She was old.
Old as the city itself. Ancient as the proud, lonely buildings that hemmed the cobbled streets where she sat day after day, begging.
They were young. The town boy and his marvelling country friend. They were young and knew of the appearances of things of the world, but not of the meanings.
“Who is she?” whispered the country lad.
“An old widowed beggar, that’s all.” his knowledgeable friend responded curtly.
“Why doesn’t she dress well in this cold weather?”
“Why, indeed? She is always here in this corner in those rags, no matter what the weather. Why should it bother us?”
The country lad stopped. Never had he seen a beggar before, and to pass her by without acknowledging her need seemed cruel.
He turned. Slowly, uncertainly, he approached the old woman.
She sat crouched, cradling her crooked hands and crooning to herself. The occasional gust of winter wind blew her rags and she muttered and drew herself up again.
The boy coughed. She opened one eye and then the other. “Well, boy?” rasped the old beggar-woman.
“Why do you stay here in the snow, mother?” asked the young lad.
“You did not choose where you were born or raised, and neither did I.”
“Aren’t you cold, mother?”
“Yes, bitterly so.”
The boy grimaced. What could he do? Leave this poor woman? The dollar his parents had carefully saved for his new town-shoes was burning a hole in his pocket – he could feel it! How could he turn away?
He took a step closer, hand fishing in his pocket. “Mother – “
“Idler, hurry up!” the sassy voice of his town friend cut his words short. “We will not reach the store before it closes at this rate!”
The choice had suddenly become more difficult. The country boy hesitated. He thought of the months his mother had spoken to him of the necessity of new shoes. He thought of his father, going without coffee to save this money. He thought of his own cold feet in his worn, tattered shoes. He thought of the stinging remarks his friend would make. He thought too of the regret and shame he would feel next Sunday when he would, once again, be the only boy in Sunday school without proper shoes.
And still that incorrigible dollar burned hot in his pocket! And this beggar, gazing calmly into his eyes as if she read the anguished thoughts there – this beggar – no, say instead this old tired woman – did she not need the dollar more than he did?
“Perhaps neither of us chose our birth or upbringing…” his mind was stumbling, groping for words. “But maybe we do have choices in what we do there? At least, I…” another long pause, “I…I have some money. It could help you with clothes. Here, take it.”
He pressed the dollar into her withered palm. Their eyes met. “God bless you, child.”
He turned and ran to his astonished friend. Glancing back one last time over his shoulder, he saw the old woman still sitting. Sitting by the old street, below the old buildings. She sat crouched, cradling her crooked fingers and crooning to herself. And above her, the church bells began to chime.