Monday, December 25, 2006

A Christmas Story From Paulo Coelho

Jose’s Sandals

A long time ago, so many years ago that we can
no longer remember the exact date, there lived in a
village in the south of Brazil a little seven-year-old boy
called José. He had lost his parents when he was very,
very young and had been adopted by a miserly aunt
who, even though she had lots of money, spent almost
nothing on her nephew. José, having never known the
meaning of love, assumed that this was simply the way
life was and so it didn’t bother him at all.

They lived in an extremely affluent neighbourhood,
but the aunt persuaded the head teacher of the local
school to take on her nephew for only a tenth of the
normal tuition fee, threatening to complain to the
Prefect if he declined her offer. The head teacher had
no option but to agree; however, he instructed the
teachers to take every opportunity to humiliate José in
the hope that he would misbehave and give them a
pretext for expelling him. José, having never known
love, assumed that this was simply the way life was
and so it didn’t bother him at all.

Christmas Eve arrived. The village priest was on holiday
and all the pupils had to go to mass in a church
some distance from the village. The girls and boys
walked along, chatting about what they would find the
next day beside the shoes they left out for Father
Christmas: fashionable clothes, expensive toys, chocolates,
skateboards, and bicycles. Since it was a special
day, they were all well-dressed, all except José, who was
wearing his usual ragged clothes and the same battered
sandals several sizes too small (his aunt had given them
to him when he was four, saying that he would only get
a new pair when he was ten). Some of the children
asked why he was so poor and said they would be
ashamed to have a friend who wore such clothes and
shoes. Since José had never known love, their questions
and comments didn’t bother him at all.

However, when they went into the church, and he
heard the organ playing and saw the bright lights and
the congregation in their Christmas finery, saw families
gathered together and parents embracing their
children, José felt he was the most wretched of creatures.
After communion, instead of walking back home
with the others, he sat down on the steps of the church
and began to cry. He may never have known love, but
only at that moment did he understand what it was to
be alone and helpless and abandoned by everyone.
Just then, he noticed another small boy beside him,
barefoot and apparently as poor as he was. He had
never seen the boy before and so assumed that he must
have walked a long way to get there. He thought: ‘His
feet must be really sore. I’ll give him one of my sandals.
That will at least relieve half of his pain.’

Although José had never known love, he knew about
suffering and didn’t want others to experience it too.
He gave one of his sandals to the boy and returned
home with the other one. He wore the sandal first on
his right foot and then on his left, so that he didn’t
bruise the soles of his feet too badly on the stones
along the way. As soon as he reached home, his aunt
noticed that he was wearing only one sandal and told
him that if he didn’t find the other sandal the next day,
he would be harshly punished.

José went to bed feeling very afraid because he
knew what his aunt’s punishments were like. He lay all
night trembling with fear, barely able to sleep at all, and
then, just as he was about to drowse off, he heard voices
in the front room. His aunt rushed in, demanding to
know what was going on. Still groggy from lack of
sleep, José joined their visitors and, in the middle of the
front room, saw the sandal he had given to the little boy.
Now, however, it was surrounded by all kinds of toys,
bicycles, skateboards and clothes. The neighbours were
shouting and screaming, declaring that their children
had been robbed, because when they woke up, they had
found nothing beside their shoes at all.

At this point, the priest from the church where they
had celebrated mass the previous day arrived all out of
breath: on the steps of the church a statue of the Baby
Jesus had appeared, clothed entirely in gold, but wearing
only one sandal. Silence fell, everyone present
praised God and his miracles, and the aunt wept and
begged for forgiveness. And José’s heart was filled
with the energy and the meaning of Love.

(Based on a story written in 1903 by François Coppée)
Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa

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