“Happy birthday, darling! You’re a big boy now!”
Stanley’s mother applauded as he tore open his birthday cards. His cereal was getting soggier by the minute, neglected in its bowl. Normally, she would scold him for this but today was different. Today was Stanley’s birthday. She couldn’t believe how quickly the time had passed.
“Wow!” Stanley gasped, as several gold coins dropped from the latest card onto the kitchen table.
“Who’s that from, darling?”
“Uncle Thorn and Auntie Greta,” Stanley flashed her the inside of the coin.
“You must put them in your piggy bank at once. Save them for something special.”
“Hmm,” said Stanley absently. He was already imagining the sweets he could buy. He stood the cards in a wide semi-circle around his breakfast. Not a bad haul this year. And there was still the promise of more treats to come. It was the rule: cards in the morning and presents later after dinner.
“Lovely,” said Stanley’s mother. She tidied away the torn remnants of the envelopes and returned to her bread-making. Running low on flour – she would have a word with her husband if she could catch him in a decent mood; he could be such an ogre at times.
“Good morning, son!” boomed the man himself, entering the kitchen. “And happy birthday!” He tousled Stanley’s hair. Beneath his father’s heavy hand, the boy squirmed and said ‘gerroff!’
“I’ve got a little something for you…” Stanley’s father produced a loosely covered box from behind his back.
His wife rolled her eyes. Every year the same. He could never wait until dinner time. He had to spoil the boy with one early present. Stanley’s father seemed to read her thoughts on her face. He shrugged and pointed out that it was only one present.
The boy pulled the cloth away, revealing a square cage made of wood. The bars were held together with twine. It looked like Dad had been out hunting again.
But a closer inspection of the contents revealed a surprise. There among the straw was the figure of a man. Perfectly proportioned and exquisitely painted and about the size of Stanley’s hand.
“A doll?” said Stanley’s mother, peering over from her bread board. “He’s too big for dolls.”
Stanley’s father shook his head, laughing like distant thunder.
“It’s not a doll,” he explained. “It’s a homunculus!”
“Home what?” blinked Stanley. His fingers fumbled with the cage. Impatiently he yanked the door open and reached in for the little man.
To his astonishment and delight the little man shrank from Stanley’s fingers and clung to the bars of the cage.
“He’s alive!” Stanley giggled excitedly. “He’s real!”
Mother and father exchanged a glance. She signalled alarm but her husband dismissed her concerns with a wave of his hand.
Stanley upended the cage so the open doorway was over his tablemat. He shook the cage until the little man was dislodged, landing on his backside with a cry of protest.
“Careful, Stanley!” Mother warned. She clutched her rolling pin just in case.
The little man got to his feet. Stanley laughed to see him rub his backside. The little man folded his arms, adopting a defiant stance.
“Does he dance?” Stanley asked his father.
“If you tell him to,” Dad replied, although he would have to admit he had little experience of these creatures. Heard about them in storybooks, of course, but never actually come across one before.
“Dance, little fellow!” Stanley commanded.
“Piss off,” squeaked the little man and turned his back.
Stanley began to cry. His mother swatted at his father with a tea towel in a now-look-what-you’ve-done kind of way. She reached across the table and picked up the homunculus creature, pinching his head between her forefinger and thumb. The little man’s limbs flailed wildly in the air. Stanley’s mother screamed.
“He bit me!” she cried, dropping the little man into her mixing bowl. She sucked at the injured pad of her finger.
Stanley’s father ushered him into the next room, distracting him with a box of chocolates. He came back to find his wife holding her finger under running water from the tap.
“It was a nice idea,” she sighed, trying to keep her husband in a good mood. He was peering morosely into the mixing bowl. The homunculus sent him a rude gesture. “Besides, I was running low on flour. Pass me the bone-grinder, will you, dear?”
Her husband reached the appliance from a cupboard.
“Where did you find him, anyway, love?”
“Oh,” Stanley’s father muttered in disappointment, “I was just out for a walk and I saw him. He’d just climbed to the top of our beanstalk.”