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- Story Listed as: Fiction For Teens
- Theme: Inspirational stories
- Subject: Kindness / Paying Forward
- Published: 12/18/2018
Apples of GoldBorn 1945, M, from Farmersburg, United States
I walked through the early darkness. Stripped of their foliage, the trees stood in stark contrast to the cloud-laden sky. My nightly trek to catch a glimpse of the deer in the north woods took longer than I had anticipated. Having seen them out here a few times before, I had become enthralled with their antics and walked a little farther hoping to see them. After the heat of August and September, I welcomed the cool days of November and December. The few flakes of snow drifting through the barren branches promised more to come. I hurried along, crunching dead leaves underfoot and taking in the scent that rose like perfume. Tomorrow was Christmas. I never lost the excitement or the wonder of the day. Even now, as a grownup, the expectation of Christmas makes my heart beat faster. The cold air was refreshing. However, the temperature had fallen 10 degrees in the last hour. The chill was beginning to penetrate even my thick clothing. The stream on the other side of the hill rushed along as if trying to escape the ice forming at its edges. It would soon lose the race. In April, the water flowed fast and furiously. Today it was a swift trickle. I crossed cautiously, the water just covering the soles of my gumboots. On the hill to my right, a coyote howled at the pale, rising moon. His brother answered from my left. Both were hidden in the brush. Even though I knew coyotes rarely attack humans, the hair rose on the back of my neck. I quickened my
steps. Dipping below the horizon, the red sun signaled a fair day upon its rising. Its breath heavy with snow, the north wind begged to differ. Maybe tomorrow we would wake to the sight of a pristine white world. There is nothing as peaceful as a silent snowfall with its flakes gently floating down to cover the flawed earth. Like people, each one is of a different design. At the back of the house, the birds were huddling around the feeders. Several years ago, I built platform feeders to provide for the birds, squirrels, chipmunks and an occasional coon or possum. Tonight, several cardinals, a couple of blue jays, some finches and a titmouse or two took advantage of my accommodation. The birds were grabbing a few last bites to keep them warm through the hours of darkness. If it snowed, the feeders would be inundated with feathered friends by morning. Tonight the birds would roost in the fir trees surrounding the house. We planted several in hopes they would seek shelter in their branches during the winter. Also, the trees lend our home protection from the cruel north wind. Tonight, human and animal alike sought shelter from the freezing blast. The chipmunks and squirrels had gone home hours ago, but they would return at first light to partake of our holiday fare. The Aikmans would visit tonight, as they had for the last 15 years. Denver and Anna were an elderly couple with no children. Many years ago my wife suggested we invite them for Christmas Eve dinner. I must admit, in the beginning I didn't like the idea. Don't get me wrong, Aikman is a very pleasant gentleman. He and his wife are among the most highly respected couples in our community. Nevertheless, I like spending this special evening alone with my wife. Yet as time went on, I began to look forward to their visits. The Aikmans were a couple of indefinite age. All he would say is that they were south of 80. They lived in a small pinewood cabin in a little hollow a mile back in the woods. They seldom ventured out. About once a month, I would go to
their home and Anna would hand me her list of items needed from the general store. Each time she apologized for its length. Upon my return, Aikman would offer to pay me for my gas and time. I always refused, and he said the same: "You cannot do a good deed without being rewarded. Someday, God will reward you and then you cannot refuse." His accent was European, though I can't identify the country. Opening the door, I'm greeted by my smiling wife and the aroma of a wonderful meal. How fortunate I am. I have a beautiful, loving wife, plenty of food and a pleasant home. The love radiating from her heart and the hearts of my friends keeps me warm even on the coldest nights. Knowing Denver and Anna are never late, my wife has timed the meal perfectly. She takes the golden turkey out of the oven at 5:50. The table is set with our best china and silverware. The dinnerware gleams against the backdrop of her best linen tablecloth. The table itself seems to groan under the weight of the food. The scent of candles mingles with the aromas produced by my wife’s culinary flair, delighting the nose as well as the heart. Promptly at six, there is a gentle knock on the door. We open it to a rush of cold air and the Aikmans. We greet each other with handshakes and hugs. Once we relieve them of their coats and hats, we gather around the table. After thanking the good Lord for this wonderful meal and good friends, we dig in. Denver and Anna compliment my wife on her cuisine. As the meal progresses, we reminisce about old friends gone and sadly missed, the year that’s passed and our plans for the new one. After the meal, we settle in a half circle by the fireplace. After filling each cup, my wife sets the carafe of hot spiced wassail on the table. Settling back into the overstuffed chair, Aikman says, "Now you know, Christmas is a time of miracles." Taking a sip of the wassail, he smacks his lips and carefully sets the cup on a coaster. He folds his gnarled hands over his chest. The story is about to begin and my wife and I lean forward in
anticipation. Denver is a wonderful storyteller. My wife and I look forward to his stories whenever they visit. "Many years ago in a country far away, there lived two young people. James’ and Sarah's lives first became intermingled in a remote orphanage at the tender age of six. James parents were killed in a boating accident; Sarah's mother and father simply abandoned her. She was brought to the orphanage on Christmas Eve by the landlady of the rooming house where Sarah and her parents had been staying. It was Christmas Eve and too late to buy Sarah a gift. Also, the couple in charge were poor, with no money to purchase one. On Christmas morning, she stood back and watched with sad eyes as the other children opened their gifts. Picking up his one and only gift, James asked one of the girls if she would trade her doll for it. “The girl readily agreed, as she already had two. Taking the torn wrapping paper, James covered the doll as best he could and presented it to Sarah. She looked at him with wide eyes and smiled for the first time since her arrival. “Sarah was too shy to play with the children, until James invited her. As the years passed, the two became inseparable. They ate, played and studied together. To see one was to see the other. They could not remember when they fell in love. It seemed their love had no beginning. They knew it would have no end. “When they became eighteen, it was only natural that they would marry. James and Sarah chose the setting that seemed fitting: the orphanage. And for them, the only proper time of the year, Christmas Eve. The old pastor who ran the orphanage was delighted to perform the ceremony. They left with a promise to return and adopt a child in a year or two when they had established a stable home." Aikman paused and reached for his cup. With unsteady hands, he drank the remaining punch. Always the gracious hostess, my wife refilled his cup and refreshed Anna’s, mine and her own. Aikman thanked her, folded his hands and went on with his story.
"A happier couple were never known. James secured employment with the local locksmith. They found a tiny apartment above the stable. Sarah sewed lacy curtains and hung them at the drafty windows. James painted the walls and stuffed the cracks with old rags. They dined on the simplest fare, yet their lives were a continual feast. Their love knew no bounds. Every evening, James rushed home to his lovely wife. Sarah greeted him with a hug and a kiss, bubbling over with the events of the day, the people she met in the shops, the new baby down the walk. James listened with a smile but, his day having provided no good report, said very little. The locksmith was a cruel and unpleasant man. He had driven many employees away with his sour disposition and hardhearted ways. “As spring turned into summer and autumn to winter, he found fault with everything the young man did. Each morning, James found it more and more difficult to leave his bride, yet he endeavored never to worry her with tales of the shop owner’s harshness." Aikman paused again. Pulling a white handkerchief from his back pocket, he wiped his eyes and blew his nose. He stared out the window. Snow was falling at a rapid pace. He was silent for so long I started to rise, disappointed that the story had ended. More perceptive than I, my wife placed a restraining hand on my arm. Aikman started again, his voice low and tremulous. "There were but a few days before Christmas and very little money for buying gifts. Sarah had managed to save a few pennies from the food budget. She counted, then counted again. Just thirty coins, not enough to purchase even a cheap gift. She had failed her loving husband. She threw herself on the bed and dissolved in tears. “Unbeknownst to her, for weeks James had worked through his lunch hour. The shop owner had promised to pay him extra. However, the man did not intend to fulfill his promise. Jealous of the young couple’s love, the locksmith had
devised a plan to both fill his coffers and destroy their marriage. “Early on Christmas Eve morning, he crept into the bakery next door and treacherously killed the owner. Taking the bag of money from under the counter, he hid it away. When James arrived at the shop a short time later, the locksmith slipped a few coins into his lunch pail. When the bakery didn't open, the police were summoned. They discovered the baker dead beside his oven. Finding no clues in the bakery, they went next door and asked permission to search the shop. Having secured the money bag in his home, the owner happily agreed. Within a few minutes, they discovered the stolen coins hidden in the bottom of James’ lunch pail. They arrested James and took him in handcuffs to the station. “The interrogation lasted all day and into the night, with James still maintaining his innocence. The constable dispatched a team to his home to search for the rest of the money. Three men entered the small apartment and tore it asunder. Sarah watched in horror as they rummaged through the old chest and tossed about her lingerie. Finding nothing of significance, they left her in tears to mend the damage. However, their cruel and unjust action could not shake her faith in her husband or her God. As soon as the door slammed behind them, she fell to her knees weeping and praying. “She was still on her knees when there was a knock at the door. Thinking this was the answer to her prayers, she leaped to her feet and ran to the door, flinging it open." Aikman’s wassail had grown cold. Once again he wiped his eyes and nose. The snow was falling more heavily, turning the stark world into a land of beauty. The elderly man laid his head back and closed his eyes. He appeared to fall asleep. This time Anna stopped us as we stirred from our chairs. "He will continue in a moment," she said, her voice faint and shaky as though she had run a long distance. Just as she said, Aikman's voice began again, but he spoke slowly, as if under a great burden.
"There at the door stood an old woman clothed in rags. She held a crooked walking stick in one hand and a filthy bag in the other. 'Please missy, I have no place to sleep tonight,' she said, looking hopefully at Sarah. “Sarah's heart broke thinking of that long past Christmas Eve when she first came to the orphanage. ‘Come in, and welcome. I don't have much, but what I have is yours,' she said, swallowing her disappointment. “Stepping aside, she welcomed the crippled old woman into her shabby home. The elderly woman's wrinkled face broke into a smile. Once inside, she lifted her nose and sniffed the air. 'Ah, that stew smells good. I haven't had a bite all day. Would ye have a bit fer a hungry old woman, deary?' She eyed her hostess expectantly. “With no appetite herself, Sarah dished all the stew into the bowl with the fewest cracks. The old woman ate heartily, wiping the bowl with the last piece of bread in the house. 'Thank ye, deary, God will reward ye beyond your dreams,' she said with a toothless smile. “Sarah dismissed the old woman's statement as idle talk. After she had eaten, the woman threw her sack in the corner, curled up in front of the fireplace and promptly fell asleep. “Her heart too full of anguish to sleep, Sarah sat in the rocker praying. The old woman's snoring seemed to shake the small apartment. Covering her with a blanket, Sarah stoked the fire. Eyeing the bag lying in the corner, she carefully opened it. An unpleasant odor assailed her nose. The clothing in the bag seemed even shoddier than those on the old woman’s back. An overwhelming sadness struck Sarah; here was one worse off than she. “Tiptoeing to the cabinets, she took down the small jar of coins. Opening the container, she poured the few coins she had saved for James’ Christmas gift in among the garments in the bag. Behind Sarah's back, the old woman watched. A smile tickled her face as she saw the young girl secret the money in with her clothing. Quietly setting the bag back in the
corner, Sarah returned to the rocker. The woman closed her eyes. Sarah had been tested and passed. “James spent a cold, lonely night in a jail cell, looking up at the stars through the barred window and praying for a miracle. He thought of the story the elderly pastor at the orphanage told every Christmas Eve. “As the children sat on the floor by the tree, he told how God sent His Son to be the Savior of the world. He remembered the pastor saying Christ came to set the captive free. On his knees, James prayed for the miracle only God could perform. Emotionally exhausted, the young couple fell asleep, she in the shabby apartment, he in the lonely jail cell. “Secretly, God began His marvelous work." Here Aikman paused. Smiling, he lifted his cup and downed the cold wassail despite my wife’s asking if she could warm it for him. Politely refusing, he continued with the story. "As the sun topped the horizon, James awoke to the rattling of chains. Pushing himself up from the stone floor, he stumbled to the bars. Supported by two constables, the locksmith staggered down the hallway, his hands and feet manacled. After they secured the man in the cell at the end, the officers returned. Opening James' cell, they told him he was free to go. “It seemed that in the night, the locksmith woke to find the baker leaning over him. In the man's hand was the knife with which the locksmith had killed him. Jumping terrified from his bed, the locksmith ran through the house with the baker close behind. The phantom caught him in the front room. Prodding the locksmith’s throat with the point of the knife, the baker leaned into his face. Exuding the odor of death, he said one word: 'Confess.' “The locksmith ran in his night shirt all the way to the police station. The police would have dismissed his story as a dream if not for the small cuts on his throat. “Exuberant upon his release, James raced home. Bounding up the stairs, he found the door locked and bolted.
His pounding startled Sarah awake. Jumping up, she ran to the door, threw back the bolt and flung it open. Tears streamed down their cheeks as the two young lovers fell into each other's arms. Babbling, each tried to tell their story. Finally James said, 'You first.' “'We have a Christmas guest,' Sarah said, smiling. Grasping James’ hand, she turned. A look of bewilderment covered her face. The blanket lay on the floor with no one under it. “'Where did she go?' “'Who?' “Quickly, Sarah told James about the old woman. A search of the small apartment proved fruitless. 'Where could she have gone? Here's her b...' “Sarah stopped and stared at the corner. Gone was the filthy bag. In its place was an elegant silk pouch. Awestruck, James and Sarah approached it. The bag seemed to be spun from the finest silk. Opening it, they stared in amazement. Inside were eight apples of gold encrusted with rows of jewels. At the bottom of the bag lay thirty gold coins and a note.” Aikman finished abruptly. “And so they lived happily ever after. It’s time to go, Anna." Slapping his knees, he stood to his feet. "Wait a minute,” I protested. “You can't leave us hanging. What did the note say?" Laying his hand on my shoulder, the elderly man replied, "You will find out soon enough, my friend." No amount of prodding would convince him to reveal the contents of the note. Anna seemed more reluctant to leave than in years past. She and my wife had always had a special relationship, more like mother and daughter than friends. To give them more time together, I went out and warmed up the jeep. Aikman accompanied me. Thinking back on that night, he too appeared hesitant to leave. Anna hugged my wife one last time before climbing into the back seat.
As I drove them home, Denver and Anna were quieter than usual. At the cabin, I helped him carry in firewood. Lingering until they had a roaring fire going in the old stove in the living room, I left with a promise to return the next day. I can still see the elderly couple standing at their front door waving as I drove away. I would find my promise impossible to keep. All night long the snow continued to fall. At daybreak the wind kicked up and the roads were closed. My wife and I spent a quiet Christmas at home. The roads were impassible even for the jeep. Three days later, I drove through the woods to check on the Aikmans. Rounding the curve, I sped up. No smoke came from their chimney. Banging on the door and receiving no response, I pushed open the door. The house was as cold and still as the inside of a tomb. Denver sat slumped at the table, his head bowed as if in prayer. I touched his shoulder. From the cold and stiffness, I surmised he had died on Christmas day. Anna lay in bed, fully dressed, also gone. The coroner declared their deaths to be from natural causes. They died within minutes of each other. On the table in front of Denver lay a note addressed to me. His hand still gripped the pen.
My dear friend,
Last night you asked me to conclude the story. I couldn't at that time, however today I can. Hidden in a secret compartment at the back of the bedroom closet, you will find the silk pouch from the story. Use its contents wisely, my friend, and God will bless you.
Your friend, James Denver Aikman
Behind the clothes, boots and shoes, I discovered a loose panel in the wall. Hidden behind it was the beautiful silk
pouch of which Aikman spoke. Opening it, I stared in amazement. With trembling hands, I reached in and pulled out an elegant golden apple. Rows of diamonds, emeralds and rubies encircled it. Several more shone from the pouch’s depths. Laying them carefully on the floor, I counted eight apples and 30 gold coins. Sitting back on my heels, I looked around the cabin. It was adequately furnished; however, nothing in it spoke of wealth. Yet, even to my untrained eye, I knew these apples had to be worth millions. Why did the Aikmans live in a tiny cabin in the middle of the woods when they could afford a mansion? Then I saw the message hidden in the bottom of the bag. After reading it, I understood. For years, someone had given anonymously to charities, homeless shelters and destitute individuals. Every investigation into the source of the funds came to a dead end. A conservative estimate of the donor’s total giving was around $20 million. My wife and I continue the philanthropy James Denver and Sarah Anna Aikman began in 1910. Each year we take out one apple and sell it through a private organization. The money is given according to the note’s instruction. We have given away several apples, yet there are still eight in the pouch. Once again God has proven His word to be true. He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord; and that which he hath given will He pay him again. And the gold coins? Although we have spent more than 100, there are still 30 in the bag, our reward for doing what The Lord has asked.