For the last two years I've written a Christmas story for the women's group I attend at Bethel Church. This fall we studied a book by Henri Nouwen entitled The Return of the Prodigal Son, so I thought I would try to combine the prodigal theme with the Christmas theme and see what came of it. I hope you enjoy it.
Note: please do not distribute without author permission.
The Two Jewels
Jeannie Prinsen - December 2010
It was almost Christmas, and in the little village on the mountainside, snow had long since covered the ground. The narrow streets were crisscrossed with the footprints of villagers hurrying here and there, busy with their Christmas preparations.
In a small house at the far end of the narrowest street lived the old woman and her daughter. The villagers rarely saw the old woman venture forth from her house, especially these cold winter days. When they did catch a glimpse of her, she always had a gray shawl pulled tightly around her shoulders and head to ward off the gusts of wind and swirling snow. Beneath the shawl her wrinkled red cheeks looked like dried apples, but her blue eyes still had the sparkle of youth. The old woman was snug and comfortable in her little house with her faithful daughter, who went out daily to carry in wood and buy milk and eggs in the market place.
But as most of the villagers knew, the old woman’s life had been hard and sorrowful. Many years ago her husband had died of a terrible fever, leaving her alone with their two young girls. On the night of his death he had told his daughters always to be faithful to their mother, and they had looked at him with tear-filled eyes and promised to do what he had asked.
The elder daughter was serious and steady, but the younger had a restless spirit. And one day, years after the death of their father, she told her mother and sister that she wanted to go to the city at the bottom of the mountain. Her mother had never been to that place and could not understand the young girl’s wish to leave their cosy village, where everyone was a friend and everything one needed was close at hand. But her younger daughter’s desire for freedom was stronger than any yearning for the security of home.
The girl asked her mother for money to make her journey, and her mother replied that she had none to spare. “Come with me,” she said to the two girls, and they followed her into her small bedroom. From a drawer she took a little wooden box and opened it to reveal a gold ring and a pendant necklace, each with a clear, glittering jewel set in it. These had been a gift to her from her husband in his youth and were her only possessions of any material value. She took the ring and gave it to her younger daughter, saying, “This is yours.” The girl’s eyes lit up at the beauty of the jewel; she put the ring on her finger and looked at it admiringly.
Then the mother held up the pendant and said to her elder daughter, “And this is yours.” But the elder daughter was angry at her sister for wanting to leave, and at her mother for not admonishing the younger girl. So she turned her face away, and her mother put the necklace back in the wooden box.
The younger daughter left the village that night, and to the old woman’s great sorrow, she never returned. No one knew for certain what had happened to her. What was known for sure was that the old woman never went down the mountain to seek her daughter in the city, and now it was believed that, at her great age, she never would. Some speculated that the younger daughter had sold the ring to buy passage to a distant land. Others believed she had lost it and died, penniless and proud, on the city streets.
But these were only thoughts, not knowledge. And while thoughts alone can keep a village talking for a long time, as the years went by the younger daughter’s absence passed from the general conversation, and the villagers saw the old woman many times from one end of the year to the other without even thinking of it. Or if they did recall it, they immediately thought, “But she still has her elder daughter, and she is such a comfort to her mother.” So the old woman’s sorrow became a small matter, a trifling grief.
But to the old woman, the longing for her younger daughter’s return remained as fresh and strong as it had been all those years ago. She would still place a third plate on the table and say, “In case she returns today,” or put a vase of fresh flowers in the empty bedroom, “in case she returns today.”
As the elder daughter watched her mother do these things, an anger like bitter frost hardened her heart: anger because her sister had left home for good – breaking her promise to their father – and anger because her mother still longed for the faithless one’s return. So the elder daughter resented both her sister and her mother, yet she never spoke aloud the truth of how she felt. She just said, “She will hardly return now after so many years.” Her mother always replied, “In my mind your words are true, but in my heart...” and tears made her sparkling eyes glitter all the more brightly.
Each Christmas time, the elder daughter’s bitterness became more stubborn and chill. She watched each year as her mother lit a candle and placed it on the window ledge, so that its soft light radiated out into the night.
“Are you lighting the candle again?” the elder daughter asked.
“Yes, in case she returns this Christmas,” the old woman said.
But each Christmas was the same: the younger daughter never returned, and the old woman removed the candle from its place with a sorrowful look that the elder daughter resented. Each Christmas was the same in another way, too: the old woman would say to her elder daughter, “Remember that necklace I gave you...” But the elder daughter never replied. The necklace with its gleaming jewel reminded her of her sister’s broken promise and their mother’s misplaced love for the wayward girl; and because these things offended her, she refused to wear it. So she pretended not to hear her mother’s words, and she did not notice that this also brought a look of sorrow to the old woman’s face.
This Christmas Eve was cold, and the darkness seemed to close in earlier than usual. The old woman minded the chill especially this night, and her daughter worked harder than ever to warm the kitchen and prepare a good meal for her mother and herself. After supper the old woman took to her bed early, for a cough had come upon her and she appeared weaker and frailer than her daughter had ever seen her. She seemed distressed, so her daughter went to her bedside and took her hand, for she knew that was the right thing to do – even though her heart was not in the hand that pressed her mother’s or in the words she spoke: “What is the matter?”
“I miss my dear girl,” the old woman said.
The elder daughter’s anger rose inside her. It was always the same thing: her mother still yearned for the one who had left, sparing no thought for the one who remained at her side. “She will hardly return now after so many years,” she said, taking familiar pleasure in the words of discouragement.
The old woman hesitated, then said, just as she always did, “In my mind your words are true, but in my heart...”
Then the elder daughter’s pent-up bitterness flooded forth. “Your heart!” she cried. “Your heart longs only for my sister, who has broken her promise and abandoned you forever. I have stayed with you faithfully all these years, yet you still love her and long to welcome her home with open arms. This should not be!” These words, never before spoken aloud, seemed to hang in the cold air of the bedroom like icicles. Then the elder daughter left her mother’s side before the old woman could speak.
She lay down on her own bed and tried to sleep: at first her churning feelings would not let her, but as the night wore on, at last she drifted into a restless slumber. And as sleep overtook her, she dreamed a dream that was as real as the waking world. In it, her mother came and stood over her and said, “At last truth meets truth! You are my blessing ... my comfort ... my faithful daughter. My every small possession, my very self, is yours. Do not doubt my love.”
Then the vision faded, and the daughter awoke. Immediately she felt an unaccustomed warmth, like a single ember, inside her where icy bitterness and resentment had lodged for so long. She lit a candle and crept to her mother’s bedside, wondering if perhaps she had not dreamed at all – that her mother had really come to her in the night and spoken those words. But the old woman lay asleep, her breathing shallow and interrupted by coughs.
Led by an impulse she could not explain, the elder daughter went to the drawer and took the necklace from the wooden box. Although the room was cold, the chain felt warm in her hand. She fastened the necklace around her neck and let the sparkling jewel lie against her breast.
Instantly the old woman awoke and sat up, and in the dim candlelight her face glowed with rapture. “At last!” she cried. “So many, many times I offered you that necklace and hoped you would take it and wear it and accept it as my gift. But it was always an offense to you.”
“Because I thought you loved her more,” said the elder daughter. “Because I thought your heart was set only on her return.”
“My faithful girl,” her mother said, “you know only half of my heart. My heart is set on both you and your sister. It loves both the far and the near, the one who has gone and the one who stays. Your sister’s leaving was a great sorrow to me, but your remaining is my great joy.” Then the cold anger in the elder daughter’s heart melted away at last. She embraced her mother, and they both wept.
It was now past midnight. Christmas had come. The old woman and her elder daughter went to the window and peered out into the darkness. They placed the candle on the ledge, but immediately it sputtered out. Yet there was still light in the room, for the jewel in the necklace, lying against the elder daughter’s breast, glowed with a warm light of its own.
Then, as they stared out into the night, they thought they saw another small light moving on the mountainside below them. It disappeared from view and they thought it had only been their imagining – until it reappeared moments later, a little brighter, a little closer. The old woman and her elder daughter stood there in hope and disbelief, wondering: could this be the other jewel, at last drawn home by the power of love, and truth, and forgiveness? Finally there was no doubt. The other jewel came home, and with it came its wearer, the younger daughter.
The villagers did not see the reunion of the old woman and her two daughters. They never heard the words of love and regret spoken among the three; they never heard the younger daughter tell of the hardships she had endured or the mysterious longing for home that had come over her that night and guided her footsteps up the mountain. But what they did hear was a voice, clear as a church bell, awakening the sleepy, snow-covered village the next morning. The old woman came outdoors, her face as red as dried apples and her blue eyes radiant with happiness. “Rejoice with me!” she called out to her neighbours. “My great sorrow has ended, and my joy is complete. Rejoice with me, my friends!”
And the celebration in the mountainside village lasted all day and again into the night, and forever.