This is a story about wandering garden ornaments.

Specifically, it's a story about garden gnomes, those plaster figures wearing red stocking caps that some people use as decorations in their yards, as other people do plastic flamingos and concrete birdbaths.These gnomes have begun to roam, down in Australia at least.

Witness this story, which was collected by Aussie folklorist Bill Scott in October 1986:

"Some people over on the North Shore had a gnome in their front garden, one of those holding a fishing rod in the lily pond. One morning they noticed that the gnome was missing. Someone had stolen it!

"About a week later, they got a postcard from the Gold Coast, up in Queensland. The gnome said he was on holiday up there, and having a wonderful time - there were more fish there than in the lily pond at North Shore.

"About a fortnight later the people found the gnome back in their garden. Whoever it was that had pinched him had covered him all over with tan boot polish, to show that he'd been on holiday."

On holiday, indeed.

David Hults, co-editor of the journal Australian Folklore, has compared roaming-gnome stories from the media and oral tradition, and found a consistent pattern. First the gnomes vanish for a few weeks or months. Then the owners receive postcards signed "The Gnome." Eventually the garden ornament reappears in their yard, sometimes altered in some way by its adventure.

The people whose gnomes have gone walkabout have usually suspected either their co-workers or mischievous students of masterminding the thefts. But in a rash of roaming-gnome stories reported in Perth last year, postcards came in such numbers and from such long distances that reporters wondered whether U.S. Navy personnel might have been responsible for the pranks.

Gnome owners have told of their distress on Australian news programs, sometimes referring to their lost gnomes by name ("Gulliver" being a well-publicized example). The press has played an active role in elaborating the theft stories, much in the way newspapers and talk shows spread urban legends.

Evidently the gnomes are getting restless in England, too. In an elaborate gnome prank described in the British men's magazine Mayfair in 1986, the perpetrators were said to be oil-rig workers flying out of London's Heathrow Airport for duty stints in the Far East. The workers' travels enabled them to send gnome postcards from dozens of exotic foreign places.

"Sorry I didn't say anything before, but I have decided I need a holiday," one such gnome wrote home to its owners. "I'll keep in touch."

And keep in touch he did - cards streamed in from around the world.

The adults in the family didn't know what to make of it, the Mayfair article said, but the children "thought it was marvellous and took to running out each morning to see if the postman had another card from the gnome."

This family's gnome showed up one morning at its usual place on the front lawn - wearing sunglasses, holding a suitcase and sporting a suntan.

In Australia, meanwhile, gnomes began to disappear en masse from neighborhoods and even whole communities. Months later some of them were found in a clearing, gathered around the biggest gnome, apparently holding a meeting.

A recent letter to the editor of The Kalgoorlie Miner in western Australia introduced a new complication: a band of gnome-nappers calling itself the Gnome Liberation Organization, or GLO. The group threatened to hold stolen gnomes for a ransom of $5 each. There was a disclaimer: "The GLO would like to reassure the owners of lions rampant, Grecian statues, birdbaths and the like that these are not at risk. We are specialists dealing in one commodity - gnomes."

In both instances, the roommates were offered counseling, and allowed to take "incompletes." But neither was given perfect grades as a reward for enduring such an ordeal.

Do American gnomes roam? If they do, I'd like to hear about it. Would you send me your roaming gnome stories? A postcard would be most appropriate.

Jan Harold Brunvand is the author of "The Choking Doberman," a collection of urban folklore. Send your questions and urban legends to Prof. Brunvand in care of this newspaper.