Alms of Freedom is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2017 by Richelle Renae
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Alms of Freedom
Read Write Ponder Series
Are you a reader? Writer? Thinker? This book has been designed for whichever you are.
Sometimes we learn things from the least expected person and just when we least expect it. When a woman visits a foreign country for the first time heads out to the bazaar to purchase a gift for her host family, the host’s son joins her to act as interpreter. The boy teaches her enough common phrases to allow her to communicate with the vendors, and not get swindled, but it isn’t until she trips over an old crone selling wishes, that she learns the most valuable lesson of all.
Every story starts with a single idea. The story prompt used by the author to write this story is included in the Write section of this book. Writers can review the prompt and see where their creativity takes them. Prompts can be used to develop characters, plot scenes, or write an entire novel. What can you create?
Along with a handful of discussion questions, the author has written a note to readers and writers about her own process in writing this story. By sharing her process, the author hopes to open a dialog that will help writers explore the depths of their creativity. It is her sincerest hope that she inspires others because all people have stories to tell.
Alms of Freedom
What then is freedom? The power to live as one wishes.
Marcus Tullius Cicero
The alley was dirty, squalid even, except for the last small corner near the end tucked out of the way where one vacant and ruined building abutted another. In that corner, an elderly woman in threadbare clothes slowly swept away the dust and debris of the night before. Spidery blue veins crawled across her hands and over her wrists then disappeared into the sleeves of a brightly colored blouse that layered a faded brown skirt that fell to her ankles. A once-white apron, long gone to gray and severely frayed at the edges, wrapped around her hips to tie in the back. The slow swish-swish of her broom scratched the cracked concrete and raised miniature clouds of dust that swirled and filled the air around her. The sun rose and stretched a pinkish finger down the center of the alley banishing the shadows back to their corners.
With a gnarled hand, the woman tucked the broom into the sliver of space between the buildings, and a cacophony of twitters, cheeps, and chirps filled the air. Two small cages built of sticks and scraps of wood cobbled together with pieces of ribbons and rags were stacked in a doorway. She slowly made her way to sit upon the stoop beside them. A bird pulled at one of the ribbons, and she poked a crooked finger with a jagged nail into the cage to shoo it away then curled over to peer closer and retie the knot.
The birds in the cage flittered back and forth to hang first on one stick then another. The woman lifted the top cage free and slowly spun it to examine its occupants then set it to the side and repeated the process with the other. She clucked her tongue and shook her head. The sun had almost made its way to the stoop when the building sliced it into a sharp angle at her feet.
The clink of coins rattled when she dipped her hand into a hidden pocket of her skirt. She held them aloft and pushed the change around. With a sad little sigh, she returned the money and reached into a pocket on her apron, turning it sideways to shake the contents into her palm. Small bits of birdseed and breadcrumbs tumbled into her palm, and she split them between the cages amid the soft flurry of wings that finally settled into light scratches of tiny claws on wood.
The woman reached down and rubbed her ankles, but stopped when a single small seed rolled from a cage. She licked her index finger and pressed it to the run-away. A bird clinging to the stick nearby snapped the morsel from her, no more than a quick light peck that she could barely feel. With another heavy sigh, she struggled to her feet, lifted one cage in each hand, and set off down the alleyway.
“What do you think about this?” I held up a blue and green vase hand-blown by the vendor who stood close by smiling a ridiculously large smile and nodding like his neck contained a loose spring. The street vendors loved Americans. Or their American money. Or maybe their American ignorance. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out they sat around some pub every evening one-upping each other with tales of how they duped the people into buying their wares at outrageous prices.
The 12-year old shrugged. “It is…okay? That is the word? Okay?”
“Okay? Yes, that means it is neither good nor bad.”
He shrugged again. He was not a talkative boy. I had suspected at first that he was shy, but after having spent the afternoon with him at the bazaar, I had revised my opinion. He was more sullen than shy. Typical teen. No different here than any of those found back at home in America.
“Do you really think it’s okay? I’d like to get your parents a nice gift for hosting me in your home.”
He shrugged again and gazed off down the street where people were meandering and bumping into one another without much thought of body space. His father had suggested his son join me in the outing, though I’m not sure if it was for my safety or, as he said, because he wanted him to practice his English. I had thanked him and told him it wasn’t necessary. Truthfully, the boy spoke very good English from watching American movies, reading books written in my native language, and having a fascination for YouTube. Yet, he had turned out to be a valuable resource as an interpreter. Even at twelve, he kept the vendors from swindling me too much.
When I turned to the vendor and asked how much by using one of the four phrases the boy had taught me after observing a near-disaster of flipping through my translation guide, his gaze came back around and focused on the man now holding the vase. The man responded, and I looked to the boy for approval.
“Too much,” he said.
I relayed that to the man with the second phrase I had learned, and he squinted and frowned at the boy. He lowered his price, and I looked to the boy again. The boy held up a bundle of flowers and had a heated discussion with the man. It ended with them both smiling tightly at each other, and me holding a vase filled with fresh flowers. I smiled at the man and thanked him with phrase number four.
A bracelet tinkled lightly on my wrist as we walked down the street and were jostled by the crowd. I tightly held the vase aloft to prevent it from being knocked into the street.
“I think I’ve had enough,” I said loudly.
The boy’s shoulders lifted. “Okay.”
“Lead me home, James.”
“My name is–”
“Yes, I know your name. It’s just a saying.”
“Lead me home, James.” I could see him rolling it on his tongue and testing how it felt. “Okay.”
The crowd thinned as we turned back up the road. When my stomach growled, I was suddenly aware of the aroma of meat cooking and the sounds of sizzling from the open-air spits covering red-hot coals. Evening had snuck up on us, and people were moving inside for dinner or sitting at benches that lined the cafes. Red flags hung on many of the windows in the second stories but I could not read them and had no inkling what they represented.
As we turned the corner at the end of the block, I almost stepped upon an old woman’s foot and danced away with an apology. She gave me a toothless grin and raised a shaky hand as if she were waving away flies.
“I know why the caged bird sings.”
Startled by the phrase, I turned toward the boy. “Oh, do you know Maya Angelou?”
He shrugged, and I realized he was talking about the woman. She had birdcages sitting on either side of her. Tiny birds flitted about inside.
“She is okay,” said the boy. He didn’t look at the woman. Not even a glance, and for a moment, I wondered if he was speaking of Maya Angelou or the old woman. It was clear to me, the woman was no more to him than a weed that had grown up through a crack in the pavement. “Come.”
As I turned to follow him, the old woman murmured something. I struggled for a moment with my memory of the common phrases I had learned and thought she may have said something about desires. I paused to think on the words she had uttered.
“Did she say something about wishes?” I asked the boy.
“Yes, she claims she sells wishes.”
“The birds?” I asked with some confusion. The woman was holding a cage out toward me. “What do the people who buy them do with them?”
He shrugged. So full of words, this one. “Eat them perhaps?”
I crouched down and asked how much. The woman held out a penny and pointed to it, then pointed her finger into the cage. I dug a penny out of my pocket and she bit it, then opened the cage and chased after a bird with her hands.
The bird was no more than a bit of downy fluff. So light, in fact, I had to open my hands a bit to confirm it was still between them. I stared into its beady eyes and thought about people eating something so small. Why would someone eat one of these tiny beautiful creatures with practically no meat on them? Was it a delicacy of some sort? I ran my thumb over its head, smoothing a feather than had been ruffled in the process of being captured and surrendered.
This one wasn’t getting eaten.
The boy was walking away. Perhaps he was disgusted that I had purchased a wish. And with that, I realized what the woman had been trying to say. When I looked back, she was smiling and lifting her hands palm up toward the sky. I smiled back and looked once more at the tiny life I held in my hands before opening them flat. The bird hopped to my fingertip and then lifted into the air. A feather lazily drifted down, floating back and forth and tumbling at the mercy of some current of air I could not feel.
I started after the boy.
I hadn’t made a wish. Truthfully, I don’t quite believe wishes can be granted or at least I don’t believe the universe will contrive to grant you wishes for giving an old woman a penny for a bird. Yet, I felt wonderful. Such a small thing to bring such joy, and maybe that was just as good. Perhaps that was the point.
I stopped. The boy had turned to wait, and he looked to me in askance with a cocked eyebrow and a tilt of his head. I held up an index finger and turned around, at the same time, digging back into my pocket.
The woman’s face brightened to see me return, and she held up her cage again. I nodded and tried to signal that I wanted all the birds, saying, “Wishes. Wishes.”
She said it back and laughed and nodded as I held out a large bill to her. The boy was at my side. I handed him the vase.
“That is too much,” he said.
“Oh, no,” I replied, sitting down beside the woman. “Not for these wishes.”
He stared hard at me. I think he must have thought the heat had gone to my head. Or perhaps he just wanted a better look at a looney American giving an old gypsy far more than double what she asked for to send off some birds into the air.
I opened the cage. The handful of birds poured out, lifting into the air around my head, one landing on the old woman’s shoulder, and one fluttering around the boy’s face. We all laughed at the sight, and I opened the second cage. All but one exited. The last I had to poke at until it realized it was free to fly.
I thanked the woman profusely.
“What did you wish for?” he asked, as he returned my vase to me, and we walked away.
“For them to be free.”
“That is a stupid wish.”
“They were already free.”
“What does a 12-year old know of wishes or freedom?” I asked.
“I know things you do not.”
I laughed. “Oh, do you?”
The boy slanted a look at me. “I can show you about freedom.”
“Oh, yes?” I asked suspiciously. He nodded. I fluttered a hand before us. “Lead on then.”
We turned back to the bazaar and walked two blocks then turned corners until I felt lost. When he stopped and put his finger to his lips, I frowned at him. He nodded up a dark alley. Only a bit of light was left now that the sun was low in the sky, but up the block, I could see the old lady. She sat on a stoop slowly washing her empty cages with a bowl of soapy water. She had a happy smile on her face even though I had released all her birds. Looking around the empty, run-down alley, I thought they had quite possibly been the only friends she had, and I felt guilty.
So caught up in my self-recriminations, I jumped when the boy nudged me, pointed to the sky, and said to me, “Where there is great love, there are always wishes.”
I stared at him.
“You know Willa Cather, too?” I asked, and he shrugged, then nodded up the alley again.
The cages sat on a stoop, and as I watched, a small bird flew down to land on the structure made of sticks. The bird peered at the old woman as if waiting for her to give it permission to enter the cage, and that must have been what it was, because when she fluttered a hand at it and opened the door, it flew right in. A moment later, singing filled the air.
All the birds I had set free had come back home.
Alms of Freedom
It’s amazing to me that the same objects can be placed in front of a group of people and each person in the group will imagine something different. This story prompt is a birdcage filled with tiny birds. Like the blind men in the parable of the blind men and the elephants, it can be very hard to describe something we have never seen or experienced before. As a writer, though, you are not limited to only the things you’ve seen with your very own eyes. You can draw on all the experiences of your lifetime, from photographs, to books, to movies, and imagine what the birdcage looks like, what kind of birds are inside it, and what’s going to happen next.
Dig into your memories and write a scene or story about the birdcage in a location you’ve never visited but for which you have seen pictures. What landmarks are in the scene? What are the people around you like? What do you see as you look around inside your memories?
Bonus Prompt – Character History
When writing a novel, it helps to imagine backstories for all of the primary characters in the story. If you’ve a play by Shakespeare, you found he did this before the play even started by listing each of the characters and a little about who they are. Backstories are important because people behave in certain ways as a response to their life experiences. Once an author has backstories on each of the characters of his or her novel, those backstories come out in bits and pieces in the work and grounds the reader in those characters’ realities. The characters “ring true” in their actions throughout the story.
Think about who the old woman in this story might have been when she was younger. Sketch a backstory that explains how she got to where she is in the story, selling birds on the streets for pennies and making just enough money to keep them and herself alive.
Roll the Dice
Roll a six-sided dice and add the character trait that corresponds with the number you rolled to any of the characters of your story or scene. Think about this trait could be the driving force behind the character’s behavior.
The birds in the story are given their freedom by the woman who visits the bazaar. Are there any other ways the theme of freedom was explored in the story?
What makes a person truly free?
What other lessons do you think the author may have been trying to convey to the reader?
Have you ever learned a life lesson from someone who was unexpected?
Have you ever wished for something and found it came true, but in an unexpected way?
I wrote Alms of Freedom after seeing a picture of a birdcage filled with tiny birds. The cage sat in a street, and looked as if it were cobbled together by hand with sticks and leather thongs. When I saw the picture, I wondered who made the cage and why it was sitting in the street. It reminded me of other pictures I had seen of a bazaar in India, and I wondered if the birds were held as pets to keep the vendors company, or if they were being sold. I wondered, just as the main character of the story does, whether the birds were sold to people for food, or more precisely as a snack, since they were such tiny little things.
I placed myself smack dab in the story, pretending I was walking through a bazaar, and coming across the birds. I thought about what the person who was selling the birds might look like, and how we might have a conversation since I don’t speak any foreign languages. I couldn’t imagine that the birds would have very much value since they looked like a common form of some tiny sparrow or finch, so in my mind, it was not a wealthy vendor who had them for sale, but rather someone who was perhaps poor. This was when the old woman blossomed in my mind.
After my father read this story, he said to me, “I thought writers only write about what they know.”
I laughed and asked if he remembered all those years that he had harped at me to get my nose out of a book and go play outside. All those books became memories, bits and pieces of people and places and ideas tucked into every corner of my mind, waiting to be sprung inside my own tale to be shared with the world. Thanks to the India of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “A Little Princess,” the boy from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” Esmeralda, the gypsy from Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and many more, I have an endless supply of imagery to draw upon. If and when you start to write, don’t stop reading!
I drifted up from sleep unsure what woke me, but comfortable in that self-satisfied way when you wake after dozing off in the shade of a big tree on a gently swaying hammock. You come to, having forgotten who you are for a moment, floating in that brief respite from your lack of money, your loss of elasticity, your age, and every other thing that worried you before you lapsed into the ephemeral coma.
Lifting my head enough to look over the edges that cradled me set the hammock to rocking. I found Cormac still curled into a ball beside my glass of lemonade. Beads of sweat had collected on the bottom half of the glass, while on its rim a leaf clung by its stem. Three of its five veiny golden tips skimming the pale liquid. I squinted at it and noted the leaf as evidence.
My eyes drifted shut so I could listen to the wind in the trees. Leaves shivered on the branches while I waited for a clue to what woke me…maybe a repeat noise, or vibration. Maybe a heavy sigh from Cormac. Further down the block I could hear the hum of a leaf blower, and beyond that, the low monotone of the hum of metal wheels on the train tracks that ran through town. Maybe the train had whistled further out. It’s one of those sounds that become lost to daily life, filtered from consciousness like the buzz of bees and the twitter of birds, until you let go of your worries and replant yourself in nature. But I didn’t hear anything unusual, and the train was just reaching the main crossing beside the post office where it blasted its whistle in three long calls.
The hammock swayed dangerously as I sat up with my arms held out to the sides for balance and swung my feet to the ground. My camera bumped into my knees, and I made a grab to catch it before it fell away.
It was a silly reflex. I had trained myself years ago to always put the strap around my neck. Chasing one war after another, I had gotten used to sleeping sitting up, eating on the run, and waking with my camera ready to shoot. Even now, my finger rested lightly on the shutter release.
From the corner of my eye, I saw something flutter and swung the camera in its direction. I peeked over the lens to relocate the flittering swath of brilliance, and then zoomed in on a splash of blue. It had settled near the eyebolt connecting the foot of the hammock to the soaring cottonwood tree that had planted itself in the middle of the deck. With the slightest twist on the lens, I brought the item into sharp relief. Despite occasional tremors in my hands, everything was clear from behind the camera.
Just a butterfly.
A giant swallowtail to be exact. Though not nearly as large as the blue morpho I had shot on the Amazon River. With a wingspan wider than my hand, it had fluttered right up to the cargo boat I had been traveling on and lightly set down beside me. Through the lens of my camera, I watched its proboscis unfurl to taste a chip of the faded vermillion paint that speckled the battered railing. The captain of the vessel, speaking in stilted English, had said that seeing something so beautiful outside the cover of the forest was a good omen. Maybe he was right. Even though they had respectfully declined the story I’d written, a national magazine had purchased the blue morpho photo and several others from that excursion, including a pod of salmon-hued dolphins.
I pressed the shutter release halfway and waited patiently for the butterfly to unfold and display the iridescent sparkle on the topside of its wings. I held my breath and counted.
The wings laid flat and the shutter snapped with a light click. The swallowtail lifted into the air to dip and bob out of sight around the corner of the house.
With the camera still to my eye, I panned around the yard. Nothing else commanded my attention. A million photos of every blade of grass in the backyard had been captured throughout the years. The acre of greenery backing up to a wooded sanctuary was a self-inflicted punishment for giving up the thrill of dodging bullets and making mad dashes for cover. At one time, it had brimmed over with the simple monotonies of barbeques and campfires, stolen kisses under dark, star-studded skies, and every expression of children playing and laughing and crying. And dogs playing fetch. So many dogs. Eventually, the monotonies transformed to pleasures and then again to memories.
The camera fell lightly back to my chest and the blades of grass in the yard fused before my eyes into a soft celadon blanket.
“Can’t you just call it green, daddy?” My son held my hand as we walked together across the yard.
“Oh, no,” I replied. “That would be like calling the sky over the ocean blue.”
“The sky is blue.”
“Yes, but blue is such a plain word. It doesn’t tell me anything at all about the sky. Is the sky angry?”
“The sky can’t be angry, daddy,” he said. He kicked the ground with the toe of his shoe.
“Oh, but the sky can be all kinds of things. When it’s an angry shade of midnight, it fills with charcoal clouds that roil and grumble and bump together. But if I tell you the sky is baby blue, you know it’s happy and giggly and…wide open.” I threw my free hand into the air. “A perfect day to go to the park!”
“We’re going to the park?” The boy bounced on his toes and tugged my hand.
I frowned and wondered if my son would ever understand. If he would ever be like me. “Not today. I have to show you something out back here.”
Richelle Renae’s Golden Meadows is coming in April.
Thank you for reading Alms of Freedom. Watch for more short stories in this series coming soon. Share your experience with the author.
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Sometimes we learn things from the least expected person and just when we least expect it. When a woman visits a foreign country for the first time and heads out to the bazaar to purchase a gift for her host family, the host's son joins her to act as interpreter. The boy teaches her enough common phrases to allow her to communicate with the vendors, and not get swindled, but it isn't until she trips over an old crone selling wishes, that she learns the most valuable lesson of all. Alms of Freedom explores the notion of freedom and what it means to be free. It is the second workbook in the Read Write Ponder series, a collection of short stories constructed to engage readers, writers, and educators. Each novelette-sized book is comprised of a single short story, writing prompts to encourage creative writing, discussion questions for thoughtful analysis of characters and theme, and a letter from the author about her inspiration for the story and the techniques she used to write it.