GIFTS FROM A STRANGER
Johanne closed the door behind him to keep out the chill night air, the roaring wind and the snow that was piling up against the stone wall of his cottage. With his few remaining animals safe in the barn from the ravenous wolf pack howling in the nearby forest, he could finally attend to his own needs.
He poured some sour beer into a mug and tore off a hunk of bread. Behind the thin curtain that divided the sparsely furnished room his elderly mother’s occasional snorts and snores reminded him why he was still trying to keep the farm going against all adversity.
As he cut himself a piece of cheese he reflected on the cruel fate that had left him with only his frail mother for company. The plague had taken his father and it was on a chill cold night such as this, five years before, that the screaming agonies of childbirth had robbed him of his young wife Martha and their stillborn son. He had thought to sell the farm and join one of the many mercenary bands that were rampaging through Bavaria caring not which Holy or unholy, Roman Emperor, King or Prince prevailed in the endless wars of religion as long as they had their fill of coin and women. But in all Christian conscience, he could not abandon his mother and so he had tilled his fields and husbanded his livestock and somehow, by God’s Good Grace, had fed himself and his mother through the five lonely winters since Martha’s death.
He was roused from his thoughts by a sudden knock on the cottage door. Johanne called out;
“ Who comes here at this late hour?”
From the other side of the door, a man’s voice replied,
“ A stranger, seeking shelter from the winter’s storm. ”
Johanne was wary but the voice seemed to carry no threat. He drew back the latch and there stood a cloaked figure, his face obscured within a deep hood. The stranger asked,
“ Friend, can you spare a little food and warmth for a lost traveller?”.
Johanne invited him into his home and put out a plate for his unexpected guest. For some time they sat in silence as they shared Johanne’s bread and cheese and enjoyed the fire’s warmth and a mug of sour beer. Then the stranger, his face still hidden, drew from his cloak a purse full of gold coins, enough to buy an army or a fine castle on a hill, and placed it on the table.
“ This is for you”, he said, “ in return for your hospitality”.
“I want no thanks”, said Johanne, eyeing the purse and it’s glittering contents, “ I have simply done my Christian duty.”
Although he thought to himself, “Who else should have a rich reward if not a good Christian soul such as myself?”
“ Well,” said the stranger, “if you won’t accept coin perhaps you will accept this?”
At that the cottage door blew open and there, outside in the swirling snowstorm, stood Martha, dressed in a blue cloak with a young boy, aged no more than five years old, holding her hand.
When Johanne had recovered from his shock he called out to Martha to come closer. The stranger beckoned the woman and suddenly, it seemed without moving, Martha and the boy were standing just inside the doorway.
Johanne stared intently at the woman and child. Could it really be Martha and their longed-for child? How many times had he prayed to the Madonna in the small church in the valley below to be with his wife again? And now here she was.
Then he looked away from Martha and glanced down at the bulging purse on the table and imagined himself dressed in fine clothes and dining at a table prepared for a winter’s banquet in a castle on a hill.
“ You must choose now and take hold of whichever gift you want “, said the stranger, “ for I must be on my way. I have a long journey this night.”
“ The light by my candle is dim.” said Johanne, “Can they not come even closer so I can see if it is truly Martha and our longed-for child?”
Again the stranger beckoned to the child and the blue cloaked figure who silently moved to within an arm’s reach of Johanne. Close enough for him to see that beyond any doubt it was indeed his wife, looking as lovely as the day they were wed in the church in the valley below. The boy standing beside her, still tightly clutching her hand, had the same delicate features as Martha and hair as dark and thick as Johanne’s.
Johanne knew exactly which gift he would take from the stranger. He rose quickly from his chair and tried to take hold of Martha and the bag of coins at the same time. There was a flash of brilliant light that illuminated the room and momentarily blinded Johanne. As he struggled to regain his sight he heard the cottage door slam shut.
With his sight fully restored Johanne looked around the sparsely furnished room. He was alone. No stranger was sitting at his table. There was no Martha, no longed-for son and no purse of gold coins. From behind the curtain, he heard the familiar sounds of his mother sleeping. He rushed outside but of the stranger, Martha and the boy there were no signs in the snow of their coming or going. Nothing but the chill night air, the roaring wind and the howl of the wolves in the nearby forest.