The story starts just before the New Year in Kiev, a town living in a sort of inflated mood with not a thought about what would happen to it in just a couple of years, a town all dolled up, drowning in multicolored lights and garlands, preparing itself for the long, sated and lazy holiday season. People were busily running from store to store in search of presents for loved ones and friends, completely wrapped up in the pleasant preparatory details for the good times ahead.
That was a rough winter, snowy, with blizzards and snowdrifts. Passers by turned their collars up, hiding their faces from the stinging wind. The temperatures dropped to twenty below and even colder. So people leaving their homes, stores or offices rushed to get back into the warmth as soon as possible and didn’t linger on the street unnecessarily.
I was also hurrying home, coming down Museum Lane towards Europe Square and then up Triokhsviatetelskaia and Kostelnaia streets to my home on Mikhailov Lane.
Suddenly, as I was going along Grushevskii street near a Chinese fast food place, I spotted a man in no great hurry and who was clearly not afraid of the frosty cold. The man was dressed in a worn old coat that was half unbuttoned. He didn’t have a hat or gloves on. But it seemed to me that the wind and cold didn’t bother him in the least. With concentration and not paying the least bit of attention to anyone else, the man was fitfully searching for something digging around in the trash can. It looked like he was very hungry and had hope that near the restaurant he could find the meager remains of someone else’s feast to finish off.
«Who is this person? And what drove him to such a pitiable condition that only the trash can could soothe his hunger?» This question struck me like a bolt of lightning.
Curiosity with a tinge of bitterness and sadness took over me, making me forget the frosty weather. I took a closer look at him. His face was unremarkable, the face of your average citizen, and maybe even a one-time Soviet intellectual. What led him into the abyss of poverty and vagrancy? But there wasn’t much point in wondering about all this for long.
Digging around in my pocket, I found in my wallet a ten grivna note (which was still a decent amount at the time), I went up to the poor man and, for some reason, felt shame myself as I offered him the money and said quietly, «This is for you. It’s not worth digging about in the trash! Better to buy yourself some food in that restaurant.»
My words caught the man off guard. He raised his eyes to mine, thanked me also in a whisper and, it seemed to me, his eyes clouded with tears.
I said goodbye to the man and slowly continued on, suddenly ceasing to notice the cold.
The whole way home I was consumed with thoughts of the imperfection of our world, and about how quickly a person completely unwittingly and through no fault of his or her own can simply fall through the cracks. And even if you are highly placed today, it’s no guarantee against a future fall. Not one of us has such a guarantee. And in that is the only single fair thing in our world, and in that fairness the only equality. Life is a lottery and the winning ticket isn’t always in the hands of a saint.
When I got home, I noticed that tears had frozen on my face.
Several days passed.
One still frosty but clear and sunny Sunday morning I was walking along the same street when suddenly someone ran up to me and took me lightly by the arm. It was the man that I had so recently helped to have some dinner.
«Hello! Do you remember me?» he asked. «Of course, I remember,» I answered. «I have something for you, a small gift,» said the man, pulling something out of his pocket. When he opened his palm, I saw a small figurine, a miniature crocodile beautifully carved out of wood.
«I’ve been carrying this with me for several days in hopes I would meet you again,» the man said quickly. «I would very much like you to accept this gift, that you know that I’m not entirely lost, that I know how to do something, I…» Here he could no longer find the words. Without waiting to hear words of thanks, the man quickly said goodbye and disappeared.
I don’t know why, but since that encounter I have the feeling that most of our holiday presents are a meaningless waste of money. It’s so rare, after all, that we give to those who really need it.
(Translation by Amanda Blasko)
Choporti-Tbilisi, 14 December 2015