I could tell you a story about a princess in a castle, and the brave knight who sought her heart. I could even tell you stories of dragons, and fairies, and creatures far beyond your wildest imaginations. Yes, I could tell you a story of any of these things. But, there is a different tale that I feel must be told. A story of a different kind. One, that although void of any dragons or fairies, or princesses in castles, is packed with bravery and kindness, and heroism in its purest form. I will tell the story of an old man, and a pair of unraveling shoes.
When I was 12 years old, a time when the world still felt new, and the skin on my hands had not yet gained the roughness of hard work, I lived in a place with towering buildings and bustling streets. It was there on those dirty streets, much avoided by the everyday man, that I spent my days. If you ever happened to pass by, you would see a straggly boy, with dirty hair and scraped knees, fighting imaginary dragons with a sword made from broken pieces of steel. You would look upon him and see, that even as the bones of his body stuck out at odd places, and the hollowness in his belly gnawed at his side, he wore a smile upon his cracking lips, and his watery eyes shone with magic. You wouldn’t worry about a child such as that, because the child himself did not worry, for all was well in the world.
Then, if you were to pass by those same streets in the midst of the night, you would come upon a seemingly different child, one whose salty tears made trails against his dirt streaked face, whose hands tore at his ragged hair, and who weeped because in the night the dragons would come, but in the dark he could never find his sword of steel.
Though seemingly as different as could be, I was both of those children. The one who played by day and weeped by night. That was the way of life for me. That was how time stretched on for eight long months. I could tell you the story of any of these nights, but it was on a very certain night that my tale is really told. A certain night when everything changed. The night I met the old man with the unraveling shoes.
It had felt the same as any other night, the shadows settled amidst the city, and darkness came to stay. I curled up beside an old cart, a wall of brick behind me, and the rain soaked street beneath. My cold, numbed hands clutched at the pit of my belly, and I willed the hunger to quit stabbing at my side. Tears made their familiar trek across my cheeks, and my shoulders shook with sobs.
Never had I felt so low.
Never had I been so cold.
These were the things I told myself, just as I had the night before, and the night before that, and the things I would surely say tomorrow.
Except tomorrow would be different, just as that day was bound to be different, and different introduced itself with a pair of unraveling boots making their way towards me, and an old wrinkled face with a greying beard.
I wasn’t sure when he had appeared, but there he was. His dark eyes glistened in the starlight. “Why do you cry, boy?” The man asked, his voice soft.
I stared up at his ancient face, and decided at once that he was wise.
I didn’t want to tell the man that I was hungry, or cold, or that the real reason I was crying was because my mother was dead. I didn’t tell him any of these things. Instead, I said the only thing that I could think of. Wiping at my cold cheeks, I choked,“I’m crying, because I don’t have any shoes.”
That was when the old man kneeled down, his eyes becoming level with mine and his knees sinking into the icy rain water. No words escaped from his mouth, no wisdom was given beyond a slight nod of understanding. He simply pulled the jacket from around his shoulders. All at once my feet were being pulled up from their frozen position on the ground, and wrapped inside the warm fabric of his jacket. And then before I could say another word, the man was gone, disappearing behind one of the towering buildings that filled the city.
That night, I slept more soundly than I had for many nights before, and awoke feeling as new as the morning itself. There had only been a slight drizzle throughout the night, and my feet remained cocooned inside the old mans jacket. It was almost painful to bring them back into the freezing London air and place them against the stone pavement. For the briefest of moments, I considered tearing the already tattered jacket into strips, and wrapping those strips firmly about my feet. They would serve as poor shoes, I thought to myself, and beside that, I had hopes that the old man would return, and what would he think of his destroyed coat if he did. So I simply pulled the jacket about my shoulders, and was glad for the warmth that it provided. Then I walked out into the city as I did every morning, with a frown upon my face, and begging in my eyes. To the residents of the city, I looked the same as always, except, today I wore a tent of a jacket around my bony shoulders, and even my saddest expression could not hide the hope inside my eyes. I was still just a poor, begging boy, but now I was a poor begging boy who wore an old mans coat.
That was who I was that day.
And then the night came, and the stars appeared against the sky, and I found myself wishing more than ever that the old man would return, if only to ask for his jacket back. I curled up beside the same old cart that I had the night before, and decided to look at the stars. The fear was back, it coursed icy cold through my veins, yet set fire to my skin. I willed it all away. I gritted my teeth and imagined the fear swallowing itself up and disappearing into nothingness. I imagined the stars being so bright that they filled my eyes with light, and eventually filled me so entirely that I was made up of nothing else but light. So that the light was filling me up like a cup, to a point where I was overflowing with brightness and no dark could ever get in.
The pitter patter of footsteps awoke me from my imaginations. At first my grip on the jacket around me tightened, but then a familiar face appeared around the corner, and I let it loosen and drop to my side.He had come back, of course he had. But it wasn’t just the old man who’d come to visit. He had brought along a friend. A pair of large, dirty boots hung from his swinging hand. I sprang to my feet in excitement, pulling the jacket from around my shoulders. I wasn’t sure why I was smiling, but there it was, a bright grin tugging at my lips.
“Here.” I said to the old man, holding his jacket out.
The old mans eyes shift from me to the jacket, and then his head shakes steadily side to side.
“No.” Is all he says.
And then he hands me the pair of boots in his hand.
“These are for you, boy.”
His voice is so soft, I am reminded of the gentlest of wind rustling against my hair, or the gradual drip drop of water falling from the leaves.
I take them from his hand.
I slip them onto my frozen feet.
And then I lose my balance.
The old man grips at my elbow, steadying my wobbling knees. The skin around his eyes crinkles into a frown, and then a small chuckle escapes his lips.
“Too big then.” He says. His hand beckon. “Give them here.”
“Oh no, sir.” I exclaimed. “They’re just fine. I ain’t complaining. Surely not, sir.”
“Now don’t make a fuss.” He replied. “Just hand em here.”
I kneeled down to remove the shoes, and my feet slipped out without so much as grazing the shoes sides. He took them from my hand, and without so much as another word, turned away and left. I stood there for a few dazed moments, and then took my place back on the ground once again, the coat tightly clenched between my fingers.
The next days went the same as the first and second had, with me counting the hours until the old man would come. I kept track of the chimes of the tower clock as I played with my steel sword, I listened for each passing hour as I begged on the streets, and when the night came, I tucked myself beside that cart, and quietly anticipated the old man. Tonight, it had been a week since the first day he had come, and now I had tried on at least six shoes, all of different size, color, and sort. The only similarity between them being that each was as dirty and worn as the last. I had no idea what they would be that day, but I could honestly say that I hoped they wouldn’t fit. A strange thing to hear, coming from a poor boy who has nothing in the world. But I would have preferred the company of the old man, than a pair of shoes that would send him away for good.
“There are no stars out tonight, boy.”
I turned my head to find the old man standing above me, a pair of muddy shoes in his hand.
“Where have they gone, sir?” I asked.
He settled down beside me, his bones creaking and groaning as if they were as old as the earth itself.
“I sometimes think that they get tired of watching over the world. That they disappear, just long enough to take a breath before returning to the chaos.”
I stared up at him, and then my eyes turned towards the shoes.
He looked down at me, smiling. “It is because of the clouds.”
I nodded in understanding.
“I don’t like it when the clouds hide the stars. “
“No, boy. Nor I.”
We sat in silence for a few moments, and I found myself wishing we could stay there for a few more, but the old mans gravelly voice broke the silence.
“Well, try these on.” He holds up the pair of dirty shoes by their shoelaces.
I slowly take them from his hands.
As soon as I begin to slip my foot into one of the shoes, I know that they are all wrong. They are all wrong, and I am completely grateful.
“Too small.” I say, removing them.
He nods his head in agreement. “Much too small.”
The crease between his eyebrow deepens as he goes into thought.
And then all at once, it disappears, and a curious sort of expression settles across his face.
“What is it, sir?” I ask, concerned.
“I wonder..” He begins. Reaching down, the old man begins to untie the laces of his shoes and slip them from his dirty feet.
He holds them before me.
“What?” I ask, shocked.
“Try these.” He responds, holding them closer.
I choke on my own words. “No, I can’t.”
“You can, and you will.” He takes my hand, and places them there. Some of their dirt crumbles into the palm of my hand, and I let it drop as I bring them to the ground. I had seen these shoes so many times before, yet, they had always been a part of the old man. Now, here they were, on my own feet, and it felt as if they were a different pair of shoes.
A different pair of shoes, that fit perfectly.
My heart sinks into my gut.
“They don’t.” Is all I say. The old mans face holds a bewildered expression. “What do you mean? They fit perfectly. Well I’ll be.” Tears prickle behind my eyes, and then fall against my cheeks.
“What is it?” The old man asks, his gaze softening. I should tell him that I’m crying because I don’t want him to go, and because I am afraid of being alone, but just as the first time we met, I give him an entirely different, but still true answer.
“I’m crying because I finally have a pair of shoes.”
The old man smiled down at me, and then turned his eyes back to the stars.
We sat that way for a short amount of time, letting the minutes pass us by in silence. When the old man arose from his place on the ground, I thought I would begin to cry again. His feet peeked out from the soaking legs of his pants, and his toes were red with cold. “Please, take your shoes.” I said to the old man, reaching for the laces. His hand came up quickly, and he placed it on my shoulder. “They’re no longer my shoes, but yours. Use them well, my young friend.” And with that, the old man leaned down and planted a kiss upon my dirty cheek, pulled his tattered cap firmly on his head, and turned away. I watched him until he disappeared into the darkness. Strange, that he was no longer the old man with the unraveling shoes. And he was no longer simply an old man either. He had become so much more to me.
In the days that followed, I was to find that much can be achieved with a pair of good shoes upon your feet. A band of young travelers came tumbling into the city, and somehow I found my place with them. I overheard one of them, a young man with oddly cropped black hair, and eyes filled with passion. He spoke of a bright new future that they were to find in a distant place,where the rules of society had no power. It wasn’t long before I found myself standing before him, asking the young man to let me come along. After a series of questions, it seemed that his decision rested on one fact, and one fact alone.
“Do you have clothes to wear, and shoes for the journey? There are no handouts here.”
“I have shoes.” I responded.
His eyes fell to my feet, as he took in the frayed laces and unraveling strings.
“Will they get you there before falling apart?”
“Yes.” I responded with utter confidence.
He nodded his head.
“Then get ready. Life is about to change.”
And it did change. It changed so drastically that you could say I was given a whole new life. That is why today, I write to you by the firelight of my home, with my own pen and ink. I listen to the crackling of the fire, and I hear the breathing of sleeping children in the other room. My children. I take in all the beauty around and think to myself, that it all began with an old man, and a pair of unraveling shoes.