John was a petty thief; he earned his daily bread by robbing homes. He chose late nights, and holidays for this activity as it got him quick money. His victims were intimidated by his gun, and the time of the night; he took complete advantage of their fear. He didn’t spend too much time in a house, lest he should get caught. He made away with whatever he could grab. Besides, two thefts were not similar, he sometimes left false leads to put the cops on a wrong track; this puzzled them a great deal.
He lived by himself in a one room dingy house. His wife had left him sometime back; she had taken their two sons away with her. She had said, ‘I want to give the children a good education and raise them with a good value system. That would not happen if they lived here. I don’t want even your shadow anywhere near them. I hope they become policemen and catch you in your act and have you put away in jail; that would bring some peace to the neighborhood. Don’t even make an attempt to follow us; if you do I’ll hand you over to the police right away’. He had shrugged his shoulders and dismissed the episode; he was happy that he was now free to do as he pleased.
John looked out of the window; it was going to be a white Christmas this time around. It had been snowing for the past two days; its intensity had come down for the day. There was a white carpet of about two inches snow. Today being Christmas Eve, he knew that many houses would be empty; people would be found in the nearest church or at their friends/family’s house to bring in the festivities together. This was the best time to make his move. He sighed as he had to dress up to keep the cold away; he didn’t like the draft of the cold breeze.
Though he was going out on his favorite hunt, he wasn’t able to shake off a heavy feeling of sadness that was engulfing him. He felt lonely and was missing his family a bit. He wondered what they were doing for Christmas. He rebuked himself, straightened up and got ready to go out, before he lost himself in self-pity.
As he had imagined, the task was quite effortless in the night. The first two houses were like sitting ducks for the job. He had first made sure that nobody was in the house, before he struck. He was an ace at picking locks; he let himself inside and grabbed whatever he could. He decided to call it a day since he had collected more than he normally did during such a run. He was planning to turn around to go home, but then one house caught his attention. It was a small house and was at the end of the lane. He walked towards it like in a trance; he hadn’t acted like this before.
He saw a light in the hallway but couldn’t see anybody. May be they forgot to switch off the lights, he said to himself. He reached for the knob of the door and was about to pick the lock; but viola the door opened, it was not locked. John’s curiosity knew no bound; he walked carefully inside- ready for any action.
“Good, you found the time to look me up. Come right in, I was feeling lonely on this lovely day. Please close the door, the cold draft makes me uncomfortable. At this old age, I can’t afford to fall ill and cause trouble to others,” the lady said, from within.
John was about to slink away, but he stopped in his tracks. He was enthused by what he had heard; she was an elderly person who was alone in the house. He took firm strides to cover the distance between them and was now face to face with the grand old lady.
She was much older than he thought; may be in her eighties- he said to himself. She looked shriveled and wrinkled; just a bag of bones. Her hair was unkempt, like she hadn’t combed for some time. She was wearing an old torn gown, a sweater and socks to keep the cold away. Her looks were begging for a nice clean bath.
He was rudely interrupted from his thoughts; “I have not seen you around here- who are you?” she asked curiously.
“My name is John,” he blurted out before he could stop himself.
“Come and sit here, John. By the way you could call me Irene,” she said.
“I haven’t come here to sit and chat with you. Do you know I am a thief and I have come to rob you?” John said threateningly. He walked forward with a menacing look on his face and pointed the gun directly at her. “Where do you hide your treasure? Tell me fast- I don’t have the whole day to humor you,” he sneered at her.
“Son, I wish I had something to give you. I have no use for money, gold and stuff like that anymore; I live on the kindness of people now. If I’m lucky I get food to eat and am taken care of when I fall ill. I preserve myself well so that I’m not a nuisance to others. I’m waiting for the Almighty’s call- so that I could go live near him and be under his grace.”
“Ah- yes, I have one thing, actually two – which I treasure very much. One is this rocking chair on which I sit most of the time waiting for people to come home so that I could chit chat with them. The other is the TV; since I can’t travel around all my desires are satisfied by watching this media channel. Once I see something I like- I let my imagination go wild. I enjoy the exercise very much,” she said softly.
“Please rummage through the entire house and pick up anything that you want- you have the whole night for it. I promise you that I will not give you away. It would be my pleasure to give you whatever you want- as Christmas gifts. But could I beseech you to have some dinner with me first. I’m feeling hungry and would love to share what I have with you,” Irene pleaded.
He was about to protest, but he liked the spread that was laid on the table. What the hell, my act could wait a while. Besides wasn’t she the one who told me that I could take whatever I wanted, John thought mercilessly.
They shared a lovely meal together; and she kept a happy banter going throughout. She regaled him with anecdotes from her life and soon he was bawling with laughter. She ate meagerly, but made sure that he had a generous share of the food. He looked up at her surprised; “I thought you were very hungry, you hardly ate anything. Looks like I cleared most of the food here,” he said embarrassed.
“I feel very content, if I have someone to share what I have,” she said, simply. He was taken aback by the argument; he had never lived by this rule!
“Wait a minute, there is something more here. Ah, a cake- must be a Christmas cake,” John muttered.
“No that cake is to celebrate my husband – Kevin’s ninetieth birthday. He left me close to four decades ago. When I was younger and more able-bodied I used to bake his favorite chocolate cake and share it with friends who came home that day. But alas, I’m not able to do it anymore. The volunteers make sure that I have the cake on this special day. Come let’s check it out,” Irene said, trying to choke back her tears.
“Sorry if I’m intruding, but your husband must have died very young?” John asked, feeling an emotion tugging his heart.
“Yes indeed. He was just in his forties. He saved a little girl from being hit by a speeding car and lost his life in the bargain. He taught me to be compassionate and kind to people. He was ready to share whatever he had with the others.” Irene said sadly, but with a pride in her voice.
“What happened to the girl, do you know?” asked John loudly.
“Her family gave me support and helped me all these years. Unfortunately the parents are no more. The girl- Mary – is now a Professor in a university in Canada. She migrated with her family there a few years back. She wanted me to go there with them, but I refused. I can’t leave this house; I shared and created so many happy moments with Kevin,” Irene stopped.
“Why? You are leading a miserable life here. You have to depend on others to take care of you,” John asked confused.
“Mary has hired some volunteers to take care of me here. Who said I’m alone? I have Kevin and Lord Jesus to give me company. Besides, the volunteers are here every day; they come and spend some time with me. You don’t see anybody here today, because many of them have gone to spend Christmas with their families and I refused to leave home today,” Irene said obstinately.
“I don’t understand you still,” said John perplexed.
“Son, it is your thoughts that make you rich and happy, not material collections. You can tackle any problem if you have the strength of mind; material wealth can give you physical comfort but not mental bliss. Son, you are so young, shouldn’t you be living a life of dignity? You are living in perpetual dread; worrying about whether you would get caught soon, isn’t it? What does your family think about your work?” Irene asked gently.
John talked about his life in a choked voice. Irene looked at him directly and asked, “Then why are you doing it? Is this worth it? You are missing out on your children, wife,” and he said he did.
“I realize that I have erred in life- what can I do now?” he asked in a tortured voice. He sat back shaken and Irene let him be, without intruding. After a while he was willing to talk more about his life.
They chatted for a couple of hours; Irene did all the talking. She was able to convince him about the folly of his acts and he agreed to act as she advised him. He left promising to turn a new leaf in the future. After he left, Irene bowed her head in prayer. “Oh Lord; thanks for giving me the strength to help a person in need. I hope life deals with him better from now on- Amen.”
John was deeply influenced by what Irene had told him on that eve of Christmas. He decided to take responsibility for his actions; so over the next few months he came clean about his past with the cops.
John surrendered to the police and returned whatever items he still had in his possession. Irene put in a good word on his behalf, because of which he got a much shorter stint in the jail. Irene’s words were respected by the cops and the government officials, for they had seen how she had led her life. John went to fetch his wife Becky and sons, once he was released from the jail. His wife was not easily convinced and he had to tell her what he done in the recent past. “I want to meet the lady who had this influence on you,” Becky said eagerly.
They went to Irene’s house after they had settled in. Finally Becky was going to see the lady who had brought the family back together again. Becky’s hand reached out to the calling bell in Irene’s house. “Go in Becky, the door is always open,” John grinned.
Irene was thrilled to see John with his family at her place. They spent a lovely day together chatting and getting to know each other. They had to do some hard negotiation to convince her to come and stay with them. “Irene, I will be responsible for the upgrade of this place. We will come often to spend some time here. You are in no position to spend the rest of the days by yourself,” Becky said firmly. Her sons too added their two bits to plead with their ‘newfound’ grandmother to join them.
Irene looked at John with a glint in her eyes. “That was smart, son. You made your wife and children speak on your behalf; it is very difficult for me to say no to them.”
Irene then looked at the image of Lord Jesus and said softly, “Thanks for giving my son a second chance in life. I’m confident that he will make the best use of it now.” They all joined her in her prayer to Lord Jesus and asked for strength to face the future.
Usha Sridhar is an independent researcher and resides in Bangalore. At a personal level she loves traveling, is an avid bird watcher and an amateur photographer. Usha, is passionate about poetry and short stories. She loves to observe the ebb and flow of life around and weave them into tales in verse. Her poems and short story contributions have appeared in RatemyLiterature, MuseIndia, and efiction India. Her poems have also appeared in several anthologies. Her first poetry collection called ‘Life Matters’ is being released shortly.