It was something like a dwarf or a leprechaun–no one knew for sure, least of all the thing itself–and the most noteworthy thing about it, aside from its tiny stature, pale green skin, huge hook nose and beady black eyes full of anger, bewilderment, and hatred was that it had been born without joy.
It lived alone in the attic of a huge, luxurious, abandoned house which stood on the hilltop overlooking the town and which people said had once belonged to a movie star. Quite when the dwarf had moved into the house no one knew for sure. All they were certain of was that the dwarf had booby-trapped the place and now no one dared venture inside the grounds for fear of falling foul. So the dwarf was left to its own devices.
It was seen in the town from time to time, wearing a scowl that could startle babies from their sleep. It came to steal. It wanted only the best. Food from the delicatessen; bottles of vintage whiskey from behind the counter at the off-license; gold and silver sparkling things from the jewellers which once touched would have alarms ringing. The dwarf was sneaky and quick. It would flee with its bounty to its high attic on the hill where it would gorge itself on duck-liver pate, swill himself into a stupor, and parade up and down before the mirror resplendent in necklaces, earrings and twinkling tiaras.
And yet, despite all this, still it had no joy.
It knew what it was missing because it often spied on the townspeople and it had seen their smiles and it had heard their laughter. More than this though, the dwarf had a peculiar gift, for it could see people’s emotions, it could touch them, it could hold them in its hands. It knew the warm colours of joy: the yellows, oranges and reds. It knew too the cold colours of sadness and the boiling blacks of rage. Often after it had grown tired of the spoils of yet another raid, it would sit before the attic’s huge front window gazing down at the town and thinking about all the people down there enjoying themselves. Its hands would wrestle in its lap, its skin would grow greener, and anger would fill its mind like steam in a lidded pan on the boil. Other times it stood before the huge mirror propped against one wall and practised smiling. But the smiles looked more like snarls and the dwarf would feel nothing inside except emptiness and it would stare at its horrid little face in the mirror and sigh. It would see the black-brown aura surrounding itself and it would snatch at it and dance about in frustration trying–fruitlessly–to push it away.
Then one day the dwarf had an idea. If it could steal the townspeople’s food and drink and jewellery, could it not also steal their joy? Could it not steal their joy and bring it back to the attic to keep for itself?
It decided it could, and it decided it would.
Immediately upon having this thought, the dwarf began hunting about the house for a receptacle in which it could store all the joy it planned to steal. It eventually turned up a stopper-ed bottle, bigger even than itself, and big enough certainly for all the joy that would be reaped from the town. This it carried carefully, and with considerably effort, up the stairs to the attic and there it was given a label written in the dwarf’s shaky hand which read, simply: JOY!
How to begin? The following morning the dwarf descended the hill and crept into the town just as the day was getting underway. People were scurrying hither and thither about the streets, and cars and buses were bellowing along the roads. The dwarf kept to the alleyways and rooftops. It was so busy in the streets that all the colours of the people’s emotions mixed together into a brownish fog, and the dwarf couldn’t separate the joy in coveted from the misery and hate it had plenty enough of already. Eventually, when things quietened down, it came across a man stood on a ladder and painting a sign above a shop. The man was clearly enjoying his work as the dwarf could see an orange aura surrounding him. The sign read: HOLLYS CUPCAKES. When the man had painted in the final ‘S’ he climbed down from his ladder, stepped back and admired his work. Seeing the man’s orange aura glow brighter, the dwarf crept up behind him.
“What an absolute disaster!” the dwarf said.
The man glanced around, then down, and saw the dwarf. He looked startled, but said: “What do you mean a disaster?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” the dwarf said, jabbing a finger at the sign.
The man looked over his handiwork. “I don’t see a disaster. I think I did rather a good job.”
“Ha!” said the dwarf, stepping closer and pointing at the end of the word HOLLYS. “Haven’t you forgotten something? Shouldn’t there be an apostrophe before the ‘S’?”
The man stared at the sign and his face sank as he realised the dwarf was right. The orange aura began to drift away from him like smoke blown on the wind, but as it did the dwarf leapt into the air and bundled it up in his arms. Holding fast to the joy, he ran laughing from the town, sped back up the hill and through the grounds of his house–carefully avoiding the booby traps. He was still laughing maniacally over his victory as he ran up the stairs to the attic, dropped the joy he still held gathered in his arms into the bottle, then grabbed the stopper which was lying beside it on the floor and popped it in place. There! Finally–finally!–he had some joy of his own!
The dwarf danced about the attic room, but when he at last stopped and looked at his bottle he saw to his horror that it was empty.
“No!” he screamed. “Where’s my joy!”
He took out the stopper again, and pressed his face to the opening in the bottle as if the clear glass had been preventing him from seeing what he knew to be true. The joy he had stolen–all of it–was gone.
Determined not to be beaten, he stomped down the hill again the next day. In the town, he found a dressmaker’s and snuck inside. A young woman was trying on a blue dress in front of a mirror and the dwarf could see that she was pleased because she glowed orange just as the man painting the sign had the previous day. Sneaking up behind her, the dwarf yanked on her skirts. The woman looked down and let out a little exclamation.
“That dress makes you look fat!” the dwarf said.
“What?” the woman said, switching her eyes back to the mirror. “No, it doesn’t.”
“Yes, it does. It makes you look bulbous. And the colour’s not right. It makes you look ill.”
“Oh, what a horrid little creature you are!” the woman said, stamping her foot. “How dare you! How dare you!” She kicked out at the dwarf, but the dwarf was more interested in her orange aura, which he saw sliding away from her as something darker took its place. He leapt up in the air and gathered all the orange colour to him. Then the shop bell rang and turning on the spot, the woman realised that the dwarf was gone.
Back in his attic, he carefully pushed all the joy into his bottle and quickly stoppered it before any could escape. But then, as he stood and stared at the bottle, he saw the orange glow inside it simply evaporate until there was not a trace of it left.
“No!” the dwarf screamed so loudly that down in the town a dog woke up and started barking and a couple walking hand in hand in the street glanced up at the sky with bemused expressions.
Lying in his too big bed that night, turning and grumbling and kicking at his blankets, the dwarf resolved himself to one last attempt. The next day it would return to the town and gather all the joy it could. It would take the bottle with it and pop the joy straight inside.
So the next day, it went into the town library and began to shout. All the joy that left the people who had been sitting around in silence, engrossed in their books, it snatched from the air and pushed straight into the bottle which it rolled along at its side. Then, it found two women sat together talking on a park bench and went and stood before them.
“Yesterday,” he said, addressing one of the women whilst pointing a finger at the other, “she told me you talk too much!”
“What?” said the woman accused. “No, I didn’t!”
“And she told me your husband’s a bore!”
“I did not!”
“And your children are spoiled!”
“What? Who said that?”
“She did. About you. But you said her house is a mess.”
“I never said any such thing!”
“You did! Because she said yours is too perfect.”
This went on and on until the calm orange glow that had been surrounding the two women began to leave them, and the dwarf grabbed at it and crammed it into his bottle before it could drift away.
The rest of the day the dwarf spend in the same way: making trouble between friends here (this it got a special kick out of, since it had no friends of its own), ruining people’s day there. All the joy went straight in the bottle and when it was full the dwarf rolled it back up the hill and carried it upstairs to the attic.
Only, when it finally got there, the dwarf again found that the bottle was empty. Despite everything it had done, it still did not have any joy.