Many years ago, I came across a very touching story by Oscar Wilde. My Christmas column and gift to you is a literary condensation of that story. Wilde writes about two characters: a statue called the Happy Prince and a little bird-a swallow. They met late one cold winter European night. The swallow was six weeks late in leaving for warmer climes in Egypt. On his way south, he stopped at the town over which the Happy Prince stood and decided to sleep at the statue's feet.
As the swallow settled down to go to sleep, it started to rain. While getting ready to find a drier place to sleep, he noticed that it wasn't rain falling upon him but tears shed by the Happy Prince.
The stunned swallow asked, "Who are you?"
"I am the Happy Prince," said the statue. However, the statue wasn't happy, because he saw much misery and poverty within the city.
"I see a woman seated at a table. Her face is thin and worn and she has coarse red hands all pricked by needles for she is a seamstress. And in a bed in the corner of the room, her little boy is lying ill. He has a fever. The little boy is crying for oranges, and all that the mother can give him is mere river water. Swallow, swallow, little swallow, will you not stay with me for one night and be my messenger?"
So, the swallow took the great red ruby from the Happy Prince's sword and off he flew to the poor seamstress and to her ill son. Returning from his mission, the swallow experienced a curious warmth though the night was very cold.
The next day, the swallow readied himself for his flight to Egypt, but the Happy Prince implored him to stay, "Swallow, swallow, little swallow, will you not stay with me one night longer? There is a young man, a writer, who is poor and cannot write for he has no heat in his room. Swallow, take one of my eyes-they are rare sapphires-and carry it to the poor man." The swallow did as he was instructed and returned, and again he experienced that same warmth.
The next day, the swallow said good-bye to the Happy Prince, but the statue responded, "Swallow, swallow, little swallow, will you not stay with me one night longer? There stands in this city a little matchgirl who has a mean father who beats her because she doesn't bring in enough money from selling matches. She has no shoes, nor stockings, nor hat. Take my other eye and give it to her." The swallow did as he was commanded. However, upon his return, he said to the prince, "You are blind now. I will stay with you always."
"No little swallow. You must go away to Egypt or else you will surely die here in the winter weather."
However the swallow stayed and became the Prince's eyes. The swallow would report cases of need to the statue. The Happy Prince would order him to remove his gold-leafed skin and to distribute it to those in need. After many trips, the Happy Prince looked quite dull.
At last, the swallow said good-bye to the Prince who said, "I am glad that you are finally going to Egypt, little swallow. You have stayed here too long."
The swallow's responded, "It is not to Egypt that I am going. I am going to the House of Death. Death is a brother of sleep, is he not?" Then he kissed the Happy Prince and fell dead at his feet. At that moment, a curious crack sounded deep inside the statue. The leaden heart of the Happy Prince had snapped into two pieces.
The next morning, the town fathers decided to melt down the statue of the Happy Prince because of its unpleasant appearance. However, a strange thing occurred at the foundry. The statue's broken heart would not melt. Therefore, it was thrown away and came to rest next to the dead swallow.
God, who had watched this story unfold from heaven, told an angel to bring back the two most precious things from that city where the Happy Prince once stood. When the angel returned, it brought back the leaden heart and the dead swallow.
God said to the angel, "You have rightly chosen. For in my garden of paradise this little bird shall sing songs forevermore. And in my city of gold, the Happy Prince will praise my name."
May you be warmed by this story as you show acts of kindness to those in need. Merry Christmas to one and all.
This article first appeared in the Dixon Telegraph.