He was old. You could tell it from the way his skin drooped on his face, wrinkling and wrapping themselves into folds, pressed over and over again. You could tell it from the way his hand shook as he raised it, hesitantly, over his eyes, too weak to face the wrath of the gentle sun. You could tell it from the lines that seemed etched on to his face, by the glacial slowness of his shambling walk, from the way he smiled, painful and bitter, yet the dregs of the most glorious smiles still lingering there, the remnants of the widest grins, the loudest laughs still hale and hearty on his lips.
“Give to me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses...”
He shivered, but how could he not? Winter was a cruel foe, whose whips only beat you lower into the ground, whose chains only chafed and whose knives only cut, and slowly let blood congeal within your veins, rather than let flow on the cobbled stones. It was natural to shiver, natural to feel the cold dig deeper into your bones as you walked, or ambled, as he did. There was no fire, no warmth; he stood naked before all the fierce pain that winter could give him, all the sadistic misery it could unleash upon him, oblivious of the whimpers he made, there, in the dark.
“...yearning to breathe free...”
He was not a great man. He lived on the streets; certainly, he lay there, that cold and bitter night, sobbing all the while, for a cause unknown, for a memory only he knew and would take, to his dark and dusty grave. You could hear him there, if you were close, searching – though his limbs would not move, his arms would not rise, his legs would not stand, he was searching, searching all the while for every atom of heat he could find, every particle of warmth that graced his presence, though they were few and scant, in the height and blaze of winter. Perhaps this was why he cried; perhaps this was why he wept, as a child must before a parent who knew not the story behind the crime, who knew only the fault and not its owner, who has judged, and judged instantly, though he knows not he does wrong to do so. Even now, perhaps, all the cold harshness of the world was manifesting itself, each more terrible and more dreadful than the last, the life of a hounded man before his dying eyes, and he ... he had only tears...
“...the wretched refuse of your teeming shore...”
And all the while there were people, people everywhere, people laughing, people chatting, eating and making merry, in restaurants and houses and cars that flew past, ignorant of the life that was slowly seeping away, not miles, not years, not centuries but mere minutes away. Could they not hear him? Could they not see him? Only there, on the opposite side, were families crowded into booths, friends and enemies mixed alike, over food and wine and the heavy buzz of a joyous evening in a delicious restaurant! Only there, there was an entire window open, from which men glanced outside and saw his supine form, only to turn away, and leave him to his fate! He could not hate them, he could not speak against them; he could only lie and watch, too tired to hate, too weak to protest, covered only by the cold, watching them all the time, a meek and silent plea before an uncaring crowd, an ancient, forgotten man before a sea of humanity only in name.
And a child watched him from the window.
“... Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me...”
A man walked down that street. He was young, he was successful; it clung to him like scent to women, held fast to him as he walked, brisk and efficiently, down that road, along the pavement: the smell of those who have grown up with love, and have lived in love, and have become those many millions of moderately successful men who line the corners of every street, restless and energetic, bright and intelligent. Perhaps he was going home that night, along that street, down a route worn into his mind by memory, walking as he did every evening, to a home with a loving wife and a lovable child. Perhaps he chose, simply, to walk down that road, for reasons no more than whims, for causes that were no more than wish.
He wore a coat, and winter did not touch him.
He drew closer to the old man, no shadow on the ground in the shadows of night, his footsteps soft and tremulous upon the snow, though fast and brisk, the feet of an ordinary man in an ordinary life in an ordinary world.
He came closer, and, for one moment, glanced down at the dying man upon the roadside, at the stiff form of one who has given up fighting, who has come to accept Death as a prisoner must the gallows, the grim and severe reality that would be the key – though he did not wish to be freed like this, and yet had no choice...
The old man had given up his sobs now, had stopped his tears; his whimpers had ceased, his eyes were fluttering shut. They looked up, just once, devoid of feeling, as blank as those who have had hell visited upon them, whose tears have run dry, as rivers must when there is no water left. Then slowly, they closed once more, and did not look up again.
For a moment, the man continued to gaze down at him. Then, slowly, he took off his coat, and, slowly, laid it on the old man. From his briefcase – for he had one, as moderately successful men always did – he took out his wallet, and from his wallet he took a sheaf of bills, and placed them gently, carefully under the old man’s unresisting hand.
Buy a coat. It’s no season to be wandering around without one.
For a long moment, the man sat there, looking into the old man’s eyes, and, then, just once, the old man nodded his head, and spoke, through a mouth whose tongue, though cold, could stand it, now, from a heart, though chilled, had fire newborn in its blood, in the voice of a simple, grateful man:
The man departed. The homeless man snuggled up to the coat, his fist closed over what to another man would be nothing more than paper dyed green, but was to him the doors of another life.
The child heard every word.
“...I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
When they put Rebecca to bed that night, she had a new prayer:
God bless those who help another.
And her mother smiled, charmed at her daughter’s precocity, and turned off the lights and closed the door and went to bed, while all the while Rebecca remembered all that made them better than human, and smiled, in the darkness of the night.