This is an old, old story about an old, old man. He wasn’t always old, obviously. He’d once been young, and deep down there was a part of him that was surprised to catch a glimpse of his reflection and see the white hair and the wrinkles that greeted him there. Not that he thought himself young, exactly – he had just never quite noticed the moment when “getting a bit older” gave way to this.
Now, the village was dealing with a winter that had come early and was lasting a long time. The leaders of the village were wise and began rationing food as soon as it became clear that the early cold snap was the start of something much more serious, but there was still only so much to go around, and the old man could tell that the leaders were starting to worry. He remembered a similar winter from his youth, and the fear that gripped the village as week after week passed with no relief in sight. He remembered now that eventually, two of the oldest members of the village – still fairly healthy, but well beyond the point where they had a distinct job in the village beyond “be old” – slipped away in the night, and didn’t return. At the time, he and the other children expected the old ones to return, but they didn’t. No one spoke of their decision directly, but eventually he noticed that even the villagers who hadn’t much liked the older ones began speaking of them in a more positive, almost reverential, way.
That had been a long time ago, but the old man remembered it very clearly now that the winter was dragging on and on and the villagers’ faces became increasingly concerned. He’d occasionally wondered if he would need to go on a long walk as the others had so long ago, and questioned whether he would have the resolve to do so. Now the time had arrived, and he was surprised by three things.
The first thing that surprised him was how his bones creaked as he gathered his lantern and walking stick. He half-expected the popping of his joints to wake up the others as he walked to the outskirts of the village.
The second thing that surprised him was the fluttering in his chest. At first he wondered if it was the beginning of a heart attack, but then he realized that he’d felt it before. It was a feeling of purpose, an awareness that he was doing what needed to be done. “An act of love and service,” a teacher had said once a long time ago, and he understood that phrase better now than perhaps he ever had.
There third and final thing that surprised the old man was that he was not alone. As he walked carefully through the snow, past the village and closer to the dark wood, he noticed that there were footprints ahead of his. Faint, old, glowing as if they were the memories of footprints rather than real ones. And he heard, too, almost too faint to believe, like it was tickling at his ear, the faintest sound of quiet celebration, coming from the direction that the glowing footprints (even more of them, he saw, now that he looked again) led. The footprints and and the sounds led off beyond what his lantern allowed him to see and what his old ears allowed him to hear, but the old man had a feeling that he knew what, and who, he would find when he reached the end of his long walk.