him to take it by giving the package a bit of a shake. “I’ve spent the whole year making it.”
He took a long time just looking at Anna before he actually received the present. He was soaking it in, absorbing every detail of the moment. Then he carefully unwrapped the box. The box was full of paper. The paper was full of wool.
A simple knitted scarf lay folded carefully inside. He noticed the uneven tension of the stitches in each row; he noticed the differences in width from beginning to end; he noticed large lumps where the yarn had run short and more needed to be tied in to lengthen the project; and he noticed that the rich green colour was a match to Anna’s gloves.
It was perfect.
The little boy smiled so broadly that every single one of his teeth could be seen, even his molars. She beamed at him and flung the scarf around his neck many times. He could barely move by the time she was through, which had the convenient effect of securing his emotions in place. Had his trembling lips been uncovered, he would have certainly drowned them both in a thousand tears of joy.
Anna’s family moved out of the city before the next Christmas Eve could arrive. He knew it was coming, he had seen it before. The night before they left, Cornelius Chaff climbed the post across from Anna’s house and stayed there all night, talking to the angels about the one who lived across the street. When morning dawned he lit a new candle, humbly walked up to Anna’s front door and left it burning there on the stoop as a token of gratitude to the one who had noticed him and had chosen to be kind.
Two gifts given, both treasured forever: wool and wax.