Shiny New Shoes

by Rebecca Huggins
Are you not ashamed of caring so much for the making of money and for fame and prestige, when you neither think nor care about wisdom and truth and the improvement of your soul?

--Socrates 470 BC-399 BC

When I was five years old, I asked Mama for a beautiful pair of zapatos[1]. They were red and clicked when you walked in them. Mama hadn’t the heart to tell me no, and every day when we’d go into town, we’d stop at the little shop’s window and look in at those mesmerizing shoes. That was the first time I realized that we were poor. And when you realize something like that, other things you’d never noticed before begin to draw your attention as well. Like the clothes I wore with their many patches and familiar scents; the pair of shoes I donned every morning—the color nearly faded entirely—was, in fact, my only pair. And then you realize that you aren’t like the other children with their shiny new bicicletas[2] and juegos[3]. And you begin to see yourself on the other side of the glass, like it’s not really your world at all; you begin to expect very little out of life and you learn to not ask for things anymore for Christmas or birthdays.

So when Maricela’s third birthday came around, nobody really mentioned how nice it would be to buy her a muñeca[4]. And while we didn’t have much, birthdays went far from unnoticed in our family.

When I came home from school that day, everyone was busy preparing for Maricela’s party. Edmundo and Adalina, my brother and sister, were decorating the small den with red and gold streamers, and my mother, Estrella, was busy preparing a beautiful birthday cake, the ingredients for which she’d been collecting for a year. My father, Ernesto, would probably not be home until late that evening. He was working at the old textile factory downtown in Tamaulipas, México that emitted an interminable stream of gray smog out of its tall smoke stacks that made the hot city even hotter on a breezeless summer day. Still, we’d make him a place at the table and cut him a big piece of cake, even if he wouldn’t eat it until late that night.

“Benita! Where have you been? Come help Mama prepare the cake!” my mother said to me the moment I stepped through the front door.

I helped Mama pull the cake out of the old, rusty oven that we only used for special occasions. Then I helped her put the pink icing on the cake, a job that Adalina and Edmundo came to help with as well since this meant a great deal of finger-licking. When we’d finished, I put in squiggly letters across the top of the cake Féliz Cumpleaños[5] (though the “s” looked more like a crooked line, since I didn’t have enough room for the entire word). All-in-all, however, we were all very pleased with the look of it, and I found console in the fact that Maricela was only three and she wouldn’t be able to appreciate how good the cake looked, regardless of the crooked “s”.

Moments later, Mama was ushering Maricela out of the back room into the kitchen to begin the birthday festivities. Her eyes were wide with eager anticipation, and she laughed good-naturedly at the sight of the streamers and the large, pink, birthday cake. Adalina put on the old record player that Papi had brought home one night after work and stayed up until the early hours of the morning attempting to repair. It hummed out an old tune that made everyone dance, and to the tune we sang:

Chocolate, molinillo, estirar, estirar
Que el demonio va a pasar.
Dicen que soy, que soy una cojita
Y si lo soy, lo soy de a mentiritas
Desde chiquitita me quedé, me quedé
Cojita, cojita, cojita de un pie
Me gusta la leche, me gusta el café
Pero más me gustan los ojos de usted

I pointed at Edmundo who began to hop on one foot, closing his eyes and falling over in a fit of giggles. Maricela clapped her hands approvingly and we all laughed.

Then quite out of the blue a great rapping came to the front door. We all stopped our dancing and looked at one another quizzically, each silently questioning who could possibly be knocking at our door? It couldn’t be Father, since it was far too early for him to be home and he also had a key. And it couldn’t be the neighbors since they were out of town. Mama looked equally surprised, but smoothed down her dark brown curls nonchalantly and wiped her hands on her apron before unlocking the door and opening it just enough for us to see a man in a long, black dress coat standing on our porch. He wore a tall black top hat, had a long brown beard, and was extremely tall and rather skinny. So odd were his appearances that he seemed more like something out of a fairy tale book or from a long lost time. Edmundo giggled at the sight of him, causing Adalina to snicker as well, and I hushed them quickly, regarding Edmundo with reprehension. The man did not seem to realize how odd he appeared, and he smiled cordially at Mama.

“Evenin’, Ma’am,” he said with a strange accent that was unfamiliar to me.[7] “I don’t mean to interfere in your festivities. I’ve come with a gift for your daughter.”

Mama regarded the man with great incredulity, and I could tell by the blank look on her face that she was trying to remember if she’d met the man before or if he was a work acquaintance of Papi’s.

Seeing her confusion, the stranger said, “I won’t take much of your time.”

Mama now appeared even more conflicted, but knowing how cruel it was to leave a guest on the threshold of your home, she invited him in. “Won’t you please come in, Mister—”

“Peterson,” the man said, bowing low.

Mama nodded but continued to look perplexed as the name did not seem to jolt any memories.

The man stepped through the door and his lean frame appeared twice as tall inside the small, shabby shack. Yet he looked around with an air of reminiscence and a faint smile appeared on his thin lips. His dark eyes then fell on the figure of Maricella whom he approached slowly. Then reaching into his breast coat pocket he handed something to Maricella, whispered something indiscernible into her ear and turned about to take his leave.

“Thank you for your time,” he said fingering his hat, and just as quickly as he’d come, he disappeared.

For a moment, nobody said anything. We simply looked to one another with silent wonder. At last, Mama closed the front door and shook her head in bewilderment. “That was very strange,” she managed to say, returning to preparing Maricella’s cake.

“Who was he?” I asked, but from Mama’s face, I could tell that she did not know. In fact, it was clear that she’d never seen the man before until he came knocking on our front door. So preoccupied were our thoughts with the stranger and his unannounced visit that we forgot entirely about Maricella and the stranger’s gift.

“Look Mama! Maricella has an egg! A golden egg!” Adalina screeched.

And it was true, for in Maricella’s chubby hands was a large, beautiful, glowing, golden egg.

And this struck me very odd indeed for what does a person do with a glowing golden egg? And not just any normal egg, mind you, not one you can cook or raise into a baby chic. This egg was twice the size of any normal egg I’d ever seen, and it glowed so brightly it seemed to be reflecting the very rays of the sun off its shiny surface. The bewilderment only lasted a short while until I realized what great things gold could be used for; and looking about the room I could see that I was not the only one who thought that this must be a gift from Dío Himself.

“A golden egg,” Edmundo whispered, as if the words might make the thing appear more real.

“Look how brightly it glows,” Adalina said, touching it with the tip of her forefinger.

It was Mama who blocked all of our greedy thoughts. “Stop it at once!” she commanded. “Mr. Peterson obviously made a mistake.”

“But Mama,” I protested, “He gave it to us as a gift. He wants us to have it!” I argued, tears beginning to burn in my eyes. I had imagined all the wonderful things we could buy to help our family; a new stove, wood for our fireplace, blankets without holes and new clothes, perhaps even a new pair of shoes…the tears were falling freely now. I pushed away the thought of another bitter winter, relishing the warmth that the golden egg promised to give, the security, the comfort.

“We cannot accept such gifts,” Mama protested, and I imagined her lips turn blue and her breath turn icy as she ushered in the cold.

Before Mama could protest, I rushed towards Maricella and grabbed the golden egg from her grasp, and burst out the front door. I ran up through the town, my breath billowing in front of my face, my heart pounding in my chest. I ran and ran until my feet hurt and my eyes were so clouded with tears that I could barely see the village behind me. When I finally stopped I collapsed on the ground from sheer exhaustion, my chest rising and falling sporadically, my racing heartbeat hammering in my head and deafening out the sound of the city. I imagined I could hear my mother calling after me. Just as quickly as the thought crossed my mind, I pushed it away. I fumbled for a moment, my pulse heightening again, until at last my hand fell on the cool, hard shape of the golden egg. I sighed with relief. It was still there, it hadn’t left me; it had found me and now would never leave. Then as suddenly as the feeling of calm had comforted me like a woolen blanket, a feeling of dread swept over me; what if someone saw my golden egg and tried to steal it from me? Panicking, I looked about with red eyes, challenging any silent figure who may be lurking behind the trees to show themselves and attempt to take the object from my grasp.

When no one did, I decided it would be safer to get away from the clearing, to hide in the brush where no one would see me, and so picking myself off the ground I ran into the woods, deeper and deeper, always suspecting that a stranger would find me, would follow me. No place was safe from their wanting eyes. I ran until I lost my way and until the trees no longer reminded me of autumn and long walks in the woods; I ran until the path was no longer clear but was covered with vines, leaves, and twiggs, all gazing up at me questioningly, wondering what business I had to trample them into the ground. I stopped running then, realizing how very lost I was. It was then that I noticed a small, wooden house, just beyond the clearing. The woods did not go on past the house; they seemed to end at the front door of the tiny shack, so I had little choice but to turn around or see who—or what—resided in the small house. I hid the golden egg and knocked on the door warily, hoping that whoever occupied the house would be kind enough to take me home.

I heard a great deal of shuffling inside the home before at last the door unlatched and a familiar face greeted me; it was the stranger who moments before had been to our house with the golden egg! So shocked was I by my unexpected host that I could hardly find the words to speak; I merely stared in disbelief, my mouth open in sheer disillusionment.

The stranger, however, appeared completely calm, as if he’d been anticipating my arrival.

“Welcome, Benita. I see that you have brought back with you my golden egg,” he said, smiling and revealing a set of pristine, white teeth.

I swallowed but could not formulate any words to speak. Rather, I reached into my shirt and pulled out the golden egg which seemed to grow brighter when I handed it to the stranger.
He took the egg from me carefully and said, “Won’t you come in, Benita? You look as if you’ve had a very long journey and could do with a cup of tea.”

It was then that I realized how very thirsty I was and how tired I was from all of my running. I very nearly collapsed into the man’s arms. He guided me towards a comfortable-looking chair, and put the kettle on for a tea, then taking the seat opposite mine, he laid the egg down on his lap and regarded me with his dark eyes.

“This egg would not have brought you any fortune—not of the variety you imagined,” he said slowly, and when I did not respond he continued. “This egg has its fortune in other things. It shows whomsoever may seek it the beauty and goodness of life, of what you have, true fortune. And in this fortune, Benita, you abound.”

And at this my eyes swelled with tears, for I knew that what the stranger said was true; no amount of money or fortune could buy the love of my family or the value of truth that we shared.

It was much later that night I arrived back to our tiny shack in the city; Mama and Edmund, Adalina and even Maricela, rushed to me and embraced me, tears swelling in their eyes, and all Mama could say over and over again was, “You are my golden egg, Benita; you are my golden egg.”

© 2010 Rebecca Huggins. All rights reserved.

[1] shoes
[2] bicycles
[3] games
[4] doll
[5] Happy Birthday
[6] A Mexican Children’s song called “Chocolate, Stirrer.” Children sing this song holding hands in a circle with a child in the center who hops on one foot while their eyes are closed. The child in the center then points to someone outside the circle who becomes the next one to go in the center of the circle. The following is a translation of the Spanish version above:
Chocolate, stirrer, stretch, stretch,
For the devil's going to pass by.
They say that I'm, that I'm lame,
And if I am, I am not for real.
Since I was little I've been, I've been
Lame, lame, lame on one foot.
I like milk, I like coffee,
But I like your eyes better.
[7] Later I learned that the strange man was from a place in America called New Orleans, and that the proper way to describe his speech was that he spoke with a pronounced “Southern Drawl.”