Somewhere in his work, Ira Progoff taught that creative projects often take on lives of their own separate from their creators. (I learned this from one of his students, Mary K deLurgio, MFT.) The Beggar Boy is like that. Once it was completed and shared, The Beggar Boy became his own person. He is now free to communicate with his readers in whatever ways fit them best.
The Beggar Boy began as a metaphor for my own life. Writing it helped me make sense of things. Despite its brevity, it took over thirty years to complete! Once completed, it became clear that the metaphor was universal. After reviewing it for this post, I saw that it is also the story of a ‘subtle’ medial.
The illustrations are photos of art work that I’ve come to associate with The Beggar Boy. However, “The Little Vagabond,” is cuter and more cheerful than the character in the story. I found him on a note card published at least 28 years ago by the Association of Handicapped Artists. The artist, L. Calloni, mouthpainted the original. The dusty road is a pastel of a real desert trail at St. Andrew’s Abbey, done by one of their monks, Fr. Werner Papeians de Morchoven, OSB (1914-2008). Fr. Werner’s pastel is the only piece of valuable artwork I own.
THE BEGGAR BOY
Once upon a time there was a ragged, little beggar boy. Well, actually, he wasn’t a beggar. He earned what he got from doing odd jobs. And he wasn’t ragged either. He was really quite presentable in an unobtrusive sort of way. He just felt like a ragged, little beggar boy. His family didn’t want him and sent him out alone to make his way in the world.
The boy had traveled long enough to have left behind the familiar sights of his family’s home and the community where they lived. He now walked along a dry, dusty road. He’d been walking the road for days seeing little that caught his interest. But now he saw a beautiful city on top of a hill way off in the distance. At the very top of the hill was a castle, glinting in the sun like a golden crown. The road seemed to be leading in that direction.
The road was well used. Every once in a while noble men or women would ride by on fine horses or in magnificent carriages. Some, not seeing the boy at all, passed him by in haste leaving him blinking and holding his breath until the dust cleared. Others, who traveled on foot, bumped and jostled him as they passed. Still others, spying him from a distance, made a wide detour around him as if put off by the boy’s appearance.
The most peculiar encounters may have been caused by a trick of sunlight. That was the only explanation that made sense to the boy. Sometimes travelers would approach him as if he were a wise and holy man. They would seek his advice or ask a blessing, and depart praising him for his goodness. The boy did the best he could for them, but he knew they were mistaken and hoped they wouldn’t be too angry when they discovered their error. At other times, the boy caught sight of people passing by him at a respectful distance their faces turned toward him with expressions of awe and pleasure as if seeing some exquisitely beautiful and graceful creature. And there were those who saw an arrogance of wealth and talent and beauty in the boy that surpassed their own and made them jealous. It was always the most wealthy and talented and beautiful who saw these things. They would taunt the boy and trip him and throw obstacles in his way.
These encounters greatly disturbed the boy. It was only fair to be praised and punished for what you were. But to have it happen for what you weren’t was madness.
Occasionally a brave and generous soul would stop to converse with the boy, offering a kind word and maybe sharing some food. Sometimes the generous one would ask the boy to serve as bearer, but the boy was too little and too weak to help for long. He could not keep up. Always, always he was left behind.
Contact with the noble people, showed the boy how little he had and how much it was possible to have. He saw that he was very poor and felt a great sadness because of his poverty. The boy kept on walking, a little lonelier but a little more hopeful than he was before.
Each of the people who stopped told the boy they were on their way to the king’s banquet in the castle on the hill. They talked about their friends and the good times they would have, and how delicious and rich was the food they would eat. The king had open house all the time, and the banquet table was always full.
As he heard these stories, the boy was filled with a great longing to attend the banquet. Sometimes he would tell his visitors of this longing and ask if he could go, too. They always told him that of course he could — when he grew as big and strong and was as finely dressed as they. At this the boy’s heart would fall because he knew that to grow big and strong enough to earn fine clothing, one must have good wholesome food to eat and plenty of it. That was something he would never have.
Occasionally the boy would ask the noble people to take him with them. He was careful to ask only the kinder ones. They all told him that they’d like to very much, but there was always something more important that they really had to do, and he’d understand that, of course. But he wasn’t sure that he did. And so the boy continued his solitary journey filled with a great longing and a great loneliness and a hope that brought him pain.
One day, after much weary travelling, the boy found himself on the outskirts of the city. Just being there eased his pain a bit. Even if he couldn’t attend the banquet, he could be close to where it was happening. But before he had a chance to stop and rest, a breeze blew from the castle the enticing fragrance of the most wondrous food in the world. It so filled the boy with its attractiveness that, trance-like, he began walking toward the source of the fragrance. When he came to his senses again, he was at the king’s castle! At the open door to the enormous kitchen where all the food was prepared for the banquet! And there inside, supervising the work, was the king himself!
The king saw the boy and knew him for he had loved him all his life. The boy was unaware of this, but the longing and the loneliness so overwhelmed him, and the sight of all that marvelous food caused him such hunger, that pushing back his hair and tucking in his shirt, he gathered up his courage and walked into that great kitchen.
He knelt trembling at the king’s feet. “Your Majesty,” he whispered with a tongue too dry for speech. Then licking his lips and clearing his throat he tried again. “Your Majesty. Um. Could I please? Uh. Would it be possible? Uh. Can I attend your banquet?” And then timidly, fearfully, hopefully he looked into the face of the king.
The king smiled at him then with such love and compassion that the boy forgot to be hungry. The king answered with great gentleness, “No, my son. You are not big enough or strong enough to attend the banquet. The food is too rich for you and would make you ill.”
If there had not been such love in the king’s voice, the boy would have died of pain and disappointment. And then the king continued, “You will be my servant. You will carry food to the banquet table, and you will serve my guests. You will grow strong through your work, and the fragrance of the food will be your sustenance. But if you should ever feel weak and hungry, come to me, and I will give you the only food that is necessary.”
The boy served at the king’s table for a very long time. With the passing of years, he grew to become a fine, strong man. He wasn’t handsome, but he wasn’t unpleasant to look at either. His appearance was such that one hardly noticed him at all.
One day as he was waiting on the guests, it occurred to him that he was as big and strong as any of them and a lot better than some of them. Like the fellow who dressed in funny clothes and always let food dribble down his chin. And the old lady who ate only ice cream and smelled of stale urine. And then there was the old man who heaped his plate full, crammed the food into his mouth, and growled at anyone who tried to talk to him. Surely if they were welcome at the banquet table, there must be a place for him, too.
Not long after that, the man approached the king and asked if, now that he was grown, he could sit and eat at the banquet table. The king did not answer. He simply continued his inspection of the kitchen as if the man weren’t there at all. The man made the request of the king on several other occasions, but he always got the same response.
The man became angry at this. Each time he served at table he compared himself to the guests and became more and more envious and more and more resentful. The tantalizing fragrances no longer gave him sustenance. They made him unbearably hungry. The man did not consider asking the king for the “only food that was necessary” that he’d been offered as a boy. The king’s refusal to acknowledge his request to sit at the banquet table made the man reluctant to ask for other food.
After a while, the man began sitting at the banquet table whenever there was an empty place. He could never manage more than a bite or two before a guest asked him to leave. “That’s my wife’s place.” “My husband sits there.” “My daughter is just coming back.” “I’m saving this place for a friend.”
Without nourishment, the man began to grow weaker. The numerous rejections made him aware that he hungered for companionship as much as for food. He was both hungry and very lonely, and he was consumed with a rage of resentment and envy.
Sometimes the man took long walks away from the castle exploring the wilderness outside the city limits. Away from the sights and sounds and smells of the banquet hall, he felt his suffering less intensely. He no longer had the strength to work the long hours that were his normal routine. His work caused him such pain that he began spending more time in the wilderness and waited on table less and less. None of the guests noticed.
The man stopped asking the king for permission to sit at the banquet table, and he made no more attempts to join the banquet uninvited. These days when the man looked into the king’s eyes, there was no love there nor even indifference. He saw amusement — without a trace of kindness.
The man began to shrink in stature and to become gray and ghost-like. No one noticed. He stopped waiting on table. No one noticed. Food arrived at table and was eaten, dishes were cleared away, and more food was served. That never changed. It had been that way before the boy arrived. It continued while he grew to manhood. And it was uninterrupted now that he no longer worked.
The man left the castle. No one noticed.
The man built a home for himself in the wilderness. He made friends with the animals and found wild foods to eat. He grew in harmony with nature. He no longer thought about being included with others at the king’s table, and he was content with what he had. There was a kind of peace in that. Even though his suffering had stopped, the man was never truly happy. Sometimes he pretended to himself that the king still looked at him with eyes filled with love.
One day when the man was very old, the king appeared to him in a vision and told the man that he had never ceased to serve others. The sustenance the man had always provided was not the food he served in the castle so long ago, but the grace that flowed through his soul to others because of his relationship with the king.
The king explained that the man had misunderstood his life because its real purpose had been kept a secret. The man had been given a task that was so important that knowledge of it would have overwhelmed and incapacitated him.
The king showed the man how the grace that flowed through him had enriched the world. No one knew it came through the man, and the man saw that this was as it should be. For the grace to have been associated with him in any way would have restricted its flow to a mere trickle.
The man saw, too, that it was good that no one remembered him. He asked the king to continue to keep the secret. The man knew that one day he would die, and he wanted no one to feel pain from his life or his death. He did not want anything to interfere with the grace that had enriched the world. The king agreed to honor this request.
That evening while the man watched the sunset from beneath his favorite tree, he fell asleep and died. The last tangible food he served was his own body. Insects and wild animals feasted on flesh. Soil absorbed what was left and nourished the tree.
The grace that flowed through the man while he lived remained at work in the world.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The ending was inspired by the TV series, Fringe. In the third season finale, the hero sacrifices himself to save two worlds from mutual destruction. He is successful, but no one remembers that he was ever alive. This is an elegant gift. Worlds are saved, and the hero is lost. But no one remembers him so there is no pain of grief. There is also no body to dispose of and no business left behind for others to conclude.
Part I was written sometime during the spring of 1982 and Part II on 10/23/1988. Part III was begun 10/23/1988 and completed 7/09/2012. The entire story was revised 11/10/2012 for clarity and continuity.
Untiltled Pastel of Desert Trail. Artist: Fr. Werner Papeians de Morchoven, OSB Fr. Werner: https://www.saintandrewsabbey.com/category_s/97.htm
The illustration,“The Little Vagabond”, is a photo of a notecard.. The back of the card reads: “THE LITTLE VAGABOND” 178.07. From an Original mouthpainted by L. CALLONI. Published by the Association of Handicapped Artists, Inc. Litho in U.S. A. by Holling Press, Inc. Buffalo, N.Y.
An internet search provided no information about L. Calloni, but I did find the following organization: Mouth and Foot Painting Artists: https://mfpausa.com/pages/about-mfpa