A homegrown elf?
Yes, a homegrown, real-life elf with a tiny hat and a beard, an elf who talked and ate and, I assumed, pooped too.
This story happened a long time ago in my native Romania, when I was no older than fourth grade. It happened soon after a dusty patch in our schoolyard got covered in gravel. Rocks of all shapes, all colors, all textures, all sizes. One morning, a girl in my class had exciting news for the rest of us. (I don’t remember which girl, so I’ll use the name Dana so no one feels singled out.) That morning, Dana revealed to us that our school’s gravel patch was not full of rocks but of elf-eggs.
I hatched my own real-life elf from one of those rocks, she said.
We listened in awe as she explained her secret recipe. For a good-sized elf, we needed a clean, fist-sized rock. We had to boil the rock for longer than we would an egg—so maybe half an hour. Then we had to squeeze a precise number of lemon drops over the hot rock and—just like that—the rock would crack open to reveal the elf inside.
That day, all of us girls stopped by the new gravel patch and stuffed the pockets of our uniforms with fist-sized rocks. At home, I scrubbed my elf-eggs with a nailbrush and a lot of soap, set a small pot on the stovetop and added the water. Now, was I supposed to add the elf-eggs in the cold or in the boiling water? After much deliberation, I plopped them into the lukewarm water.
I had no lemon juice in the house. Lemons were imported goods, not something the average Romanian would see in a grocery store in a socialist economy. But I found a plastic yellow bottle in the fridge and there was some sour juice inside that tasted like lemon. I set my rocks on a plate and counted the lemon drops as they sizzled. To my surprise, the elf-eggs didn’t crack open, not one of them.
First thing in the morning, I found Dana.
It has to be a real lemon, she said.
Another girl cut in to gush about the brand new girl elf she had at home.
A girl elf? I said.
Yes, and she described the creature to me, though I can’t pretend to remember the description. (As I said, this story happened a long time ago. Parts of it faded and disappeared, so I’m filling in the blanks with made up details.)
Do you happen to have an extra lemon? I said.
No such luck. I trudged back to my desk. How was I supposed to sit still during classes now, with a lemon quest waiting? As luck had it, my grandmother was the manager of a workers’ cafeteria at the steel plant in our industrial city of Galaţi, and, after a few, excruciating days, she brought me the lemon of my elf-dreams. Meanwhile, one of my closest friends (I’ll call her Stela) had grown not one, but two elves at home. A boy and a girl.
Can I come see them?
No. Her father, who occasionally whipped Stela with a rubber hose when she misbehaved, was on leave from work and he didn’t like kids hanging around his apartment. Otherwise, Stela would’ve taken me to see her elves. I understood—I didn’t want to be around that horrible man either.
Can you bring them to school perhaps?
What a silly idea. Did I want them to suffocate in Stela’s backpack? Besides, they were just getting used to their new home, a large flowerpot made to look like Thumbelina’s place.
I had no choice but to continue working on my lonely elf-making. I collected more rocks and went back to boiling them. By now, it mattered if the rock was smooth or sharp, if it had stripes or mica spots, if it was flat or bulgy, per Dana’s instructions. I asked my grandmother for more lemons—I told her I had taken a liking to lemon-flavored tea. As a loving grandmother, she brought me more lemons, no matter how hard her quest was.
At home, I kept my failed experiments secret. I only boiled rocks when my mother (a high school teacher), my father (an engineer at the steel plant) and my brother (three years younger) were not around. At school, the elf chatter grew louder. Stela’s elves improved her father’s mood so he had stopped hurting her. Everywhere else, elves made great bedtime pals, especially if you were afraid of the dark. They helped with homework. They had magic talents. For all those reasons, I was dying to get my hands on one. I had high grades in school, but I was failing at elf-making every single day.
Maybe they don’t like you enough to come out of their rocks for you, a girl told me one day.
So that was the reason I was failing: not because I wasn’t trying hard enough or following the instructions to the letter, but because there was something wrong with me that the elves sensed from inside their rocks. Even so, I persevered. I think my mother had to mend my uniform’s pockets once or twice.
One day, our teacher asked a girl up to the blackboard, and on her way there, a rock fell through a hole in her pocket.
What’s that? the teacher said.
The girl’s pockets were bulging with rocks. A boy probably yelled out something about the elves and the other boys joined in.
The teacher had the girl empty her pockets on the floor. Anybody else making… elves?
All the girls, the boys said, laughing.
And so, all of us girls had to stand in front of the classroom and empty our pockets. The floor looked like the gravel patch in the schoolyard. The boys jeered at us, but the teacher didn’t order them to be quiet. I felt embarrassed, but some of the lined-up girls threw meaningful glances at one another.
Elves don’t exist in our world, the teacher said.
So there was nothing wrong with me after all? But then why had all my friends been claiming that they hatched elves from rocks? I needed answers, but the elf chatter died out that same day. Nobody wanted to talk about them anymore, as though they had been murdered. By the teacher. And by the boys.
I asked Stela on our way from school if her elves had been real.
Of course they’re real. They live with me at home in their flowerpot.
Can I see them?
Come by tomorrow, when my father’s at work and I’ll show them to you.
I don’t know if I even slept that night, so excited I was to see those elves, at long last. Yes, our teacher had been wrong, and yes, there was still something wrong with me, but to hold a real elf in the palm of my hand…
The next day Stela looked crushed, maybe even cried. My elves died last night and I buried them in the flowerpot they liked so much.
I was crushed too. Are you going to make new ones? They’re still plenty of rocks in the gravel patch.
No, elves don’t live long and it’s so hard when they die…
Now there was no one to keep Stela’s father from hitting her when he was angry. I didn’t press her with any more questions. The other girls stopped talking about their elves at school, or at least were careful to never mention them in the presence of someone who couldn’t hatch her own. Life soon returned to normal and I returned to studying and earning high grades. Though the suspicion that something was wrong with me had hatched alright.
A few years later, a girl in my class (again, I don’t remember who) asked the rest of us if we had heard of horoscopes.