“The Boy with the Golden Ring” by Tom Sheehan appeared as a Christmas story on FaithHopeandFiction.com several years ago. We are pleased, with the author’s permission, to republish it here for our 2019 Christmas issue.
The boy’s name was John. He was twelve years old and a street person. You could tell by the clothes he wore: old, worn, torn, and dirty looking. One pocket of his thin jacket was missing, his pants were short, his stocks did not match, and he had no hat on his head. His hair was very dark. He stood in front of the Sligo Bakery near the big cathedral. A tall man in worn clothes was standing with him, and they were looking at the food in the bakery window. Around them swirled the cold wind and the snow of a storm on a late December evening.
Connaughton, the baker, looked out the window at them. A strange glow was fuzzy around the boy’s head. Connaughton was drawn to him. He had been pulled from the back of the bakery when he saw the boy standing at the window looking so hungry. In Connaughton’s blood raced a new sensation. He could feel it coursing. It was the same feeling he had when the anthem was played. When he heard a beautiful psalm it came to him, or when a far and lovely voice at nightfall sang an old song he had nearly forgotten, the special way it came out of the past bringing all kinds of delightful company with it, like a Percy French song echoing from the Cliffs of Mohr. Oh, he thought, deliriums of joy.
Connaughton waved them into his shop, in from the cold and the swirling snow. The tall man shook his head and pointed to the boy. Even in his shabby clothes the man bore to Connaughton a sense of regality and pride, yet he had a kindly presence about him. The man refused a second invitation and again pointed to the boy. As bidden, the boy entered the bakery, and Connaughton put six rolls and a cup of coffee in a bag. The boy looked back at the man standing outside the window.
When asked, the boy told the baker his name was John. Then he said to Connaughton, “My father says you are a good man, but he’s not hungry right now.”
The baker and the boy turned, and the man was gone. John ran outside. The snow was worsening, and it was colder. The boy cried, “My father has left me. My father has gone.” He looked at Connaughton and said again, in the saddest voice Connaughton had ever heard, “My father has left me.”
Connaughton did not know what to do. He could not leave his job, and there was no place to take the boy. Then he saw a street person he recognized, a good man by the name of Samuel Haggard. He called him over to the bakery.
Samuel,” he said, “this boy’s name is John and his father has left him. I’m afraid of what will happen to him in the night. Can you take care of him?”
Samuel looked at the boy John and saw the golden light that was like a faint glow around the boy’s head. When he put his hand on the boy’s shoulder he was warmed by the touch. “I know a place where he can sleep,” he said. It’s only a closet, but there’s lots of paper and cardboard and he will not freeze.”
Connaughton gave them more rolls and coffee and went back to work. Only when he was inside did he realize that he had not been cold at all when he had gone outside in the bitter night to talk to Samuel. He waved at the boy John and Samuel as they walked off into the darkness.
As they walked Samuel said he was sorry that the boy’s father was gone.
John told him, “Do not feel sorry for me, Samuel. My father loves me. Some time he will come back for me.” The golden glow was stronger around the boy’s head as he said those words.
Other street people who knew Samuel came up to him as they walked. “Who is this boy, Samuel?” they asked, staring at John. Again and again they stared and asked the same question. Many of them had seen the glow around the boy’s head, though some had not. They did not know what to make of their old friend Samuel and the strange new boy who looked so much like they did. His clothes were like their clothes. He looked as lonely as they looked. He had no real place of his own to go to on a cold December night, no real place to put down his head for the night; no fire, no blanket, no cradling arms.
Samuel said to John, “Would you like to go to the cathedral to warm up before we go to a place to sleep?”
John replied, “Don’t you go to the cathedral to pray, Samuel?” The glow was more golden and brighter and made Samuel uneasy, not sure of what it was. He just knew that here was something different around the boy and around his own person.
In the cathedral a crowd of street people had gathered. Word had spread quickly in the alleys and the lanes and the byways about the boy with a golden ring about his head. Most of the people agreed it was a ring. Not one of them had called it a halo.
In the subway stations, too, people spoke about him. Word spread up and down the Green Line and the Red Line and the Orange Line. On the back sides of chimneys, and tight against warm walls, and on warm exhaust grates, the street people talked about the boy. There was a buzz and a hum about him. The word carried far and wide. It rippled and ran with the wind.
The people who came to the cathedral at first were seedy looking. Their clothes were in tatters. Some of them wore rolls of cloth around their feet and about their waists. Some wore old sneakers or thin worn shoes. Few of them had good jackets or coats or scarves or warm gloves for their tortured hands. They came to look at the boy with a golden ring about his head and who had no place to go to call his own, the boy who was so much like them.
The next night Samuel took the boy John back to the cathedral. Now hundreds of people were there. Some of them laughed and scoffed and said they could not see any light at all, never mind a golden ring. Many new arrivals wore nice clothes and heavy coats and thickly padded jackets, high boots and scarves and great warm gloves. Indeed, some of them did not laugh for they believed they saw the golden light.
Samuel brought the boy John back to the cathedral each night. It was getting close to Christmas and the crowds grew and the bishop called for police help with the crowds along the cluttered streets. All kinds of people from all over were coming to the cathedral to see the boy. You could tell by the clothes they wore, or what kind of vehicle brought them to the great church.
Samuel warmed up in the cathedral each time and John prayed for his father to come back. He kept telling Samuel that his father loved him and would come back for him. Samuel did not know what to believe. He just knew he had to bring the boy back each night in spite of the crowd’s gawking at him. The snickers and the scoffing bothered Samuel. At times he grew impatient with people he had known for a long time.
“He’s just a boy whose father left him,” explained Samuel as often as he could. But he did not believe what he was saying. The light was getting too bright for him to handle. He asked a friend to bring the boy John to the cathedral the next night. It would be Christmas Eve.
All day the snow fell. The temperature also fell with the late hours. The darker it got, the colder it got. But a greater crowd than ever before came on Christmas Eve. They packed the old cathedral. Every seat was taken. The aisles were full. People stood all around looking at the boy John down in the front row. Some saw the light. Some did not. But none of them left the cathedral then. Some were afraid to go. Some, indeed, were afraid to stay.
The bishop at the back of the altar tried desperately to see the golden glow. He was not sure what he was seeing. A young priest from a nearly forgotten order saw the golden ring around the boy’s head. Clearly he saw it. He spoke to the bishop for a few minutes and came to the front of the congregation.
“We know why some of us have come here tonight. Some have come for the right reason. Some have not. It may be that some will be rewarded and some will not. And that may be as it was meant to be. I will ask the boy John to come up here and talk to us if he feels like it.”
He extended his open hand to John.
The boy went to the front of the altar. “I am very nervous,” he said.
“Do not be nervous,” the young priest replied. “We are all sorry that your father has left you.”
“Do not be sorry for me. I love my father very much,” John said, “and he loves me. Some time he will come back to get me.”
“Do you want to tell us anything?” the young priest said. He looked directly at the boy John and did not look at the bishop at the back of the altar.
“One night, at a campfire on a cold night, my father took off his coat and gave it to a man who did not have a coat. He said, ‘Now we will both be warm.’”
The young priest did not say anything. The bishop did not say anything. The boy John looked at the huge gathering. No one in the congregation said anything. No one did anything. The huge cathedral was silent, silent in the nave, silent in the apse, and silent in the transept. You could not hear people breathe or cough or blow their noses as you did at other times. Their feet also were still and silent on the floor.
The boy John with the golden glow around his head said, “That’s the beautiful picture I have. It’s the most beautiful picture of all, that each person who has a coat or a heavy jacket would give it to a person who does not have a warm coat or a heavy jacket. Or give a warm hat to someone who has no hat or a scarf to someone who has no scarf or a great pair of gloves to someone whose hands might freeze before this night is over. My father says you will be warmer, and my father loves me very much, and I love my father even though he has gone from me for this while.”
Again for long minutes there was silence in the great cathedral. Nothing moved. No one moved. Stillness was sharp as the cold. It was only the wind that was heard, from the belfry and at the windows as if it were trying to get inside.
The boy looked at the congregation. Now, as if predicted, more people began to see the glow that they had not seen before. Inside them things were working they had no control over. Then, in the midst of the great silence, one man in the fifth row, in a fine and heavy coat, thick and furry, stood up and took the coat off his shoulders and handed it to a man sitting in front of him. That man had no coat but wore a thin and worn sweater atop another thin and worn sweater. No words were exchanged.
Then another man stood in the silence and gave his coat. And another. And another. And a pair of great fleece-lined gloves moved from one pair of hands to another, and a scarf, and more and more, until the sounds of giving swelled throughout the cathedral as if a soft wind was blowing.
And John smiled at all the people and at the young priest and at the bishop. Then he said, loud enough for everybody in the cathedral to hear, “I do not want anyone who gave his coat or hat or gloves to another person to get cold tonight going home. If there is a taxicab driver who can help get those people home, everyone will be warmer.”
In the back row a man stood up and said, “I have my cab and I’ll call my friends who have cabs.”
When the people left the cathedral a short time later there were many cabs in the street, their lights glowing golden through the edge of darkness. It looked like a parade of taxicabs.
And Samuel Haggard, coming late to the cathedral, saw in the distance, in the swirling snow, in the region past the crowd, the boy John walking off into the endless night with his hand in his father’s hand.
And the glow over his head had faded away.
Tom Sheehan’s books are Epic Cures and Brief Cases, Short Spans, November 2008 from Press 53, NC; A Collection of Friends and From the Quickening, March 2009, from Pocol Press, VA. His work is in Home of the Brave, Stories in Uniform and Milspeak; Warriors, Veterans, Family and Friends Writing the Military Experience, both new issues from Press 53. He has 14 Pushcart nominations, Noted Story nominations for 2007 and 2008, the Georges Simenon Award for Fiction, a story in the Dzanc Best of the Web Anthology for 2009, and a nomination for Best of the Web 2010. He served with the 31st Infantry Regiment in Korea, 1951. His collection, Epic Cures, was an IPPY Award winner.