The Cold Within

On a cold Christmas Eve, in any cold town in any cold winter, sometime in the early 1900s, a young man sat on the steps of an old church. He fiddled with a shimmering gold chain, at the end of which dangled a small, oval-shaped locket, and due to the shabbiness of the young man’s appearance, did not seem to suit him as well as it might someone of more wealth. Though he wore naught but a torn and faded suit, the man did not shiver–he was used to the bitter wind biting at his limbs, and he gazed off at the towns-people, thinking…thinking…

The man had nothing else of value–no house, no horse, no bank account of any size, yet he was determined to save the golden locket, despite his burning hunger, which he refused to acknowledge, or his aching limbs, which I have already said he had gotten used to over the years. The day grew into night, and the man grew colder.

Now this night was by far the coldest night that the town had had in a long time, yet the man tried to bear it, until his very bones began to feel numb, and he got up, and began to walk. He walked and walked, and beginning to realize that if he did not find some sort of solitude, he would freeze. He walked some more, and coming upon a rich and fancy-looking house, he could take it no more–he strolled on up to the front door, took a deep breath, and knocked–three big resounding knocks. He waited. Finally, a big, older man answered the door, dressed in a fine suit, with a chicken-stained napkin stuffed in his collar. “What?” he grumbled.

The young pauper, shivering, said “I’m sorry to bother you sir, but it’s freezing and I’d like to stay somewhere warm, even a basement would–”

“No.” said the rich man. “What charity do you think this is? Work for your shelter, scoundrel! Like the rest of us!” And he slammed the door in the young man’s face.

The young man did not react or yell back, just turned around and went on his way, to try his luck with another house.

But he received the same response. For hours the man walked, trying desperately to find someone with a little kindness–he did not seek pity, just survival. And yet he was not obliged by anyone, for nobody cared – who gives a second thought to a beggar on the street? And as the hours went on, he wandered his way full circle, back to the church steps, and sat down in his usual spot. He took out the little golden locket, and continued to stare into space, as if he had never moved.

The next morning all the townspeople headed for church for the Christmas Day mass, including the big old rich man and all the others who the young man had sought help from the night before. And they all came to see a big crowd around the steps. Curious, they looked, peering over each other’s shoulders to see what the fuss was all about. And when they could see, they saw a young man, the same! Sitting on the steps just as he always was, with the golden locket in his hand–and they peered at the photograph inside it as it turned side to side in the light wind. It was a picture of a young woman, beautiful. It was the man’s wife, whom he had lost, barely a year ago. The man, so stricken with grief, his soul stripped of luster, had fallen, a beggar, poor and wandering the streets.
And as the townspeople craned their warm, scarf-wrapped necks to peer, they heard the other people saying things like “What a shame,” and “On Christmas Day!” and “He looks so young!” And as they listened each other’s pity for a young man, frozen to death, on a church’s steps, they came to recognize the man. Looks of guilt spread across the faces in the crowd, as they came to realize that he had not, in fact, died from the cold outside, but from their hardened hearts toward the poor pauper; that is, he had died from the cold within.

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