Secret gifts

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It began with a can of sardines. I asked around, but everyone who knew I loved sardines said, ''No,'' they had not left the special brand of sardines on the blue chest just inside my door. I enjoyed them immensely, but it was just a little spooky to eat sardines from an anonymous donor.

Two months later, after I'd stopped looking on the chest for a new supply of sardines, I found a pile of fresh chives. They were nothing fancy, just wild chives of the sort pulled up from along the sidewalk. I wished I had waited to eat the sardines with them; perhaps the two were meant to be eaten together. There were signs that the two gifts were from the same donor. The screen door had been left wide open. There's no spring on it, so it has to be pushed shut to latch it. Most of my frequent visitors know the idiosyncrasy.

Then just a few days ago, much closer to the chives drop, I found some red berries there. They weren't edible berries, but they were a lovely bright red. This surreptitious supplier had an aesthetic bent. But he or she was pushing my own curiosity.

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Fortunately, I didn't have to wait much longer for some answers. Perhaps this donor could have endured the secrecy when it came to mere food offerings, but when he or she was making a statement about beauty, anonymity was intolerable. Such is the power of art; it must identify. And identify it did. I was sitting on the front stoop taking in the sun. My eyes were closed. A small voice, glistening with delight, caught me drifting. ''Did you like the berries I gave you?''

''Michael, I should have known it was you who brought the berries.'' He is five years old, lives across the street, and daily chugs past on his bicycle. I've watched him graduate from the rumble seat of his mother's bike to a tricycle to this little red two-wheeler with balloon tires. He's Huck Finn several years before the Widow and Tom Sawyer. The red hair curls so lusciously that his mother could only recently bring herself to cut it short.

''You aren't supposed to eat them. You are supposed to look at them,'' he advised seriously. ''They aren't eating berries.''

''They are very special berries, aren't they?'' I wanted to bring up the subject of the other gifts. I couldn't connect him with the sardines. But I was sure he had brought the chives. ''By the way, Michael, have you given me some chives lately?''

He looked puzzled. ''I gave you some flowers the other day. Some long green flowers.'' So he was exclusively the artist, not merely a gourmet.

''Yes, of course. Those are the ones. Thank you for those as well. Did you know you can eat those 'flowers'?'' I hoped the information would not expose me as a crass materialist with no sensitivities for the finer tastes of the collector. However, he was not distressed or for that matter particularly interested, because he had begun to dump water from his water pistol on one of my parched plants sitting on the doorstep.

''I'm going to help this plant,'' he informed me carefully. ''Then I have to go home, OK?''

I must have passed his test for a suitable patron, for from that time on Michael has made all his donations forthrightly. He often waits for me to come out to read on the stoop, then he appears. Sometimes he has a flower complete with roots picked whole from the roadside. Several times he has simply come to exchange views on such topics as ''If you were a dinosaur, which one would it be best to be?'' and ''How many daddy-longlegs can hang on one leaf without falling off?''

Seeing in him the eye of the connoisseur, I decided to show him my modest collection of shells. He saw at once the value of these soft yellow and peach petals which had once housed sea creatures. He was especially impressed when I told him that they had come a thousand miles in a plastic cup.

''What are these called,'' he asked.

''I only know the name of one of them.'' I blushed to be so ignorant of my own collection. ''That one's called a baby's tooth, I think. See the little teeth there.''

''I think I would like to have that one.'' He is frank. It's obvious he has no small estimation of his own taste in objets d'art. How could I refuse him?

As he headed for the door with the shell carefully padded in a napkin and poked into his pocket, I could not help myself. I had to know. ''Michael, did you ever give me a can of sardines? I mean did you put one here on the blue chest the way you did with the berries and flowers?

''Sardines!'' The face matched the horror in his voice. ''Ick, I don't like sardines too very much. My mother told me to put them there. I just brought you flowers and red berries.''

''Just the good stuff, huh?'' I said with feeling, hoping he'd never learn of my lowbrow fondness for tinned fish.

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