500 Pairs of Shoes
It was another sultry afternoon under the scorching torture of the sun for Ben. Salty perspiration trickled freely across his sunburnt forehead drenching his thick, dark brows. The rice fields had almost been entirely ploughed, as Ben forcefully drove the blade beneath the thick mud. His stiff bones were aching; his lips cracked from dehydration.
“One more push,” he cheered on the water buffalo. “One more push” was the mantra two hundred pushes ago.
“Farmer boy! Farmer boy!” a mocking voice echoed across the rice field into Ben’s ears.
Thirteen boys had gathered around one perimeter of the rice field. They were watching Ben condescendingly, pointing to his ragged, muddied clothing and aging water buffalo whilst holding their stomachs as they laughed heartily at Ben’s poverty.
“Hey… hey, Ben,” one of the boys, a chubby delinquent who was out of breath from cacophonous cackling, desperately squeezed out a feeble gag, “Yo’ mama so poor, she uses fireflies for light!”
Ben ignored the eruption of roaring laughter.
“Hey you!” one of the oldest boys yelled out at Ben, presumably the leader, as he was the tallest and toughest-looking.
Ben ignored him.
“I’m talking to you, idiot!” The older boy was now irritated.
Still, Ben maintained his calm demeanour and remained quiet. That is, until he felt a sharp sting at the back of his neck. His world blacked out. Time seemed to have slowed and the voices around him became warped. The last thing he saw was the face of his darling mother, and his eyes settled upon the calloused, bare, bleeding feet of his mother until he surrendered and gave in to the darkness.
When Ben awoke, he was lying down on a hard, bamboo bed in his mother’s dark hut. A wet towel soaking the heat from his fever covered his warm forehead. His mother did not have enough money to take him to the doctor.
As he turned to his side, he saw a strangely beautiful woman on the chair. A woman unrecognizable, but by her feet he had known her. The woman was none other than Ben’s mother, but the stone had been cast, and so was his fortune that he could no longer recognize the woman who laboured for him—the young widow who finished but third grade as she had to care for her siblings when her own mother became blind. He had forgotten that the hardworking lady who sold rice cakes in the market was his own flesh and blood. But he could only distinguish this woman by the only rubric that his brain permitted: She was the woman with the calloused, bleeding soles. He was moved with love and compassion.
Still feverish and delirious, Ben rose to find a piece of wood. An elongated plank would do. A log, a lumber, a stick would not suffice, but a timber, a plywood. Desperately, Ben scrambled around the tiny village gathering strange looks.
It must have been half past noon when Elena awoke from her slumber. She had fallen asleep on the chair next to her ill son. But as her vision cleared, she was jolted by the sight of an empty bed. Her son Ben had been acting rather strangely, sporadically screaming in his sleep in a fit of rage. The herbal woman had recommended putting heated banana leaves and lime upon his forehead, but nothing seemed to have worked for nearly two weeks. Elena had been closely watching over Ben, lest her only cherished son perish in his sleep.
Elena was frightened. She searched all over the tiny village, asking every neighbour and villager, until alas they pointed her to the direction where Ben had gone. At last, although tearful, she had found him under the shade of a mango tree. Ben did not recognize her, but a smile formed upon his chapped lips when he saw her calloused feet. He had made a slender and chiseled wooden shoe for Elena. A piece of velvet cloth neatly lined the beautifully crafted shoe. The piece of velvet cloth, he had unreservedly pilfered from the reject pile of the village seamstress, Miss Rosalyn, who had just finished a nursing degree at the university, but could not obtain a job in the city.
Ben placed one shoe on his mother’s foot, and they fit perfectly, as if divinely tailored. Elena felt the soft velvet against her beaten feet. How lovely those feet were for Ben. Those very feet that had punitive intercourse with the earth and the jagged rocks therein. But bravely, she walked with temerity to sell rice cakes to the neighbouring village and city market.
The wooden shoes were only the first of many Ben created for Elena. He had weaved flat shoes made of sturdy coconut leaves, of mangrove, of hide from domestic and wild animals, of leather, of rubber, of fabric from Miss Rosalyn, of plastic, of old wrappers, and even of flat stones.
They were not only inventive but were also exquisite, stemming from Ben’s unbridled passion to shelter his mother’s precious feet.
The villagers had seen Elena wear the shoes and had inquired as to who was making these handsome shoes. As Elena sold her rice cakes village to village, and in the city, Ben’s creative preoccupation harboured fascination and curiousity. First, it was only the experimentation of a few daring individuals, but soon, orders poured in from the city and surrounding villages, and before long, even the whole province knew about Ben’s crafts. Ben diligently worked tirelessly, creating each handcrafted pair of shoes with care, but never neglecting to create special ones for Elena and Miss Rosalyn, who generously imparted fabric for his linings.
It was not long before a wealthy, old businessman had taken notice of Ben’s work and hired Ben in his company, who quickly rose up the corporate ladder.
Years had gone by, and although Ben had been successful, he bought shoes for his mother every week. These were designer shoes from Paris, New York, London, Prague, and Milan. He had married Miss Rosalyn and they had moved to New York City as the business had required it.
Now, Elena was aging, and had preferred to stay in the village as she could not stand the cold and buzz of New York City. For many years, she had continued to receive shoes from wherever Ben had gone in the world. Because of his work ethic, he had proven himself indispensable in the company. Soon, life became demanding as Ben and Rosalyn had bore children. Ben had also gone back to school to obtain a degree. Shoes came rarely to Elena’s doorstep, only once a month, and then once every two months, and so forth. Many more years had gone by, and Elena only received shoes on her birthday.
Alone, and waiting, Elena ceased to receive shoes from Ben, who had become incredibly wealthy and successful in the world of the wolves.
Years had gone by, and Ben received a letter that had been lost in the piles of letters in his lavish office on Wall Street. The letter was addressed from a local hospital:
Please come home.
Immediately, Ben booked a flight home, but not before buying the most beautiful and striking glass shoes, studded with precious jewels. He had wrapped it in a golden package and a quaint bow.
Upon arriving, Ben searched for his mother, who he assumed to be ill as she had used the hospital’s address.
Sure enough, he had found his mother. Serenely asleep. Her face was wizened and leathery. Her bony knuckles prominently protruded out as her hands clenched a rosary. Her thin, transparent skin showed the cobalt vein on her hands harbouring an intravenous buried beneath. Her breathing was shallow.
Ben was deeply moved by the sight of Elena, whose wispy hair now resembled freshly microwaved popcorn.
Gently, Elena awoke at the sight of Ben. She could give only a tiny smile.
“I have been waiting for you, my precious child,” she said softly, “but I am afraid I cannot stay long.”
“Mother, what do you mean?” Ben inquired.
“Ben, your father—my beloved—is calling me now, but I told him I needed to see you one last time.” Elena smiled sweetly; her yellowing teeth peered through her parched, pale lips.
“Please, mother, do not go just yet.”
“I am sorry my child. I love you.”
And with that she breathed her last.
“Elena had been battling stage four bone cancer. We had to amputateboth her legs to prevent the spread of cancer,” the doctor informed Ben.
Ben was dumbfounded and could only stare at the shoes he had bought for Elena. After the funeral, Ben went to his childhood home. On the shelves, on the floor, on the chairs, on the desks, there were but shoes—all four hundred and ninety nine.
But no Elena to wear them.