Life's Gifts

by Chuk Kittredge

Mrs. Wilkes closed the car door. "Are you buckled in, Billy?"

"Yes, mom." Billy looked over at his mother. "Are we going shopping?"

"Yes," she told him. She started the car and they drove away from the house. Billy rolled down his window and looked out. The trees were green, and the sun was bright. By the side of the road, little summer flowers, buttercups and daisies, swayed in the breeze.


"Yes, Billy?"

"Mom, can I have some money?" Billy swung his feet. They almost reached the floor of the car when he stretched.

"What for, Billy?" His mother was distracted. She tapped one finger on the steering wheel as she drove.

"For Father's Day," Billy told her. "I want to get Dad a present."

"Sure," she said. "Hand me my purse, would you?"

Billy reached down to the floor. His mother's purse was heavy, and the leather strap dragged over his knees when he gave it to her. She rummaged inside it for what seemed like a very long time before she found her wallet. She opened her wallet.

"Here," she said. She handed him a bill. "You can get something nice for ten dollars." Billy folded the money and placed it carefully in his shirt pocket. It made a little bulge. He patted the bulge as his mother drove, and he looked out the window. The sun was so bright that if he looked directly at it he sneezed. His mother tapped one finger on the wheel as they drove along. She smelled faintly of hand lotion, a warm, reassuring smell.

The supermarket parking lot was full of cars. Billy's mother parked far away from the store. Mrs. Wilkes locked the car.

"Now hold my hand, Billy." She grabbed his hand, and they walked toward the store. The sun glinted off car windshields, making Billy blink. He hopped a crack in the pavement, unconsciously.

Mrs. Wilkes was digging in her purse. "Now where did I put that list?" She pulled out a neatly folded piece of paper. "Here we go. Milk, bread, hmmm." She read the list to herself. Her lips moved silently, mouthing the words. Billy held her hand tightly as they walked. Her hand was warm and smooth, like a mother's hand should be.

Close to the front of the supermarket, Billy saw a new sign, where the Laundromat had been.

Life's Gifts

said the sign, and below it, in neat block letters

Going Out of Business Sale

"Mom?" Billy looked up at his mother.

"What is it, Billy?" Mrs. Wilkes was looking at her list.

"Mom, can I go in there?" Billy pointed to the little store.

Mrs. Wilkes looked up and pursed her lips. "Hmmm," she said. "Life's Gifts. Sounds like a Christian bookstore."

"Maybe they have something I can get for Dad."

"I don't see why not, Billy." His mother looked down at him. "Meet me at the supermarket when you're done, okay?" Billy nodded his head. "Do you need any money?"

Billy sighed. His mother was so forgetful. "You already gave me ten dollars," he told her. He patted his shirt pocket to make sure he still had the money.

"Oh!" she said. "You're right, I did." She kissed him on the head, and touched his shoulder gently. "Meet me soon, okay honey?"

"Yes, mom." Billy let go of her hand. Mrs. Wilkes hurried into the grocery store, reading off her list.

The store's windows were dark. Billy looked curiously up at the sign above the door. Life's Gifts was a weird name for a store. He opened the door and walked inside.

A little bell on the door dinged twice as it shut behind him. Billy looked around. The little store was nearly empty. It smelled faintly musty, and the light was dim and low. An old man stood behind the counter. He was reading a newspaper. Billy stepped up to the counter and cleared his throat, politely. The man looked up.

"Oh, hello!" he said. He peered over the counter at Billy. "What's your name, son?"

"Billy Wilkes," Billy told him. He looked into the glass case. There were strange and wonderful things in there. Billy had never seen any of them before. "What can I help you with, son?" The man smiled fondly down at Billy through his spectacles.

"I'm looking for something for my dad," Billy said. "For Father's Day."

"Ah!" the man cried. "A gift! We have all manner of wondrous gifts." He paused for a moment, and scratched at his head. "What was your name again, young man?"

"Billy." Billy swelled a little at being called a young man.

"Ah, yes. Billy it is." The man smiled again, and folded the newspaper. "You must forgive me, Billy. I'm not good with names."

"That's okay," Billy told him. "I'm not good with names, either." He rather liked the old man. He didn't seem like most adults.

"A gift, then." The man looked down at Billy. "For - for your father, you said?"

Billy nodded his head and the man smiled happily. "We have all sorts of gifts," the man said again. He sprung to action. "See anything you like?"

Billy paused for a moment, looking into the case. He could see little handprints on the glass.

"Is that a beet?" Billy pointed at what looked like a large beet, on the top shelf.

"A beet?" The man leaned down and peered inside the case. "Why yes! It is a beet." He smiled faintly. "A very special beet, in fact. It's a Switter beet."

Billy had never heard of such a thing. "A Switter beet?"

"Yes," the old man murmured, "a wonderful gift, really. Peculiar taste." He blinked slowly. "Would you like to try a bite?"

Billy thought about it for a minute. "Does it taste good?"

"Some folks like it," the man told him. "Rather an acquired taste, really, the Switter beet." The man paused. "I know several people who are rather fond of Switter beets."

Billy decided against it. "Maybe later," he told the man.

"Why certainly, my boy. There's always time in life for a Switter beet."

Billy leaned in toward the case. His eye caught a little boat, in a bottle.

"What's the boat?" Billy asked.

"Ah, the ship!" The man cried. "Not a boat, y'know. Common mistake." He hummed faintly. Billy waited for the man to speak again. "It's a Friend-ship," the man told him.

"A friendship?" Billy looked closer and saw a little white card, neatly labeled "Friend-ship".

"Yes, indeed. A Friend-ship." The man opened the case and carefully pulled out the bottle. "Hand-crafted by a sailor. An old acquaintance of mine, in fact. Quite a masterpiece, the Friend-ship."

Billy frowned up at the bottle with the ship inside. "How does it work?"

"Work?" The man asked. He seemed confused. "Well, no one really understands a Friend-ship." The man paused. "Quite a beautiful thing, really. Takes years to make. Intricate design, a Friend-ship."

Billy touched the bottle, softly. "Can I take it out? Can I look at it?"

"Oh, no," the man murmured, apologetically. "A Friend-ship must never be inspected too closely."

Billy frowned again. He liked the little ship in a bottle, but he wasn't sure what his father would say about it.

"How about something else?"

"But of course," the man said, quietly. He stroked the bottle gently, and put it carefully back in the case. He looked a little sad.

Billy looked in the case again, and saw a round black object, like a rock. "What's that? The - the shiny rock?" He pointed at it.

"Ah, that there is a Duty," the man told him. He peered curiously at the rock. "Would you like to hold it?"

"If you don't mind," Billy said. The man reached into the case and handed him the rock.

"Careful now, it's heavy." Billy took the rock from the man. It was so heavy he nearly dropped it.

He looked at the rock in his hand. It was thick and it gleamed dully. "What's it made out of?" he asked.

"A Duty, now. Well, it's a complicated thing." The man looked out the window, cocking his head. "Duty - well, it's made up of - of hard things." He looked down at the stone, where it lay in Billy's hand. "Heavy, isn't it? Hard to bear?"

"Yes," Billy said. He handed the rock back to the man, straining against its weight. "I don't think I want the Duty."

"Yes," the man said, sadly. "Yes, very few want a Duty, these days." He held the rock cupped in his hands for a moment, and put it back on the shelf.

Billy peered into the case again, and suddenly he saw a little bird, in a cage. It opened its beak, and he heard a little chirp, muffled by the glass.

"What about the bird?" He pointed at the little thing, pretty in its cage. It ruffled its feathers and chirped at him again


"The bird?" The man peered into the case, surprised. "Ah yes, the little Love Bird. I had forgotten about it." He drew the cage out. The little bird ruffled its feathers again, and looked at Billy with curious, bright eyes. "No one wants a Love Bird, these days," the man told him. He blew his nose suddenly, with a handkerchief.

Billy stared at the bird. It stared back. "Do I have to, like, take care of it?" Billy asked, softly. He twisted his hands beneath the counter, unconsciously.

"A Love Bird? Oh, heavens yes. It must be fed, several times a day. And it makes little messes, sometimes, which must be cleaned up immediately." The man adjusted his spectacles. His eyes were bright behind them. "The mess

of Love Birds - it must be cleaned without delay, for if they make too many messes, they'll die."

Billy sucked in his breath, surprised. "It'll die?"

"Yes," the man told him. "Yes, the Bird of Love can die very easily. It's a great responsibility. A fragile thing, the Love Bird."

Billy sighed and closed his hands. "Dad's not good with pets," he told the man, apologetically.

"Yes, yes." The man muttered something to himself, quietly.

"What did you say?" Billy asked.

"Few of us are, son. Few of us can really care for - it sings beautifully, though." The man wrung his hands and took hold of the cage gently with both hands. He put it back on the shelf.

"Does anything else strike your fancy, son?" The man peered into the case again. "We have many things on sale today."

Billy looked into the case again. "How 'bout that little box? Is that on sale?"

"The little box?" The man looked confused. "Oh, you must mean the goppeldanger."

"The goppel-what?"

"The goppeldanger," the man said. "It's a sort of a copier. It makes things - copies things, really."

Billy looked curiously at the little box. "Can I see it?" The man pulled the box from the case and set it on the counter. It was the size of a small apple. Intricate patterns covered the outside of the box.

"Y'see," the man said, excitedly, "you put what you want goppeled in here-" he opened a little door, cunningly fit into the side of the box "- and then you close the door and crank this handle here." The man fingered a delicate silver handle on the side of the box.

"Can it goppel anything?" Billy asked excitedly. He moved close to the counter, eyeing the little box greedily. "Can it goppel money?" He felt the bulge in his shirt pocket with tentative fingers.

"Money?" The man's eyes widened behind his spectacles. "No, not money." He thought for a moment. "A little bit, maybe. A penny." He pulled a penny from his pocket. "Here, let's try it." He put the penny in the box and closed the door. His fingers cranked the handle. "That might work," he said, cranking the handle.

Billy watched him excitedly. "Goppel!" he shouted. "Goppel, dang it!"

The man stopped cranking and carefully opened the door. Inside lay two shiny pennies, neatly stacked on top of one another. "Here," the man said. He slid one of the pennies across the counter to Billy. Billy took it. It was warm in his hand.

"A curious thing, a goppeldanger." The man looked down at the box and stroked it gently with a finger. "You can't goppel anything indefinitely. It -" he paused, looking over Billy's head "- it fades, somehow, after a few times."

Billy put the warm penny in his pocket. "It can't goppel money?" he asked, disappointed.

"Oh, no," the man said, gently. "Certainly nothing more than a penny." He looked vaguely out the window. Billy followed his gaze, but he saw nothing. "It - it could goppel nice things," the man said. His voice was quiet. "Pretty things - a feather, maybe, or a shiny piece of mica. It could probably goppel a seashell, or a little piece of satin that was soft and good to stroke."

Billy was disappointed. He wanted to use the goppeldanger to make more money. "Oh."

"What else do you have?" he asked.

"Let's see, now." The man put the goppeldanger back in its spot. "There's a truth serum in here-" he pointed to a blue bottle with a dropper in it, filled with murky, swirling liquid "-and a metal of honor." Billy peered at the metal of honor. It looked a little like gold.

"What does the metal of honor do?"

"Do?" the man asked. "Why, it doesn't do anything. It must be held at all times. When you have it, it must always be with you, next to your skin." The man sighed. "Honor - the metal of honor - it used to be one of our biggest sellers."

Billy looked doubtfully at the shiny golden metal. "Its not made of gold, is it?"

"No, no," said the man. "Some other metal. Something strong and resilient, not at all like gold."

"Maybe next time," Billy said, politely.

"What's the - the curlicued thingy?" Billy pointed a finger at the object. It looked like two roots, intertwined.

"Ah," the man cried. "The sisdomwadness." He looked curiously at Billy. "You're a little young for that, son."

"But what is it?" Billy pressed on. "Is it - does it always look like that?"

"It's made of two parts," the man told him, "A Sisdom and a Wadness. They're roots - tubers, really." He touched the gnarled surface and drew back his hand carefully. "It's very powerful," he said.

"But the - do they always grow together?" Billy asked.

"The best ones do. Sometimes you'll find Sisdoms, with only a little Wadness." The man closed his eyes gently, and opened them again. His eyes shone brightly. "Sometimes you find a full-grown Wadness, and the Sisdom is only just starting to grow."

Billy looked curiously at the root for a minute longer. "Is that it?" He looked around the shop, but it was empty, except for the old man and the glass case. The old man was looking at something over Billy's head.

"Sir?" The man started at the sound of Billy's voice.

"Why hello there, son. What can I help you with?"

Billy was confused, and a little frightened by the old man. "Is there anything more?"

"More?" The man looked curiously at him. "Of course, my boy. There's always another of Life's Gifts. They're everywhere." He looked down at Billy. "What was your name again, son?"


"Ah yes, Billy. You'll have to forgive me, I'm terrible with names." The man smiled at him. Billy looked around the shop again, and turned to the door.

"Thank you, sir," he said, as politely as he could. He stepped out the store into the sun, blinking his eyes. The little bell tinkled twice behind him.

The old man behind the counter looked up at the sound, and reached quickly into the case. "Billy!" he called, but Billy was already walking away. The man watched him go. He held a miniature tree in his hand.

"I forgot, Billy. I forgot to show you the Hope Tree." He looked down at the little tree, and touched it's green needles. "It'll grow up big," he whispered. "You just have to care for it." The man set the plant on the counter and looked at it, sadly. He wiped his nose with a handkerchief, and hummed quietly to himself. He stroked the plant with one hand.

Mrs. Wilkes put her groceries in the trunk and closed it. "All buckled up, Billy?" she asked.

"Yes, mom." Billy waited quietly while she started the car and pulled out of the parking lot.

She looked over at him fondly. "Didn't find anything for Dad?"

"No," he told her. He pulled the folded bill out of his pocket. "Here's your money back."

"Oh, keep it," she told him. "I'm sure you'll find something nice for your father."

They drove a minute in silence, and then Mrs. Wilkes turned to him again. "What kinds of things did they have in - what was the name of the store?"

"Life's Gifts," Billy told her. "There was a little - like a copier machine. The man said it couldn't copy money, only - only pretty things." Billy was silent for a moment. "Like seashells and shiny rocks and stuff," he told her.

"Hmmm," his mother said. She was looking out the windshield at the road.

"I thought -" Billy scrunched his face up, wondering, "- I thought maybe I could go back there sometime." His mother was silent, thinking. "The man was so nice, and - and the gifts were - it was like they meant something."

His mother frowned out at the road. "If they're still in business, I suppose we could go take a look. People will try to sell you anything these days."