Orthodox America

  The Orphan

A Christmas Eve story for children

Life was hard, but they did have a mother. The young widow wore herself out trying to keep food on the table for her three children. The family was well acquainted with misery, but life had its happier moments. Even after a hard day's work, when the mother would come home dead tired, she would caress her children and speak tenderly to them, and they would feel that all was well. One would plant himself at her feet and smile at her gentle words. Another would climb onto her lap and, throwing back her curly head, would gaze into her mother's deep, pensive eyes; while the third would stand behind and embrace her neck with his thin arms, exclaiming repeatedly, "Mama, dearest mama!" Those were wonderful times for the children, and the mother, too, could enjoy a rest from her arduous labors.

There came a day, however, when the widow had worn herself down completely and could not even rise from her bed. Soon her body was laid to rest in the grave. Now the children were orphans indeed! They had lost their dearly beloved mother. Vanya remembered the anguished shrieks of his younger brother and sister: "Mama's dead, our dear Mama is dead!" He remembered how she was placed in a coffin, how she was carried out of the house, the funeral in the church, and, finally, the dreadful "thud, thud, thud," made by clumps of frozen earth being thrown onto the lid of the coffin after it had been lowered into the ground. Their dear mother was now in the grave, gone from them forever.

The orphans went home. There they huddled together, clinging to one another for comfort. And so they stood, not wanting to move, until one of them suddenly remembered, "The day after tomorrow is Christmas." "Yes, Christmas," echoed the others. But their voices were sad. When their mother was alive, they would shout merrily, "Christmas! Christmas!" But now... The orphans were entrusted to the care of one of their relatives, a man who already had a number of his own children. He and his wife were not unkind, but the family was quite poor as it was; they could barely feed their own children. The orphans sometimes had to go hungry because the family that sheltered them went hungry, too.

"Ah! ours is a wretched lot," sighed the uncle from time to time. "You can bend over backwards, and still nothing comes of it. And now we've been saddled with these..." Vanya, on hearing this, felt with his child's heart that his uncle was not angry at them, that his words came from sorrow. As if to confirm his feelings, he heard his aunt: "Enough, Fili-pich!" she said to her husband. "It's a sin to complain about one's lot in life, and it's still more sinful to offend an orphan. Orphans are God's children." And she stroked Vanya tenderly on his head. Her words relaxed her husband's mood. He took their youngest son and swung him above his head. "Ai, children. Hurry and grow up. When you're old enough to work, then we'll have a better life, God willing."

One day weeping and wailing could be heard from Uncle Filipich's cottage. And with good reason. Their horse had died. And what is a peasant without a horse? He's like a man without arms. The whole family was drowning in tears. "God will not abandon us, Filipich," said his wife. "But what am I to do without a horse?" "You can go work in town as a day-laborer." "That brings in next to nothing!" "Uncle," piped up Vanya, "I know now how to weave baskets. We can sell them." "That's good thinking, lad," responded his uncle and, waving his hand, he went out of the cottage.

Filipich began working in town as a hired man. He'd work all day, and in the evening he'd come home to his village, only two miles' distance. All of his pay would go towards feeding the family and the orphans. His nephew kept his word and sold the baskets he wove in town. Still, the money that the uncle and his nephew made together was only enough for food. Winter was approaching, and one child needed a coat, another needed a hat, a third something else... Altogether they needed quite a lot. Filipich was aware of this. He walked home, thinking to himself: "Here it is almost winter. We have to get in a supply of firewood, but to do it we need a horse. And the wife's coat is in tatters; how can she possibly go out to fetch water in the cold weather? Ai, poverty is bitter!" Filipich knit his brow, trying to think of some solution. Meanwhile, at home there awaited him news of a fresh calamity. Whether from poor feed, or because she was old, their last cow died. Filipich threw up his hands in despair.

"What's to be done?! We'll have to send the children out into the world," he thought. And in-deed, no matter how much Filipich exerted himself, no matter how industriously his nephew worked weaving baskets, there was nothing to be done but to send the older lads out into the streets to beg. Again there were tears. And it was not only the children who cried; mother and father wept, too. They dressed their ten-year old son, Petya, and their orphaned nephew, Vanya, as warmly as possible. Then, blessing them with the sign of the Cross, they sent them off to town to ask alms "for Christ's sake."

Again, the Feast of Nativity drew near. Filipich spent the whole week in town working, not even coming home for the night; he wanted to earn as much as possible before the Feast in order to buy some presents. At last, the day before the Feast, he came home bearing his inexpensive purchases. There at home, the children awaited him eagerly. And what kind of purchases did he bring? If children of wealthy parents saw them, they would have walked away from them, but these poor children were glad even of such shabby and paltry gifts. The eldest son tugged on a worn, patched coat that barely reached his knees; a younger brother put on an old hat that almost covered his nose; their sister tried on a pair of boots that were closer to the size of her mother's. The food stuffs for the feastday were of the same poor quality, but the children rejoiced even in these. They gave thanks to God, and went to bed.

Here it was, the eve of Christ's Nativity. Petya and Vanya went to town to ask for alms. Around the time of major feasts, people were especially generous. In general, all kind Orthodox Christians have compassion on their poorer brethren in Christ, and each gives as he is able. At the bakery they gave generous loaves of white bread to the poor; at the gateway to homes belonging to the wealthy, the poor were given money; everywhere along the streets one could see passersby thrusting coins into the open hands of those reduced to poverty.

Petya and Vanya received their share. By midday Petya's bag was full, and he made his way home to the village. Vanya stayed later, wanting to bring back as much as he could for the family. Before he realized, the pale winter light had faded. The weather turned and it began to snow. As he hurried to go home, the storm picked up... Vanya trudged along through the growing darkness. He was tired, and the bag pulled on his shoulders. His hands grew numb. Overtaken by cold and fatigue, the boy sat down in the snow to rest. He was not afraid of the dark; it was not the first time he was making his way home so late. But the driving snow... Vanya got up and again pushed himself on his way. He shivered as the icy wind cut his cheeks. How tired he was. His legs felt as though they would buckle under him at any moment. Indeed, just then a strong gust of wind toppled him into the snow. "I'm going to freeze," he thought, "but I don't have much farther to go. I think I see lights..." Vanya tried to get up, but he had no strength. "Oh, how I wish I could go to sleep," he thought. "But if I go to sleep, the snow will cover me, I'll freeze-and tomorrow is Nativity." Again Vanya made an effort to get up, and again he collapsed. "I'll fall asleep... I'll freeze... Nativity... Petya is at home..." His mind wandered. Another minute and he would fall asleep-and never wake up. Providentially, a troika was just then dashing along the same road. In his half-conscious state, Vanya heard the tinkling of the harness bells. "They must have gone by," he thought dreamily. But the driver's sharp eyes had caught sight of him. "Sir!" he shouted to his passenger. "We just passed some dark shape."

"Get along with you - and make it quick. We'll be late for the party." "We'll make it, sir; the troika, God willing, will get us there in time. Do allow me to take a closer look. What if it should be some person?" "Well, all right, but step lively." "So it is," came the voice of the driver through the snow. "A pauper lad. The poor thing. He was probably going home for Nativity." The baron shuddered. He thought of his own children, at home, warm. "Quick, bring him here!" he shouted to the driver. "Can we save him? That would be the best Christmas present for the children." He wrapped the boy in his fur coat. "Let's get a move on. I see lights ahead; there must be a village."

As the horses raced through the snow, the baron rubbed the boy's temples and hands and breathed warm air into his face. The horses flew into the street. "Stop at the first cottage!" The door opened, and the baron carried in the boy. He had some wine, and he began to rub the boy vigorously with the alcohol. He also employed other remedies, and within an hour Vanya opened his eyes and began breathing more normally. While the baron was bringing the boy around, the old women of the cottage fluttered about, doing what they could to help and whispering among themselves, "It's orphan-Vanya! The poor boy! And on the eve of Nativity! God saved him." The baron learned where Filipich lived and took Vanya there himself. While they were driving to the other side of the village, Vanya kept looking to the right of the baron, where he saw a beautiful woman holding in her arms an equally beautiful child. "How is it," Vanya thought to himself, "that he is so little and he doesn't even look cold. I'm much bigger, and I nearly froze."

The baron carried Vanya onto the warm stove and was appalled by the family's poverty. He questioned Filipich about everything, and said, "Tomorrow is Christmas. For Christ's sake, accept this as a gift," and he handed him a hundred-ruble note. Filipich was about to fall at the baron's feet, but the baron rushed out the door, and his horses sped along the snow, carrying the baron home for his family's Christmas party. Tomorrow, on the Feast of Christ's Nativity, he would tell his dear children how he had saved a poor orphan from death. "Today," reflected the baron, "is the happiest day of my life: God granted me to save a human life."

On the Feast of Nativity, Vanya described to everyone how beautiful the baron's wife was, and her adorable child. "But the baron was alone," he was told. "No, no," insisted Vanya. "I saw the baronness and the child." Then he thought for a moment. "The baronness and the child looked a lot like the Mother of God and Christ that we have in the church." Then everyone understood just what Woman and what Child Vanya had seen. Filipich, thanks to the assistance of the baron, is now living more comfortably. His children and the orphans have grown up and are able to help him. For his part, Filipich has managed to put aside a hundred rubles. "These are the orphans' monies," he said to his wife. "God sent it to them, and through them to me, a sinner. As soon as they are out on their own, I'll give them these hundred rubles." "And you took it into your head to grumble at your fate," his wife said with a smile. "Yes, that was sinful of me. Who knows what would have become of us if it hadn't been for orphan-Vanya!"

Each year, on the Feast of Nativity, the Filipich family has a moleben served for the health of their benefactor.

Translated from Pravoslavnaya Rus, No. 23, 1998, where it was reprinted from the book, Khristos-zhizn nasha, compiled by S. Symarokov, Harbin, 1942.

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