The Hand of a Stranger
The trouble came when I was quite young. My father was taken away when I was about three and he never came back. My mother cried for a long time, but I never knew where he was or why he did not return.
These were times of famine and political unrest, difficult for everyone, but especially for a widow with a small child.
Eventually, it became too dangerous to remain where we were. Not just us, but for many, many people. So, when I was about six, we packed up the little we had and left the countryside for a large town. It was far away – many weeks walking.
We were a miserable lot, most of us near starving, cold, filthy, exhausted, frightened. The fields we passed were mostly bare. Drought had destroyed the crops. But if we scavenged carefully, we might find something still edible – a buried root, a struggling vine, insects. If we were lucky, perhaps a small animal.
We slept outside, wrapped in blankets, huddled together for warmth, or in makeshift tents.
One morning, after many days walking, my mother could not rouse herself. Her eyes were sunken and glazed, and she struggled to breathe. “Go with the others,” she told me. ” Survive. Be brave. Be strong. Be good.”
I cried and begged her get up. I was terrified. I refused to leave her until some others pulled me away from her and folded me back into the caravan, where I was carried away in the tide.
Now, not only was I starving, filthy, exhausted, cold, and frightened, I was also alone in my mourning, with new things to worry and be frightened about.
A few people were kind to me but they had their own worries and they could not make my problems, theirs. Occasionally one of them shared with me from their own meager food supply — a scrap of a scrap, here and there. But most of them had to feed their own families. An orphaned boy was not their problem.
Finally, after many, many days, we arrived in a large town. The local people did not like us country folk. They didn’t know us, didn’t trust us, didn’t want us around to threaten their livelihoods with cheap labor and a need for charity.
Some of the people in our group had family there. They, at least, had safe places to go. Some of them had skills that enabled them to find paying work, although it was usually grudgingly. The others only had their backs and remaining strength to offer. They struggled to survive, but at least they were adults.
But me? I was an orphan with nobody to watch out for me, nobody to care if I lived or died. But I’d promised my mother I’d survive and I’m sure it was that determination that kept me alive. I begged on the street, ate discarded fruit and vegetables left on the ground after the market closed, slept against doorways to protect against the worst of the elements. I was usually chased away from several before I found somewhere to settle in for the night.
One evening, I curled up in front of a small shop that sold pots and pans and other such housewares. The store owner came out and looked me over. I picked myself up, sure I was about to be kicked along my way. But he took compassion on me and brought me into his shop, which was warm! I hadn’t been warm in months! He give me a piece of bread and some soup that was heating on the wood stove. I was so grateful, I couldn’t say anything but thank you, bless you, thank you.
He allowed me to sleep inside, enjoying the remaining residual warmth of the fire when there was nothing left but embers. The next morning, he gave me some fresh bread and tea for breakfast, and asked me to sweep the street out front, which I did gladly, with gratitude. He asked me to climb up the ladder to fetch things he couldn’t reach, and scoot down low to pull things out from under the counter.
He was an older man, maybe the age of my grandfather (whom I barely remembered). I learned later that his wife and child had died many years before, and he was alone. He seemed as happy for my company as I was for his.
As we both got older, I got stronger and he got weaker, and he came to rely on me even more. I was there for him in his old age. There with him when he was too infirm to leave his bed. I sad beside him, and held his hand as he crossed over.
The store passed into my hands. I eventually found a wife and we had two sons, who took the business from me when I passed on many decades later.
I never forgot his kindness to me and for as long as I lived, I endeavored to pass that kindness on to others.